Bonfire Night – Summer 2003

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The boat sat high on a sea of tyres. An evening breeze gathered the sails and swung the boom around; a billowing redness to rival the evening sky. Patrick tensed, but the craft rocked gently as though in its natural environment. The ring of boys grinned with destructive anticipation. Enda was the hero of the evening, after three years of asking, prompting and cajoling, Patrick had agreed.

The flames curled around the tyres, flowing in and out, roaring and hissing. Dense black smoke billowed; flames became a troubled sea of destruction and the boat set out on its final voyage. Firelight distorted the boyish faces: fair headed Enda was fallen Lucifer.

Some adults stood farther back, pretending indifference. Their faces showed orange against the advancing night. Patrick stood aloof. A brown stain spread from the boom upwards, red sails darkened, then burst into yellow flames as the disintegrating fabric shredded and floated skywards. Oh! The watchers exclaimed in unison. Breaking the spell that recalled the ancient sacredness of a forgotten rite. Black water, slewing over smoothed stones, curling into silvery bubbles, and then easing into the straight channel where the stream approached the bridge. Elm trees lined the banks, whispering leaves winking silver light that spilled coffee-coloured on the surface of the water.

It began here. Patrick, nine years old, stepped onto the metal raft made of an up-turned car-roof. Knees trembling, he settled himself on the orange-box, and released the mooring rope. The raft pivoted round and snagged on overhanging ferns. The water, passing underneath, made hollow sounds. He poked the bank with his stick, the craft straightened and the current took it, gliding into the tunnel of trees, where all was hushed.

His senses quickened into an intense awareness of his surroundings: the earthy smell of the water and the green, musty smell of ferns, the tiny stars of light on the ivy leaves. Ahead, the black mouth of the bridge yawned beneath a headdress of tarry corrugated iron, bulging outwards, sagging casually from its disintegrating supports. The massed concrete banks on either side were graduated with streaks of colour, green algae above, then faun of dried froth brushed on by years of winter floods and below, black as a funeral ribbon, from languid summers of slow-moving water.

Patrick stayed the raft with trembling hands, almost sinking it in the process, and contemplated his fate. It was artificially narrow here. If the raft sank, there was no escape, nothing to cling onto, and no one knew how deep it really was. But why should it sink?

The water was at its stillest, the channel straight and unobstructed: it was the still silence that frightened, the dark, lurking silence, the unknown. He longed for the assurance of the sunlight and to feel the fresh green solid lawn beneath his feet, and he poled back upstream.

That summer he conquered the bridge; carefully and fearfully at first, and later, boisterously with friends, disturbing the ancient silence with raucous shouts and laughter. It was the beginning of his love of boats. In time he bought a sail-boat and ventured onto lakes and out to sea, but life had other priorities and as he grew older his boat spent more and more time upturned in his garden. The paint peeled from the transom.

Then he noticed the telltale signs of rot along the keel. Nothing serious, he persuaded himself. Each summer he said he would begin repairs in the autumn, but each autumn was filled with mundane chores. The truth came in by stealth, but sometimes the dappled shadows playing along upturned boat reminded him of elm trees and silent brown water. It no longer mattered whether the boat was seaworthy, it was a link to those childish summers and fears overcome.

Now Enda, his neighbour’s boy, wanted the boat for the bonfire. Unencumbered with nostalgia, the child argued how the thing was an eyesore, how it took up valuable space, that a small elderberry had rooted in the guardrail. Why could Patrick not let go? He did not need a link to memories that were locked inside his head. And is not surprise one of memory’s greatest pleasures? Should he not, therefore, get rid of the boat, and leave those memories to their serendipitous interventions, instead of wearing them out by constant recollection? But Bonfire Nights came and went and still he kept the boat.

One day, looking out across the lawn at the blackened, peeling varnish, he thought of that encounter with the bridge. The beckoning depths taunted him as though he was there again and his heart was pounding with anticipation. He had conquered his fear of the dark waters simply by letting go, by allowing the raft to drift into the foreboding space.

It was time to let go.

Gerard O’Brien lives in Rahard, Athenry and is the author of ‘A Kind of Innocence’ 2002, Faeries, Falcons and Fine Gentle man, Love Dispels All Fear 2005, Derry and Londonderry History & Society 1999 to name a few!

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About this record

Written by Gerard OBrien

Published here 08 Feb 2024 and originally published Summer 2003

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