Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bonfire Night

The walk to the top of the reservoir was longer than I remembered. The eight of us fell into a natural two-by-two, led by Max’s overcoated frame and Leona’s sharp figure. Kids bolted across the empty streets like delinquent ghosts while fireworks blasted along dark lanes, behind rowhouses and overhead. For a while, the cold kept us from noticing the hills we climbed. The blood that flowed warmed and itched my ankles. Our steady march curved up, up towards Nunhead Cemetery, whose wrought-iron gates loomed like a lit-up fortress below the cracks and explosions above us. Our destination was not far now. Just a little more. We turned. A trail. Soft, leafy foot-thuds replaced the pavementy clicks of our boots. And the hole in the fence was right where we’d left it. Under and through. Under and through. Under and through, three more times. November drizzle slicked the soil for the steepest part of our journey. The ground was so close to our faces. The faint laughter of others crept through the early evening mist, and soon we found ourselves within it. We saw everything from the top: Nunhead’s village-like splendor faded into a fuzzy London skyline framed on top by weeping clouds and below by the Thames, black as onyx. Every sparkling rocket, every puny flame played a part in the show we watched from our perch in the Southeast. Up close, silhouettes of embering cigarettes that hung from the lips of bulky-shouldered boymen were as grand a display as the Battersea big lights, where synced fireworks blew up so high they lost their top-halves to the grip of fog. We stood with neighbors we did not know to watch the city flicker. A dozen mittened hands glowed like phantom limbs by the lights of the sparklers they twirled. Recognizable faces lit up only to disappear into shadows. Rosa’s dark cloak rippled in the wind that nipped at us from every direction. Drunk voices got lost in the whizz, bangs and pops. We’d worn coats with pockets big enough for our hands and the cold Carlsbergs that sweated against them. The night reeked of whisky, damp wool, coal and salted chips. Nearby, a family lit a paper lantern and waited for the fire to inflate the fragile cylinder. It grew from nothing and glowed before us. A small boy held onto the light, unsure of whether he should set the lantern free. It looked like a burning planet in his arms. Finally, quietly, and of his own accord, he relinquished it to the elements. We watched the yellow globe fly into its vanishing point, a final ornament within a city blanketed by fog, flame, ash and the haze of our own silent anthems.