My first bonfire night on Wednesday. We walked down the river to the Isis. There was no Guy but there was a bonfire made of old boats, and mulled cider with bits of apple in it, and sparklers, and homemade lentil and chestnut soup served in paper cups. There were fireworks splattering the sky, and the Man and I agreed that our favorite part of the fire was not the flames but the sparks that were drawn up, like red stars fading fast. We wrote our names in the air with the sparklers and when the bonfire had died down and all the men were trying to revive it, I went to the edge of the river. The night was wet and windless, and the water itself stood black and still, so that the reflection of the trees looked almost more real–starker certainly–than the trees themselves. Jerome’s three men (and a dog) may not have paddled down the river in November, but for a moment I could feel them sleeping on the shore here. Then we all went inside again, to warm our hands and lean against the bar.
The fireworks have been going ever since. On my walk home tonight I see them blazing above my street; sitting here in the house, I hear them going off with imperfect but inevitable regularity.
We still battle this cold; blowing our noses, overcome with lethargy and a need for fruit. This morning I woke up and suddenly wanted to make myself toast with honey and bananas, which was something I ate a lot in my first year of university; first I stilled myself because I am not like I was then, but then I thought: we do not have to erase every memory just because it is not the way we are now, and I cut up the banana into slices and placed them on my toast. But we had no honey after all.
In the waiting room at the doctor’s the other night, a white-haired woman with a cane broke the English code of silence amongst strangers despite the open book on my knees. First she said she wasn’t here for herself.
“I’m here for a friend,” she said. “She’s got dementia. She can’t take care of herself. I’ve known her oh–eighty, seventy–sixty years, if not seventy. We were very close. It’s horrible to see her like this. I still care for her but her family won’t take any responsibility. It’s all up to me. I am feeling resentful today. Today is my day, for me. I’m having to miss my afternoon rest which I’m all but ordered to take. I could have sat at home and read a book.”
She looked at me. “I suppose you’re too young to have to deal with this. You’re of–another generation.”
I said I was, yes, but that still, I knew people who were struggling with the same thing. She nodded.
“It’s everywhere, isn’t it.”
“Horrible,” I agreed. Then she asked what I was doing here.
“I’m doing a masters,” I told her. “At Oxford Brookes.”
“I’ve got two grandsons here at Oxford, and another at Oxford Brookes. And my daughters went here, and I was at Oxford as well, you know. And my mother was here! She was here before the War, the First War. She left in 1912 and do you know when she was given a degree?”
I smiled; I did know the answer to this one. “Not for quite some time after, I would imagine,” I said.
“Not until 1928,” she said. “Can you believe that?”
Then she was silent for awhile, and I tried to read about the origins of human creativity but my head felt full and my nose dripped. I coughed into the turtleneck of my jumper.
“My uncle was in the first war,” she said abruptly. “He lied about his age to join up, in 1917? Or 1918. But he died. It always seemed to me that they didn’t know what they were fighting for, then. In the other war at least they had Hitler to rally against, but that first war, it had no–direction.”
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s been coming up a lot recently,” she said, touching the red poppy pinned to her breast. “All that generation is gone.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“And my husband–before we were married. He was in the second war. He joined the Air Force and was there in the Battle of Britain. And it’s strange–I remember that summer. I was at Oxford, you know. And we were throwing our mattresses out of the windows so we could sleep outside, it was that hot–and the men were coming across from Dunkirk. The College authorities must have been worried about us, you know, but they let us do it, they let us put our mattresses outside because they knew what we were going through.”
Then the doctor called her in.
And I thought: to a shell-shocked soldier the blasts of fireworks or the cracking of the bonfire might mean something very different than it means to the rest of us.