After the meal, we walked out of the college into the bitter, cold night and made our way down Tyler Hill to see what this Bonfire Night was all about. I learned that most of the British holidays involved a low-grade pyromania—whether it involved attempting to blow each other up with low-yield explosives and inevitably failing (Christmas), making a fruitcake and setting it on fire (also Christmas), or building a gigantic fire and then setting off fireworks (Bonfire Night). I attribute this to some sort of primordial urge to be entertained in the desolation that is Britain in the winter.
The historical basis for Bonfire Night runs as follows: A while back, a few guys from the minority Christianity got fed up with being oppressed by the majority Christianity. Being English and thus obsessed with fire, they decided to blow up Parliament. Doing so, they hoped, would kill every Parliament member of the opposing sect of Christianity (as well as the King), and thus open the way for their sect to take the reins until the other sect got their shit together and did the same right back at them. Their plot was discovered, and, being the barbarians the English are, the King ordered the leader of the plot—Guy Fawkes—to be tortured and killed six ways to Sunday.
In the modern era, they mimic this brutal slaying by building a wooden effigy and tossing it in the middle of a gigantic bonfire. And then, being English, they stand around in relative silence and murmur, “My, lovely fire this year. The Council have done a smashing job of it. Let’s go queue for a potato” and so on and so forth. After the fire dies, there is a fireworks display. In some towns, where the locals are more adventurous, the custom is to chuck flaming kegs down a hill; because, hey, why not?
It was quite a schlep from campus to the bonfire field. Such a distance that we found it took us over an hour. Though, that isn’t indicative of the distance so much as it is indicative of The Writer refusing to move faster than a light saunter while complaining through the entire journey. (It is a proven, scientific fact that the rate at which one complains is identical to the rate at which a group is slowed in their travel. Thus, The Writer’s constant complaining made us walk roughly half as fast as we would have otherwise.) However, we finally made it to the Bonfire festivities after weaving through neighborhoods and side streets.
The makeup of the field was as follows: At the far side, about one hundred yards away from the entrance, there was the damndest thing I’ve ever seen. It was one of those train rides for children—you know the sort, they’re built in every state fair across the States—except it was called The Rio Grande Railway and was laden with American flags. To the left of the train, and a few yards closer to the entrance was a carousel. Across from that, to the right of the train and about seventy yards away from the entrance, were a line of food and game booths that stretched to the entrance. The main fare of these booths were potatoes and various sausages. Near the carousel, there was a place selling cotton candy.
On the other side of the field, nearer the bonfire but opposite the entrance, were a few lawn-type games. From what I could tell, it looked like there were horseshoes being thrown. I didn’t hear any screams of pain and anguish, so I assume that lawn darts were not part of the festivities. And then, as I believe I’ve covered everything but the mass of people, there was the bonfire.
The bonfire was massive. Before this, the largest one I’ve seen was about five feet tall; and the largest one I’ve built was half a foot tall. (I never had an aptitude for building things. Lego blocks eluded me in their complexity.) This flaming behemoth stood about twenty feet in the air and forty feet in diameter. By the time we arrived, it hadn’t yet been lit, but there was a palpable sense of impatience—British impatience, that is: the sense that, if something didn’t get started soon, someone might start grumbling under their breath. Carnival music, sailed through the air, making me feel perilously close to madness. I looked to my right and saw The Stalker twitching. “Hey,” I said. “It’s cool, man. It’s just music.”
“No,” The Stalker said. “That’s not it.”
He pushed me aside and into The Drunkard, who knocked over The Student.
“Cotton candy!” The Stalker yelled, throwing his arms into the air like an Olympian who just broke a world record. “Cotton candy!” He bolted into the crowd and made a beeline for the cotton candy booth, knocking over elderly folk and children in the process.
“What in blue hell was that?” asked The Drunkard.
The Student groaned from the ground and said, “Would ‘the strangest thing I’ve ever seen’ suffice?”
