Saturday, 7 May 2011

Bone Fire by A.J.Ashworth


The teacher tells you about the word. About what it means, where it comes from.

Bonfire.

Bone and fire.

Bone fire.

You like this. You’re not sure why you like it but you do.

‘Are you listening?’

The teacher has stopped explaining and is now leaning back in her chair, staring at you. You look at her breasts which seem smaller today. But you still feel that heat down there, despite her breasts looking smaller and despite them being more hidden than usual beneath that thick rollneck she’s got on.

‘Are you listening?’

You know she asks again because she’s one hundred percent sure you didn’t hear her the first time: that’s because every time she’s asked you in the past – every single time – you haven’t been.

‘Yeah,’ you say.

‘Oh?’ She is sitting upright now, arms folded across her chest. You know she’s doing that because she’s seen you staring at them, again.

‘Bonfire comes from bone fire,’ you say, your eyes not moving from hers.

‘Any more, Mr Wardle?’ Her arms are still folded.

You feel a smirk forming but you wipe it away with the side of your hand. You’ve wrong-footed her, embarrassed her by answering. You know because she’s called you ‘Mr Wardle’. You can almost sense that rash she gets, building and prickling up her throat.

‘Farmers used to kill their animals before winter and then made fires from their bones.’ You can almost see the blackened bones as you speak. You can hear them crackling and spitting as they burn.

She lifts a pile of papers from her desk and taps them into shape before putting them down again. ‘Very good,’ she says. ‘It’s amazing what you can learn when you listen.’

‘It is,’ you say. She stares at you. Your penis is a stone flower rising.

‘So, Bonfire Night,’ she says now to the rest of the class.

And then it’s all Guy Fawkes. The plot to kill the king. Barrels of gunpowder beneath the Houses of Parliament. His gruesome execution.

But you stop listening. You’ve heard it all already. It was just the burning bones that got you. And the noise of them – more vivid than any sound you’ve ever thought about before.

You can hear them again now, during the break. In the cubicle as you stand over the cracked toilet seat, gripping yourself. As you think of her, and those breasts like two gleaming, white jellyfish released from the thick sea of her jumper, from the twin nets of her bra. You think of touching them, of her asking you to touch them. Your thumb on a nipple as the spitting bones crack and pop in your ears. The sounds getting louder and louder until you have to squeeze your eyes shut to concentrate on her breasts. Your hand doing its up and down, its furious up and down.

Outside you lean against a wall around the side of the playground and smoke.

When a football bounces out of bounds and lands near you, a smaller boy, a first year, comes to fetch it. You roll it towards you then kick it up and volley it hard, making it fly just past his face.

You like how he flinches and jerks his head away; how he bites his lip but doesn’t say anything. You enjoy the boy’s frown as he runs off down the field after it. Knowing that he’s heard about you, even though he’s new. About your fights and your nicking off lessons. About the things you’ve done and tried to do with some of the girls.

You watch the boy pick up the ball and kick it back into play. And it’s at that point you notice the bare bones of a bonfire on the field beyond – a cone of wooden planks exactly the same shape as a tepee. Half-built; waiting for more hands to feed and fatten it up.

And you remember, even just a year ago, helping others to drag pieces of wood onto that same field. You in charge of your fellow workers. Balancing on their shoulders as you bashed the central spike into the ground. Telling them how and where to place planks and crates to get the best shape.

You hoped the spike would hold. You laughed when it didn’t. All of you working together, working hard, until you’d sweated and grafted and made the biggest, most perfect bonfire around. Better than all the others in the area. Which you knew because you’d all taken it in turns to scout them out; to check on the competition.

But your bonfire brought them in their dozens. Even your parents came. You were a magician then. You could draw people to you, and each other, without even knowing how you did it.

And then you couldn’t anymore.

First, it was your parents: your dad leaving one night and not coming back once, even for you. And then you seeing the back of him, in town, with another woman and her kid: a boy a bit smaller than you. The boy laughing at something your dad had said. The boy and your dad sharing a can of pop. The boy and your dad pointing things out to each other. And you fuming along behind them.

And then your mates: one of them getting a girlfriend who leeched him away; another moving towns and finding other mates so that when you went to see him, all he did was take the piss out of you – you, the outsider. So, then you just hung out with yourself. It was like whatever you could do before had reversed itself. From gravity to anti-gravity.

And that was when the fire inside started too. The one you can’t get rid of no matter what you do. The one that starts with the heat down there and takes hold like a forest fire. The one that can only be dampened down but never for long.

The bell goes. You take a long drag on the cigarette then blow on its end to make it glitter orange. Your brain amplifies its crackle until you can hear the bones again. Hissing and smacking as they dry out and char.

Only now it’s not just the sound.

It’s the sight of their knobbled ends leaning into other knobbled ends. It’s the smell of their grey smoke, belching up into your head.

