My Father's Garden: Incinerator
by R J Dent
One evening, about a week after the plum tree/creosote/bomb incident, my father rolled a very large empty oil drum down to the bottom of the garden. He rolled it noisily down the path, right to the end of the garden, rolled it in a sharp left turn, then stopped and stood it up so that it was screened by the lilac bushes.
I got up and wandered down the garden, followed by my brother. As I got nearer, I could see that my father was putting some bricks on the ground, arranging them in a roughly square symmetrical pattern. Intrigued, I stood back and watched, not sure what was going on. I didn’t really know what I was seeing – was it some obscure pagan ritual; a valiant attempt to contact alien life forms; my dad’s workaday version of Stonehenge, or something so obscure that it hadn’t been heard of by anyone other than my father? As my dad stood up – all of the bricks now obviously in their rightful positions – I had a feeling that I was about to find out.
– What’s he doing? my brother whispered.
– I don’t know yet, I answered. Let’s wait and see.
– Okay, my brother said, cheerfully enough.
And so we waited, watching carefully and quietly as our dad stood the empty oil drum on the bricks. Then he knelt down on the ground, picked up a hammer and a metal chisel and proceeded to knock holes in the side of the oil drum, about four inches up from the bottom. He made a hole, then moved the chisel a few inches to the left and made another hole, then repeated the process and made another hole, working his way around the oil drum until there were several holes all the way around its base.
– He’s making air-holes.
– What for?
– So an animal can breathe in there.
– What animal?
– Whatever animals like oil.
– Oil lamps.
– Oil lamps aren’t animals.
– No, but they like oil and they need air-holes.
– You’re an air-hole.
We would have started trading insults at that point, but our father stood up abruptly, looked over at us, and asked what we were doing.
– Just watching, we answered.
– Well, you’ll have something to see in a minute, he said mysteriously.
He turned back to the oil drum, picked up the hammer and the chisel again and started on the lid. He banged a few holes around the top, then put the tools down and picked up a big pair of tin-snips. He started cutting the lid off the oil drum. It didn’t take him long.
– He thinks it’s a giant tin of beans.
– Where’s the key then?
Our father lifted the lid off the drum. It was a huge, coin-like metal circle.
– Heads I win, tails you lose.
– Okay. Heads.
– I win.
– Tails then.
– You lose.
– What? That’s not fair.
– I said heads I win, tails you lose. You said okay.
– I’m not playing any more.
– Frisbee then?
We stopped chatting as our father walked down the path, carrying the metal disc. He put it next to the dustbin, and then went into the kitchen. We scooted over to the oil drum and peered inside. Deep, yellow and slick-sided; the heavy, slow smell of oil. We heard him coming back. He was carrying some old newspapers. He started screwing up single pages of newspaper and dropping them into the oil drum. Now I knew. It was for burning things in.
– Do you know what this is called? My father asked.
– A bonfire, I answered.
– It’s for a bonfire, but it’s got a proper name?
I wanted to say oil drum, but I knew not to say that.
– No, I don’t know its proper name.
– It’s called an incinerator.
– That’s a good name – why’s it called that?
– Because it incinerates.
Our father then went off and fetched a few pieces of cardboard, some wood, some cut-off branches and various other combustible materials. He dropped them all on the ground in front of the incinerator and then took a box of safety matches out of his shirt pocket. He shook the box. It rattled loudly. He opened the box and took a match out.
I stepped back and accidentally trod on my brother’s foot. He yelped. I turned and apologised, but used the apology as an excuse to move him back a bit, away from the incinerator. Perhaps it was just the name: incinerator, but to me it sounded purposeful, dangerous. I wanted a bit of space between me and it.
My brother and I stood about six feet away as our father struck the match and dropped it into the incinerator. Nothing happened. The match has gone out, I thought. My father evidently thought the same because he took another match out of the box and prepared to strike it. Almost as an afterthought, he looked at me and grimaced.
– Ruddy safety matches, he said.
As he spoke he peered into the incinerator. That was when the flame took hold of the paper and started to flare up. There was a warm orange glow growing in the incinerator. And then there was a huge whooshing sound and a gigantic cylindrical sheet of flame shot out of the oil drum into the sky, engulfing my father’s head for a split-second. Then the flame was gone and all that remained was a tiny glow in the bottom of the incinerator, visible through the air holes. I looked at my father and nearly laughed at his soot blackened face, his singed-off eyebrows and his fire-frizzed hair – now scorched back a bit from his forehead. He looked ridiculous. I knew he’d be angry with me if I laughed, so I held it in – with difficulty.
– Are you all right? I managed to ask.
– Of course I’m all right, he snapped. I just did that so you’d know what the dangers were. You see this incinerator? – well incinerators can be dangerous.
I absorbed this important safety tip – all the time wondering why my father thought it was really necessary to advise me not to set my head on fire.
– Yes, I prudently answered. They can.
– Don’t ever forget that, my father cautioned.
– No, I won’t.
There was a short silence, and then finally my father said:
– Right then, you can start throwing the cardboard and wood in now.
And so my brother and I started feeding the incinerator as our father went to tend to his scorched face. Once he was gone we laughed madly. How stupid. How idiotic. Fancy forgetting that oil is flammable. Fancy not realising that oil drum residue will burn. We laughed so much it hurt. As we dropped cardboard and wood pieces into the incinerator, we mimicked and satirised our father’s impromptu safety lesson.
– You see this hammer? – well don’t hit yourself on the head with it or you’ll be knocked out.
– You see this blow lamp? – well don’t stick it up your nose, or it’ll melt your brain.
– You see this sulphuric acid? – well don’t drink it or you’ll dissolve your innards.
– You see this vehicle? – well don’t lie under its wheels or you’ll be squashed.
– You see this incinerator? – well don’t jump in it or you’ll be barbequed.
We carried on with our sarcasm until all of the incinerator food had gone. Then we went to try and find some more fuel.
We found a few old bits of wood and threw them in. We looked at the shed and momentarily debated whether bits of it would really be missed. After a while, the orange flames in the incinerator shrank and receded and the evening air grew cool.
It was getting quite dark.
We looked in through the downstairs windows; it looked very warm and light and inviting.
Finally we went in, for as our father might have advised: You see this night? – well don’t stay out in it after bed-time, or you’ll be in the dark.
My Father’s Garden: Incinerator
Copyright © R J Dent 2014
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