Friday, 12 March 2021

Bonfire

by Cara Finegan

Irish coffee

  After sex I lay in his arms. He held me close. Wrapped his arms around me and whispered about what a great team we made. Whirring thoughts in my brain revealed the truth. This was when he excelled, what made him feel good. Swelling with pride at the monster he’d created. He treated me like a boisterous bitch that he was trying to train. Praised me and gave me treats when I agreed with him. Regardless of whether or not I was admitting my own incompetence, my own mental deterioration. If agreeing with him was admonishing myself, all the better. It made him feel righteous. Powerful. It made him feel like God. 
     He drifted off to sleep. But I couldn’t sleep. I was too busy remembering the extinguishing of my memories. Too focused on the replaying of my bonfire of the vanities. That was what he liked to call that Halloween. Our first Halloween together.  
    
     ‘I’ve a surprise for you, ma love.’ I’d just returned from answering the door for the tenth time to demons, witches and the odd caped crusader who were gathering treats.
     ‘I love surprises.’ He was sitting on the settee, arms spread out over the back. He poured me a glass of wine.
     ‘You’ll love this surprise.’ He winked at me and I felt like a child as I clapped my hands.
     ‘What is it?’ I searched the room for a box or bag.
     ‘Jesus, show some patience.’ His arm snaked around my shoulders. ‘It’s an important surprise. It’s for both of us. It’ll show how much I love you.’
     ‘I know you love me.’
     ‘And I know that I get annoyed sometimes and that there’s been a few hiccups already and us only married a few months.’
     ‘Everyone has hiccups.’ I tugged at the wedding band on my finger.
     ‘Exactly. That’s why I wanted to organise something memorable.’ My mind raced, imagining a romantic weekend or some pretty piece of bespoke jewellery. I looked at his handsome face and I thought about how lucky I was. A terrible feeling of guilt washed over me. I’d begun to think that getting married was a huge mistake. That I was doing it all wrong. That I was making my new husband hate and resent me. I must have misread him.
     ‘Tell me what it is.’ I leaned in to kiss his cheek. ‘Please.’
     ‘Patience is a virtue, ma love. Ten minutes.’
     ‘You’re so mean.’ I joked. I pulled playfully at his shirt, but he swiped my hand away angrily, his brow furrowed. I froze. Panicked as I stumbled over my words. ‘I was only joking. I know you’re not mean.’ My heart thumped so hard I thought he could hear it. He jerked his head toward me stopping just short of my face. I jumped back. He laughed. As if he'd just heard the funniest joke.
     ‘Look at you.’ He pointed at me, grinning. ‘You’re scared shitless. You need to lighten up.’ He grabbed my face roughly and kissed it. I breathed out a confused and unnerved sigh of relief.
     ‘I thought you were mad at me.’
     ‘For what? Am I that bad?’ He stretched his arms above his head and yawned. ‘Right.’ His hands slapped the sofa. ‘Let’s get this show on the road.’ He stood up and pulled me by the hand after him through the kitchen and out into the back courtyard. I had decorated the courtyard positioning pumpkins along the steps and around the walls. I admired the carefully made grimaces that flickered in the crisp evening air. I’d spent hours decorating the courtyard with them. All carved by me. Despite their eerie smiles they looked pretty and autumnal. He led me to one of the deckchairs. There was a vase of flowers from the garden sitting on the table. I hadn’t seen him set these out.                                                                                                                                                 
     ‘You even picked flowers?’ My heart did a merry little dance. I clasped my hands to my chest.
     ‘Wait. We need your favourite things. Music and wine.’ He ran into the house returning seconds later with a blanket and a glass of red wine. He handed me the glass and kissed the tip of my nose before draping the blanket around my shoulders. The cd player was pulled out to the patio doors. He held up a shiny disc. I recognised my handwriting in permanent marker across the front of it. He smirked at me ‘What’s wrong, ma love? You’ve gone very pale.’
     ‘Nothing. Everything’s perfect.’ My mind raced but I tried to look unphased.
     He put the cd on, and Piano Man started playing. I knew what cd he’d used. It was a collection of songs that I’d compiled myself only a few weeks earlier, I’d been feeling down and lonely and had written “Memories” on the shiny disc. As soon as I’d written the word I knew it was a mistake. I should have chosen a different word. So I hid the cd in my knicker drawer just in case it annoyed him. I only listened to it when he wasn’t there. I smiled at him when he stooped to look into my eyes. He kissed me, tweaked my cheek. His face was open and gentle. He could have been mistaken for a prince in a Disney movie.
     ‘You’re going to enjoy this, ma love. I know I can be a bit agitated every now and again, so I want tonight to be all about you.’ Another pang of guilt flashed across my brain. Why was I always so easily offended? Why did I never give him the benefit of the doubt?  I shook that doubt away and mouthed the words ‘I love you’ to him. He did the same.
     ‘This is exciting. Are you getting a drink too?’
     ‘Of course.’ He left to get his wine but instead returned with a large cardboard box. The box seemed new and had black-markered words written on the side. Halloween Surprise. I could tell from the way he carried it that there was a strain from the weight.
