MEMORIES and INFORMATION: 32nd Battn. (9)
THE HOME GUARD BONFIRE
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A memory from May 1945

THE HOME GUARD BONFIRE
(Endings and Beginnings)


The fire rapidly caught, the flames licking upwards as they fed on the liberal splashing of paraffin. Dead branches and old timber planks began to spit and then crackled and flared against the darkening sky. I was beside myself with excitement. Even a small garden bonfire was a wonderful thing; but garden bonfires were never this huge and they were never lit at dusk, never, ever. I had the dimmest memory of two other large bonfires at night, one which seemed to reach to the very heavens and was accompanied by coloured fire and loud bangs which terrified me. And another, a gentler affair, when my elder sister, in her Girl Guide uniform, held my hand and deeply impressed me by explaining that this huge mound of fire would all have started from a single match. But this was happening here, and now, on a cloudless evening in early May, and I was nine and I was standing in the pasture watching it as the flames grew and grew.

On the very top of the bonfire there were two figures, so far untouched by the approaching flames. But these were no ordinary Guy Fawkes effigies. On the face of one of them had been drawn a cruel, down-turned mouth and a pair of round black spectacles behind which two slitted eyes lurked with oriental menace. But the owner of this threatening, alien face was only the supporting player in the unfolding drama. All our attention was on the other figure. It was dressed in an old Home Guard battle tunic and trousers and under the peaked cap its pillow case forehead bore an easily recognisable slick of black hair. A silly little square moustache above the scowling mouth and a familiar armband removed any possible doubt about its identity. I watched in fascination as the flames crept up towards it. A leg was the first to ignite, followed by the arms and then the whole tunic was burning and gradually the entire figure started to disappear behind a wall of flame before sliding slowly down into the very heart of the inferno. A loud cheer rang out around me. We all knew that the monster himself had probably been dead now for several wonderful days. But at that moment I was yet to learn that he had been disposed of in a similar way, splashed with the contents of a jerrican and then burnt in a shallow trench, just as we were now burning his effigy, but more completely and with far greater ceremony.

Several of my father's old Home Guard comrades were entertaining the crowd with flares and thunderflashes, old training stock which had been carefully retained when the organisation had finally been stood down a few months previously. For us children there was a table with sausage rolls and home-made biscuits and something to drink. Lemonade or ginger beer was dispensed from fat stone bottles into cups. "Drink from near the handle, dear", my mother would always whisper to me whenever I was about to imbibe in a public place. "And avoid any chips". Such advice was difficult to follow on this particular evening, since most of the cups were old and cracked and few had retained their handles. But in any case this was hardly a time for petty rules or worry about life-threatening germs.

The bonfire was now beginning to subside and was eventually little more than a large mound of glowing embers surrounded by an impenetrable wall of heat. I was standing with my father and one of his friends, Mr. H., as close to the fire as one could comfortably be, and we were all gazing with fascination into the furnace. At that moment a small boy of about my age, but unknown to me, tore past us between us and the fire.

"Hey, laddie" my father's friend called out in an educated voice. "Where would you be if you tripped over?"

The boy stopped and turned his face towards us, his expression containing all the contempt due to someone who not only has asked a stupid question , but also is an adult who does not even know how to speak proper.

"In the foire!" he replied, the intonation one of pure Brummagem; and with a final pitying look in our direction, he raced off again.

Most of the onlookers were now drifting away. We waited until the fire had died down further before finally turning our backs on it. It would gradually cool and in the morning my father and his friends would return with barrow and rake and remove the debris, amongst it Adolf's and Tojo's ashes, and return the pasture to how it was before. Of course they could not remove the circular, blackened scar but they would do what they could and then nature would take over and by the first autumn of peace it would have greened over as though nothing had ever occurred there. And as the following years and decades went by fewer and fewer people would remember the bonfire and the event it commemorated; or even, as they walked over the car park of the 1950's pub, the pasture under their feet on which it had taken place.

We were joined by my mother and Mrs. H. as we went through the farm gate and turned right to walk along the Chester Road on which our homes stood a few hundred yards away. Past Puddepha's, the little shop on the corner of Bridle Lane where I was regularly sent to buy my father's two ounces of Gold Flake pipe tobacco or my mother's packet of Player's. Then over the mouth of Bridle Lane and past a towering, unkemt, privet hedge on the far corner behind which crouched a row of old cottages. The main road was one of the principal routes out of Birmingham to the north-west, to Holyhead, Chester and Birkenhead; but as usual at night little was moving on it. As we walked along we heard the sound of a car in the distance behind us, coming from the direction of the Hardwick Arms. As it approached, louder and louder, its headlamps illuminated the hedges of hawthorn and privet and the front gardens behind them and cast long shadows in front of us. Finally it roared past us at speed, as though it were celebrating its liberation from the black headlamp masks which had until recently allowed only the faintest of glimmers to light its path. As the single tail light faded, the only reminder of the vehicle's existence was a strange, lingering singing of the tyres as they bore it on its way towards the Parson and Clerk and the Birmingham city boundary. Now again there was utter silence, save for the noise of our footsteps on the gritty pavement. Above our heads the sky was dark, having already transformed itself into that familiar canopy of black velvet extending from horizon to horizon, studded with pinpoints of flashing diamonds and the steadier glow of tiny pearls. No street lamp, no unending stream of traffic yet intruded upon this complete darkness, nor any longer the distant glow of a burning city. We walked past the houses of our neighbours: past that of our local ARP warden who used to erupt from the darkness like a smiling genie and gently admonish my mother for injudicious use of her flashlamp. Past houses where a son or a husband was still far away, and where perhaps there lived a young child who knew a father only from a photograph and would not recognise him on his return.

Then we stopped, for here we had to cross the road to our own house. The grown-ups continued chatting, obviously reluctant to let the evening end, as I was too. The suggestion from Mr. H. of a nightcap resolved the matter and we continued on our way down the road. Past more houses with absent fathers, at least one of whom would never return. Halfway down the hill we turned into our friends' front drive.

Inside the house the grown-ups settled in their armchairs, the men pouring out a bottle of beer and the ladies clutching a glass of sherry, carefully husbanded for just such an occasion as this. A large wireless set, for once silent, stood in the corner. I lay on the hearthrug and half listened to the conversation, not consciously telling myself, as I sometimes did, that I must always remember this moment although for some reason I always would. Nor did I ponder on the fact, of which I was well aware, that all the world's horrors had not suddenly become a thing of the past but were still alive and well, thousands of miles away. As warmth and exhaustion started to overtake me my mind slowly emptied itself. Tomorrow I would probably think of the delights to which I could look forward: a planned summer holiday and the sight of the sea again, now only dimly remembered after so long; and above all, some time in the now foreseeable future, the return from Italy of my elder brother whom I had not seen for over two years and was now having difficulty in visualising. But tomorrow was tomorrow and today was still today and it was very late. My parents and their friends gaily chatted away, their spirits uplifted by the thought that they too might again be permitted, after years of unrelenting worry and toil, their own pleasures and the fulfilment of some of their hopes. I lay there on the soft hearthrug, still cocooned, still protected, still safe. A delicious drowsiness enveloped me and then, as the voices faded gradually, imperceptibly into the distance, I drifted into a deep and dreamless sleep.


CM.........22nd March 2006

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