Every year around the 5th of November, the village of Twyford holds its bonfire carnival in memory of some poor Catholic bloke from York who had horrible things done to him in return for his botched part in trying to blow up the King and his Parliament. A fair exchange all round, I suppose, giving us English Protestants the chance to set fire to stuff, totally legally, for several weeks a year. Poor Guy Fawkes. Lucky old us.
The carnival is a torchlight procession of decorated floats from the station to the recreation ground, where theres a fairground, the mother of all bonfires and what is reputed to be the largest display of fireworks in the south of England.
The bonfire is what can only be described as a towering inferno, built over several days from railway sleepers, wooden palettes and all the trees within a five mile radius. You can feel the heat of this conflagration over one hundred yards away and it burns all night to the sound of local teens puking up over the side of the fairground twister.
The following day was always very different. Where there were several thousand people the night before, the Sunday saw several dozen kids meandering round the Rec looking for dropped change while the fairground folk slowly took their machines to pieces. The largest crowd was always around the embers of the fire; which the night before had been the size of a house, now reduced to a smouldering pile of ash and still pumping out tremendous heat.
There were dares. On pain of being called a poof, you had to walk across the flames, hoping beyond hope that your flares wouldnt catch fire. On reaching the other side, you were formally inducted into the hard lads club, while the trembling pooves on the other side still had to face their ordeal. Those who had made it were easily identified. They were the ones with smouldering trouser hems, smoke still rising from the soles of their melting Dunlop Green Flash plimsolls.
But the real fun was to be had with the stuff you could throw onto the fire. There were heaps of torches which had made up the torchlight procession the night before, great long things dipped in wax that stoked up the fire nicely. We would also throw on great armfuls of rubbish, which the Great British public had thoughtfully left behind; and when the flames were really licking up round our ears, singeing the fluff off our parka coats, on would go the first of the fireworks, because we were a big bunch of stupids.
Gaz, one of the tougher kids in school had brought his own supply, which he ladled on liberally. Within seconds, it was like a war zone, as we dived for the cover of our bikes, hedges, other kids, anything. A rocket fizzed past my head and exploded halfway up the only tree for miles around. I still swear to this day that it actually parted my hair, leaving a frazzled streak across my scalp. An inch lower and I would have grown a third eye socket.
Fireworks, we all agreed, were stupid. Anyone could throw a firework on a bonfire for an easy laugh, and besides, we were rather attached to our facial features rather than risk having them blown off by a passing air-bomb. We would, it was decided, use our imaginations.
"Meet you back here in twenty minutes."
And what an arsenal we collected. Every single bin, shed and garage was raided for every last aerosol can, paint tin, and anything marked with those wonderful words of wisdom "Keep out of direct sunlight, do not burn or puncture." Wise words indeed. There would be no puncturing. Plenty of burning.
An experimental can of underarm deodorant was cast onto the flames. Minutes later, there was a satisfying explosion, and the Great Smell of Brut wafted round the park. This was good, and was immediately followed by a shower of cans as everybody flung their booty onto the fire. The resulting cacophony was something to behold, and Im pleased to report that there were only minor shrapnel injuries and very few burst eardrums.
Then Gaz came back. He had just one item for the fire. It was a one-gallon Castrol GTX oil can. You should understand that is wasnt one of those plastic wussy things you get these days. Cold steel. About to get very hot steel. Straight onto the flames it went.
"Errr, Gaz mate?"
"Was there anything in that can?"
"Yuh. A bit."
We watched as the can developed an ominous bulge. We backed away slowly. The bulge got bigger, until the can was almost twice its original size.
"Lads," suggested a mature yet rather frightened voice, "I think it was time we legged it."
We legged it.
The fireball was a good thirty feet across, and the heat-wave knocked us off our feet. A rather pleasing mushroom cloud hung over the recreation ground. Several of the fairground people could be seen running around in wide-eyed panic, still clutching their oversized spanners. As a matter of fact, several of us kids were running around in wide-eyed panic too, as an explosion like that could only mean one thing: trouble. At the very least, a visit from the local Plod; at the very worst - parents.
No pack-drill, no questions asked. Home, and blame somebody else.
When the coast had cleared, and the bomb disposal people had gone away, we went back to survey the wreckage. The fire still burned, and would do for at least another two days. Of the oil can there was nothing except a small crater in the ashes.
"Hey lads," said Gaz.
"My dads got another one in his garage...."