A Sunday morning long ago. I am a small child, my parents and I have been walking about Kew Gardens. I think we are at summers end for in my hand I have an acorn cup gathered earlier. Now on our way home I worry about something my mother had said about fairies using acorn cups to drink out of. I think maybe the one I am holding belonged to a particular fairy who might now be ever so angry that I have stolen it – not that I saw it as an act of theft when I first collected it. I try to picture in my mind just what a fairy might conjure up as an appropriate punishment befitting a thief. Tinkerbelle out of the Peter Pan stories comes to mind, she could be unkind when the fancy took her. I struggle to decide if she might shrink me, turn me into an insect or just kill me. Still, here I am, now far away from the gardens heading back homeward on the road we live on: maybe I’m safe after all. Just as my thoughts stray to the subject of exactly why pigs are so fond of eating acorns (something else I learnt from my mother) and completely out of the blue, an explosion of sublime proportions throws us all backward. I fall to the ground. The line of London plain trees that shields the pavement from the main road seems to rush towards us, outstretched branches the limbs of dying souls trying to grab us; the arms of drowning sailors flaying in an ever-so-big sea. The shattered glass of windows taken out by the explosion, as would flying daggers, hurtle our way notwithstanding the fact that we are a good half-mile from the source of detonation. It is all a masterpiece of perspective.
At the very top of our road is a gasometer. It sits appropriately aside a place known locally as Gasworks Bridge. A giant flame now shrouds one side of the tired and grey gasometer and rises skyward, high above it. My parents are not the slightest bit phased by the potential Armageddon; they simply carry on walking in the direction of the gasworks and home. Mum is more concerned as to how her bit of lamb is doing in the oven, overlooking the fact that the supply of gas is now reaching, with flamed ferocity, for the heavens rather than being piped toward her kitchen. A multiplicity of bells ringing; timpani accompanying this disaster fills the eardrums; such are the alarm bells of ambulances, police cars and fire engines. No sirens back then.
That my parents were not that bothered about the sheer enormity of the event that had unfolded before our very eyes, is, in hindsight, amazing. But then we are only a decade or so on from the end of World War Two so I suppose they had, each in their own way, seen much worse. I already was aware of the fact that my mum could worry and be fearful of just about anything. Still this was an event outside of the family circle and maybe the War had anesthetised her with the surrealism of it all. I did not know why, yet, that they showed no sign of fear meant that I did not either, although the thought did strike me that maybe the fairy whose acorn cup I had – in her eyes at least – stolen was really, really angry and was perhaps behind the explosion.
Later that day dad reported back that, having spoken to a neighbour, it was the case that a supply pipe had, for whatever reason, exploded. Had it not been for the selflessness and bravery of one of the men who worked at the gasworks and who managed to turn on a safety valve, the whole thing was only moments from going up and hundreds might have perished. Sadly, the brave man in question died during his act of heroism. Dad said he knew him a bit. By Monday morning the flames had gone away, but mum moaned about the fact we had no gas for a few days after the event. I managed to hang on to the cup of the acorn though. During the days that followed until the gas supply came back on we dined on sliced tinned Spam set in sandwiches of soft white bread. Dad put lashings of Piccalilli upon his; mum cut the crusts off mine. Dad even went as far as suggesting mum and I slice up tomatoes to go with ours yet Mum would not hear of such a thing, saying, “What a ridiculous thing to say! As you well know Jim, tomatoes can cause appendicitis.” Dad was left waiting to be told the source of this piece of dietary information that she, in any event, was never to impart. For my part I took on board what she had said and never got to taste a fresh tomato until I married. Also, I’ve never really enjoyed Spam since! However, I was rather partial to the Chelsea Buns and slices of the new-fangled Apple Strudel from the bakers in the Kew Road that served us our puddings.
There then is my only memory of a significant explosion. I think of all the little kids throughout history and during times of warfare and cherish my luck in this regard – for luck is all it is.