Thinking about guns. When I was a kid, my dad was obsessed with guns. This was rural England long before Dunblane, and we lived out in the sticks. Everyone owned guns. Everyone went shooting and had dead things hanging upside down in the garage. But my dad’s love of guns was somewhat more fetishistic. I remember as a kid being home from school with some probably feigned illness and ended up sitting on my own watching Calendar, the regional news magazine. They ran a feature about The Amityville Horror in which they told the grim true tale that had inspired the nonsense about the hauntings. In 1974, Ronald Defeo had walked the darkened halls of his parents’ home in the early hours of the morning, and had shot dead his mother, father and four siblings. It occurred to me that this was just the kind of thing my dad – who was volatile, easily provoked and prone to fits of impenetrable blind rage – might do. I began to imagine him unlocking the gun cabinet in the bedroom and standing there naked in the dim moonlight while my mother slept, slotting a couple of cartridges into a twelve bore and strolling between bedrooms, blasting us in our beds.
Then, when I was thirteen, his brother stabbed his wife to death and hung himself. They were going through a bitter divorce – all the usual savage acts of domestic evil. Social services were involved. One of my cousins came to live with us, the other with the family of a friend. The night before he killed her, he was sitting in our kitchen, in our house in the middle of nowhere, filling in paperwork and falling to pieces – and before he left, he said “I’m going to kill her.” As people do – and then he did. And time went on and my parents – always somewhat unlikely – marriage hit the skids for the last time. My dad moved into the spare bedroom, where he’d sit on the bed with the door open so we could all see him every time we went in our out of our rooms, listening to his dead brother’s maudlin fucking country and western albums, staring out of the window at the fields, country darkness. He’d taken to wearing a sheath knife round about this time and he’d take the knife off and lay it on a bedside table beneath a photo of my uncle in a naval uniform and he’d sit there listening to whisky drinking cowboys lamenting their ill treatment at the hands of women, sighing, in a room full of guns. I was about fifteen or sixteen at this point, and I’d lie awake all night long, listening for the creak of the board on the landing, waiting for my dad to come and kill us all in our beds.
Then he moved out – and went to stay in town with his sister; the same long-suffering one my uncle was staying with at the time of the murder. And then we started to hear the stories. He was coming to kill us. He’d been telling people in pubs about how he was going to come out to our house in the middle of nowhere one night and kill us. There was his brother. There was a friend of his from a nearby village who’d recently shot his own wife. There just seemed to be a lot of it about. At one time I was waiting for a lift – my mum had been badly injured and my sister and I were staying at my grandparents – and he pulled up in his pickup truck, popped the door of the glove compartment and showed me a loaded handgun which he told me he was going to use to blow his brains out with. It would be a fucking relief if you did, I thought. Up until this point, I’d seriously considered buying a gun myself and killing him. A pre-emptive strike seemed the only sensible and proportionate response to the threat. But it all blows over. Now and again, on the rare occasions I see him, and he’s regaling me with his boasts of past violence and horrifying behaviour, he tells me how he was stalking my mum and her boyfriend one night and had seen their car in a pub car park. He’d gone inside with a loaded handgun in his jacket, ready to kill my mother and lover – but they’d gone on elsewhere with a friend, and no, nobody knew where. Or he’d have killed them both that night. It could all be bullshit, but this is what he tells me, crooked roll-up glued to his lips, with that blank look in his pale blue eyes.