The sky was lit up by multi-coloured sparks and fires burnt all around us; Tommy had brought me to watch the city on its special night. There was a sharp nip in the air but our own fire burning inside the drum of an old washing machine kept us warm. The flames flickered and the broken wooden pallets glowed.
‘Isn’t this great?’ he asked.
‘It is but I don’t understand it. What’s going on?’
‘It’s Guy Fawkes night. It’s a celebration.’
‘A celebration of what?’
‘That’s a good question. It goes back a long way, all the way back to the early seventeenth century when an Act of Parliament decided that on 5 November we had to give thanks for “the joyful day of deliverance”.’
‘Are you telling me that you have to do this by law?’
‘Not any more, they stopped it in the mid-nineteenth century. But we carried on doing it anyway.’
‘So what were you delivered from?’
‘Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators failed to blow up Parliament with their gunpowder plot.’
‘I see. Was he a terrorist?’
‘Sort of. He wanted to replace the Protestant King with a Catholic one.’
‘Did they do that burning alive thing?’
‘No, it’s worse than that. They decided to hang him after cutting off his genitals and burning them in front of his eyes. And a load of other unpleasant stuff but he managed to kill himself before they had a chance.’
‘And you celebrate this?’
‘Yeah. Sick isn’t it?’
‘I’m finding it hard to understand.’
In front of us an explosion of white sparks with tails of fire soared into the sky. As they reached the top of their arc they burst apart. It was like a meadow of fiery flowers rapidly blooming in the night sky. The birth of each new spark was accompanied by a loud bang and as each one burst apart the noise grew louder and louder. One by one the sparks shrunk to nothing leaving a mist backlit by street lights.
It became eerily silent.
‘Wow, that was some spectacle,’ I said.
Tommy lifted his finger. ‘Wait and see.’
A deep boom bounced off the nearby buildings and the sky was lit up by a ball of red sparks expanding outwards leaving a black hole in their centre. They fell gracefully and silently. As they touched the ground a set of six launchers pumped green fireball after green fireball into the air.
I whispered to Tommy, ‘I thought they foiled the plot?’
‘They did,’ he whispered back.
‘Why the fireworks then?’
He grabbed my arm and pointed towards the sky. ‘Can’t you just enjoy something for once?’
I nodded. I’d obviously upset him. The cacophony of bangs and booms, the smell of smoke on the wind and the bright light of the explosions filled the air. Layer on layer of noise built up and built up and then once again it subsided until it was silent and only the smoky mist remained. I turned to leave but he caught hold of my sleeve. We stood for a few seconds and then there was the most almighty boom followed by a dense cushion of tiny white dots and then bang after bang after bang as the sky filled with a blanket of white light and white noise. It was exhilarating and frightening at the same time.
I felt as if I was surrounded by the best and the worst of humanity; that cold night sky reflected the magic and the murder of your universe.
‘You look stunned,’ he said as the crowd clapped.
‘I am. I don’t understand the symbolism of the fireworks.’
‘It’s a bit of fun.’
‘Okay. Can I ask another question?’
‘Of course. What’s one more in your long list of enquiries?’
‘Those protesters we saw the other day. The anonymous ones with the Guy Fawkes masks. Is that a Catholic revolution?’
He smiled. ‘No, Purple. At least not as far as I know.’ He patted me on the back. ‘It’s a confusing old world isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ I replied and turned towards the fire.
It had been a beautiful and extravagant night although it seemed strange to base it on so much pain and suffering, but then that does seem to be the basis for most of your celebrations.