|Cornus sanguinea 'Winter Flame'|
Question: how did I come to be standing watching my new car go up in flames, while my three year old son was at home two miles away, locked in the house by himself?
Answer: well, it all began when we went to look at a new car. We had searched far and wide before my wife saw it advertised in the local paper, at an address only a couple of miles away.
We had gone to look at it after work and had no option but to take all the children with us. Laura and Chris were six and eight respectively and Nick was the youngest, at three. We were in the two-car syndrome due to the fact that we both needed a vehicle for our work. My wife benefited from a low - interest loan from work but, as usual, I was in the position of getting something cheap and extremely second - hand. This one seemed a good car. I had test-driven it and everything seemed to work, so it was with a feeling of relief that I parted with the money and prepared to drive it home. My wife had gone ahead, taking the children with her, when we had made the decision to buy, leaving me to deal with the financial part. I had to get straight home now, because she was due to take the older two swimming while I looked after Nick.
Everything seemed to be going well for the first half mile, then I smelled smoke. I couldn't actually see any, so I put it down to the fact that the previous owners must have been smokers. I was impressed by the efficiency of the heater and contemplated the possibility of doing toast on it. However, I was somewhat less impressed when flames began to emerge from it. Apart from the disappointing realisation that it would burn toast, it seemed a good idea to get out fast. By this stage, a couple of oncoming motorists had flashed me and one seemed so excited that he bumped up onto the pavement and narrowly missed a lamp-post. As the car drew to a halt a great sheet of flame engulfed the bonnet and, after careful consideration, I came to the conclusion that now was the time to panic. Unfortunately, with the car being new to me, I had a bit of difficulty getting the seat belt undone. That saying about your life flashing before your eyes just before you die is not true. All that flashed in front of mine was the six hundred pounds I'd paid for this experience of a lifetime, and the jolly fun to be had when I told my wife our savings had literally gone up in smoke. At last I managed to get out and danced around for a few seconds before my brain got into gear, before rushing up the nearest drive, thinking to use the phone for help (this was long before mobiles). However, the house was in darkness and the people were out, so I tried the next door along and a man answered. It must have been a bit of a shock to be confronted by a babbling maniac with a smoke - blackened face but he invited me in, let me use the phone, then insisted I drink a large brandy.
I don't even like brandy but didn't like to hurt his feelings, so I swallowed it and rushed back to the scene of the fire. Flames were reaching about fifteen feet into the air and a large crowd had gathered. They were enjoying the show and cracking hilarious jokes along the lines of going home to get some potatoes to roast and "'oo's got the chestnuts?". I remember wishing I was one of them rather than me. I had paid the man all that money for the most expensive bonfire night ever.
"'Ere, stop shovin'", one of the punters said, as I pushed roughly between them. After all it was my car; the least I deserved was to be on the front row.
"'E's drunk", piped up another voice, probably referring to my brandy-laden breath, "e'll be for it when the cops get 'ere".
"Stand back, it'll blow up", came the comment of another sage and in seconds I was on my own, the rest of the audience having removed itself a fair distance down the road. I stayed where I was, doing my John Cleese dance in frustration.
Then the brigade turned up.
"Now then lad, what's up?".
I know he was probably trying to calm me down or something, but "what's up?" didn't really fit the occasion. By this time everyone north of the equator knew what was up. My bloody car was. He must have read something in my look, because he didn't say anything else and got on with playing an extinguisher on the flames inside the car.
"Careful, cock, it may blow up", came the voice of the sage, who had crept forward with the rest of the funseekers, gaining confidence from the reassuring presence of the experts.
"They don't blow up unless the tank's empty", said one of the firemen.
"One blew up in 'Dirty 'Arry' on telly last night", replied the slightly disappointed voice.
"How do we open the bonnet?", asked my "what's up?" friend. I had looked under the bonnet in a knowing way when I was buying the car, and ascertained that it had an engine, but beyond that I was at a bit of a loss. The man who had sold it to me had opened it.
Well, is it hinged at the front or the back?". Again, I couldn't remember. With this, a crowbar was produced and the bonnet forced right off. I nearly cried.
"Don't let 'im near it, came the voice of the people, referring to me, "'is breath'll catch fire an' incinerate the lot of us". There was a general laugh but, for the first time that evening, I went cold. What if the police were to turn up? They were bound to smell the brandy and I'd get the book thrown at me in the form of something like 'drunk in charge of an incinerator'.
Once the bonnet was off it only took seconds to control the blaze and the brigade went back to their card game or whatever it is they do between coming out to help me. Before they went though, 'What's Up' showed me how the fire had started. The electric wires running in a mass just under the windscreen had shorted, probably as a result of getting caught by the lid as the man put it down after showing me the engine.I was now left gazing at a blackened hulk. 'Six hundred poundsworth of blackened hulk', I couldn't help thinking. It was almost dark and I was two miles from home without transport. 'Well', I thought, 'at least it can't get any worse'. Then it started raining.
The crowd had disappeared with the last of the flames; their job was to be entertained, not to help the entertainer. They would be in front of their tellies now, hoping for a plane crash or an earthquake to pep up the six-o-clock news. How can so many people disappear so quickly? Only Brandy Man remained. I asked him if I could use his phone to ring my wife and we went back up his path. It rang for some time before anyone came and then, to my surprise, Nick (the three year old) answered it.
"Can I speak to your mum please", I said, speaking as slowly and clearly as possible.
"My mummy has gone to the swimming baths without me", answered a small and very indignant voice. Then he put the phone down with a crash. For a moment I was stunned, then I did a bit more of the Cleese choreography. What was she messing about at, leaving a three-year old in the house by himself?
