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Bonfire Night

FOSSIL 79: November 2020


It’s one of those gin-clear evenings in early winter. Dusk is thickening very slowly, and the sky fades from turquoise to electric blue to a soft velvet black. Occasionally, a great blast of wind from the west scurries past, hooshing the bonfire into action and scattering the smoke away over the fields. But mostly the fire ticks along peaceably, giving out a few crackles deep in the mound of briar rose and apple and yew and hazel and ivy prunings. The smoke creeps out, sometimes towering straight up in the air and sometimes billowing about in confusion.

I could watch all this for hours. And I do. Leaning on my fork as the last of the sunlight disappears around me, I study the fire and listen to the blackbirds riffing away and to two tawny owls hooting slightly testily at each other down the valley. A stray goose honks desolately overhead as it tries to catch up with its flock. The tractor and spreader thunder past in the lane, still at their Sisyphean task of drowning the fields and verges in slurry. Then the last glints of sunlight vanish, and Venus appears over our house.

Meanwhile the pile clicks and hisses and flares and shifts and billows. From time to time I fuss about, forking unburned strays of twig and bramble back onto the top. But mostly I stare. You can’t hurry a bonfire. Well you can, I suppose, if you chuck petrol on top and wait for the sheet of flame to roar out. However, this not only endangers your eyebrows and leaves a nasty whiff of fossil fuel – it’s also against the whole magical spirit of the enterprise. A bit like adding Ribena to cider.

Next morning, it’s still plugging on. The embers have patiently digested and reduced the mighty mound to a tiny extinct volcano of ash and scorched fragments. In the pale light of day it looks rather pathetic. I rake it around and the whole thing disappears into the soil. All that’s left is a blackened patch and a few wisps of grey dust circling up. But for days afterwards the delicious scent of woodsmoke clings to my shirt and trousers and hair. Then they all get a good wash and I can look forward to next year’s bonfire.


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