How I Set My House on Fire ; Once in a Lifetime

By Walsh, John | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), May 27, 2007 | Go to article overview
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How I Set My House on Fire ; Once in a Lifetime


Walsh, John, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


See, I growed up on Battersea Rise. The big prairie that folks call Clapham Common stopped plumb outside our homestead. Pa was the local doc and sawbones, Ma was the doc's wife and she didn't take lip from no greenhorn. Houseproud, that's what she wuz. Once she smacked me clean round the head for shootin' one o 'they newfangled potato guns at the wall. "You know what this wallpaper costs?" she yelled. "Seven an' six a square foot in Arding & Hobbs. How could you?"

I could, because of something she never knew. I might have looked like a weed of nine or 10, with a head full of books and a bedroom full of Airfix bombers, but inside I was different. I was The Lonesome Kid. I was a cowboy to my boot-heels. I worshipped the laughing Cisco Kid and the grumpy John Wayne. I had cowboy stuff. In our spare-room was a dresser with two narrow chests of drawers and a vanity mirror between. The right-hand chest was my horse. I'd sit, six-guns holstered around my waist, reins tied around the mirror supports, my heels spurring the frisky walnut as I rode into Dodge City.

I had an arsenal of guns that wouldn't shame a professional assassin: matched Colt 45s, Winchester 75 rifle, Derringer miniature, Buntline special with its 12-inch gun-barrel. Tensed before the mirror in the spare-room, I perfected my fast draw. I narrowed my eyes like Lee Van Cleef. "You've had it comin' a long time," I informed my quaking reflection.

That Christmas - it was 1963 and I was 10 - I was given a perfect new gun, with chambers that spun when you broke it open and - get this, fetishists - plastic bullets like lead suppositories you slotted in their moorings before spinning the chamber and snapping it shut. I loved it. It fired explosive caps, and I spent Christmas Day bang-banging at small enemies until the smell of cordite was overwhelming. "You are not to fire that thing in the house anymore, John," my mother said.

Grudgingly, I complied. Next day, my parents' friends, Eddie and Nuala, came round for drinks, with their pretty daughters. Eddie was a large, bearded librarian who liked a drop. His wife was a chuckling, sweet-faced doctor chum of my father's. They always came on Boxing Day, the grown-ups drank and sang Irish songs, while the girls played with my sister Madelyn and me. I showed the girls my new gun (do stop jabbing me in the ribs, Dr Freud) and shot at them, until my mother intervened again. "I've told you not to do that in the house," she seethed. "If you shoot that bloomin' thing again, I'm taking it away."

Cheeks burning, I retired to my room and sulked for an hour. Was I to be pushed around by my Maw? Was I hell.

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