I don’t remember being afraid of guns and soldiers when I was young; they didn’t really feature much in our household where the only relics of warfare were my father’s medals and the replica knives he brought back as a memento of his time spent with the Ghurkhas. These were kept locked away; only emerging on special occasions and accompanied by tales of life in the Marines. My father instilled in us a love of all things spicy and an appreciation of thunderstorms. When there was a really good storm he would wake us up and draw back the curtains so that we could enjoy it too. Hot chocolate with a dash of rum sent me back to sleep. Adding curry powder to everything savoury caused issues when I started school and found the food extremely bland – except for the time when I found a dead bluebottle in the mashed potato and threw up over the dinner lady’s shoes.
My husband, on the other hand, had grown up in a house with a large garden, bordered on one side by a lake. There were plenty of opportunities to take pot shots at the encroaching rat population with his airgun. I was particularly impressed with his shooting prowess when we visited the funfair and he routinely won fluffy toys and key rings for me – despite that fact that the gun sights were usually off.
We had to sell one of his airguns when we married and bought our first house together; there were more important items to spend money on and the only rats around us were human.
I confess. On one occasion when a group of local youth were standing ominously outside our front gate playing with matches, I fetched the air gun and stood in front of the window nonchalantly polishing the wooden stock. I didn’t point it at them – I didn’t even know where the steel pellets were kept but it seemed that the sight of me with a gun in my hand was enough to see them off.
They came back in the middle of the night and set fire to the gate.
I was well and truly told off by my husband when I confessed to him later. He didn’t tell me where the pellets were.
Our eldest son was born in 1993 and I acquired a fear of all things violent; the world was full of bombs, knives and guns and it was my job as a mother to protect him from them.
My husband was working 250 miles away from home by the time our baby boy was six months old. We took him to see his first Father Christmas in a northern town. I asked the quite credibly-bearded Santa not to give our son any toy guns, soldiers or swords.
He looked at me and smiled, rather sadly.
‘We have lost children in this town because of violence. We don’t give weapons to our children.’
When the present was unwrapped we found a small pale green and white squeaky toy bus. Our baby boy loved it and I still have it twenty-two years later, in pride of place on a high shelf.
We relocated to the northern town and our second son was born. We made friends and attended birthday and Christmas parties. I did my best to buy non-violent presents; books, craft materials, non-gender-specific toys and the occasional noisy (but musical) toy when I was feeling a little devilish. Our eldest son displayed no interest in weaponry and war; he read enthusiastically and became a part of the Gameboy generation. Our youngest showed a distressing obsession with finding objects to shoot with; sticks, carrots, crayons. He didn’t discriminate.
I made sure that every party invitation I sent out contained a polite but unequivocal request to refrain from giving the boys any war related presents. It worked with nearly all our friends; the one exception being a self-proclaimed ‘free-spirit’ who wrapped up a battalion of cheap plastic soldiers for my baby boy – because she wouldn’t be ‘dictated’ to by anyone.
A small temper tantrum started to emerge as I spirited the offending present away. I was prepared for this and had a small pre-wrapped and much-desired present at the ready in order to ward off his evil eye. I caught the smirk on her face as my small boy started to wobble but the smirk turned to a scowl as he greeted his replacement present with more satisfaction.
I didn’t invite her or her children to any further parties. Her children have matured. She hasn’t.
Our boys grew; the eldest involved himself in the world of Pokémon whilst his brother’s obsession with weapons of violence expanded in many directions. A trip to Lindisfarne that was supposed to be spiritual and life-enhancing was something of a failure as one boy spent his time pursuing a Jigglypuff and the other embraced the marauding Viking way of life and demanded a wooden sword from the National Trust shop.
By the time he was into double figures, constant nagging caused the airgun (and the pellets) to accompany us on a visit south to my husband’s childhood home. All four of us indulged in a spot of target shooting in the garden; I retired injured from the kick of the gun, our eldest retired with Gameboy withdrawal symptoms. My husband and our youngest carried on shooting.
It transpired that the boy had a natural bent for shooting stuff.
The desire to destroy did not dissipate.
On one particular birthday the boy asked if he could have his birthday money – just so that he could hold it for a while. Trusting as we were, we said yes and the little horror went off and spent it on a replica gun that a friend was selling. It wasn’t an airgun; it used small white plastic balls as ammunition.
A far better option than airgun pellets – or so I thought. Mothering Sunday was a couple of days after the boy’s birthday and I discovered just how much the repellent pellets (now known as BBs) hurt when they hit you in the neck.
‘It was an accident Mum- honest!’
Whilst his older brother stayed true to Gameboys and computers, the boy expanded his BB gun collection. We had hoped in vain that he would grow out of it and we would be left with the job of flogging off his weaponry. He was temporarily distracted by paintball but whilst his father developed an interest in the sport, the boy acquired more BB guns and with it the ability to buy up broken guns, rebuild them and sell them on to other army dreamers at an impressive profit.
He went through a spate of attending Airsoft events; groups of males dressed in a wide variety of camouflage kit, running around abandoned military sites and shooting each other. I have been banned from collecting him from these events due to the fact that I can’t help sniggering at middle-aged men dressed in black combat gear and huge boots who strut around trying to look dangerous – and failing.
The boy is very conscientious about the rules and regulations. All guns are kept in their cases and covered up in the boot of the car when being transported. Some of them are very realistic and could give rise to fears of terrorism should they be spotted by a passerby. When not stalking other Airsoftees, he and a friend have access to a secure area of land where – if they wanted to – they could shoot hapless bunnies. They haven’t shot any yet and prefer to demolish innocent cans and containers instead.
One of our garage windows took a direct hit when he was testing a new gun out of the bathroom window, and our patio is spattered with paintball splodges and environmentally unfriendly plastic BBs that hurt like hell when you tread on them in bare feet.
There is a corpulent pigeon that lurks beneath the fat ball container in the fir tree, waiting for fallen seeds from the Dunnock flock who frequent it. The boy has sworn to exterminate it but so far it has been too quick for him.
Of late he has expressed a desire to join the army – but only in the intelligence corps – he has no intention of being cannon fodder. Do we still have cannons?
He is twenty-one and a man, now so he has to make his own choices in life.
There is a song by Al Stewart that has been running through my head since I started writing this.
‘Shot hit the night, a bullet lodged in his brain.
He must have died instantly, he felt no pain.
As the crowd turned to go, a man was heard to say
“Oh, he must have had it coming to him anyway.”‘
I can’t like the sound of gunshots.