My non-British friends find it fascinating that we have a day of the year dedicated to celebrating a failed assassination attempt by a bunch of dissident English Catholics. In hindsight, it is admittedly odd to spend an evening throwing a dummy version of an executed traitor onto a flaming bonfire and light fireworks into the sky as a vestige of state mandated anti-Catholic propaganda. Then again, if you ask most people why they go to public bonfires on the night, they’ll struggle to give a reason beyond the old nursery rhyme of remembering the 5th of November. Really, we’re a nation that enjoys hot toddies, knitted scarves and blowing the shit out of colourful pyrotechnics. When you’re a kid, there are few things as exciting as the prospect of your parents lighting something on fire and letting you play with it, all in the name of tradition. I was 14 when I lost that thrill, and it happened in the most dramatic way possible.
I don’t actually remember being hit with the firework. I have very distinct memories of the before, attending a private Guy Fawkes Night party my sister and I had begged our parents to let us attend. and the after, where it all went a bit wrong. To this day, I can still see the stream of hot white light zoom directly towards me, and I can hear myself screaming as I realized what had happened and seeing my parents frantically run towards me. There’s no pain, just a burst of heat that’s quickly dissipated as my granddad, with no idea of what else to do, threw his pint of Guinness across my stomach where the firework had made contact with me. At one point, my dad had grasped my right wrist, which forced me to look down and see a smouldering chunk of carbon lodged in the palm of my hand. There was a lot of screaming, a lot of commotion, and even amidst my utmost conviction that I was about to die, I still felt embarrassed at seeing an old teacher from primary school. At one point, my younger cousin started screaming ‘Stop, drop and roll’ over and over, which was probably the only good advice anyone could think to give until a stranger brought over the garden hose and made sure I had stopped ablaze. During this commotion, as my parents forced me into the car and towards the hospital, the fireworks continued.
My town hospital is a small affair with little in the way of emergency provisions, so the sight of a screaming teenager with a burned Gap jersey and burns across her stomach must have been a weird one. To their credit, they kept me calm and did a commendable job of getting the carbon out of my hand and cleaning up the mess. Eventually, they got me to stop screaming ‘I love you, mum and dad’, because I was so damn sure this was the end and it was not how I’d imagined it would be (I’d been rooting for ‘old age’ since the beginning), although my mum cried for much longer. At some point, they removed the charred shreds of my jersey, revealing a Looney Tunes style burned hole that had devoured the entire Gap logo from the chest. Nobody believes me, but I don’t remember there being any pain. Perhaps the adrenaline rush or shock kept me going but I cannot recall if it hurt. The only thing that nagged as me was the thing in my hand, but that had more to do with the stomach-churning sight of a charred stub that had forced its way under my skin. After they removed the piece, the nurses asked if we wanted to keep it. For some reason, we said yes. After I was bandaged up, they gave me a cup of tea. It remains the greatest cup of tea I’ve ever drunk.
That night, I slept like a baby, but nightmares soon followed, taking the form of abstract assaults on the senses that felt like being in the midst of a war zone. Everything was light and noise and that unbearable whistling sound some fireworks make before they go boom. There would be mornings where I’d wake up, instinctively scratching at the nappy-like bandage they’d put over my stomach and utterly convinced they’d forgotten to remove another piece of firework from me. Every now and then, I’d hear a bang or a scream and wonder if it was in my head.
I got a week and a half off school, probably longer than needed but by now I was a local legend that that was some seriously social cache worth milking. The stories spread far across my town, getting more ludicrous with each whisper to the next person, turning the truth into the most outlandish spectacle. At one point, a friend of my cousin approached me, wide-eyed and totally free of tact, to ask if it was true the firework had launched its way to my intestines, leaving them hanging out of my body and forcing me to push them back in. what else was I supposed to say beyond ‘Sure, why not?’ Hearsay turned me into the town rebel, throwing fireworks in the air until one shot up my nose, or the victim of a brutal attack that left me looking like Picasso’s vomit. Even now, I’m rather fascinated by how an already dramatic story wasn’t interesting enough, to the point where being hit by a firework was too mundane for classic small town gossip.
It’s been 13 years since the firework accident, and all things considered, I’m pretty cool about the whole thing. I don’t get nightmares, my scarring is minimal to the point where many don’t believe my story, and my grandmother keeps the burned block of carbon they dug out of my hand in her box of precious family memories. For the first few years following the event, I chose to sit out Bonfire Night celebrations. It wasn’t because I was scared, you understand, it was just that spending all night inside behind double glazing with the curtains closed felt like the more fun option. These days, I can now actually be outside while fireworks are going off, but the whistling ones still give me painful goosebumps and my zeal for the occasion has dissipated. All the fun of fire and anarchy disappears quite quickly when the fire is on you. Still, these days I live in a building with a top notch view, and it would be nice to see the lights from my warm, safe distance.