The Day I Saw Somebody Shoot Off His Own Face

In the two decades since it happened, I've speculated as to the reasons for this shocking tragedy, but really I just hope that Derek and Nige have found peace...
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In the springtime of 1987 I was working as an assistant to a fine artist called Christina Woodhouse (R.I.P) in my home town, Hull. Most Friday lunchtimes I would have a pint and a game of pool with a few lads who I’d met at gigs and nightclubs. The pub would normally be fairly busy with similar Fridayers and a few bikers who’d been resident there for years. My comrades were Nige, identical twins Derek and Gerald and a couple of others. They all attended the local Tech College. Pretty normal lads, it was decent banter and a good start to the weekend.

One week Derek was missing, apparently he and Gerard had had a brotherly row which they hadn’t yet resolved and he was sulking. The following Friday he was there, but behaved a little strange, withdrawn. Nige explained during a game that things were difficult between the two brothers, they had been fighting regularly and Derek had made threats of murder toward his twin, and had spoke of suicide. I didn’t pay much attention to their difficulties. I was probably too busy getting the 8 ball in the top left pocket in order to stay on the table for a free game. I went back to the studio and paid Derek and Gerard no mind, I was accustomed to my peers saying and doing stupid things, it’s how teenagers sometimes behave, and brothers fight. It didn’t seem like anything unusual. But, due to the eventualities, to this day I remember the concern on Nige’s face as he relayed the details of their quarrels.

The following week I went, once again, to practice my pool method with the boys. There was no Derek. Gerard and Nige sat in the corner of the pub, they looked tired and panicky. “Have you seen Derek?” Nige asked. I hadn’t. “When you see him, just run”. I took little notice. I put a marker coin on the pool table and a bought half of Skol. A few minutes later Derek walked into the pub, carrying a hold-all. Nige and Gerard scarpered.

Derek made no eye contact with anyone. Put the bag down on a table and pulled a shotgun from it. He calmly loaded it with two cartridges. I suddenly remembered Nige’s advice and also a conversation I’d had weeks before, with the twins, about a local farmer and them knowing exactly where he stored his gun. I ran to the pub door. Derek pointed the gun at the ceiling, let out a roar and fired a shot into the ceiling. CRACK! I ran down the corridor that led out into the street. Gerard was in the street, crying, shaking, petrified, having heard the shot “Has he done it, has he killed someone?” He screamed, then “RUN RUN!” as he saw Derek walking out into the corridor. Gerard ran up the street, I ran across the road and into a shrouded doorway.

Derek made no eye contact with anyone. Put the bag down on a table and pulled a shotgun from it. He calmly loaded it with two cartridges

Derek walked quite calmly up the road as people walked passed him, either oblivious or incredulous to a kid with a shotgun in his hands. At the corner of George St I saw Derek turn the gun around, hold the end of the barrel to his face with his left hand and pull the trigger with his right thumb. CRACK! I saw a gunpowder flash between the gun and his face. Derek fell to the floor. He’d blown off his cheeks, top lip and tongue. Had the farmer from whom he’d stole the gun stocked heavy duty cartridges rather than less powerful pigeon cartridges Derek’s head would have been shattered, liquid even. Within seconds there was a Police Officer knelt behind him holding in the remains of his face with his hand in an attempt to stem the gushing blood. Derek remained conscious throughout.

An ambulance took him away. I went back to the studio, I told Christina what I’d seen. She looked at me unbelievingly. A few days later I gave a statement to the police.

Fast forward a year and I am living in Leeds attending Art College. I was called to give evidence in court. Derek had recovered and was being charged with attempted murder. Someone in the bar that day was convinced the shotgun was meant to harm him. They had had some petty argument over money a week before and Derek had become angry and made threats, hence that charge was decided upon.

Seeing Derek in the dock was pitiful. Handcuffed to two officers, he had no top lip, so his top gum and teeth were permanently exposed, his cheeks were a mangled mess of skin grafts and pink leathery scar tissue and he had little tongue. The officers had him restrained in such a way that he could not touch his face with his hands, so he was scratching his face and nose on the frame of the wooden partition in front of him. Judging by the frequency of his scratching I presumed he had irritating nerve endings in his face, common in amputees. It was an awful spectacle.

I was the only person who had seen both shots being discharged. I gave my evidence. As far as I could see he had been looking to murder nobody apart from himself. He was found not guilty of attempted murder but guilty of several firearms and theft offences and was give a custodial sentence in a secure psychiatric unit.

I have no idea what led Derek to do what he did. It could have been an issue stemming from rivalry with his twin, or maybe mental illness, or possibly just plain old angst and deep adolescent confusion. But I’m no shrink. If I’d had the maturity and first hand experience of poor mental health that I now have I would have probably been more concerned and responsive about the situation when Nige’s anxiety was apparent, the week before the incident. The tragic manifestation of Derek’s unhappiness must have devastated many. I hope he’s found peace.

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