     ‘What’s all this?’ He walked past me and half set, half dropped the box on the ground.
     ‘All will be revealed. I need a drink first.’ He made to go into the house then turned abruptly. ‘No peeking. I’ll be really cross.’
     ‘I’m not going to peek.’ I laughed. ‘I’m not a party pooper.’ I pulled the blanket tightly around my shoulders and took a sip of the wine.
     ‘Good girl.’ He disappeared into the house. I glanced around our courtyard. It was dancing with the eerie shadows of ugly, grimacing faces. I noticed the barbecue had been taken down from the shed. It stood in one corner like a miniaturised red and black UFO, like someone had modelled a flying saucer and stuck it on three metal legs. To one side of it was a bag of kindling sticks. Beside those was a can of lighter fuel and a box of matches, these were sitting on top of newspapers. I jumped when his hand touched my shoulder and I realised he was beside me; he had moved so stealthily. He was holding a bottle of beer.
     ‘How come the barbecue’s down?’
     ‘Nothing gets past you, love does it?’
     ‘It’s not long since we had dinner.’
     ‘Oh don’t worry, it’s not for food.’
     ‘Oh.’
      ‘It’s your surprise. We’re going to have our own private wee bonfire.’  He began to pull the barbecue into the middle of the courtyard using his free hand. It screeched and rattled.
     ‘So the bonfire’s my surprise?’
     ‘Yep.’
     ‘Oh.’ I hadn’t meant for my voice to sound so disappointed, so dejected, but even I heard how ungrateful I sounded. He stopped and glared at me.
     ‘What type of a surprise did you think I meant? I’m trying to be thoughtful here.’
      ‘I’m sorry. I know you are. I didn’t mean it to come out like that.’
     ‘Other women would be ecstatic to have a husband that was as romantic as me. I try to think outside the box to keep you happy.’ He took a long guzzle from the beer.
     ‘I am happy. I’m sorry.’
     ‘Maybe tell your face that.’ I put my glass down and got up from the chair. I wrapped my arms around his neck, the blanket folding around him.
     ‘I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful.’ I kissed his beer bittered lips. ‘I know you’re being thoughtful. Don’t let me ruin the surprise.’ I smiled at him. He relented, his expression softened.
     ‘Sit back down.’ I did as I was told. He became more animated, more dramatic. He stood up straight with his shoulders pushed back, one arm across his abdomen and one behind his back, his chin up. Then he projected his voice like he was a ringmaster.
     ‘Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, is a very unique night.’ I clapped my hands and beamed with delight. ‘Tonight we are going to have a spectacle indeed.’
     ‘Yay.’ I clasped my hands to my chin in amusement.
     ‘A bonfire to celebrate the true love of a most beautiful and wonderful couple.’ He paused dramatically turning around as if waiting on the crowd to applaud. I applauded and voiced a few encouragements. ‘Tonight we are going to have a bonfire of the vanities.’ I clapped again, then took another sip of wine. He lifted the lid and the barbequing rack off the barbecue and set them aside, then bent down and lifted the newspaper. The can of lighter fluid fell onto its side.
     ‘To begin with, oh hold on a minute.’ He returned the lighter fluid to its upright position. ‘Let me set the scene, ladies and gentlemen.’ He used large movements as he pulled out each page, twisted it tightly, showed the invisible crowd, then laid it in the drum. ‘It’s important to get every, detail perfect. This bonfire will symbolise a new beginning. The death of all that is negative. It will kill all the transgressions of the past. It is our Salem.’ I applauded enthusiastically, happy that he was in such an upbeat mood. The light from the jack-o-lanterns flickered mysteriously on his face. I remembered how easily I’d fallen for him. How I used to tell all my friends how lucky I was snagging a catch like him. When he was finished with the twisting he emptied the bag of kindling sticks onto the paper.
     ‘This is so much fun.’
     ‘I’m glad you’re amused, ma love.’ He said with a cheeky grin, then returned to his ringmaster voice. ‘Drink up, ladies and gentlemen, we’re almost ready.’ I held up my glass to him in a silent toast. Reflections of orange light from the lanterns twinkled and mingled with the wine. He lit the edges of various pieces of paper, letting the flames take hold, then squirted some lighter fuel into the drum of paper and wood. The flames sparked and danced and cracked into pretty flecking tongues of fire. I gasped, giddy with glee. He waved his arms over the flames as if concocting a spell.
      ‘Look, ma love, I’m being one of your witches.’ His grin held something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on. His eyes sparkled with mischief and a horrible feeling of dread washed over me. He danced his way to the box and opened the cardboard flaps out. I saw at the top of the contents a colourful, silk shawl. My shawl. A shawl that had been bought for me at a Fleetwood Mac concert in Hamburg by a boy that I was madly in love with. He’d been killed in a car accident a few weeks later. I was devastated. The night of the concert I had dressed up as Stevie, but instead of a shawl I only had an old piece of cloth thrown over my shoulders. He bought me the most expensive shawl that night. We both knew he couldn’t afford it, but he insisted on buying it. He’d whispered in my ear. ‘You’re my Stevie. My wild child. I love you.’ I remembered his lips tasted of my strawberry flavoured lipstick. He put the shawl over my shoulders and lifted me up as he spun me around. butterflies danced up a storm. I believed I would be with him forever. 
