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Dermot never felt comfortable walking the Northland Road. He was going to see a fellow socialist who lived at the city end of it. The route passed a huge stone wall bordering the estate of Dill House, the local big house, at one time. It always unnerved him – a lonely stretch of the road that made him feel vulnerable, especially late at night on his way home after a night on the town or after work. Sometimes it couldn’t be avoided. The site proposed for a new university was behind the forbidding stone wall. Dermot, his colleagues, local politicians and business groups were at the forefront of lobbying for the university status of Magee College, an established higher education institute since the mid-eighteen hundreds that was situated at the northern end of the wall. A garden nursery occupied the other end.

Dermot looked down the road towards the city when he reached the junction. He preferred to walk down Lawrence Hill, towards the river and then along the Strand Road to the city. Lawrence Hill was a steep thoroughfare, going and coming, but it also had cordial childhood memories of playing street soccer when he stayed with his cousin, Liam.

The nursery’s entrance, solid and ancient, was at the city side of the wall with a magnificent arch. The protective crown provided occasional refuge from the elements for Dermot and other Derry natives. An ornamental boot scraper took sentinel place at the gate lodge on its left with a window of lead light set in a similar arch adding a pleasing attribute to the gaunt fortification.

To his consternation, he thought he had spotted Brendan and Mick at the junction earlier. Unhappily they were in front of him, waiting. An aura of pallor hung over them, soon to engulf Dermot. They were the school yard bullies and his nemesis. Sometimes they drank at his work – The Inishmore Bar. Their agitated behaviour, constantly glancing over their shoulders, gave Dermot the impression they were in the middle of something. He couldn’t avoid them as he strode towards the two – hiding his abhorrence with his head held high and an unyielding expression in contrast to their smiles as big as the proverbial Cheshire cat’s.

Strangely, there was little traffic on this dreary afternoon, even though the schools were finished. The black jacketed young man called to him:

‘What about ye, Dermot? Great to see ya!’

‘Where are you off to, boys?’

‘Oh, just doing a wee job. Why don’t you come with us?’

‘No thanks, lads. Off to work. Your uncle Cathal wouldn’t be too happy if I was late.’

Their contempt for Dermot was obvious in their patronising smirks. Their contempt for themselves was let loose on the unfortunate barman. Mick’s uncle Cathal was Dermot’s boss and Dermot used his name in the conversation to remind them of the connection. Cathal was always remonstrating with the two. With their palpable anxiety and false bonhomie, Dermot knew something was amiss and wanted to get away.

Harry had mentioned that he had seen two men loitering in the fire station’s garden several times. It must have been Brendan and Mick. Dermot could see Mick had stuffed something under his zipped jacket. Brendan and Mick had picked it up from the drop location behind the bench in the fire station’s little garden. Behind the seat were bricks covering a secret space draped in protective ivy.

‘Now Dermot you wouldn’t want to annoy us today. We are busy boys.’

‘Well, sure then I’ll be on my way, lads.’

Mick tapped the front of his jacket and anyone could see something was inside. It was obvious they wanted Dermot to ask what it was, what they were doing. Dermot didn’t care and wanted to get away as soon as possible from their mindless bravado. Mick had the eyes of a battered boxer, and kept looking about, his eyes darting up and down the road, probably looking for any security forces.

‘Oh shit! Look up there. We had better get going.’

Mick exclaimed as he nudged Brendan. As they had stood talking, an army patrol had gathered at the top of Lawrence Hill, and it was walking towards them. Momentarily Dermot considered returning home to avoid being caught with the two boys, but that action too might draw the army’s attention – the soldiers may have seen them talking. They were caught in no man’s land in the middle of the dreaded stone wall. The boys became more nervous.

Dermot commanded:

‘Let’s walk.’

‘Who the fuck are you to give orders?’

Dermot marched on. If they could make it to the sanctuary of the nursery entrance at the end of the wall, they could vanish from view. However, he also saw some movement at the bottom of Asylum Road, almost opposite the archway. The patrol was behind them and someone was in front. It was as depressing as a Sunday afternoon in Ballymena, the centre of Bible Belt Northern Ireland. Was it a trap set up by the security forces for Brendan and Mick? Had Dermot unwittingly walked into it?

Someone was in front of them, pressed into a privet hedge, yet something was familiar about the figure. Being Derry, everyone was familiar. Dermot strode on, as fast as he could, without drawing attention, keeping an eye on the hedge, his breathing jagged. Brendan, whose legs reminded Dermot of a bandy-legged sailor, and Mick tried to keep up with Dermot.

