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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Rarely Available



My father wanted to meet the successful purchasers of our family home of almost 40 years to explain to them – as he put it – “the things that are wrong with it”.


I had to gently persuade him that this was not a course of action to be recommended. By doing so there lay the possibility that the two doctors – this of course pleased Dad immensely, continuity see, his daughter first and then his son having chosen a career of accounting over medicine – there the lay the possibility that the two doctors who had bought the house might rescind on the bargain. Even if they didn’t through deliberate choice, shocked at the plethora of – shall we say eccentricities – of the four bedroom double upper with stunning views, it would have taken so long to go through the various deficiencies and overdue repairs that they may well have just got bored and bought another “rarely available” late 19th century villa in south Edinburgh.


So a few days after we had said a sad farewell to number 27, it was with no little apprehension that I took a phonecall from one of the new owners, “the lady doctor” as my father insisted on referring to her, extraordinary given that he was for many years in charge of the staffing of doctors throughout Scotland’s hospitals.


Did she want to know what the three light switches at the lounge door did? One of them controlled the power point in the far corner where we had the TV, a bit annoying but something that became second nature after about 10 years. The other two did nothing. Had she or her husband – “the man doctor”, not that my father ever called him that – made the mistake of actually using the second floor balcony with its decayed timber flooring? Perhaps they had discovered that the gas fire in the living room (yes, we had a lounge AND a living room, didn’t everyone?) was by now merely decorative? Or had they simply realised that the Hygena kitchen units, which predated my Mum and Dad’s ownership of the property, were utterly hideous?


But no, it was none of these things. It was that in the spare bedroom, well, we used it as a spare bedroom, after all it had the best view of the four of them overlooking both Arthur’s Seat and Blackford Hill, why would we want to waste that on anyone from our actual family? Yes, in the spare room, in the built in cupboard, she – the lady doctor – had found a gun and did I want it back?


Did I. Want the gun. That the new owners. Of our old house. Had found in the cupboard. In the spare bedroom?


It’s not a question that you’re faced with often in life and in retrospect I should have acted surprised (which I was) or shocked (not so much, a body, yes, a gun, well …) But in the split second that I had to think – or not think too much – before I answered, I decided that the best approach was to supply an answer to the question straight, without further elaboration, and so I replied, “No, you can keep it.”


There was silence at the other end of the line, a silence broken by me – or a voice that sounded like mine – asking if there was anything else I could help with. In response there was a slightly bewildered “No”, and that was the end of the conversation.


***


One of my earliest memories is one evening standing with my Mum on one side of me, my Dad on the other in the back garden of our house at Liberton. I can now only guess at when this was. However, given the nature of the conversation, it must surely have been before I started school, proper school, not nursery school, and I sensed that a change in my life was imminent. That would make it the summer of 1970. I was 5, Dad 42.


There was something said which made me aware for the first time that our family was not going to remain together in the same house forever. I’m not talking about separation or divorce - my sister and I would both shoulder the family responsibility for that later - simply that at some point, I’d grow up and leave home. And it was possibly something as banal as my Dad having cut the grass that evening, patting me on the head and saying you’ll need to do that when you grow up and have a place of your own. Whatever he said, the realisation that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life with Mum and Dad really freaked me out. After trying to convince me of the advantages of leaving home - to a five year old!!! - my father caved in, and said I could live with Mum and him forever. A kind offer but I expect he was grateful I never held him to it.


As it turned out our family didn’t remain together in the same house even for all of my school days, moving in 1977 two miles away to the rarely available double upper on the other side of the Braid Hills. But at some point before then - and after the end of the Garden of Eden revelation of 1970 - the gun which caused the lady doctor to phone all those years later made an appearance.


Naturally it belonged to my father and was a relic from his childhood. It is now offence to possess an imitation firearm in a public place ‘without reasonable excuse’ although quite what that might be I don’t know. It is also an offence to sell one to a person under the age of 18, and for a person under the age of 18 to buy one. But in Aberdeen in the 1930s a replica rifle which fired actual lead ammunition was considered a suitable toy for an eight year old. Dad is no longer around to tell what his usual targets were but there was a field behind the family home at Hilton Terrace so perhaps squirrels, rabbits, or, more likely, empty tin cans placed on top of a fence. But on one occasion he took it upon himself to play sniper, and from an upstairs window shot an unsuspecting pedestrian in the arse.


No doubt it was a flashback to this period of his youth that persuaded him one Sunday morning that the best way to eradicate a recalcitrant rat from our garden compost heap was to shoot it using a pre-war replica rifle. I suspect the rodent lived to see another day, and all my Dad achieved was to wake up our next door neighbours, Mr & Mrs Meikle, enjoying their one morning a week escape from running their butcher shop.


The gun was forgotten about and, as I now know ended up in the spare bedroom cupboard of number 27 for the best part of four decades. May still be there now.

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