A long time ago, I was eight years old. I was an only child. I lived with my mother and grandmother in a small town in the south Midlands. We had little money. Mum worked in a large grocery shop in the centre of the town and earned just about enough to feed the three of us – plus a dog called Rex. She and my father had split up when I was about three. I had – and still have – no visual recall of him, but throughout my childhood and teenage years, men became for me symbols of affection and reassurance. I missed him desperately. But Mum would never talk to me about him.
All this left me – at home at least – a rather isolated and lonely child. And Mum, ever under the often crushing thumb of her overbearing, domineering mother (my grandmother, a woman in her sixties and herself cruelly wounded by life) found coping with me more than she could easily handle most of the time. So it would be fair to say it was hardly a carefree, happy household. I took every opportunity to get away from it. I’d go out and play all day in the street with other kids or go on walks over the nearby fields with the dog, Rex whom I regarded as my best and truest friend.
I had few toys. We couldn’t afford them, and the few I had were given by friends or by my dear Aunt Daisy. They were the usual sort of things in those days – toy cars, model soldiers. Or games like draughts. Aunt Daisy (not her real name) was Mum’s elder sister who lived a few miles out of the town and whose effect on my life as I grew older was to be so vitally important.
But one toy which I was given – second hand, by one of the men, I think, who worked with Mum at the grocery shop – was different. So different it made my heart thump with excitement. It was a small, silver handgun. And it excited me so much not because it was a gun – guns of any sort, as such, had never held any particular attraction for me – but because of how others would envy me and what that would do for my self-esteem.
Added to that, it was a seriously grown-up object – or so it seemed. You could flaunt it with nefarious intent; you could play with it, brandish it, manipulate it in your hand and flick it around in the air then drop it with aplomb – you hoped – into your pocket like the cowboys did into their holsters. And from what I’d seen in photographs it looked like the real thing – all shiny and metallic. I could conceal it in my pocket so nobody knew I was ‘packing’ such a thing; just one squeeze of the trigger, and it would produce a satisfyingly loud ‘click’. And to top all that, I knew that when I showed it to the other boys at school, they would be aglow with with admiration and envy.
So I took it to school. And I was right – that day, I was king of the playground – at least as far as the boys were concerned. And when school was over, I marched along on the way home – it was a two mile or so walk – brandishing it in the air, pointing it at passersby and clicking its trigger. I was accompanied by two of my school friends, eager to bask in the reflected glory.
Every day, there were a lot of us kids from the school making our various ways home at the same time – no parent turned up in a car to pick you up in those days. We’d straggle along in loose little gangs, gaggles of both girls and boys, playing, shouting, laughing, arguing as we went, groups which would thin out bit by bit as homes were approached.
Along the way, we had to cross a fairly busy road bridge over a railway line. Few of us ever used the pedestrian crossing – that was just boring. Instead, we’d line up on the kerb at the side of the road, flicking our eyes this way, then that. Then, sensing the moment, we’d dash out and run across as fast as we could, dodging the traffic. And that’s what I did that day with those two friends. We rushed across the road, then leapt breathlessly and in triumph up onto the kerb on the far pavement. But even as I stood there with them, panting and laughing, I sensed a sudden darkness – something bad had happened. I shoved my hand into my trousers pocket. There was no gun.
And I knew! I knew what must have happened, and I spun round to look at the path I’d taken across the road amid the traffic. And yes – there it was, lying in the road, it’s lovely silver body gleaming against the black road surface. And as I looked, the wheels of car – in slow motion, it seemed – were aimed straight at it. My heart stopped. I knew there was no saving it, and I watched the wheels, one front and one back, run right over it – as though it had been planted there specially for them – and squash it flat. A strange, two-dimensional silver picture-image on the surface of the road was all that remained of my dear gun.
Could life really be this cruel? I howled. It was hardly twenty four hours since I’d been given it. I really didn’t know what to do with myself. My two companions were at least as shocked by my reaction as they were by the demise of the gun. I stood on the kerb, staring through my tears at its remains being vapourized as wheel after wheel ran right over it. I didn’t know how I was going to get home that day.
But then something else happened. Kids were still crossing the road in little groups. And from one of these groups, a girl of about my own age, seeing me crying, broke away and came towards me. I can see it now as clearly as the moment it happened. She stepped up onto the pavement, came right up to me and asked me what was the matter. I burbled something about my toy gun, then pointed to the fast disappearing remains of it in the road. She looked. Then turned back to me, reached forward, opened her arms, and threw them around me and pulled me, sobbing, to her.
Who she was I had no idea. I still don’t. She may have been from another class in our school. She may have been anyone from anywhere. But whoever she was, her arms around me and her clear young voice in my ear expressing her heartfelt understanding and commiseration with me over my loss, calmed me and settled me enough to enable me to face the rest of my walk home.
I can see now, looking back, how, in my confused, childish way, I’d known, as her arms went around me, that she had brought to our encounter something of which I had seen all too little in my life. Many years were to pass however before I was able to understand that what she had shown me, unasked and without question, was that so often maligned and misunderstood thing – love. Real love; that which asks no question – nor for anything in return. Real love; the recognition of oneness.
I’ve thought about her many, many times in the years since and wondered where she came from. She couldn’t have attended the same school – had she done so, I would surely have caught sight of her again. But I never did. And I never have. It’s almost as though she’d arrived on planet earth simply to be with me in that moment – then was gone again immediately after. There are after all, as the great man wrote, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
So whoever you are and wherever you are – Thank you. You have been a profound influence in my life.