1946-50, The Shootong Flane

One Christmas, shortly after poor old Ned had died, my nephew, Ian ,came to stay. His visit coincided with that of my mother. We always had Christmas Lunch rather than a dinner in the evening and after everything was cleared away it was our custom to walk round the district to settle the corporate stomach before the next onslaught. We were not alone, it seemed that half North Belfast were out trying out their Christmas presents, there were tricycles, new prams, dolls, and on the older people the regulation tie or pullover. I had elected to stay in with Ian and finish the clearing.
We then sat either side of the fireplace and chatted. The room was resplendent with Christmas decorations and Christmas cards on every available level surface. Suddenly I noticed the fire was nearly out and if the family came back, feeling righteous but cold, this would be frowned upon. I went in search of the paraffin to sharpen it up. The can was empty, but not for the first time I decided to take the risky course of using turpentine.
Back at the fireplace I added fresh coal sprinkled turps and then discovered that the Christmas cards had usurped the matches on the mantelpiece. By the time I returned with a box several seconds had elapsed. Through all this time Ian had been standing beside the fireplace watching the proceedings silently, taking all in but reserving judgement.
I struck the match and offered it to the fire. For a second nothing happened and then, between Ian and myself, a sheet of the most orange flame I had seen in a long while came from the fireplace and out some four feet into the room and then just as quickly returned up the chimney. Ian’s expression intrigued me momentarily, once I was over the shock of our personal flame-thrower. It was not so much the expression as the lack of it. He stood there and his head followed the progress of the flame out of the grate and back in with total equanimity, with total trust in his stupid uncle John. What had happened and what had been completely predictable was that the chimney and the fireplace, together with an area within the room had become filled with evaporated turps, while I was looking for the match.
The next phase was less dangerous but much more troublesome. For an instant after the flame had disappeared there was silence and then there was a rumbling like one hears standing in a house built over the Tube Railway in London when a train is passing below. Soot, buckets off soot descended into the grate, into the fireplace and spilled out further. Not only that a cloud of the stuff settled on every available surface throughout the room.
Above, a wavering voice was trying to question what was going on. My mother was in bed with a severe migraine and her bedroom shared the same chimney stack so she had been party to the rumble. I said there was nothing to worry about, knowing full well there was and proceeded to clean up which really meant a full Spring Clean of the place.
Ian and I sat back with a newspaper over the fireplace to encourage the fire into life, when there was another rumble and yet more soot. The moral would seem to be that if there is no choice between using turps or suffering the disfavour of the family then the latter course is safer, and also that some nephews should regard uncles and their decisions with a keen suspicion.

Categorized as General

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