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Wednesday 25 March 2020

Ten Minute Tales: In Smoke by Rosalind Minett

Ten Minute Tales
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In Smoke 
Rosalind Minett

I found our matchbox holder hidden behind the old meat safe. It sang
out the Event that no-one dares mention.
   Father painted that holder in crimson, emerald and gold on a black background. It was always the brightest thing in the kitchen. We all loved it and fought to be the one to strike the match. It used to sit by the stove and came out in the garden with us on Sundays. That was when we had bonfires, exciting hours when we ran free and watched things burn, when we knew what burnt up with a flash and what smouldered on and on but never quite died.
   Sophie didn’t join in. She had a School Representative’s badge and breasts. I was sorry for her, left out of the fun. She was too grown-up to play with little brothers. Mother was always busy with her checklists and sanctions. When things got hairy, we three ran off, but Sophie had to stay and share the music. Father had to listen to everything that had gone wrong, everything that needed doing every day.
   Early morning, Mother was less fearsome without her hairpiece and maroon lips. She checked our satchels, our homework, our set books. Father delivered us to school. When the car turned the corner of the road, we’d sing Ten Green Bottles, or if it had been a bitter breakfast, Fire Down Below.
   After school there was music, choir, cubs, homework for us, household repairs for Father. Sophie had cookery and lots of music practice. Her pile of homework books was like the tower of Pisa on her bedroom table. She peeped at Father from behind it, lifting her eyes far up under her eyebrows. He twitched the half of his mouth that didn’t have nails between his teeth ready to bang things into place.
   Monday nights were for planning and review. Whoever had the worst school marks got the nastiest chores for the week.
   On Tuesdays, Mother took us to band. All of us played something, oboe, trumpet, trombone. Sophie didn’t go. The violin’s only any good in an orchestra. We’d be late back, clattering in with fish and chips. Mother would call to Father, ‘Did you fix the leak in the cloakroom basin? You said you would look at that sagging shelf…’
   Mother was strict about homework on Wednesdays. We sat round the dining table, its oilcloth covering the velvety one that was laid over the precious wood. We could press hard with our pencils and the oilcloth prevented damage to the surface.
   Mother said, ‘If you get stuck, ask your father.’ My smallest brother put his pencil down. ‘He hasn’t understood what to do. You’ll have to explain,’ and my father did, and my brother got muddled and cried.
   Then my mother said in a cross voice, ‘Oh let him sort it out himself.’ But while she wasn’t looking, Father did it, wink at us, and close the book. Then he’d say, ‘I’d better check upstairs.’ He’d help Sophie in her room and be gone a long time. 
   After homework, Mother would rub flat hands together as if rubbing out our mistakes. Then she’d turn to Father. ‘You still haven’t seen to that shelf under the stairs. One day it will collapse and then where shall we be?’
   Father said, ‘Well, I can’t do it NOW.’ He took his briefcase and got on with work, all hunched up and private.
   Thursday was bath night. Mother would take the matchbox and light the big white heater over the bath through its little front hole. A flame showed, glimmering. ‘You must never try to turn the heat on. Gas without flame is very dangerous.’
   Then she’d go out while we undressed because she didn’t want to see our ugly bits. We’d peer at the heater’s flame through its hole. Then the thrill when the hot tap was turned and the flame burst into life, a minor explosion. The whirrs and pops of the fire hid behind the white metal cover, and the water was truly hot.
   All other times, we washed in cold water, even in January weather, because we were British. So we relished bath nights, getting into hot water.
   When we were washed and dried and huddled into our towels we opened the bathroom door and there was Mother, almost smiling. She only liked us when we were newly clean.
   On Friday afternoons, Sophie and Mother baked. There was no room in the steamy kitchen for noisy boys, but wonderful baking smells seeped up the stairs. Once Sophie laid the table, we’d be called for tea.
   There’d be cheese fingers, crumpets, Queen cakes, Victoria sponge and trifle.
   When Father finished the jobs Mother had set him, he’d slide onto his chair. He’d look glumly at the near-empty serving plates with their crumby doilies, but we’d have saved him a crumpet and there was always lots of Victoria sponge left over because Mother never put enough jam in the middle.
   If Father looked for another slice, Mother would say, ‘About that sagging shelf under the stairs ...’ Father caught her gleaming eye. ‘I’m just getting round to it.’ He disappeared into the dark at the back of the house.
   On Saturdays we stayed in bed late. Then we had a big fry-up and competed with each other who could eat most. When Father got back with the shopping, he heated up what was left. While he was eating it, we put the shopping away. We liked seeing what specials he’d found.
   Mother would say, ‘Why did you waste money on damson jam?’ or ‘The children shouldn’t have so many biscuits’ or ‘You know I don't like sausages.’
   We’d get on with colouring or making models on the kitchen table. If Mother got fed up with our mess, we’d take our bits into our bedrooms and do it there. We’d pass Sophie at the mirror trying out make-up. She’d raise blackened eyebrows and sigh because we were boys and messy people, but we wouldn’t tell on her. We filled up the waste paper baskets with discarded cuttings, paper aeroplanes, origami failures and laughed at the overflowing baskets. ‘Look at mine!’; ‘Mine’s fuller,’;
   ‘No, no, look at mine!’
   While we cut and pasted, Mother and Father were downstairs with letters, bills and paper work, notes to remind them about Things to Do.
   Saturday was a really busy day for them. If we went downstairs, we were sent to play Monopoly in the front room without quarrelling. That used to take us nearly all day.
   In the afternoon, Father went on mending things, writing things, paying things. He’d try to get round to the sagging shelf. ‘I’ll just put this one up in the kitchen, first.’ His portable radio perched on a work stool in a little dark corner where it reported exciting sport. He took up his saw and looked at the wall for a long time. He measured up carefully. One of us might hold the nails or the pencil while Father held up a rule.
