WRITTEN BY CHRISTIN COLLINS
The bonfire wood was piled high, the food ready, and everyone was gathered… but what about old Wilf?
“This one’s going to be the biggest one ever, Kim,” Drew declared as he balanced precariously on the old wooden chair. He stretched up high, as he piled more wood onto the ever growing bonfire. Kim looked up in awe at her brother. Every year on their nan’s farm, Drew started preparing the bonfire weeks in advance.
She heard the voice of her nan from the top of the yard. “Andrew! Not too big now. Don’t get too close to Wilf’s place.”
Drew pretended he hadn’t heard, but Kim shuddered at the mention of Wilf’s name. She was scared of Wilf, although she had never gotten close enough to actually speak with him.
Many years ago her nan had offered Wilf a place to stay when he had gotten into a bit of bother in the village and had nowhere to go. “You can stay in the old railway carriage until you sort yourself out,” she’d told him, and he was still there all these years later.
“Don’t go worrying old Wilf now,” her nan had warned. “He’s a grumpy old man and he doesn’t like to be bothered.”
That’s the way it had been throughout her childhood. Kim glanced over at the railway carriage.
It was made of wood, with an arched black roof, peeling in places. It had tiny glass windows along the side, and was painted a dirty red colour that matched the doors and shutters of all the outbuildings. There was no electricity or running water in the carriage but he seemed to manage.
Wilf did odd jobs for her nan in return for his lodge. He pruned the hedgerows and trees, swept the yard, repaired the fences and did all the outside painting.
Kim often wondered how a railway carriage ended up at the bottom of her Nan’s yard, but no one seemed to know.
She turned her attention back to the massive pile of wood standing on a small grassed area not far from the railway carriage. They had always had the bonfire here. Friends and neighbouring farmers were invited, and it had become somewhat of a tradition.
Every year when the bonfire was complete, Drew would take out his pen knife and carve the date into the wooden gate post. This year was no exception.
“So everyone will know how many times we’ve had the bonfire here,” he’d explained. She watched as his skillful hands quickly carved the date, 1979.
She was full of admiration for Drew, he could turn his hand to anything and had always built the best tree houses and go carts in the village.
“What about the guy, Drew?”
“He’s going to be the best, Kim. You can help me stuff him with hay later.”
Drew clambered down and made for the entrance to the old outbuildings.
The farm was no longer a working one, the old stone outbuilding and barns stood in disarray. Each had half broken doors, or none at all. Cracked slate tiles left holes in the roofs. The huge barn that the tractors used to drive through had lost its big doors years ago, and was open to the elements. The two storey barns were strictly out of bounds.
“You’re not to go near the lofts,” their nan had warned. “The floorboards are rotten, and they’re not safe.”
She was right, of course, but her and Drew had always managed to sneak into each and everyone of them.
Kim dutifully followed Drew inside.
It was full of old farm machinery, covered in a layer of orange dust. She plonked herself on the edge of an old plough and reached into her bag to continue with the book she was reading.
Without turning, Drew shouted back to her, “Don’t get too comfy there with that book, we’ve work to do.”
Kim smiled, without offering a reply. Drew was used to her always having a book in her hand. He could never see the attraction, and preferred to busy himself with practical stuff. They were so different in many ways, but rubbed along nicely, and hardly ever fell out.
He rummaged expertly around the dark room and emerged with his guy in working progress. He wiped the orange dusty residue from his hands, down the front of his jumper.
The guy was made up of an old pair of trousers with string tied around the bottom of each leg. An old pair of plimsolls hung from the ends. He had a shirt with the same string on his sleeves and his waist would be pulled together with a thick piece of rope. A black waistcoat with a handkerchief sticking out of the top pocket, seemed to add an air of importance to his appearance.
His head would be made out of a pair of tights Drew had acquired from the washing line. A hat would finish him off.
“You going to get the hay from the stable loft?” Kim enquired.
“Yeah, but shhh, don’t tell anyone.” Another place out of bounds.
Kim cast a glance at the old railway carriage, “Drew,” she said, as her eyebrows pinched together.
Don’t you ever wonder about Wilf? Why no one bothers with him.
He shrugged his shoulders, and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead.
“Like nan says, he’s just grumpy,” he offered. “Now come on, we need hay.”
Kim sighed, popped her book back into her bag, and followed Drew to the top of the yard.
After they had taken enough hay from the loft to fill the guy, they sat on the old stable stone floor stuffing it into the trousers and shirt, making him as fat as they could.
