The accidental arsonist

I have recently been contacted by people who have recognised characters from my stories about my childhood days when I lived, a long time, ago in Bonnyrigg, a small town near Edinburgh. This is a particularly famous story and one that gets rolled out at each family get together.

The town of Bonnyrigg where I spend my childhood had two railway stations. Dr Beeching closed one and my big brother spectacularly terminated the other. Fortunately, it was on an obsolete branch line which was rarely used.

FullSizeRender (8)The catastrophe occurred in the late 1950s during an intensely hot summer. Each summer holiday we would occupy a different location, build a gang-hut or shelter, annoy people, play games and sometimes just sit around a fire. On this particular year we were in residence in the wooded  embankment at the back of the doomed station buildings.

On the fateful day I sat, with my brother Willie and a mutual friend called Hally, around our fire in the manner of the cowboys that we saw in matinee films and emulated. Suddenly, a jam jar full of a suspicious and smelly yellowish liquid was produced, in the manner of a magician, by my brother with the claim that this would make the fire burn much, much better. Our father, a veteran King Scout had drummed into us the importance of making sure a camp fire was out before leaving and we responsibly had a ritual that involved standing around a fire, before going home, and peeing on it; a boy’s thing. But all the piss in the town would fail to dampen down this inferno.

I’m positive that it was my brother that brought the jam jar to the party; He had previous form for this sort of thing. Only weeks before he had stumbled, screaming, out of the utility room at the back of the house with his arms alight like a Christmas pudding. At the time I was grateful
for the distraction as I was being verbally lambasted by my father; I had cleaned his bike and, as a special service polished the saddle with dark tan boot polish. He had thanked me at the time but changed his tune when he discovered that the polish had unfortunately transferred onto his light beige trousers creating a prominent external skid mark. But, horrified at the sight of his eldest son ablaze the skid mark was forgotten and, in a throwback to his army days he exclaimed “F**king hell!” instantly expanding his seven year old son’s vocabulary as he sprinted, like Roger Bannister, up the garden path to dowse the flames engulfing his eldest son. The use of the recently laundered towels from the washing line for the purpose did not impress my mother.

But back to the camp fire. We were all enthralled, kneeling and standing expectantly around the fire as Willie carefully unscrewed the lid of the jam jar and poured a small quantity of the yellow liquid onto the smouldering pile of twigs. There was a sudden whoomph as a huge fire ball rolled passed our astonished faces and roared into the tree canopy above. Our eyes simultaneously swivelled upwards; we were mesmerised, but not for long. For the second time in a short space of time I heard the new and interesting phrase. “F**king hell!” my brother screamed as he realised that he was holding a Molitov Cocktail in his hand. In an understandable panic he threw the jam jar to one side it’s contents spraying into into the surrounding tinder dry undergrowth. We were now  in the centre of a maelstrom of fire. With surprising calmness and presence of mind Willie ushered us away from the disaster zone and led us up the pathway and made us walk with studied casualness up the road to our house not far away up the main road.

FullSizeRender (5)We arrived home and sat at the dining table while our mother stood preparing our dinner at the kitchen window. “Och, it looks like someone’s having a wee fire. I hope the washing won’t be covered in ash”. This was a wee understatement. It looked as though a plane had crashed into the railway cutting; the sun along with the distant church tower had been blotted out, engulfed in  a cloud of dense black smoke.  We sat in the now gloomy kitchen eating our meal in uncharacteristic silence, my mother oblivious to the missing eyebrows, singed fringes, faint stench of petrol and the distant clamour of fire engines bells.

Later, the catastrophe was on the front page of the weekly local paper. Our father tut-tutted while poring over the pictures of the devastation and a photograph of a startled Mr Black the local coal merchant and funeral director who had heroically prevented the fire from spreading to his yard, a vast area of piles of coal and tanks of various liquid fuels, and the accidental cremation of his late client awaiting burial.

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