The dad looked up from his book, sunglasses perched awkwardly on top of his regular glasses, and watched the summer sun begin its final creep below the houses behind their back garden. He wore shorts and a vest, and looked every inch the middle-aged, well-fed (over-fed) dad. He slumped in a garden chair, his book dropping to his lap, and basked for moment, letting the sun warm his shoulders. He shifted in the chair. It wasn’t really a garden chair, just a cheap foldaway camping thing; they’d left the garden furniture out the previous winter and allowed it to rot. He’d told himself he wouldn’t be bothered the next summer. He shifted again, trying to forget the comfortable chairs he’d so casually abandoned.
‘Dad?’ youngest asked.
‘Yeah?’ the dad replied.
‘When are we having The Fire?’
The dad sighed. This was at least the fifteenth time youngest had asked the question. ‘When it gets dark,’ he said for the fifteenth time.
‘When is it dark?’ youngest asked, also for the fifteenth time.
‘About half past nine, but we can start building it at nine.’ fifteen times.
‘What time is it now?’
‘Ten past eight.’
‘So, fifty minutes?’
The dad tried to stretch out his bare, pale legs. The shadows had lengthened so that another day had gone by without colouring his thighs. Why did shins brown and not thighs, he wondered.
The dad sighed. ‘Yes?’
‘Can we start building it now?’
When magic was promised, time stood still. And fire was magic. Especially . But the dad couldn’t resist a little tease. ‘Building what?’ the dad asked, all innocence.
‘Oh, did you want a fire?’
‘Well, you should’ve said!’
Youngest giggled and the dad smiled. ‘Come on then,’ the dad said, and he hauled himself out of the uncomfortable seat. He popped his sunglasses into his shorts pocket and the two of them wandered to the shed and began dragging out the old wood and cardboard that they’d hoarded for the past few weeks in preparation for The Fire. The dad had added the capitals that afternoon after the eighth time of being asked about The Fire.
There was an old barbeque in front of the dad’s and they began to make a pyramid of wood on the little round grill, the evening calm of the street surrounding them while they worked.
A crash of the back gate announced the return of eldest and middle. They came into the garden holding bags of marshmallows aloft like trophies from a hunt. ‘We have returned!’ eldest announced.
‘Did you get pink and white?’ youngest asked.
‘Yes,’ eldest replied, somehow managing to say something to his youngest brother without being offensive.
‘And your mum got you some veggie-friendly ones in town today,’ the dad said to middle who was going through a vegetarian phase.
Middle ignored him and instead ran at the half-built fire. ‘I thought we weren’t starting till nine?’ He had an unhealthy fascination for the fire that the dad was wary of.
‘We’re just building it. We still won’t start till half past nine,’ said the dad for the sixteenth time.
‘I see you’re still going Geordie,’ eldest said, nodding at the dad’s vest and smirking.
The dad didn’t care.
‘That’s not Geordie!’ middle exclaimed, and he whipped off his t-shirt and set off around the garden, running topless and whirling his shirt over his head, an over-active satellite orbiting his family. No one paid much attention.
‘Will you use petrol?’ eldest asked.
‘No,’ the dad replied.
‘Alright, not petrol, barbeque lighter fuel like you did last year when we were camping?’
‘I bet you do. Can I have a go?’
An hour passed. The Fire was and reserve fuel was stacked neatly near the dad’s chair. It also provided an excellent hiding place for the bottle of barbeque lighter fluid. Youngest’s question came again and again: seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, …
The dad, sunglasses re-perched, tried to read his book. From the house, he could hear the mum chasing the children away from the marshmallows.
Eventually the sun shrank from view, reddening the sky as it faded and most of the shadows turned to simple darkness while a few lurked near the hedge, their life sustained by white streetlights.
‘Now?’ youngest pleaded.
‘Okay,’ the dad said. ‘Call your brothers.’
Youngest skipped to the house and started yelling. While his back was turned the dad produced the black bottle of barbeque lighter fluid from behind the reserves of wood and cardboard. He quickly doused the wood and popped it back into its hiding place before youngest skipped back. ‘They say they’ll come when it’s marshmallow time.’
