When my brother was born, my father insisted that we move to the countryside so that his parents could help mother out. It had seemed like a perfectly good plan. My grandparents’ village was a mere half hour’s train journey from the city so he could easily commute. Country air would suit the children. That had been the idea I imagine.
It was a blue October morning. My little brother was asleep in the cot and I was left in charge of him whilst mother was away. She had only gone to the big house across the courtyard to do the laundry and ironing. Mother could only do this when grandmother was at work at the hospital, otherwise she had to account for all the water and electricity deemed squandered in the process. She was forever complaining about grandmother, who could be a mean and heartless lady when it suited her. And when mother was around, it suited her often.
There is only for that long that a four-year old can be trusted to watch a sleeping baby. After a few minutes, bored by my brother’s seeming contentment, I emptied out my box of toys on the floor and began to marshal them into straight lines. There were a dozen or so of them altogether. I had miniature horses and other farmyard animals, a baby doll with drawn-on brown hair and no clothes whatsoever, and Cipollino. The little rubber onion-man was my toy of the moment.
It is a well-known fact that no sooner are toys allowed out of the box that they get themselves into no little amount of trouble. My toys were no exception. They got together, fell apart, quarrelled and fought, chased one another around the room and messed up mother’s books no matter how much I tried to reason with them. In the end, I had no other choice but to separate the good from the naughty and punish the culprits appropriately. Justice must be seen to be done or else toys will never behave themselves as they ought. So it chanced that Cipollino, the naughtiest of them all, had to be sent away to the blackest and darkest of prisons to ponder on what he had done and feel the consequences of his actions. The prison, aka the old hearth oven, was then locked until such a time when I could be persuaded to pardon my mischievous charge.
Soon a court was assembled so that each toy could bear witness and bring evidence of Cipollino’s guilt or innocence. I listened patiently as one and then another told their version of the story. Once or twice, I couldn’t help supressing a yawn. The morning had been glum and I was content to stay indoors, but the warmth of the day was upon me and I soon grew tired of my play and wanted to go out. Thinking little of lengthening poor Cipollino’s imprisonment, I took one last look at my little brother, who continued to sleep undisturbed by the cavalcade of toys around him, and left the house.
How long I was gone I do not know. When at last I returned from my meanderings, disaster had struck. A thick cloud of smoke was coming out of the window. I screamed out for help and then entered the house. I could see nothing for the blackness of the smoke. I hurried to the cot to take my baby brother out. Smoke. Smoke. There was no getting away from it. The cot was too deep and I could not reach for him without climbing into it. I tried to assail its railings, but fell back to the floor coughing. I had to get back out for some air and call for help again.
I saw mother and uncle running from the house towards me. At last! I sprinted back inside and struggled to drag the cradle towards the door. A moment later uncle was at my side. He took my baby brother out of the cot and shouted for me to follow. Once outside he handed us both to mother and then went back in.
“What happened? What have you done?!” my mother asked of me.
“Nothing. I was playing. I was playing and then I went out. I didn’t do anything. I don’t know what happened!”
I tried to think back at every little thing that I had done that day. I had not played with matches. Mother had forbidden it. I knew it was bad so I did not do it.
“I did not play with fire, mummy. I did not play with fire” I sobbed into her skirt whilst she examined my brother, checked his breathing, made sure that he was unharmed.
I could hear the crackle of wood and glass as windows and doors were opened wide and fixed to stay so. After a little while uncle came out of the house holding the remains of melted rubber in his towel-gloved hand. I looked from my uncle’s hand to my mother and back. I gasped. I knew exactly what had filled the room with smoke, what had very nearly killed my little brother. It was me after all. There lay in uncle’s hand, barely recognisable, the faceless, burnt down body of my favourite toy.
“I found this in the oven,” he showed it to my mother, “This is where the smoke is coming from. You must have forgotten to check it before you lit the hearth.”
“But I never keep anything in that oven!” exclaimed mother appalled. “I had only lit the fire a quarter of an hour ago. I was going to boil some…” she stopped mid-sentence. I did not dare look up at her.
Mother did not punish me. We all make mistakes, she said. She ought to have checked the oven. It was not my fault. My brother lived to breathe another day. Yet, as over the years his health deteriorated and one bout of pneumonia followed another, I could not help believing that it was my fault. It had been my carelessness that had done this to him.
One act of tyranny – the punishment of a blameless onion-boy – had sealed my brother’s fate.