The Traveler helped him up. “Maybe. I’d be more tempted to call it batshit insane and leave it at that—for this is England, and you may very well see stranger things before the night is out.”
Mericfully, the carnival music cut out and was replaced by a relatively melodic, high-pitched squeal from the speakers around the grounds. “Let the fire,” someone announced, “be lit.”
Four men holding torches walked to the bonfire and touched their flames to the base of the construct. The fire caught and roared upwards. It was at this time that I noticed the effigy of Guy Fawkes. As the flames licked up, they caught engulfed the avatar and the fire increased threefold. My guess is that there were two things that could have caused this: The first, and this is my preferred explanation, is that the centuries of English hatred of this man made the effigy especially vulnerable to fire. The more plausible, and therefore more boring, explanation is the thing was doused in gasoline beforehand.
Regardless, the bonfire was now engulfed and, even from this distance, I felt about fifteen degrees warmer. Remember that the remaining five of us were about fifty yards from the bonfire. This meant, in my mind, that everyone within a fifteen yard radius (and the closest you were allowed to be to the fire was ten yards) had been incinerated in the blast. This, of course, was not true, but it was the first experience I had of seeing the British in their natural character: Extreme discomfort in the name of tradition. I’m not entirely sure if this is admirable or if it is an indication that they possess some protein deficiency resulting in a masochistic complex. Now better because of the warmth, I clapped my hands and said, “Okay, who’s up for some cotton candy?”
“Nope,” said The Drunkard, taking out the largest hip flask I’d ever seen and having a massive swig from it. “I’m going to get a potato.” He walked off towards the potato stands.
“I find the idea of cotton candy repugnant,” said The Writer. “Really, humanity? Sugar around a stick? That’s the best you can do? Really?” He snorted. “Go rot your teeth. You might fit in better with these barbarians.” Then he walked off. I watched him closely. Sure enough, after feinting that he was going towards the sausage stands, he went to a cotton candy booth.
“What a schmuck,” I said.
“Fuck it,” said The Traveler. “I haven’t had cotton candy since I was a kid. Wanna go, Student?”
“Nah, there’s some vin chaud over there, so I think—yeah, wine time.”
“Hey,” The Traveler said, “be careful. We can’t carry you up that hill.”
“I only brought ten quid. Chances are I won’t get smashed off of that.”
The Traveler and I walked towards the cotton candy booth to which The Stalker had bolted. That’s when I saw the train laden with American flags. “Well,” I said, “that may just barely beat The Stalker’s weirdness.”
The Traveler looked at the train and sighed. “You’ll find,” he said, “that the rest of the world knows of only three Americas. The first is New York City. Everyone there, they think, behaves like the cast of Friends.”
“I know,” he said, “disgusting, isn’t it? But, what are you gonna do? They don’t like Seinfeld over here. The second America—Los Angeles—is where all of the scumbags come from. That is where materialism, mindless entertainment, and Starbucks originate.”
“And the third America?”
“The third America is the Old West. Everyone not living in New York City or L.A. either does not exist or rides around on horses shooting at each other with six-guns and shouting ‘yahoo.’ That, my friend, is why you are currently staring in shock at a carnival ride called The Rio Grande Train Company.” He paused for a moment. “Honestly, I’m just surprised they got the amount of stars on the flag right. Sometimes they just have a blue square with U.S.A. in the middle.”
I started humming our national anthem and successfully ignored the ill-natured look the Traveler was shooting at me. We queued for the cotton candy and saw, at the front of the line, The Stalker.
He was bouncing. Literally. There was no figurative play of words here, the man was bouncing. His mouth moved up and down rapidly, and I’d be willing to bet that the man was saying “cotton candy” over and over again. I nudged The Traveler and pointed. His jaw dropped. The line moved forward, and The Stalker walked to the counter, and shouted “Gimme cotton candy!”
“Candy floss?” I heard the man behind the counter say.
“Sure, just give me that sugary goodness.” By now, The Stalker was yelling quite loudly—loudly enough to beat out the music from the carousel, the Hellish cacophony streaming forth from speakers around the grounds, and the shouts and screams of children. “I’ve been a good boy, just give me the candy.”
