A Lawyer’s Life

Independent on Sunday:–Talk of the Town, 1 February 2004

The queue in my local Alldays was ten-strong. I was second in line, happily awaiting my turn, three bottles of finest £3.59 Hungarian red nestling in my basket. It was a warm summer’s evening, and my good mood was as much down to the presence of Harry, my elder son, who never ceases to bring me joy unconfined, as the barbeque and booze lined up for later in the evening.

It was the day after Harry’s seventh birthday. His school play loomed once we’d accomplished our shopping trip. The plan was that we’d nip down to Alldays, get a few things, zoom back, get him changed into the requisite regalia, drive en famille to the play, then once all the children had done their thing (and gone to bed), the adults would do what we did best – drink pointlessly and talk nonsense into the early hours.

This seemed an eminently good and simple plan. Unfortunately, Harry had other ideas. As we stood in the queue, he asked for some sweets. No, I said, the deal was that you could come with me, but that there’d be no treats. As you know, I reasoned, with the kind of logic utterly lost on a seven-year-old, it was your birthday yesterday. “OK,” said Harry. “That means I’ll shoot you.” And he did.

My beloved first-born bundle of joy had taken with him a toy gun, bought by one of his stupid parents for his birthday. Although my memory is not what it was, given that my wife abhors guns the chances are that the stupid parent in question was me. Just as we were about to take our allotted place at the head of the queue, and, mercifully, just as I’d put the basket on the counter, Harry turned with a big, smiling, adorable face, and pulled the trigger. Out flew a little plastic bullet, straight into my left eye.

I yelped and hit the deck clutching my face. For a few seconds all I could do was moan. “Arrgh, arrgh, arrgh,” I said, my eye stinging as if a jellyfish had whipped a tentacle against my retina. “Arrgh!” I couldn’t have been on the floor for very long, perhaps half a minute at most, but as much as I felt intense, unbearable pain I was conscious of the total silence of everyone in Alldays. They simply had no idea how to respond, for how does anyone assist a parent who has just been occasioned actual bodily harm by one of their offspring? The charge could well have been GBH – I wasn’t sure, all I knew was that my eye hurt like hell – or even wounding with intent (had he not, members of the jury, evinced intent by saying: “OK, that means I’ll shoot you”?). Whether the queue in Alldays pondered the finer points of criminal indictment, I know not. But I did know that something had to be done.

Staggering to my feet, I paid for the shopping. Harry stood frozen at my side. The silence of the packed shop was unbearable. Once I’d paid, I turned to Harry and said: “Give me that gun, you stupid, stupid, stupid, child.” I had never said anything like that to him before. He turned over the gun meekly and we made our way outside. Next to Alldays, there is a handily placed bin. With my eye now pouring blood, I gave Harry a lecture on the idiocy of pointing and firing anything in another person’s face. I told him that what he had done was not merely very dangerous and wrong but also against the law. I threw his gun into the bin, and that evening, even though I was desperate to see him, I boycotted his play.

That was a year and half ago. He hasn’t had a gun since. The other day I heard him lecturing his younger brother about the evils of weaponry. “No, Elliot, you can’t shoot a gun at someone. It’s against the law.” And then he handed him a bow and arrow fashioned from some sticks and a large elastic band. “But bows and arrows are OK. Look, there’s Dad! Shoot him!” An arrow whisked past my head, and the two boys collapsed in fits of laughter. Sometimes the law can only accomplish so much.