Picture the old crooner Bing, sitting a wing-backed armchair, wearing his navy-blue dressing gown with red piping over stripy pyjamas and comfy tweed slippers. He’s looking tenderly at a a roaring log fire, hearth festooned with sparkly red bows and seasonal greenery – holly, sprouts,mistletoe and vine (German version) when he bursts into song…
“Have yourself a flaming little Christmas…
“Let your fires be bright
“From now on your charring will be out of sight….”
Heavenly chorus: “Oooo-ooooo” You have to join in with that bit, don’t you?
While it is more sensible to keep one’s charring out of sight at the time, there is little you can do about it, I found.
There were a lot of uncontrolled conflagrations during Christmas this year – nothing that necessitated the fire brigade, which is just as well because I would just bloody refuse point blank to be carried down a ladder by a woman and there are quite a few of them in the fire brigades these days – but a flaming nuisance nevertheless.
The fires were usually around food. It started with the convivial Christmas do at a nice restaurant where everyone was dressed up and behaving nicely (not us – the others) and during strenous chatting, my pal Chris and I efficiently dispatched a bottle of very nicely chilled prosecco.
The empty bottle, in an ice-bucket with a napkin draped over it – was moved from the table to a nearby windowsill. We carried on breaking bread and talking when Chris’s husband George said “Fire” in a perfectly normal tone. I wondered what relevance that had to memories of hols in Brittany – the crab and the naked man always get a mention – and he said “fire” again, sort of nodding meaningfully towards my left shoulder.
On the windowsill behind me, the napkin was, for some reason, well alight, as they say in fire-fighting circles. Flames licking all around the corner of it.
“Well” I thought, remembering my fire training at work. “That could do with a fire blanket. I wonder if they have an evacuation plan here?”
I was not inclined to whip it off my frock to douse the flames and that trick of violently removing the tablecloth to leave all the cutlery and crockery intact on the table would be far too disturbing for other diners.
Quick as a flash, Christine grabbed the flaming napkin, held it up at arms length like a magician, then dropped it on to the tiled floor and did a kind of flamenco on it.
She looked like a secretary bird trampling a snake. They do that, you know. I saw a demonstration at the Falconry Centre once involving a rubber snake from a joke shop. I was mightily impressed. I almost applauded. George looked mildly embarrassed yet at the same time proud of his Action Woman wife.
“That’s enough. You can sit down now. People will think you’re having some kind of fit.”
The party at the next table stopped mid-forkful to watch Chris’s fire-fighting prowess.
“We thought we could smell burning,” sniffed one chap, who reminded me of one of the guests in Fawlty Towers. So very English. He continuing his meal without further comment.
The sprinklers didn’t go off and none of the staff appeared to notice our little drama. But next morning, when we were settling the bill, the restaurant owner quipped curtly“I won’t charge you for the napkin.”
Buoyed with confidence at my effortless ability to make fire – witnesses claimed I caused it by carelessly placing the ice bucket too close to a tea light – a steak and kidney pie, a boeuf bourguignon. I thought the pudding would be a piece of cake.
Being a speccie four-eyes in need of bifocals, there was a small technical hitch reading the instructions for the pud, which meant I gave it 11 minutes on high to finish it off instead of 11 minutes on low – which explained the “well cooked” smell. Undaunted, I turned it out but oh dear, the top stayed in the pudding bowl so instead of a steaming,, perfectly rounded dome, there was a tragic caldera (anyone who did geography will remember those.)
A little thing like a crater in the Christmas pudding was not going to put me off the traditional flaming with brandy. As I carried it into the dining room, the flames were lively to say the least. As they leapt up from the table looking like they might take the plaster off the ceiling, no 1 son remarked “Looks like it’s actually burning this time.”
I had to agree the flaming was more enthusiastic than usual.
He’s such a know-it-all and he doesn’t even like Christmas pudding anyway.
After the flames had died down and cooling had taken place, the pud was served in thin slices taken from areas well away from the seat of the fire, liberally doused with brandy custard. To be frank,no-one much cared about the state of the pudding because we had Campbell’s Rutherglen Muscat, the best pudding wine in the world which anoints your tastebuds with lusciously spectacular toffee-maple flavours. A delicious and effective distraction in the circs.
So you’d think we had enough of naked flames but no. Due to rampant swine/seasonal/man ‘flu among our prospective New Year revellers, Captain Sensible and I found ourselves alone with a completely free hand to celebrate the New Year how we liked.
Someone had given us a Chinese sky lantern. A flat-pack paper thing which reminded me of an enormous light-shade we once had from Habitat. There were lots of instructions on where you shouldn’t light it; in the house, near an airport, near a shed, near habitation of any sort, near livestock, cats, ponies, dogs, anywhere with overhead power lines…
So nearing midnight, I found a torch and Capt Sensible had to be encourage to tog up (it was freezing cold) and we set off with the sky lantern, matches and a bottle of Old Sheep Dip whisky to our local viewpoint, where there is a 360 degree vista of Glos.
The going was rough. We clutched each other, tottering gigglingly and precariously over many thousands of yards of pitch-black tussocky sward (actually the giggling was just me, Capt Sensible being the strong silent type). The walk was punctuated by those heart-sink slithers when you know you’ve struck green. Cow pat green. Yes, well, ok I admit I left the torch on the kitchen worktop.
But it wasn’t without rewards – the screeching of a little owl and the hoo-hooing of a parliament of wise owls in the wood. Your eyes do gradually become accustomed to the night. Having a whizzy android phone with a torch inside should have helped, as Capt Sensible pointed out, if only I could have worked out how to turn it on.
I’m hopeless with matches. I panic once the flame starts to burn up the matchstick and just chuck it at whatever needs to be lit. So, to avoid the whole thing combusting in seconds before our eyes, Capt Sensible lit the fuel pad and there were flames precisely where they should have been and a magical thing happened; the thin paper turned into a kind of huge inverted pear glowing orange with warmth and fire.
I held it on to it until I could feel it it wanted its freedom. On what we calculated was the final stroke of midnight, I let it go.
Distant fireworks began to pop and explode in the glow that was Gloucester. The sky lantern drifted beyond my reach low above the dark meadow then rose slowly and steadily until it was a beautiful silent beacon in the heavens.
We watched the lantern shrinking smaller and smaller, higher and higher until it was a distant golden star that melted into the great beyond.
By now celebratory fireworks were sparking and fizzing all around us on the horizon.
We toasted 2011 with a drop of Old Sheep Dip. Old cow pat would have been more appropriate but you can’t have everything.
Happy New Year to you.