Twisted Fire Starter

Extract taken from A TUNNEL OF LEAVES



One early October evening brought a wind that jabbed in through tiny spaces around both the front and back door frames. Opening these doors was a hazard we tried to avoid.

"Come on Tony. Time to use your scout camp skills and build a fire. I'm frozen."

Our house purchase also included a stone shed with sloping corrugated steel roof; that to our bewilderment sat solidly at the back of next doors house. We discovered that this was the last of a row of disused outside toilets, our previous occupants putting it to good use as a garden shed and much needed coal store.

Coats were donned against the cold, and we quickly edged through a slice in the back door, holding the large rusted key that opened our coal store. Since storing our few garden tools, shiny wedding presents from various guests, we hadn't been near the shed. It all felt a bit like we were trespassing, and we both instinctively glanced up at the bright light pouring out from our neighbour's kitchen window. Sure enough there was Frank, standing looking out at the gathering darkness, folded arms resting on his rotund belly, sleeves of his lumberjack shirt rolled up roughly to reveal strong forearms. He just jerked his head upwards to let us know he had spotted us, crouching like two rabbits caught in car headlights.

I gave a nervous smile. Tony moaning with embarrassment, surreptitiously pressed the key into my hand, hissing under his breath,

"You do it!"

I juggled the key into the lock and tried to turn it. It wouldn't budge.

"What the heck you doing?" Tony hissed.

"It won't open. Is Frank still watching us?"

"Yes!" he squeaked. "And Linda's watching as well. Let me have a go."

I stepped aside, turning to give an even more nervous smile into the spotlight. Tony growled with the effort as he twisted the key left and right, pulling the rusted metal in and out, while pressing his shoulder against the low wooden door. A satisfying clunk and he fell shoulder first into the dark hole. A loud crashing and clanking of metal garden tools accompanied by Tony's muffled scream, and every single window along the back of the row was illuminated in sequence, like a city centre's Christmas lights.

Frank was there in an instant, picking up Tony by the back of his coat and reassuring the emerging neighbours that terrorists hadn't invaded the wood. As everyone returned to their warm, cosy abodes he asked us again,

"Sure yer don't need any help with that fire?"

Just one look at our hopeful faces and he took charge.

"Can't see much coal in here."

He picked up a piece and flung it to the back of the shed, while he wiped his hand slowly up and down his thigh letting out a deep breath between clenched teeth, blowing out his lips until they shuddered.

"Not much good. Mmmmm! I'll let Eric know you need some coal… and quick. Where's yer coal scuttle?"

I was wondering who Eric was. I presumed the local coal merchant. I smiled dreamily to myself as I marvelled how in these small communities everyone was a friend and known by their first name. It gave me a proud feeling that we were about to be integrated into this heart-warming system. I was jolted out of my reverie by Frank's booming voice as he pushed Tony gently towards our back door.

"What! Yer haven't even got a bucket? Linda, Lindaaa, bring our spare bucket … and shovel … and some decent coal."

I hardly dared look Linda in the face as I shuffled after her into our house, feeling like a naughty schoolgirl. I felt ashamed of the bleak, unfriendly welcome our home dished up. The whiff of Spaghetti Bolognese crowded around the dishes piled higgledy, piggledy in the sink. The plastic door of the shower room was slightly open, and a foul damp smell squeezed through the space, snaking its way around the bare kitchen walls. The naked light bulb cast a cold, blue tinge.

Our living room was bare apart from our newly purchased foam chairs and a television hand-me-down. No curtains covered the window to block out the gathering night; no 'much loved' ornament filled an alcove in the 1960's style fireplace.

Frank and Tony were standing in the middle of the room, filling up most of the available space. The joy of a well-built fire was being discussed; how to fill up the coalscuttle every morning, how to cover the cinders of a fire at bedtime so it could be re-ignited with ease, etc, etc.

Linda passed over her bucket of black gold and asked if we had a newspaper. To my horror she stood tearing my unread copy of the Evening Post into strips, explaining in a deep, dry voice how to twist these strips into plaits to make kindling.

"Try keep a stock of these in case t' fire goes out. Never let t' fire go out though. Best not. These old stone houses can be bloody freezing when winter comes." She glanced at me then smiled knowingly at her husband. They immediately both burst into loud guffaws!

And there I was, sat bunched up in my winter coat thinking it was already freezing. She eased herself onto the other chair, her dry, bleached blond, sixties style bouffant bent over her task. I followed her nicotine stained, fast working fingers, trying to dig out snippets of news as I awkwardly put together my one plait. She automatically handed a few plaits to a kneeling Frank, who piled them into interlocking angles in the fire grate, followed by a few pieces of coal, more plaits, more coal; like a carefully constructed lasagne. He rummaged into a pocket of his corduroy trousers to dig out a cigarette lighter. Using another plait as tinder he held it under his creation until others began to catch fire. This twisted fire starter was then put to further use, lighting a cigarette withdrawn from behind his ear.

As his lecture came to an end he became silent, drawing deeply on the cigarette, removing it from between his lips to proudly examine the glowing end, part of his fire creation.

"And there yer have it! It'll take a while to really get going. Don't put on more coal 'til this lot's glowing red. Don't overfill t' grate and don't under-fill. By the way, best t' leave yer coal shed open, Eric delivers when he's ready. Come on Linda, time to let t' boy scout get to grips with his camp fire."

In the too short time before his untimely death, we valued Frank immensely as an affectionate neighbour, and grew to love his mischievous spirit. What we had initially mistook as sarcasm and a superior attitude, was in fact his fatherly way of caring, checking and double-checking that his naive neighbours were able to cope in our new estranged environment.

The fire popped, spluttered and crackled into life. At first with only enough heat to warm our hands. But we soon discarded our coats, pushing our two chairs to the furthest part of the room, also needing to open the door into the kitchen to cool the room down further. By bed time the warmth had also percolated into our bedroom above. We placed our hands, sides of faces and shimmied our backs against the chimney breast, grinning at each other at how cosy and warm our home had become.