Dermot was sure he caught the blurred sight of another pair of legs. A little head peered fleetingly over the leaves. Were there two people hiding in the thicket? Mick also noticed and nodded to his companions. Both acknowledged with slight twist to their heads, a familiar Derry mannerism. Mick bent down as if to scratch his shin and ran his finger over the handle of the gun taped to his leg. It was unloaded. Whoever may be waiting for him did not know that. The army patrol was advancing behind them. They had no choice, but to go forward and face the uncertainty of what lay ahead.

They made it to the arch, relaxed a little and stepped underneath, hidden from view. No one was around the nursery’s entrance. Dermot bent forward to use the eighteenth century iron boot scraper, balanced his shoe on its edge and fiddled with his lace, as if tying it while watching the patrol’s progress.

Suddenly a siren screamed. He jolted erect and saw a couple of kids in the hedge opposite peer out. He relaxed a little. The fire station at the top of Lawrence Hill sped into action. The doors opened and the brigade pulled out, lights flashing. As the engine passed them they saw the firemen inside the cab struggling into their uniforms. The patrol stopped and watched the firemen too. This allowed the three of them time to cross the street and get out of sight – their eyes fixed on the activity in the hedge in front. Two kids jumped out and ran off up Asylum Road.

Half way up Asylum Road, Brendan laughed:

‘I nearly shit myself. I was as scared as a turkey at Christmas. What do we do now, Mick?’

Before Mick could answer Dermot said as he turned to leave them:

‘See you later, boys. Actually, I don’t want to see you two again. I am off to work.’

‘Dermot, you’re coming with us.’

Mick ordered, trying to be assertive, but his trembling voice reflected his panic.

‘You know Mick, you have a great future behind you. No, lads, I am going through Brooke Park, if the side gate is open. You two are going wherever, just stay well away from me. Yous are up to something and I don’t want any part of it. So fuck off!’

Dermot strode off from the troublesome comrades – Brendan and Mick were immature young men. But the pair were dangerous lumps of nuisance, not only for Dermot, but also as members of the Irish Republican Army, the IRA. They were only fit to be foot soldiers, if that. Probably useful at times, providing they did what they were told and were under constant supervision.

Mick fancied himself; his high opinion of himself was beyond a joke – it was toxic. Mick being Cathal’s nephew seemed to have some sort of kudos. After this escapade, Dermot had no doubts about them.

Mick grabbed Dermot by the arm. This was still a dangerous situation. Dermot turned quickly and pushed both of them into a nearby garden, out of possible sight of the patrol and anyone watching.

‘Do you not see them down there? They could come up here any time. This is not the time nor the place to play silly buggers.’

‘Never mind them, you are coming with us.’

Mick wanted to show who was boss, throw his weight around and show the power he had in the gun – he wanted to frighten Dermot; he wanted to tear slices off him. Everything about Dermot he despised: his educated tone, his dapper clothes, his good looks, his friendship with his uncle and his socialist ideas. Mick bent down, pulled the Smith and Wesson from his ankle and stuck it into Dermot’s groin. His face contorted as if he was smelling shit in the sun.

Without a moment’s hesitation Dermot’s knee was into Mick’s groin and he pulled Brendan’s hair so that his face met the same knee. Both fell onto the ground, and Dermot retrieved the gun, but felt something heavy under Mick’s jacket. It felt like another gun. The gun that Mick pulled on Dermot was empty and he threw it into a hedge out of sight and for Mick to retrieve after he had left them.

‘You bastard, pulling a gun on me. So that’s why you were hobbling, the gun was taped to your leg. This is dumb shit. God, you guys never learn. It’s often a person’s mouth that breaks his nose. I’ll be telling Cathal about this. Go! Get lost.’

‘Ah, me balls. Jesus Christ. I’ll fuckin’ kill you.’

‘Fuck off and leave me alone.’

Dermot left the two goblins of stupidity. Mick called after him, issuing all sorts of expletives and death sentences. Brendan said nothing. They then realised they were drawing attention to themselves so got up and hobbled across the street and up the hill towards Rosemount.

Dermot walked across a side street towards Brooke Park, still watching for any sign of the army patrol or the two jokers he left lying in the garden. ‘Póg mo thóin’ was the last thing he heard, but he wasn’t too sure if Brendan had found new confidence and yelled it at him. When he looked back they had gone. Dermot thought ‘up yours too mate’ as he hurried away, thinking Northland Road was definitely a place to avoid. He spotted Frank leaning against a wall, his old childhood friend, also to be avoided, so he did.

When he took a side street to avoid Frank he spotted Mick and Brendan and decided to follow them. He crossed back into a lane and saw them shuffle up some side streets, getting away from any attention they might have caused. They entered a lane backing onto Brooke Park. Mick handed Brendan the parcel, who opened it and then placed the two guns into the brown wrapping. Brendan carefully rolled the paper around the weapons. Mick staged for Brendan as he climbed over the wall with the package and appeared a few minutes later on the wall and dropped into the lane again.

