A crackling log fire reminds me of many things. Loved-up evenings on the sofa binge watching box sets and eating a ridiculous amount of chocolate, without realising it. My childhood, growing up in an age before Social Media, playing cards in front of the fire during long winter evenings; my big brother and parents always let me win. As someone who functions much better during the summer months, a burning fire makes the winter bearable, it is the pumping heart of a home.
There is one uneasy childhood recollection I have, whilst I was reading a book huddled on the floor in front of the fire in the sitting room of the creepy house we were living in at the time. I hated that old house. It harboured many secrets, with its Tudor origins. The wood flooring creaked and groaned with every step and there was an eerie chill in every room. It was so remote, miles away from anywhere, down a single lane track through the woods. I hated being left on my own there, which I doubt ever happened; even if my mother slipped out, there was always seemed to be someone around.
I tried to ignore the logs angrily spitting sap, concentrating on my book, but shuddered when cold downdraft gushed smoke into the room. My dog was lying against my legs and sprang to her feet, growling; hackles raised, looking anxiously around. I could hear scuffling sounds coming from the hall and my father shouting what the hell, followed by a dull thud. My dog shot into the hall, with me behind her and found my father on the floor, blood oozing from his head which had impacted against the limestone flooring in the hall. Fortunately, he suffered no permanent damage, but he said afterward that he felt like he was pushed from behind.
A bonfire, however, conjures up a much weirder experience. I would have been about nineteen and had been to a party in Oxfordshire, about a one hour drive from the cottage I was sharing with my school friend, Lindy. She was driving us home at some unearthly hour of the morning and we decided to take a shortcut across a series of gated roads. As Lindy’s passenger, I would be the one to leap out and open and shut the gates.
We drove up the steep incline to the penultimate gate and Lindy stopped the car.
‘Go on… out you get! Only two more to go.’ I got out and the wind wafted the smell of burning wood in my face.
‘There’s a very strong smell of burning, Lins. Have you got it yet?’ She wound her window down.
‘Mmm, off you go then… investigate and open the gate, whilst you are about it.’
As I got to the gate the sound of rhythmic chanting made me stop before opening the gate. I peered down over the gate, gasped and ran back to the car.
‘What’s the matter with you? Open the gate. I’m knackered. I need my bed.’
‘There are people down there, with no clothes on running around a bonfire.’ I threw myself in the car. ‘Let’s get out of here!’
‘And there was me thinking you’d sobered up somewhere around Burford. Now you’re seeing things.’ Lindy got out of the car, muttering naked people, you’re delusional. I told you, you had too much to drink.’
‘No, no, no. I’m not kidding and I’m not delusional. We need to get out of here!’ I got out of the car again and followed her. ‘Don’t open that gate.’ She was looking at me laughing as she swung the five bar gate open before turning to look down the hill.
‘I told you! We need to get out of here.’
Uninhibited naked bodies leaped and ran around a crackling bonfire as its flames licked the cool night air; their arms flailing as they chanted in stupefied monotony.
Darksome night and shining moon,
Hearken to the witches’ rune.
East then South, West then North,
Hear! Come! I call thee forth!
From The Witches Chant by Lady Sheba – 1974
There was a shout from one of the naked revelers who had spotted us and, as we stood rooted to the spot, they scattered and disappeared into the night.
‘I’m absolutely sure that one of them was Mrs Scudamore from the village shop.’ Lindy regaled our brush with the occult to her father who called in to see us the later that day.
‘And she’s got a black cat.’ I added.
‘And I bet she calls him Merlin.’ Her father wasn’t taking us seriously, so we took him back to the place on the gated road.
A few disgruntled sheep, acknowledged our presence as we got out of the car and stood around the dying embers of the bonfire. The grass around it was well trampled and if Lindy’s father needed any further proof, it was smoldering in the ashes. An athame, black-handled knife used in traditional witchcraft.
The next time I went into the village shop, I viewed Mrs Scudamore with a degree of unease as she watched her cat brush against my legs.
‘I hope you like cats, dear. Salem’s got his eye on you.’