The Traveler and I turned to each other and said, “How about a potato?” at the same time.
We quit the line, stealing one last glance at The Stalker, who had by now buried his face in a giant pink lump, and fled to the potato stands. Along the way, we ran across The Student, who was leaning up against a tree and sipping from a cup. I went up to him and, without speaking, took the cup from him and drank. “Er,” he said, “what’s the idea?”
“I need this more than you do,” I said. I pulled a couple pounds out of my pocket and gave them to him. “Go buy yourself another cup. After seeing what I’ve seen—well, it’s nightmare fuel.”
The Student turned to The Traveler and said, “What, did you guys see someone get disemboweled?”
The Traveler, pale-faced, said, “No. The Narrator exaggerates a little bit, but it was, nevertheless, quite frightening. Go, my friend. Go and fetch a cup of wine for your health, and we will tell you.”
The Student shook his head, pocketed my coins, and walked off.
The wine took the edge off of my madness. I was still a shaken man, and in the recesses of my mind, I could still see The Stalker, as if in the midst of some cannibalistic ritual, revert to some primordial, barbaric state and bury his face in a sticky lump of pink goo. No doubt that you do not find this as odd as I do. You, like The Student, probably think me quite mad for behaving the way I do after seeing this, but I can only respond with that motto of the man who suffers: You weren’t there.
The Traveler, it seemed didn’t have the same sensitivities that I did, as, by now, when I had finished the cup of mulled wine, he had regained his complexion and, though he was glancing over his shoulder, he seemed normal. “I wonder if that Dutch girl’s here.”
“My good man!” I shouted. “How can you think of women at a time like this?”
The Traveler sighed. “I have a penis, and I have the urge to copulate. I know that, somewhere deep inside you, you have such urges, and once you stop going mad from seeing The Stalker and the cotton candy incident… you’ll…” he turned pale again. “Oh. Oh, God. The horror.”
“Yes. View it in your mind’s eye and know my pain.”
At this time, The Student returned to us with a couple more cups of wine and said, “Okay, so what did you see that’s got you all weird?”
“The Stalker was eating cotton candy.”
He blinked at me. “That’s it?”
“It was in an eldritch fashion! As if C’thulhu, rising from R’lyeh and yearning for the dreams of man, were feasting instead of a being with whom we are familiar.”
“Okay, Lovecraft, you know something?”
I shook my head.
“Normally, I’m not one to say, ‘go get laid and your problems will be solved,’ but you really, really, need some release. Listen to yourself,” he took a sip from the wine, smacked his lips, “this is good wine, by the way—listen to yourself go on about The Stalker eating cotton candy. Worst case, he just stuck his face in there and started eating.”
“And that is exactly what he did!”
“Then who gives a damn? He eats like a kid. Jesus, pull yourself together. Look at The Traveler: He’s kosher.”
I looked at The Traveler, and he was back to normal. I took a deep breath. Was it truly so weird that The Stalker was devouring cotton candy in such a way? Yes. Was I going to let it ruin my night? Hopefully not. I took another deep breath and nodded my head. “You’re right. I’m bored and letting it get to me. Imagination’s a powerful thing, and mine’s running amok right now.”
“Good,” said The Student. “Now, when do the fireworks start? The bonfire’s not keeping me as warm as it wa, and I’m about to start shivering. I hate shivering.”
“Think,” said The Traveler, “of all the long-winded prose you’ve had to read over your career in academia. All of the two-dimensional characters excused because they’re in Works of Literary Art. All of those damn Russian authors who can’t tell a plot from a hole in the ground. Think of all that, and your hatred will make you warm.”
“There you guys are,” shouted The Drunkard. He held a hefty baked potato in one hand and a plastic fork in the other. “You gotta get a potato. One pound per—damn good deal, I think. Hey,” he said, poking The Student in the shoulder with his fork, “why are you twitching?”
