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For much of my early childhood, nestled in one cornerof my fathers study, there stood a squat and ratherugly table lamp. It was the 1970s and the fashion of theday was for small, cheap tubular shades in orange andother fiery tones. The shade bore no tassels andhovered over the base which was an object of muchmystery to me. It was fashioned in metal and was thesize of two bunched fists, one atop the other with ahole drilled through the centre where the flex fed intothe bulb. It was shaped like a broken heart, nestledabove the jagged legs of a robotic tarantula and itsentire surface was jagged and barbed like some strangealien cactus.
Its appearance was in no way beautified by its colour;the lamp stand was a mass of rusty browns and greens.It was a brutal modern art sculpture and very much outof place in my family’s home. For years I had no idea ofits origins and, like so many things in childhood, Istopped noticing it after a while and it blended into theworld of objects around me.
One afternoon in late November when I had comehome from university for a weekend, I was sat on thewindowsill, watching rivulets of rain criss-crossing theirway down the study window when my gaze was drawnonce again to the curious spiked fingers of the lampstand. My father was once again serving an extendedtour with his Regiment overseas and my mum waswearing a brave face while she waited for his return inthe New Year.
She had just bought me a welcome, steaming mugof tea and noticed me staring at the lamp. Shejoined me in my vigil and I noticed that she wasshuddering while her face took on a hauntedexpression. I reached out for the mug whichbetrayed her trembling hand and asked her whatwas wrong. What she told me meant that I wouldnever again look at that lamp in the same way.
The violently twisted metal of the stand was not as Ihave assumed, a rather tasteless piece of art, but wasinstead a 2 kg shard of shrapnel that had come close tokilling my father when he was serving in NorthernIreland during the mid-1970s. Apparently, dad waskneeling beside a brick wall, his rifle cocked in his armas he attempted to radio his position to HQ when theair above him suddenly shrieked venomously and hewas showered in red dust and chips of terracotta as thebricks all around him rained down debris.
An IRA mortar ambush had taken place and had myfather remained standing just a few moments longer,the red hot missile would have torn through his bodyand killed him outright. By fate, or sheer luck, he hadescaped that grisly end and, once he had caught hisbreath, he took his bayonet, prised the savagefragment from the wall, and carried it back to basebefore, in due course, bringing it home.
My father has never been one to tell war stories; histime in service is always something hes protected mysister and I from and so its not surprising that growingup, I never learned of the lamp’s real identity. Hequietly carved a wooden base from a piece of oak,wired in the bulb and the lump of shrapnel sat in acorner of his study as a reminder that life is fragile andvery precious.
That strangest of lamps is still in my parents’ house,and I often find myself hypnotised by its blade blisteredsurface; it evokes in me an odd mix of melancholy,pride and relief. Had that missile cut its way in a slightlymore downward angle, or had my father not crouchedto make his radio call, I would have grown up withouthim. But he did crouch, and there are few sights I gainmore pleasure from than watching dad nestled in hisarmchair, reading a favourite book by warm lamplight.