Drew had positioned the wooden chair on top of the bonfire and he would proudly bring out the guy on the night of the bonfire and relish how the guests cheered at his efforts.
Guy Fawkes night arrived and everyone was thankful the rain had held off. Their father set up the fireworks in the field beyond the bonfire, well away from the crowd that started to gather. Each guest presented a box of fireworks or sparklers and a dish of something to eat. The makeshift table was crammed with delicious homemade fare.
“Here’s the potatoes,” their nan called as she scurried down the yard. She’d wrapped them in foil and set them at the base of the fire to cook in the embers.
She made hot drinks in thick china mugs that they curled their fingers around, to keep their hands warm. The noise of stamping feet bounced around the yard, as people tried to keep their feet warm in their thick, black wellies.
The children held marshmallows on long sticks and toasted them in the flames and they drew their names with the light of the sparklers, before pushing them into a bucket of sand.
Kim turned her attention to the railway carriage as she caught a flicker of a light through the small dusty windows. Wilf never came out for the Bonfire. She’d asked her nan why several years ago.
Wilf doesn’t like fireworks, not since he came back from the war.
Kim had accepted this at the time, but now she was older she had grown more curious about the man in the railway carriage. She had a sad feeling in the pit of her stomach, imagining Wilf sitting all alone while everyone was outside enjoying the party.
She straightened her bag on her shoulder, pulled her scarf tightly around her, and grabbed a hotdog from the nearby tray. She stole away from the chattering crowds and made her way to the carriage.
Kim hesitated before knocking, her nan’s words of warning etched in her mind. She raised her hand and tentatively knocked on the door. No sound emerged, and she tried once more before she lost her nerve and took a quick step back. Just then, the door creaked open and Wilf appeared.
She had never been this close to him and she thought he was the oldest man she had ever seen. His dark tanned skin looked like leather and his hair was thick, and as white as snow. Bushy white eyebrows seemed to take over his face.
He wore a waistcoat over a faded blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Braces held up his baggy trousers and she spotted the shape of anchors drawn on the skin on his forearms. She held out the hotdog without saying a word, and he took it from her outstretched hand. She reached into her bag and pulled out a book. “I thought you might like to read this,” she stuttered.
Wilf opened the door wider and gestured for her to come in.
She took a couple of steps and stood just inside the doorway. Her eyes gazed around the one room. A long wooden counter ran along one side with a china bowl and jug perched on top. A gas bottle provided the power to run two gas rings. A copper kettle sat on one. At the back of the room was a narrow bed, covered in wool blankets, but her eyes were drawn to one side of the carriage that was completely covered in books. Leather bound titles, one after another.
Kim felt foolish now, and moved the hand holding the book behind her back.
Wilf’s quick eye caught her movement and he held out his hand.
“I don’t think I’ve read that one,” he said, a small smile revealing a couple of yellowing teeth, but his lagoon blue eyes lit up his face.
Kim handed over the book and smiled back at him.
“Which one would you like to borrow?” he asked, turning his head in the direction of his books.
“Really? You’d let me borrow one?” Her eyes scoured the shelves and she picked out The Chronicles of Narnia.
“A good choice,” he said.
Emcouraged, she asked tentatively, “Will you come out and see the fireworks, Wilf? My dad will be setting them off soon.”
He hesitated. Kim thought her nan must have been right, and he didn’t like the fireworks.
“I’ve never been asked before,” he said, rubbing his fingers over his dry lips.
“Come on,” Kim, coaxed, “It’ll be fun, and there’s plenty of food going too.”
Wilf ran his hand through his hair, and let out a low whistle, before grabbing his coat and scarf from a hook behind the door and followed Kim out into the cold night air.
She saw that Drew had spotted her walking towards the bonfire with Wilf in tow, and he quickly sprinted over.
“You OK, Kim?” he asked, touching her forearm.
“I’m absolutely fine, Drew. Wilf is coming to watch the fireworks with us.”
He shrugged his shoulders and turned to walk away, but Kim pulled him to one side, and cupped her hand to his ear.
“All these years I’ve been afraid to speak with Wilf, because I listened to other people’s opinions of him. How grumpy and rude he was, but I think he’s just lonely and sad.”
Drew turned his head and peered back at Wilf, who stood twirling his flat cap between his crooked fingers.
“I think you could be right, sis.”
Drew stepped back and linked his arm through Wilf’s. “Come on Wilf, I think the jacket potatoes are just about ready.”
And the three of them edged towards the flames, that danced high among the starry night sky.