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Catherine Planet

There was a time when you could set the world alight. Not literally of course, but close enough anyway, and in fact it wasn’t uncommon to hear stories about someone or other’s house getting a visit from the Fire Brigade.

The second Sunday in June was always the Queen’s birthday. Probably still is for all I know, but I suppose I ceased to notice once celebrations became a whimper instead of a bang. I love my God I serve my Queen I salute my Flag was how the pledge went at primary school, while the old World-War-Two-surplus schoolmaster ran that eye-moistening ensign up the pole and ERII looked on approvingly out the window from her official portrait in twin set and pearls.

The whole Queen rigmarole really only made sense to us kids on cracker night; that was the one day of the year when you could warm to the old girl (funny, she wasn’t much older than I am now I realise). School assembly on a cold winter’s morning was not the greatest place to contemplate her virtues, but somehow these could be manifest and manifold on an even colder winter’s night. Say what you like about her nowadays, she was pretty generous back then with her bungers.

Of course the fun started a few days before the ordained evening, as surreptitious pennies blew letter confetti out of some detested neighbour’s letterbox. A lit po-ha and a tensed sling shot created interesting possibilities for synchronisation and launch toward a fleeing target. Skyrockets, it was noted, described far more fascinating trajectories when laid flat on the road and pointed towards the local shops, or fired recoilless-rifle style from a conduit barrel stuck on a home-made 5-ply stock.

Choko grenades achieved deliciously messy results, rolled along the ground into an unsuspecting group and watching as they got showered with pulped green fruit – nobody seemed to know what to do with them otherwise, although now what I wouldn’t give for a jar of Mrs C’s choko chutney. Down at the wharf, the hated puffer toads would for a while become a welcome catch, their mouths stuffed with tom thumbs and peals of laughter as the poor animal’s eyes popped across the planking and their last meal of our bread-dough bait spurted out of their arses.

But the main attraction was still the bonfire. On the long-weekend Sunday as afternoon gathered we’d bring branches and bits of lumber and Dad would split and cut them with axe and saw. There were no fire-lighter cubes: wads of Sydney Afternoon Sun went down on the grass in front of the back window, then kindling and a few stouter bits with a couple of tinsful of Kero for good measure. The hose stood by uncoiled and ready... The fittings were all copper or brass. No plastic. (On a scalding day in summer it was cool to pick up the hot metal nozzle of the hose and hold it as long as you could stand, then get your sis or someone to turn on the tap and wait for the blessed chill of water rushing through).

With the fire built it was ‘you kids stand back’ and on went the match and up she went, and we’d pile on the timber until the flames danced and threw their ruddy-yellow light off the old fibro garage wall and cast animated shadows behind the Crepe Myrtle and the Mulberry and the Kaffir Plum.

Then when the fire was right and the night was dark enough Mum and Dad would produce the treasured parcel; sparklers and Roman Candles and little rockets and all the sissy stuff that could never cause daytime havoc but somehow at night could rival the stars.

And all around, across our neighbourhood and beyond, a chain of fires would link the city, spreading radiant interlocking fingers through gappy paling fences, and as the night terminator swept the continent east-west, luminous points marked its passage as backyard after backyard erupted in gouts of flame, and showers of incandescent iron filings hissed and spent themselves on the dewy grass. The wisps and smells of gunpowder and wood smoke twined themselves through the almost solstitial darkness, tenuous tendrils seeking the year’s longest night but doomed to fall short, severed and cast adrift from the 21st by those few intervening days of watery winter sun. A frustrated pagan festival that somehow got tangled up in Queen Elizabeth’s skirts.

But us kids danced around the fire anyway like the little demon imps we were, that curious childish contrast of innocent affection and even more innocent savagery, while Mum and Dad retreated to the back veranda and looked on. Different then, when they let you have your head and if you got burned you learned.

And in the morning, a black scar on the grass, and we’d take our bikes and hook up with the other kids and ride around the places where the rich houses were, and look for rockets and Vesuviuses and other expensive stuff that hadn’t gone off. There’d be other bunches of scabs around too, you had to be quick and we’d be chafing at breakfast to hit the saddle of the Malvern Star before the best stuff got taken. Sometimes there’d be good leftovers that were ignored because they were damp, but we knew Mum would help us dry them in a low oven.

If we did alright, we’d have another little celebration next evening too. Of course, some of the more potent artefacts would be carefully hoarded, and it wasn’t unusual for a Thunder to strike a letterbox in the heat of December (Merry Christmas solstice everyone!).

But now fireworks are a mass entertainment. Dutifully we troop off communitarily to the harbour foreshores to watch our taxes explode in safety. No burns no bursts no fires no flames, no missing-fingered one-eyed kids, this house will never more burn up or down.

But there was a time… Oh yes there really was a time…

Turn on Catherine Planet

In your pinfire martyrdom

Wheel us through the void

spoke the dark with starry spray

spit your feathery fountains

into the sombre face of night

Spinning whorled, turn on

Dear impoverished artificial flame

Deluging upturned awestruck faces

reign over us even as you are

feeble terrestrial fire

wondrous futile ingenuous gesture

swear us true before those absent lords

the stars

and declare us all to be

as we do remain:

most humble servants of

Your Majesty.


© V. Stevenson