They went to the corner store for beer and came back with purloined wood for the bonfire: a dead Christmas tree, a plywood square, a stump from a garden. So we had to have a bonfire, pulling down bits of fence for kindling and building up the bricks around the barbeque. It’s a smoke-free zone, he said, watching the smoke curl up through the purple flowers, around the bird feeder.
Cold sausages eaten with fingers and a potato salad thick with mayonnaise and egg. A beer from Belgium opened as a treat, citrusy and surprising and ultimately abandoned in favour of familiar blue cans and cold white wine. Card games and manufactured drinking games. Have you played this one: pick a book from a shelf, pick a sentence and make the players around the table guess the final word. “Stevie turned, and saw the…”. “Murderer”. “Door”. “Wanking.” Wanking is always an acceptable answer. Wanking always wins the game.
You’d have thought they might complain, all the neighbours packed tightly in their brick houses, three families to a structure, in the smoke-free area with the air blue with smoke, but they don’t, maybe because it’s a Bank Holiday and maybe because laughter is intimidating but probably because everyone likes the smell of a bonfire, and because they can look down on the tidy brick square and be reassured, of heat and safety and that thing that fire does: security.
It’s not cold but it feels cold when the wind flicks the flames away, because a 19 degree evening can’t compete with that roaring heat, and we’re as close as we dare, so that ash burns holes in tights and eyes stream with smoke, and still we’re closer. There’s something about a fire.
The Christmas tree burns the best, the wood crisped and dry and dead, each spiny offshoot glowing orange as anything, as a sunset, as the lights that were amongst the needles only months ago, now packed away, and never as bright as the fire. It smells like pine, and heat.
The next day, with a sour stomach, your hair smells like a bonfire. You are, for a minute, back in the evening, and the heat, and the looming purple dark, with the partly-torn down fence providing a peep-hole into another life, where the backyard is bigger but the grass is as tall as your knees and growing everyday. If you could have what so many others lack – a backyard in London – why would you let it go to waste, grass to knees and a big empty square of swaying green?
Maybe for the same reason you don’t interrupt when your neighbours laugh in the dark night, even if you hear glass shatter; maybe for the same reason you sit too close to the fire even when you’re burning. Because some things are best left a small bit wild, a little bit bad. Smoke in your hair the next day isn’t the best smell but you didn’t shower until late evening anyway, and your pillows still hold the scent the next day, and the day after.