“Doestoevsky. Doestoevsky, Chekhov.” The Student raised his hands in the air, still clutching the mulled wine, and shouted, “Tolstoy!”
The Drunkard, slowly, deliberately, stared at both myself and The Traveler and said, “You need to leave this man alone, or he will, mark my words, burn down a bookstore.”
“Narrator!” shouted a voice from my right. I turned and saw Zaf walking with a couple of his other friends. At this time, he was going out (ish) with a girl from Thailand, and she flanked him on his right. On his left was one of his friends, a Greek woman whose actual name I had no chance in Hell of pronouncing, but I and everyone else just called Natalya.
I gulped and muttered, “Guh,” along with a weak wave. About ninety percent of the time, when I was around a woman I found attractive, I lost all vocal faculties and resulted to uttering monosyllabic words. Occasionally I managed an atrocious joke, but that was about it.
“What are you going up to?” asked Zaf.
“The Hell did you just say?” asked The Drunkard.
“Er, Drunkard,” I said, “Student, Traveler, this is Zaf, er, his girlfriend, and Natalya.”
“No, no no,” said The Drunkard, “you’re not getting off that easy. The hell did you just say?”
Zaf responded with a huge grin and said, “Hey, dude, it’s all okay.”
The Drunkard grunted, took out his flask and took a swig. “I’ll give you English lessons. Five pounds an hour. Best deal you’ll find here. I’m not a shyster like the damn Brits—you can’t trust the Brits with money, I say; they just go around spending it on bullshit like those bizarre haircuts they have.” A tall British guy walked by with his hair gelled and crested at the top in a bizarre mockery of a faux-hawk. “See?” asked The Drunkard. “You can’t trust a guy like that. You can’t trust a people that allow that sort of haircut to exist without mockery. Who can you trust? Me. I’m a journalist—the most honest profession in the world.”
Zaf laughed and gave me the perplexed look I had come to recognize as “I don’t understand a word of what was just said.” Natalya, who acted from time to time as an interpreter of the English-speaking world, translated. After she was finished, Zaf said, “Ah. Well, no thanks. The Narrator can help.”
The Drunkard looked at me and said, “You’d better fucking help. The guy sounds like he stepped out of the 80s.”
I shrugged. “I’m working on it. Languages are hard.”
The Drunkard spat out what sounded like a factory floor.
“Er,” I responded.
“That means ‘kiss my ass’ in Klingon.”
I burst into laughter. “You know Klingon? You fucking nerd.”
I then found myself upside down and in a temporary rubbish bin. After pushing myself out, I dusted myself off and said, “Hey, I play WarCraft. I was just saying tha—”
“Watch it,” said The Drunkard.
I held my hands up and nodded.
An explosion sounded above us and a burst of green light temporarily illuminated the grounds. We looked up and caught the fading outline of the first burst from the fireworks display. All told, it was a decent enough show. Coming from Knoxville, I wasn’t that impressed. (For those that don’t know, Knoxville created a holiday for the sole purpose of shooting off fireworks. And, because it is such a center of creativity and originality, it is called Boomsday.) Everyone else in the group, though, was. Eventually, The Writer (the traces of cotton candy still sticking to his face) and The Stalker (utterly clean faced and slurping mulled wine) joined us and we all watched the spectacle as one.
I looked around and saw that, overall, the rest of the people gathered in the field were having the same experience.
The fireworks exploded overhead, and, right after they finished, it started raining. “Well, well,” I said to no one in particular, “looks like the weather’s going to put out the fire.”
The Drunkard turned and gave me an exhausted look. “I’m sorry?”
“Er, you know. Cause the fire might spread and…” I looked at the rest of the group and cleared my throat. “Look, I never said I was a smart man.”
The Drunkard patted me on my shoulder and said, “I’m heading back to campus, anyone want to come along?”
“Yeah, I’ve got some more reading to do,” I said.
The Student and The Writer said they’d go back as well—we three, it seemed, turned in much earlier than the rest of the group—and so, under the steadily increasing rainfall, we left for campus.