The dad sighed. There was no magic left that didn’t have sugar in it for his elder sons. Then he smiled at the youngest and the two of them set about ripping up paper for kindling.
In the end eldest couldn’t resist the lighting ceremony, couldn’t forget that tiny bit of bright magic, and he drifted to the fireside. He was wearing his Rocky dressing gown, his favourite present of last Christmas. ‘Can I light a match?’ he asked. He loomed over the dad. he had the box of extra-long matches. Eldest always seemed to have the things he wasn’t supposed to have.
‘No,’ the dad replied. He had put a lot of lighter fluid on the wood. ‘Why are you wearing your dressing gown?’
‘Why can’t I?’
Eldest just shrugged. ‘Go on,’ he said, pulling the conversation back to the matches. ‘It’ll be fine. Look how long the matches are. And I’ll only be lighting the paper.’ He stared into the unlit fire. ‘The wood looks wet,’ he said. ‘Did you put lighter fluid on it?’
‘You did, you put lighter fluid on it. Let me light it, please!’
‘But you have put lighter fluid on it.’
The dad ignored him. Youngest looked from his eldest brother to the dad, smirking at the exchange. ‘Have you used lighter fluid, Dad?’ he asked.
‘Please let me,’ eldest whined.
‘Can I get the marshmallows yet?’ youngest asked.
‘Yes,’ said the dad.
Youngest dashed off. ‘Don’t light it without me!’ he called over his shoulder.
‘Can I light it?’
‘I could do it before he gets back?’
Eldest grumbled to a silence but remained standing over the dad.
‘Sit down,’ the dad suggested.
‘On the grass.’
‘I’m not sitting on the grass. Can I bring a dining chair out?’
‘If you must.’
Eldest sloped off back to the house and youngest returned with the marshmallows and a pack of wooden skewers.
‘Can we light it now?’ he asked. He jumped on the spot, too giddy to be still.
‘When your brother’s back,’ the dad answered. ‘Stand still. You can’t jump near fire.’
‘I know, sorry,’ youngest replied, and he held himself as still as he could. He shook with the effort, the strain clear on his grimacing face.
Eldest hauled a dining chair through the back door, shouting Dad said I could! back into the kitchen. He thudded it down next to the dad.
‘Can I have a chair too, please?’ youngest asked.
‘Get it yourself,’ eldest replied.
‘He can’t carry a dining chair,’ said the dad. ‘Go get one for him.’
The eldest, in full teenage protest, stropped back to the house. Dad and youngest swapped a smirk, their smiles glinting in the light from the streetlights.
Eldest returned, shouting Dad told me too! back into the kitchen. He thudded it down and fell onto it, probably driving the feet into the lawn.
The dad ignored it, grabbing a match instead. ‘Are we ready?’ he said.
Youngest, too excited to speak, nodded furiously while eldest only shrugged.
The lighter fluid took instantly and the fire whoofed into life. Very quickly, they had a crackling tower of flame and the three of them sat back to enjoy the heat and the light and the dancing shadows.
‘Can we have the marshmallows now?’ youngest asked.
‘Wait for a bit. Let’s just enjoy the fire for now,’ the dad said.
Eldest coughed. ‘It’s smoky,’ he complained.
‘It’s a fire,’ the dad pointed out. He looked at youngest. ‘It’s Fire.’ Youngest favoured him with a smile and nod.
Eldest coughed again and began to flail his arms, through the smoke. In the morning he would complain that his dressing gown stank.
‘It’s just smoke,’ the dad said. ‘Move your chair if you need to.’
But before he had the chance to move his attention was diverted from the smoke.
‘Full Geordie!’ middle screamed as he launched from the back step. He had stripped down to just his underpants and he ran at the fire, swerving away before the dad could even yell at him and then settled back into his orbit, skinny pale flesh shining in the light from the fire and the white streetlights, looking for all the world like something Gollum had dragged in. He ran and ran, arms waving, yelling and laughing and whooping, egged on by his brothers, ignoring the dad’s calls to calm down around the fire, and then dashed back inside, bare feet slapping on the concrete step, the mum’s cries of shame following him up the stairs.