      ‘So, looky here. What’s this?’ He lifted the shawl from the box. I inhaled slowly.
      ‘That’s my Stevie shawl. Where did you get that?’
     ‘Oh it was at the back of your wardrobe wrapped around some of your most intimate belongings.’ I made to get up, but he held up his hand. ‘No. Stay where you are, ma love.’ I slumped back down. The flames skipped and crackled into the night air. Rhiannon played out and he walked over to me. The blanket was lifted from my shoulders and replaced with a shiver and the shawl. The smell of patchouli wafted up.
     ‘You’ve been unfaithful to me already.’ He rummaged around in the box. His back to me.
     ‘What? I’d never be unfaithful.’
     ‘Really? I believe you’re lying, ma love.’ He was shuffling paper. Letters. I knew what they were.
     ‘Why would you say that? I don’t leave the house except to go to the shops.’ I could hear a whine in my voice. I tried to stop it. It was cloying and pitiful.
     ‘Oh I don’t mean that you’ve been shagging someone. Why would anyone else want to shag you.’ I gasped. What had I done?
     ‘What?’
     ‘Are you deaf? Why would anyone want to shag you? Please listen. There’s nothing worse than a wife who ignores you.’ He was still smiling. His words didn’t fit his expression. My eyes darted. Tried to make sense of the shift in mood.
     ‘What have I done? Tell me. We were having a lovely night and now..’
     ‘It’s still lovely. It’s only the beginning, ma love. Look.’ He held up his hand. They had a handful of letters tied with purple ribbon. ‘Love letters. This is you being unfaithful to your husband.’
     ‘But they were before you. They’re only keepsakes. He’s dead now.’
     ‘You must still love him. you can’t love more than one man. Not unless you’re a dirty slut.’
     ‘I told you about him. You know the story. They’re only memories.’
     ‘If they’re only memories you won’t mind burning them then.’
     ‘But, why?’
     ‘Are you serious? You’re sitting here reading letters form old boyfriends. How do you think that makes me feel?’
     ‘I’m not sitting reading them. They’re just to look back on. To laugh at in years to come.’
     ‘In this marriage we’re only going to look forward.’ He handed me the letters. ‘Burn them.’
     ‘But…’
     ‘Burn them. It’s only your vanity wanting to keep them. You want to read through them and see how irresistible you were.’
     ‘No. He’s dead. I love you.’
     ‘I’m not having letters in my house from some drug addled hippy who wanted to fuck my wife.’
     ‘That’s not what they’re about.’
      ‘I know what they’re about. I’ve been through them.’ He waved his hand over the box. ‘This is our time. There’s no room for anyone else.’
     ‘Don’t I get a say in this?’
     ‘You don’t need a say anymore, ma love. I’m looking after you now.’
      I stopped arguing after that. I dropped my memories one by one into a metal drum. I watched flames carry pieces of paper up into the sky towards the stars. Not just letters from boyfriends. Photographs of my family at birthdays and Christmas celebrations, of me in cities that I’d visited. Pictures of my friends and I at concerts, mouths open in laughter and joyousness. Books that I’d received as presents inscribed with witty comments. “For my wild and wonderful friend. Keep smiling you wee nutter.” He even made me burn my graduation photograph with Mum and Dad smiling proudly. My mum who was battling cancer then. My mum who saw the change in my face just weeks after getting married, who asked me questions about my happiness and tried to organise weekends away just for me and her. I hid it all from her. I made excuses and lost precious time. Now, I’d also lost precious photographs of all the people who cared for me. Who were a part of me. The numbness began that night. The numbness that still holds me prisoner.
     He went to bed content that night, after he had made me dance around the bonfire. After he made me throw my shawl on the fire to finish it all off.  I watched the reds, greens and purples melt and curl. He’d won. Again. I stayed outside shivering until the bonfire died. I retrieved two things that night. A piece of purple silk melted and hardened black around the edges, and a tiny piece of a photograph, my mother’s hand holding mine. One of my fingers rested on her thick, gold wedding band. I’d watched the remnants of the picture spiral up into the sky in a glowing, desperate escape. It had fluttered down eventually to settle on the concrete. I lifted it when he left and placed it carefully into the locket that he’d given me as a wedding present. I took his picture out, positioned my mother’s hand behind it, then replaced his face again.
    
     He groaned in his sleep. I released myself from his arms and turned my back to him. I watched the quivering leaves on the trees outside my bedroom window, shards of light from the magnificently luminescent moon shone through them on to our bed. I fell asleep holding hands with my mother as I gripped the locket that still hung around my neck after all these years. 

 

About the auhtor 

Cara Finegan comes from Northern Ireland. She graduated with a B.Ed Hons degree in English and has been a Primary School teacher ever since. She has written stories from a young age and tries to use her many travel experiences as a back drop for some of her writing. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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