It is the early 1970s and I must be twelve or thereabouts. It’s Easter and I am in the Scottish borders with my mother and father. My older brothers and sister have all left home now and I have effectively become an only child. We are staying in a caravan on a farm just outside of Jedburgh.
I am walking a sun-dappled path alongside a wood. In my hand is a .22 air rifle with a telescopic sight. I’ve a box of pellets in my pocket, a sheath knife on my hip.
Walking along the path I am Hawkeye, treading as stealthily as I can, imagining that any snap of a twig or rattle of those pellets will bring a Huron raiding party down on me. I am deep in concentration.
I hear a slight rustling above my head and without looking, I raise the barrel of the rifle and shoot. There is a tiny repetitive, stuttering noise as something small falls, fluttering, through the leaves and drops with the faintest of thuds, to the ground in front of me.
I stoop down and pick it up. It’s warm and so, so soft. So impossibly light.
There isn’t a mark on it. But all the same it’s dead.
I’ve killed it.
I’m still marvelling at my unlucky lucky shot when I see the old man further down the path. He’s wearing a coat and flat cap, a shotgun in his hands, looking straight at me – silently, malevolently.
I drop the goldfinch, guiltily, connecting this crime with the appearance of the old man.
Then, registering his glasses, I wonder if he has mistaken me for someone – or something – else and so I hold my air rifle over my head to signify I don’t know what, but it makes sense at the time.
He responds immediately by taking a bead on me. I think he is about to shoot and so I cry out. He lowers the barrel and starts towards me, telling me, gruffly, to stay put.
I’m terrified. He quizzes me about who I am and I tearfully tell him we are holidaying in the caravan down the path and he marches me off to check whether this story is true.
My father is furious. He is understandably outraged that I have been threatened with a gun. I feel the righteous warmth of his protection. The surety of it.
And this feeling takes away some of the shock I still feel at being threatened, the embarrassment at my tears – and a little of the shame I will feel later about the goldfinch I had so pointlessly killed.
The farmer apologises profusely when we tell him and says that the old man is a gamekeeper from the neighbouring estate and notorious thereabouts for his sour mood and hatred of poachers. He smiles and says I can shoot the rats in his barn if I want. I decline his offer.
I don’t know what happened to that air rifle. I don’t remember ever using it again.