Last year I decided to commute by bike on Bonfire night. When I say decided, it’s fair to say that it just happened that way. I mean, a few fireworks going off here and there weren’t going to put off a die-hard like me, were they?
As I left work, there was still light in the sky and aside from a few localised skirmishes, the real barrage had not yet begun. I rode through the gathering dusk to the railway station and completed the first leg of the journey. A few minutes later, the bike was stashed on the train and I was sat at the table seat. You know, one of those with a panoramic view of the world as it whizzes by.
By now it was dark and slowly but steadily, here and there, near and on the horizon, flares of light began to leap into the sky. As the train ran along the ramparts of an embankment, I could see rockets going up far in the distance, like miniature supernovas. Some were like distant signals, some shot into the air and burst open in the dark like neon flowers. Some were close enough that the booms, bangs and cracks were audible above the off beat rhythm of the train rumbling over the tracks.
An hour later, the train pulled into my final destination and I alighted through the concourse and out onto the street. November’s chill engulfed my face; my other senses were roused – first the smell of gunpowder hung faintly in the charged air, stinging my nostrils and eyes. Most of all and all around, the sonic assault had begun. Massive bass notes came from the municipal display down on the river. As I strapped my helmet tight and set off up the hill away from town those low voices were joined by the baritones of smaller air bombs, accompanied by a percussion section of firecrackers and bangers. I pressed on, nervous and hasty, as all around the aerial bombardment continued. I passed the park and the local display was in full swing – an eerie orange glow spread through the trees, glinting off my spokes as I spun, ever faster toward the safety of home. Any minute, I feared that an errant rocket would find me, like a heat seeking missile, or that some foolish kid would throw a firework into my spokes as I passed.
I pressed on the pedals harder at a pace far removed from my usual ambling commuting style. “Only a mile to go now,” I thought as I passed a huge stack of pallets and waste wood ablaze, surrounded by an excited wolf pack of track-suited teens.
I’d almost made it. Almost home, through the air raid. I remembered by wife’s quizzical look from early in the morning, when she looked up from her cup of tea and questioned the reasoning for riding home on such a perilous night. I smiled inwardly and began to relax, the familiar environs of my district surrounded me. Rounding the corner of my street I got out of the saddle and began to sprint the final 200 metres to my front door. Then, the soprano shriek of a rocket screamed past, surely just inches away from me. I swerved, nearly hitting a parked car, momentarily blinded by the magnesium lightening rod that flashed past. Involuntarily, I let out a volley of expletives - the only response a wild chorus of hyena laughter from the hoodies as they loped away, triumphant and self congratulatory. I regained composure, regained by rhythm and in a heartbeat I was home.
Stashing the bike under the stairs I wanted to immediately close the door, shut out the cold, smoke -strewn air and the noise of the barrage. Then from the living room, my son emerged with two sparklers, one for me and one for him. Standing at the door in my bike jacket and helmet, we laughed and drew bicycle wheels in the dark.