Guy Fawkes' Day

They didn't take the children down to Starlings much in the winter, until the Christmas holidays. When the days were short a week-end was scarcely worth while. They made an exception, however, for Guy Fawkes' Day, that kindly and prescient spirit having planned his crime to coincide -- or as nearly as makes no difference -- with the autumn half-term.

The Miniver family had a passion for fireworks; and a fireworks display in a small London garden is an emasculate thing, hampered at every turn by such considerations as the neighbours, the police, and the fragility of glass and slate. So on Saturday morning they picked up Vin at Eton and drove across country to Starlings. Mrs. Miniver was relieved to find that public school had not made him too grand to enjoy playing road competitions with the two younger children. He was, like his father, a timeless person, uninfluenced by his own age and unconscious of other people's. Judy was quite different. She was as typically nine now as she had been typically six, and three. Age, to her, was an important and exciting quality: she was never quite at ease with other children until she had asked them how old they were. As for Toby, he remained, in this as in most other matters, unfathomable.

In childhood the daylight always fails too soon -- except when there are going to be fireworks; and then the sun dawdles intolerably on the threshold like a tedious guest. There were no clouds that day, and even after sunset the western sky remained obstinately full of pearl-grey light. It was not so bad for Vin, who was helping his father to pin Catherine-wheels on to the fence and to prop up rocket-sticks in bottles on the lawn; but Judy and Toby, their noses pressed against the inside of the window-panes, were rampant with impatience long before Clem decided that darkness had officially fallen and the show could begin.

Swathed in coats and scarves, they went out and sat in a row on the little flagged terrace. The evening might have been ordered with the fireworks; it was cold, still, and starry, with a commendable absence of moon. And when the first rocket went up Mrs. Miniver felt the customary pricking in her throat and knew that once again the enchantment was going to work. Some things -- conjurers, ventriloquists, pantomimes -- she enjoyed vicariously, by watching the children's enjoyment; but fireworks had for her a direct and magical appeal. Their attraction was more complex than that of any other form of art. They had pattern and sequence, colour and sound, brilliance and mobility; they had suspense, surprise, and a faint hint of danger; above all, they had the supreme quality of transience, which puts the keenest edge on beauty and makes it touch some spring in the heart which more enduring excellences cannot reach.

It was certainly the best display they had ever had. Mrs. Miniver herself, when buying fireworks, was apt to be led away by fantastic tides; she would order Humming Spiders, Witches' Cauldrons, Mines with Serpents, Bouquets of Gerbes, and Devils among the Tailors, largely in order to see what they were like. But Clem knew that with fireworks, as with cocktails, the sober, familiar names usually produced the most interesting results. He laid out a certain amount on Roman Candles, Catherine-wheels, and Tourbillions, but for the most part he rightly concentrated on rockets.

There was one bursting now, a delicate constellation of many-coloured stars which drifted down and lingered in the still air. Watching it, she thought that of all the arts this was the one which showed the greatest contrast between the raw materials and the finished work. Words, pigments, notes of music -- all of these, unmarshalled, possessed a certain beauty of their own; a block of marble had at least an imaginable relationship with the statue which it was to become; stone, brick, and concrete, Clem's materials, did not seem impossibly remote from the houses which he would make of them. But this fiery architecture, these fragments of luminous music, these bright, dreamlike, and impermanent pictures in the sky -- what had they to do with nitre, sulphur and charcoal, with gummed paper, cotton-wick, and a handful of mineral salts ?

The show was nearly over. Vin and his father were letting off the last few rockets. Their faces, occasionally lit up, were absorbed, triumphant, serene. Judy was shivering with cold and excitement. Toby, his feet sticking out over the edge of the seat, was completely immobile, but whether from profound emotion or too many coats it was impossible to tell. As for Mrs. Miniver, she was having a race with time. Some half-remembered words had been haunting her all the evening, a line of poetry, perhaps. or an old saying, something about brightness, something exquisitely appropriate. "Brightness . . . " What was it? The rest of the phrase eluded her, though she felt the rhythm of it; and she knew that she must remember it before the fireworks were finished. or it would be no use.

The final rocket went up, a really large one, a piece of reckless extravagance. Its sibilant uprush was impressive, dragonlike; it soared twice as high as any they had had before; and the moment it had burst, Mrs. Miniver remembered. "Brightness falls from the air " -- that was it! The sparks from the rocket came pouring down the sky in a slow golden cascade, vanishing one by one into a lake of darkness.

"Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust bath closed Helen's eye - "

It was quite irrelevant, really, a lament by Nashe in time of pestilence, nothing to do with fireworks at all. But she knew that it was just what she had needed to round off the scene for her and to make its memory enduring. Words were the only net to catch a mood, the only sure weapon against oblivion.


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Internet Edition 2001 The Estate of Jan Struther