'Have you seen these things?' I asked my cousin Beth.
'That thing, you mean? No, what is it?'
November 5, 1957. Not only had it been Melbourne Cup day, won by Straight Draw with a flashy finishing burst, but it was Guy Fawkes Night as well. Elvie's girls, our second cousins, had come over that evening to share the fun.
The night had arrived at last. It was clear, calm and tropical. We had been busy on the Sunday before, collecting wood for the bonfire.
Collection of 'morning wood' (the small twigs that fell dead from the gums trees for the purpose of lighting the stove every day) was a job I never favoured much, but I had not the least trouble mounting enthusiasm for collecting timber for the bonfire on Cracker Night.
Nor did my sisters, and even our cousins Beth and Gay chipped in and helped if they were coming over to 'our' bonfire that year. It was good if they did, because their collection of crackers would be added to ours, which meant the 'pretty ones' were value-added. All-girl families... that's what you get. Lots of Golden Rains, sparklers, some Tom Thumbs and a skyrocket, but no decent-sized bungers.
A guy had been fashioned from straw pinched from the hayshed and strung on a crucifix made of a couple of fair sized straightish dead branches. Poor old Guy Fawkes was going to get it for sure that night. Flames right up the armpits.
Great excitement oozed from our very pores. The crackers had all been unstrung and there was a fair-sized box of them on the dining room table, all mixed together, as was the tradition.
Back to the box of fireworks on the dining room table. We lovingly caressed these and smelt the wonderful aroma of gunpowder. 'Don't touch the wicks!' we were always told, with good reason. Sweaty little paws on a tropical night in Queensland November would dampen the fuses and the crackers wouldn't light.
'No,' Beth said. 'What is that thing?'
I opened it and revealed the matches inside.
It may come as a surprise to you that a book of matches like this was new to our experience. Maybe they'd been around in other parts of the world before 1957, but Calliope hadn't been introduced to them until shortly before Cracker Night of that year.
To us a match was made of pine, milled nicely and with a good splodge of red match-head stuff (OK, dialdehyde if you really want to know) on the top, not like the rubbish ones you buy these days imported from overseas. Exactly fifty to a box there were. Count them.
'This is what you do,' I said, tearing off one of the matches from inside the cardboard case. These definitely had a good splodge of detonator on the top.
I scritched (if that's a word; if not, you will still get the onomatopoeia) the bendy paper match along the ignition strip. The match exploded into life.
What I didn't count on, not in a gazillion years, was that a tiny portion of the match head would fly a good metre in a perfect arc from the matchbook straight into the middle of the box of crackers. No sight is more vividly etched into my mind. It was as if the air, redolent of saltpetre emanating from the fireworks box, had provided the perfect conduit for the spark.
Maybe it had.
There was a solitary explosion of a Double Happy - like the crack of a .22 rifle cartridge.
'What....??' came Dad's voice from the breakfast room, 'Who let off that ....'
The end of the sentence didn't come, or if it did, I never heard it, because there was a second explosion, and as Dad was rushing into the room, a third, and a fourth in quick succession. At least one was a penny bunger.
Then pandemonium reigned, as he grabbed the box of exploding crackers, rushed through the open front door, and hurled it down the stairs. It hit the bottom step on an angle, and scattered the contents on the grass, which was a very good thing.
There were no curtains in that room, which was A Good Thing, and miraculously, the one skyrocket sitting in the box had not fallen prey to a spark.
That was an Even Better Thing, from several points of view.
The guns, or rather the crackers, suddenly fell silent. An ominous hush ensued. The whole episode had taken probably less than a minute, but it seemed like forever. It was a very awkward silence for me, because in a room full of girls, there could be no doubt who the perpetrator was. The one who always got up to mischief.
'Why?' roared my father. 'WHY?? Why would you do such a bloody fool thing?'
'But I didn't.... I wasn't... it was the match...' I looked down, and it was still in my hand. 'It jus.... a spark just... I didn't know....'
Tears were running down my cheeks. As any kid knows, tears are an excellent strategy for mollifying parents, but there was nothing even slightly feigned about these. Nothing makes a child cry like a sense of injustice, and I felt a rare claim to innocence. How could I possibly know that could happen?
Already I thought of our bonfire, sitting there unlit as the darkness closed in, the guy atop it preparing to meet his maker(s) but now with an unexpected reprieve; and the box now devoid of crackers. Gone. All gone. Bonjour Tristesse.
The anger on my father's face disappeared. There was the evidence - the match still in hand - and I hadn't moved from the spot a metre away from where the box had been. I couldn't have put the match to them, and Beth corroborated my version of events.
'All right. Check that nothing's smouldering up here in any room. Then we'll go downstairs with the torch and see what crackers are still there.'
We all went into the garden and searched under torchlight. Green Tom Thumbs are the very devil to find in a green 'lawn' - if you could call the patch of grass at the front of the steps a lawn. Each blade of grass looked like one, but, sadly from my point of view, wasn't.
Quite a few fireworks were salvaged, and we still had those from the Brown's box. The house was not burned down, and though there had been serious attrition in our somewhat blackened and battered box of fireworks, we made the best of it.
Best of all, I didn't really get into trouble. Images of the stockwhip had flashed briefly into my mind - not that it had ever been used on me. Once I accidentally whipped myself around the bare legs with our best one when trying to crack it rodeo fashion, and let me tell you, it stings like blazes. You don't ever want a whipping.
I would live to light another double bunger, but not that night. The double bungers, it seems, were particularly vulnerable to premature explodation, for not one remained virgo intacta in the box.