Dermot positioned himself behind a fat oak tree as they came down the lane past him. He heard Mick speak:

‘Jesus, I’ll kill that bastard one of these days.’

‘I’ll kill for a drink, right now.’

‘Naw, Brendan. If we arrive back with drink on our breaths we will be dead meat. A drink of Club orange and a Kit-Kat may do us. There’s a telephone in the shop up here. Then we’ll see Cathal and tell him the craic. We need to get our story straight.’

They moved off and Dermot couldn’t hear any further conversation, but thought he needed to speak to Cathal before them. He went up to the garden gate where the guns were hidden and where the ‘drop’ was. He pushed the gate open after it jammed a bit. There was no need for Brendan to mount the wall. Inside, the gardener grew mountainous vegetables. It was full of all sorts – spud bags, pots, cloches, and a water drum sat in the middle of it.

Dermot closed the gate and walked towards Brooke Park side entrance. He went to work.


Robbery

‘I am fed up waiting for those bastards to tell us what to do and give us our pocket money. We are volunteers. We deserve a wage. Instead we get a pittance, at their pleasure. I fancy a new coat and jeans. Wranglers from Mc Laughlin’s in Strabane or maybe we take the bus to Belfast for the craic.’

‘I know what you are saying mate, but we do what we do. We will just have to wait until a big job comes up and we’ll get paid for it. We have to just wait and see. The Rosemount Post Office job might turn up. We have been scouting that place for ages. Something must be going happen. Do they plan to rob it or what?’

‘Brendan, as I say, you dumb twat. We are on wee jobs, just message boys. That bollockin’ Cathal gave us, said it was our final warning. He was not going to protect me any further. Who the fuck does he think he is? My family and them before my grandparents have a history of Republicanism. I am blue-blood Republican, with my pedigree. I should be a unit commander, not a message boy, a gofer, for Jesus sake.’

‘Mick, blue blood is the Royal Family, and Jesus, you are not one of them. Are you?’

Brendan started to laugh, but saw Mick’s anger rising in his reddening cheeks and ceased his amusement before Mick thumped him, as he had done on previous occasions. Mick roared:

‘Blue blood, damn the blue blood. It’s green blood racing through my veins, and don’t you doubt my loyalty to the movement! It’s solid, it’s forever. Not a doubt!’

‘I’d never doubted it for a minute, Mick, me oul son, but we are who we are and you’ll get promoted soon enough.’ Brendan offered in a way of calming the fury in front of him. He didn’t want a punch in the face just because Mick wanted to vent his frustrations.

‘I know, I know, but it’s not soon enough and we need some money. He said I was bringing disrepute to the Movement. Fuck him!’

‘Let’s steal some Mick.’

Mick stared into Brendan’s face, squinting his eyes like one of those bubble-eyed dogs, his face contorted like a child trying to open a bag of sweets. His arms raised as Brendan readied himself for defence, but, instead Mick grabbed Brendan by the shoulders and hugged him. Brendan turned red in the confusion.

‘Jesus, Brendan you surprise me at times. We have been scouting the post office. We know the routine. Let’s do it. We’ll disguise ourselves; wear one of those Mickey Mouse masks. Nobody will know.’

‘You are crazy. If they find out they will kill us. Kneecap us. Don’t fuck around with them. We have already got too many warnings. We are on our last warning.’

‘Nobody will know. We know the job like the back of our hand. They must have expected something big to happen. We might be lucky and grab something big. We should get thousands. Nobody would know. The plans are in place. We have cased the joint loads of times.’

‘We couldn’t, we couldn’t. They would know. It would be a disaster, Mick. Someone would recognise us and if we were caught we would be dead men walking.’

‘We’ll plan it to a tee. We already know the routine, the plans, everything we know – the escape routes, the delivery of the money, could be thousands? I think Woolworths do the masks. They have a fancy-dress section. No one will know. We will spend it quietly, out of town, not show off. Head off to Belfast or Donegal and spend a couple of days, say we are visiting relatives. Just don’t spend it here in Derry, in the pubs. We will go on the tear in Dublin. Yer man, your mate, whatever his name, lives in Galway. We will go down there for a few days, then onto Dublin. Need to wait a few weeks before we go off and the heat dies off.’

‘My Uncle Brendan, my godfather and the man I was named after, lives in Manchester.’

‘Once again Brendan, my wit and wisdom is rubbing off me and onto you. Brilliant idea. Don’t fancy those Brits though.’