"What's wrong?", said the brandy man and, as I explained, I could see his eyes searching for the bottle again.
"Right", he said finally, probably having come to the conclusion that I was a Newcastle Brown man after I had fought off offers for another 'medicinal glass', "I'll run you back". If the pope ever needs votes for saints, that man gets mine. It took only a few minutes to get the couple of miles to our house and he came in with me to see that everything was alright.
"Nicholas", I bawled as we went through the front door. Silence.
"Oh my God, he's done something", I moaned, as we looked for him. I was just looking in the washing machine when the phone rang.
"It's me", said my wife's voice as I picked it up. "I couldn't wait any longer, so we're at the baths".
"Why did you go without Nick?", I screamed and I could see Brandy Man eyeing the door longingly.
"What do you mean?", she replied, "he's here with us of course. I wouldn't leave him by himself. I had previously thought that going insane would be a sort of escape but it obviously wasn't. I was getting more stressed out by the moment.
"But he spoke to me on the phone", I said weakly, "he said......"
"Oh, it was you who rang. He put the thing down before I could get there. I was outside fastening the other two in the car. Anyway, how have you gone on with the new one? you were a long time getting back".
This was the moment I'd been dreading. However the idea of sticking my head in the gas oven was out of the question, because it was electric. Not only would it hurt too much but we couldn't afford the electricity now.
"It's funny you should mention that", I said, stalling. I was strongly tempted to make a hissing noise down the mouthpiece, shout "hey, you've gone faint. Can you hear me? Damn - something wrong with the line", slam it down and leave in the direction of Australia. After searching desperately for the subtle way of putting the information across, I came up with "the bloody thing caught fire - it's a write off".
There was a short silence, then she laughed.
"No, really", she said, "how was it".
What did she want - points out of ten? A rating against the Great Fire of London? When I finally got the message across, she was quite philosophical about it and told me to calm down and get myself a cup of tea. Brandy Man was halfway out of the door.
"Ah well", he said as he backed down the drive, "I suppose it could have been worse".
"I suppose so", I replied. But I was lying.
That evening, at about ten minute intervals, I rang the man who sold me the car. There was no answer. He was obviously expecting me, I thought. Then at about half past eight he picked up.
"I took the family to the cinema", he explained in answer to my comment that I'd been trying all evening to get him. I bit back the obvious question as to whether it was 'Towering Inferno' he'd been to see, because I had. When I explained what had happened though, he sounded genuinely shocked.
"We were all out in it this afternoon", he said, "my God, we were lucky, it could have been us". Obviously this was very gratifying to me also. I saw it as a good point to bring up the sensitive question of the six hundred pounds.
"Well, let me have a look at the car myself", he said, then I'll have a word with my wife about it and ring you back". I think He probably thought it'd need a bit of a coat of paint or something. He would pay for that and I would be happy. However, this was tantamount to putting a bicycle patch on the hole in the Titanic and rowing her home.
About an hour later he rang me back and to my joy said that he couldn't possibly keep my money. He was shocked at the state of the car and was only too pleased that I hadn't been killed. He wanted all the details of how it happened, so that he could say he'd been in it when it happened and thereby salvage something from the insurance company.
And so ends another cautionary tale. I immediately whipped round on my bike to collect the money before he could change his mind, and resolved to use this mode of transport more often. Bikes don't catch fire.
|Nuphar lutea (brandy bottle) flowers|
Rather obviously, this subject leads into having a look at brandy bottle, the native water lily with the largest leaves. Cornus sanguinea 'Winter Flame' with its attractive fire-like winter stems is another contender, as is burning bush (Dictamnus albus), an attractive perennial producing an aromatic oil which can be ignited in hot weather. Hold a match near it in the right conditions, and the whole plant goes up with a flash. This was suggested to be the burning bush mentioned in the bible and so has religious interest. However, using it as an educational tool for demonstrating this remarkable property doesn't do a lot for your herbaceous border.
The Latin name for brandy bottle is Nuphar lutea. Nuphar comes from Persian nufar meaning Nymphaceae - the water lily family - and lutea means yellow, referring to its flower. This is not really one to be recommended if you only have a small pond, because of the size of its leaves (about sixteen inches across), and deep water preference (can live in fifteen feet of water but will tolerate less). The common name relates to the seed pod remaining when the flower is finished, although as to what era brandy bottles were that shape I'm not sure.
|The 'brandy bottle' seed capsules|
Frog-bit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) is a much smaller native water plant and therefore more suitable for the majority of garden ponds. It proliferates quickly but is easy to control, as it floats on the surface and can be fished out with a net. However, it is classed as an invasive plant in Canada and some North American states. I have actually seen a frog sitting in the water under a frog-bit and looking for all the world as if it were wearing a beret. Perhaps it was French and perhaps also it was an incident like that which inspired someone to call it frogbit. They overwinter as buds in the mud at the bottom of the pond and it is as well to note this so you're not tempted to indulge in the mania for 'cleaning out the pond' which results in the loss of these plants as well as that of a number of other forms of wildlife including some frogs. When the bud warms up in spring it grows, using stored food, and the subsequent loss of weight causes it to pop to the surface. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, the plant is useful in that, like lilies and pondweed, it cuts out light from the surface and so, to some degree, limits the growth of algae. It has separate white, three petalled male and female flowers which emerge from spathes like the one visible towards the bottom of the photo. The males have short stems and the females are supported on longer ones. They usually open in July, so the one in the picture just taken is yet to emerge.
So, having travelled from hot cars to frogs, I rest my case for this week.
|Frogbit. The spathe at the bottom of the picture is where the flower emerges.|