26 April, 2018
M. T. Head
I sat in the class, head in hands, avoiding eye contact. I hoped the teacher wouldn’t point me out, call on me, nominate me with a finger … to no avail … he called my name … “You have sixty seconds to speak about …” he paused, then produced the rabbit from the hat, “matches. Come along, stand up, you have sixty seconds, starting …” he watched the second hand go round on the classroom clock, then counted down: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …” waved his hand, and shouted: “Now!”
Matches: cricket matches, boxing matches, rugby matches, soccer matches, chess matches, matches to light the burners on the gas stove, the oven, to light the fire in the fire place … matches, matchsticks, Match Box toys, Dinky toys, toys for little boys, toys for big boys …
“Ten seconds have gone … you have fifty remaining.”
“When I think about matches, I think about …”
The first spring day in the bungalow, our summer home. The rooms are cold and damp after the winter and nobody has been here since last year. We lay a fire in the grate, but the wood is damp, as is the old newspaper we gather from our last visit. We search for sugar to aid the blaze that we hope to start, but the sugar bowl is empty. We go to the stove. Cold, winter ashes crowd the fire bowl. We scrape them together in a desperate search for charcoal remains … but we find nothing. We move to the oil-fired lamps and oil stoves. Matches dragged across soggy sandpaper fail to spark.
“Come along, boy. Have you nothing to say? You have thirty seconds left.”
Silence fills the room. It is broken by the childhood sniggers and chuckles of long-forgotten friends. The unmentionable shuffles its outsize feet to shatter the silence. My cheeks grow red. I start, stammer, and stop.
We leave the bungalow. Go next door to where our neighbours winter over. We knock on the door. “Can you lend us a match?” we ask, holding out our hands. Mrs. Williams beams at us. “A match,” she says. “First time in after the winter?” We nod. “I thought so. Saw you arriving. Wondered why you hadn’t come earlier. The weather’s been nice. Here: I can do much better than a match.” She moves over to the fireplace, picks up the little coal shovel, shovels up a generous portion of her fire, heaps on another lump, then two, of fresh coal, and “Here you are,” she says. “Just put it in the fireplace and add some wood and coal. You can start your first fire with this.” “Thank you, Mrs. Williams,” we say. “No problem,” she replies. “It’s good to see you back. It’s been lonely here this winter without you.”
“Time’s up,” the teacher says. “That’s sixty seconds of silence and you can hardly find a word to say on a simple subject. Are you stupid or what? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
My face turns red. I hang my head.
I feel ashamed.
I am seven years old.