The Chemistry Set | Steve Ashton

Remember your thermals this holiday season.


The Chemistry Set

By Steve Ashton

For the Hairpin Tarpaulin Award


At this time of year, I always think of the last day Gran and I spent together. As an only child, I refused to let Christmas slide by in a blur of TV and sherry. Family was important. I wanted it to be a day to remember. And it was. A day of triumph and tragedy.

I’d asked for a chemistry set that year, so Dad bought me the Niels Bohr Bumper Outfit of Thermonuclear Explosions. It came in a massive box – it must have taken a roll of wrapping paper by itself – and contained everything you needed to make, well, a thermonuclear explosion, obviously.

The lead-lined compartments were labelled ‘lithium deuteride’, ‘uranium-238’ and ‘plutonium-239’. Apart from a pair of fiddly tweezers, the box also contained a sissy plastic apron inscribed with the crucial equation E = mc2 in case you lost the instruction book.

Mam said she wasn’t having bombs in the kitchen, so I built it at the bottom of the garden. I held a competition to see who would have the honour of setting it off. “What was Oppenheimer’s first name?” I said. Mam and Dad started shouting at once: “Robert! Robert! Robert!” Then Gran piped up: “His full name is J Robert Oppenheimer and the J stands for Julius.” Smart or what? So I said, “Gran – get these dark glasses on and go and press that red button at the bottom of the clothes pole.” And Gran said, “Oh all right, since I’m going to empty the teapot on the compost.”

Anyway, she toddled off down the path with the teapot and… BOOM! This bloody great mushroom cloud went up.

No sign of Gran. Or the teapot. Mam was furious – it was her china best.

There was an uncomfortable gap at the table when we sat down for the turkey dinner. Then we had a huge argument over who should have Gran’s cracker. I suppose we were working through our grief. In the end, Dad settled it by throwing the damn cracker on the fire. It went up in flames – joke and hat and all. I could see the novelty melting inside. It was a pearl necklace. She loved pearls, did Gran. Mam said, “Serves her right for gallivanting off with the dinner on the go.”

After pudding and charades, I went out into what was left of the back garden to make an igloo in case we were heading for a nuclear winter, but the snow was filthy from a grey ash that fell from the sky. I got a plant pot from the shed, scraped up what ash I could, and then placed it on the mantelpiece. I don’t know how much of it was Gran, but it was the least I could do. Then we sang Silent Night.

It’s still there, the plant pot. Nothing has grown in it, though, even after all these years. You know, I don’t think Gran’s coming back.