You flick the cigarette away and it lands. There. With a sigh at her feet. You know it’s her from those heels that she wears. You know it’s her before she even knows it’s you.

‘Mr Johnson’s office now,’ she says.

‘Oh, Fuck off tits.’

Bones fall on top of bones on top of bones on top of bones. Falling and falling inside your head.

You wait outside Johnson’s. The teacher is in there, grassing you up. You bang the back of your head against the doorframe but the bones are still there. In your ears. At the back of your eyes.

You realise then, as you fumble with the lighter in your pocket, that there are two things you can do. There are two ways to play this. You can go in to Johnson. Or you can not go in to Johnson.

So you turn the metal wheel on the lighter and choose.

You kick off from the wall and head out of the school doors, across the now empty playground and down to the field. To the bonfire. Which you stand in front of and shake your head at. Doing this because of the terrible way someone has started to stack it. With a thin plank in the middle and old, heavy doors on one side. You know that it’ll be a miracle if it survives the day. It’ll be even more of a miracle if it survives you.

So what you do is this.

You lift a foot and press down hard on a door until the central plank tips. Until the whole thing leans and falls in a cough of wood dust.

You grab a beam, feel its thickness, and drag it towards the school. Where nobody’s looking out of the windows or hanging around the doors. Where, for once, you are not observed.

You take it down the stone steps around the back of the school, to the red door with its weak, metal lock. You kick the door three times, say ‘Open Sesame’ and drag the beam inside. To the basement, beneath floorboards, classrooms, teachers, your fellow pupils. To an underworld where there are no windows and only piles of old books and broken gym equipment. An underworld where there is both space and height for this thing that you’re doing. For this new magic you’re making.

You lay down the beam and go back for more. You drag doors and planks and crates, all the while knowing that nobody will stop you. That nobody will ask what it is you’re up to. On this November day. At your school. As Johnson and the teacher leave the office and wonder where it is you’ve got to.

You transport the whole bonfire from the field to the basement. And then you begin to reassemble it. Only this time properly. With the thicker beam in the middle and the heavier pieces on each side.

It’s only a small one but it takes you a while. Maybe an hour. When it’s finished you stand back and look over it. You know it’s even better than last year’s. Perhaps because this is all your own work. Perhaps because you are not the person you were then.

You take off your shirt and wipe your forehead. Your chest. Your back. All those places where the heat inside has struck out and made you sweat.

You throw your shirt onto the wood and the bones grow louder. You can almost hear them as voices now, telling you something. Whispering to you from over the top of their bubbling marrow. The same words over and over.

Bone fire.

Bone fire.

Bone fire.

You take some of the old textbooks, rip at them and crush their pages into balls. And when you have a mound of them, you place them within the heart of the bonfire. Your palms and fingers grey with ink. That same flesh pierced with small spears from all the wood you’ve pulled and dragged.

Overhead you hear the dull tapping of heels along the corridor. Heavier shoes drumming out behind them.

You take your pack of cigarettes from your pocket, and your lighter. Put one in your mouth and light it up. You take the smoke in deep so that you can taste it in every part of your body. Not just in your throat. Holding it in until your eyes begin to water.

A door bangs just off the corridor above and there are voices wafting in on a breeze through the half-open basement door. But you continue to sit there, on your knees. Facing your creation.

You’ve kept one paper ball to the side. You pick it up now and turn it over in your hand. It’s not a perfect sphere but it will do. You touch your cigarette to it, until an edge darkens and a line of light appears. Then a gassy lip of blue that puckers up to the pages until it catches. The voices and the feet are getting louder now. Nearer. But you’re not going anywhere.

You wedge your cigarette into the corner of your mouth and lean forward, reaching into the bonfire and placing the burning ball of paper next to the others.

The bones are almost shouting now.

You sit back on your heels and watch as the paper rustles into flame. Then how those flames reach up and out into the wood which you’ve arranged so that it won’t be able to resist the fire for long.

Bone fire, the voices say.

Curls of yellow grab and cling on to thin needles sticking out from the wood. You throw your lighter into a gap knowing the fuel will help.

Bone fire.

You can see the fire taking hold. You can already feel its heat all over you.

Bone fire.

A different heat that goes all the way in and which makes you feel as if your own bones are blazing. Burning in a way that nobody will ever be able to put out now.

About the Author

A. J. Ashworth was born and brought up in Lancashire and is a former journalist. She has a certificate in creative writing from Lancaster University and an MA in Writing (distinction) from Sheffield Hallam University. Her stories have been published, or are forthcoming, in Willesden Herald New Short Stories 5, Horizon Review, Tears in the Fence, Crannóg, The Yellow Room, Lablit and the Voices anthology. She has also been shortlisted for Salt Publishing’s 2011 Scott Prize for her collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here, the 2011 Willesden Herald International Short Story Competition and longlisted for the 2011 Fish Short Story Prize.

Photo by Ben Brown