For long minutes, eldest and youngest didn’t stop laughing. The dad grabbed his stash of cold sausages, skewered one and held it to the fire, staring intently at the flames, allowing them to hypnotise while he wondered if and when he would get to have those picture-perfect family moments that he’d heard so much about.
And then middle was back, wearing a dressing gown and a Santa hat and declaring that it was marshmallow time.
For a few moments the rest stared at him. Middle stared defiantly back, particularly at the dad and the sausage he held on the skewer. Middle’s vegetarianism was a badge that he wore and he never missed an opportunity for a disapproving stare. That it came from beneath the white brim of a Santa hat made little difference in the intensity but perhaps tempered the effect more than middle would have liked. So, the dad was able to meet the stare and simply say, ‘Fine. Go ahead.’
They grabbed skewers and sweets and readied themselves.
Except middle who shrank back. ‘What?’ the dad asked.
‘I don’t want my marshmallow anywhere near that.’
‘Right,’ the dad said. He withdrew his sausage and middle’s veggie-friendly marshmallow inched forward. When the eldest had been through a vegetarian phase it’d only last a couple of months, the lure of a lamb bhuna proving too strong. Middle was so much more determined.
The three boys leaned forward, marshmallows leading the way. But youngest suddenly exclaimed, ‘Wait! Safety tip!’ He sprang to his feet and stepped away from the fire. ‘This is called drop and roll,’ he informed them. ‘What you do is you drop on the ground and roll around.’ He laughed as his dumbfounded family stared at him. ‘I mean if you get on fire. If some of the fire gets on you and burning.’ More silent staring. ‘You know what I mean.’ More silence. ‘Do you know what I mean? You must know what I mean.’ He stepped back near the fire. ‘Say, like, if your clothes get in the fire – ‘
‘Especially if you’ve got a dressing gown on,’ the dad interrupted with pointed glares at the elder boys.
‘Yeah, especially,’ youngest agreed. ‘Say, like, if you’ve got your clothes in the fire and they catch fire then you’d be on fire and you’d be really scared and maybe starting to be in pain, so you’d need to put the fire out and so you’d have to just drop and roll.’ Youngest threw himself to ground and started to roll around on the grass.
Finally, his brothers’ trances broke and mocking laughter burst from them. They laughed like junior Jokers, cruel and ever-lasting, not even breathing between their hyena howls, pointing at youngest. Middle dashed over and danced around the rolling youngest, screaming derision.
Youngest tried to shout over them. ‘You see? Just like this! You just drop and roll!’ His voice dropped and rolled as his mouth is turned to the grass and then back up again, over and over and his brothers somehow laughed even harder.
Then mum was out, shouting for quiet, reminding all of them of the time. The dad was on his feet, skewered sausage in hand, trying to calm middle and get youngest back on his feet, all thoughts of picture-perfection abandoned.
‘Just drop and roll,’ youngest said again. He rolled all the while the mum and the dad harried middle and eldest back to their chairs, forcing skewered marshmallows into their hands.
‘I think we’ve got the safety tip now,’ the dad said. He still held his cold sausage.
One final roll and youngest stared at his family. ‘Just drop and roll.’ He trotted to his seat, grabbed his marshmallow and held it to the flames.
And suddenly, finally, five people were silent and still, the only sound the crackling fire, the only movement the flames and the twisting of marshmallow skewers – and one not-so-cold sausage, held low, out of sight, but still near enough. Delicious moments.
Then the eating of the marshmallows, the sweet, charred flesh disappearing into smiling mouths, layer after layer of delight.
‘How’s the sausage?’ the mum asked.
‘Good,’ the dad replied.
At the mention of the sausage, middle’s eyes snapped onto the dad, fixing him with the glare. The flopping of his Santa hat made the dad smile all over again. ‘It’s all good,’ he said. He sat back in his uncomfortable chair and let The Fire work its magic.