Between the ages of 7 and 14, I lived half the week with my Dad in his caravan in the corner of a field he rented on a fruit farm. The farm produced apples, like coxes and russets which were small and funny looking and much too sharp to eat. But there were raspberries too, lining our corner of the field so I’d pick them straight from the bushes, and Malcolm the farmer who didn’t mind late payments, also didn’t seem to mind about the raspberries.
Our caravan was big and long with three bedrooms, and my Dad gutted the whole thing of it’s fitted plastic and sawed away at planks to lay wooden floors and make shelves instead. He pulled out the toilet – because having a waste tank just sitting there stagnant is disgusting, he said – and replaced it with a bath, which felt quite luxurious. Instead of a door, we pinned a fabric curtain and sometimes twisted it back so we could hold forth with each other, one in the kitchen and the other supine in hot water. With no toilet, we’d pee outside on the grass, or walk to the cold, spider-infested toilet at the top of the field for anything else.
My favourite thing about living at the caravan was the bonfire where we’d burn these great bits of chopped up tree and enter that hot-cheeked primal trance that takes hold when you gaze at flames. My Dad taught me to build a fire, and approach it with confidence, to get my face in close and blow a licking flame into action. “If you respect the fire,” my Dad said, “the fire will respect you.”
In the summer months, my Dad made a makeshift shower by the fire, so we could take these wonderfully smokey washes standing under a ladder with a water tank on top, with the owl up in the big tree cooing occasionally.
A fire meant one thing: marshmallows. Bought from the Spar down the road, there always seemed to be a packet on the go. Either folded, saved for later on top of the microwave, or in my lap by the fire. Of course I’d honed my marshmallow-toasting very precisely.
There was a lot riding on the stick – you had to choose one long enough so as not to burn the hairs on your hand, but up to the task of carrying valuable molten cargo without snapping.
You thread two marshmallows onto the stick. The white ones are best – slightly less sickly than the pink ones, and then you aim them just beside a glowing ember. No flames! That risks the marshmallows igniting dramatically. No, just wait it out by an ember, turning the stick like a spit, watching the sweet lumps start to bronze and bubble.
The bronzing is what you’re waiting for. That means the inside is melting and it’s ready. Take it from the fire, studiously blow the edges (marshmallow burns are awful) and then nibble the top layer of mallow. I hope you know what that tastes like, because it is bliss. Smoked, puffed up gelatinous sugary bliss! Savour that, but briefly because there’s more work to be done – each marshmallow has two or three layers worth of toasting, and there’s only so long before bed.
I’d sit there, silently turning, blowing, testing, biting, in a contented trance. My Dad would drink a can of beer or play his guitar or potter about, shifting wood. It’s good to know how to make something, exactly as you want it.