   Mother said, ‘It’s no good just looking at it!’ He said, ‘It’s best to thoroughly plan ahead,’ but Mother’s voice was louder, drowning the football scores. Sophie put her head round the door, her lips bright red, to see if she could get away with it. Father gave her a quick secret wink as he listened to everything Mother set him.
   But Sunday was bonfire day and Father was the bonfire king. He collected the cuttings from the hedge or bushes and set light to the products of the week. If there was really nothing to burn – no dried leaves, branches or cuttings – Father sent us indoors to bring back waste paper, letters, postcards, bills, jigsaws with missing pieces, drawings, paintings, cardboard models, cut-outs, throw-outs and excess cartons, and he would burn those.
   In summer our bonfires were small. But in autumn they spiralled into the air, legitimate at last. The dying leaves lay round in lumps, swept up by one of us. The air smelt of pine before the bonfire was lit, charcoal later. We all ran round like maniacs, except Sophie. Upstairs, her face was pressed hard to her window, watching Father’s antics. With Mother out of view, he made a dancer’s leap scattering a mound of dry leaves to create a halo round his head. Sophie sat back with a little smile. Father looked up at her window and he was smiling too.
   Once the flames took hold, his face was screwed up against the smoke, or ducked down against the heat. He had to poke hard to get the fire higher. Then he’d be throwing on his fodder or bending low to blow embers into flames. We couldn’t talk to him without entering the coughing and spluttering zone and couldn’t get out without being spattered with black and grey flak.
   We watched Father, admiringly. He would shore up the pyre, poke and prod with deep concentration. He might turn and look at us with a faraway smile, but he never taught us how to make a bonfire. We believed bonfires were complex pieces of Father’s artwork.
   In the wet and snow, bonfires were lit in the metal box at the back of the garden. At the end of the spluttering and flaming, the bonfire left a dirty mess on the shining paths or the untouched snow. We went indoors, deflated. Father’s green rubbery cape encompassed him so completely that only the feet of his wellingtons arrived at the back door, muddy and wet. The cape went on its hook in the lean-to, then he sat on the step pulling off his sodden wellies like a criminal. Mother watched from the shining kitchen floor, her hands on her hips, before he trespassed in his socks.
   The last time I saw Father, he was lying on his front, legs splayed out across the hall. I thought he was dead, but he was only fixing the
sagging shelf under the stairs.
   We went off to Tuesday band practice and when we got back the house was dark. Mother put the lights on and called, but there was silence. I wanted to avoid the trouble. I held on to both my brothers to keep them still and told Mother, ‘Father’s fixed the sagging shelf.’
    She opened the cupboard under the stairs and found the shelf as firm as a church. She called to Father, then to Sophie, and the silent house echoed with her voice.
   She rushed up to Sophie’s bedroom, threw open cupboards, drawers, and then slammed Sophie’s door shut. From inside it, coughing sounds trickled down the stairs and my little brother put his thumb in his mouth. We didn’t tell him off.
   We crept into the kitchen and ate our fish and chips out of the paper. Mother’s went cold. We looked at her greasy portion, then at each other. I gave a nod, and we went quickly to bed.
   In the morning, I had to take the others to school. It’s a long walk but we didn’t dare groan. My youngest brother asked Mother, ‘Where’s the
 car? Where’s Father? Isn’t he coming back?’ Mother shook her head. Her hairpiece was crooked, her lips colourless. ‘No. Nor your sister. So you needn’t say anymore about either of them.’
   She looked at me, ‘You’re the oldest now, you’ll have to do the jobs. Tonight, I’ll sort out her room and you can have it.’ My next brother scowled and opened his mouth to say ‘It’s not fair,’ but the little one pulled our hands ‘I want to see Father.’ We had to shush him and hurry him off to school. I knew I had to mend and fix everything from now
   We don’t need this matchbox holder anymore, but I’m going to put it in my keepsake box. I think Father hid its brightness away so we could enjoy it after he’d gone. That sagging shelf is still secure, but every evening Mother reads me a list of jobs. My brothers are grumpy so I have to fix them too, or Mother will say she can’t cope.
   We don’t go to band now, and Sundays are just for outside jobs. Sundays were always for bonfires before Father went away and took Sophie with him. We loved those bonfires, and now they’re gone. There are no sparkles in the garden, not even a smouldering ember.
   Father, Sophie, took our fire and just left smoke.

© Rosalind Minett

This is the second story in CURIOUS MEN: He-time tales. You can buy it in paperback or

And if you've enjoyed this story, you will love its companion.
ME-TIME TALES, Tea-breaks for mature women and curious men, with its obsessive females,
came first.

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  1. Another great story! What a fabulous series this is turning out to be :-)

  2. This is just marvellous!! I was about 4 in 1952 and I completely recognise the atmosphere and the rituals of post war austerity. Simple pleasures and constant struggles. 'Mother' dominates the story, but all of the understated cast play their parts! Well done!!

    1. I was born 1953 - still remember a lot of things mentioned here! (and going off to play all day on our own at 8 - 9 years old

  3. An intriguing story that leaves so many questions unanswered. The child's point of view is so well done.

    1. Good to have unanswered questions - it keeps you thinking doesn't it?

  4. A very atmospheric story, thank you.

  5. Great POV; simple yet I sensed a foreboding that made me hold my breath; with the post-war family atmosphere so realistic (for those of us who remember). A great read.

  6. I really didn't see where that was going beyond the father not being there anymore. Never saw that ending. How intriguing, why he did it.


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