‘He’s the president of some Irish Club. We could mix with them. Me Ma is always telling me to visit him. He’s always asking about me. Don’t know him from a bar of soap. It could work if we went there for a while. Let’s sort out a plan.’

‘Brilliant Brendan, me oul son. We could say we are off to Manchester for a week or two. He’s dying or something. And visit Galway and Dublin. Isn’t there a ferry to Holyhead or something? You are just brilliant.’

Mick needed Brendan to agree, be part of it and help him with the plan. The plans were already in place for a robbery by the IRA, but had never been given the go-ahead. He thought it was possible that they may be suspected, but with cunning and careful planning they could get away with it. Mick and Brendan could plan to be in Buncrana and be seen by someone known to everyone, their alibi. A couple of the lads lived down there and could give them an alibi. They could say they were in Buncrana, be seen there the previous evening and come up to Derry during the night. After doing the robbery in Derry, they could go back there. Ideas were flowing around Mick’s head, the more he thought about it, the simpler it seemed. They could get a car and be over the border in no time. They could disguise themselves and return on the Buncrana bus, pretending to sleep so no one would talk to them. Nobody would know. They would split in Buncrana, be seen in a few pubs for a day or two and get the bus back, stashing the proceeds for a few weeks and then off to Galway or Manchester or wherever.

They met in Mick’s sister’s house to plan the possible day and details for the robbery, as Mick had arranged to baby-sit his nephew. According to their information the social security cheques and family allowance money were usually delivered on a Thursday morning. Sometimes there was a queue of people waiting for the post office to open. A lane opposite could provide them a little cover and an escape route, and they would rob the place early as soon as the queue had reduced. Mick would buy the masks in Woolworths and escape up the lane they came from, then dump his mask and hoodie and get the bus to Buncrana or get a car. Brendan would lift a gun from the Cillefoyle Park dump and return it immediately after the heist. His escape route would be down a lane into Northland Estate, in the opposite direction of Mick, and hide the money in his elderly Aunt’s coal shed in the estate. After putting the gun back in the dump he would get the bus to Buncrana or meet Mick and travel over by car. When they felt it was safe to do so, they would take the money and go on holiday.

On the chosen Thursday morning, a week later, Brendan picked up the gun from the dump in Cillefoyle Park. It was in an old overgrown toilet at the bottom of a garden that was neglected and unused. The access was through a hole in the hedge from the lane, and the old waterless cistern contained hand guns and ammunition. It caused much laughter amongst the volunteers that knew about it – they went to have a dump to stash or pick up arms.

The damp, dreary morning saw a queue of old-aged pensioners line up and Mick scanned the group to ensure there would be no threat to challenge them. The security van came early at eight-thirty with a police escort. They delivered the goods and left quickly. One problem was that the police patrolled the Post Office frequently on Thursdays. Generally, they would return almost immediately after opening time and then come back within half an hour to an hour. Before they came back, then was the time to rob the place.

At nine thirty-five, Brendan walked across to the Post Office, a small queue of customers were inside. He nodded over to Mick. They both entered wearing Mickey Mouse masks. Mick shouted while Brendan blocked the door and waved the gun.

‘IRA. Stay calm and nobody will get hurt.’

An old lady fainted. Mick was pleased as that kept some of the customers occupied. Brendan pointed the gun at the grey-haired female server while Mick told her:

‘See that gun, Lady. It’s pointed at you. Don’t be nervous and we won’t be and nobody will get hurt. Now dump everything from the safe in there, and I mean everything because we know what should be there. If you don’t then someone might get hurt. All of it from the safe.’

Mick shoved an empty black bag under the counter hatch while holding on to it. He now shouted angrily three times, ‘For fuck sake, fill it or somebody will get hurt’. It was filled with money and cheques. Mick and Brendan were out of the Post Office in several minutes. There was no car for their getaway. Both ran to their escape routes. The street was quiet.

Mick ran up the lane and walked down a side street to Creggan devoid of mask and hoodie top, dumped at the bottom of someone’s bin in the lane.

Brendan went down the lane towards the estate and shoved his mask and hoodie in the bag with the money. Within five minutes he was at his aunt’s house. He went through the back lane and her rear gate and took the hoodie with mask wrapped inside out of the bag. The gun was in his waist band. On the way to Cillefoyle Park he dumped the jacket and mask at the bottom of someone’s bin. All was normal in the streets of the Estate. He jerked a second when he heard a police siren and crossed Park Avenue to the lane alongside Cillefoyle Park. He noted no unusual activity in the streets. Five minutes later he placed the gun in the cistern and walked down the Rock Road to get the bus to Buncrana.

Mick walked towards Creggan, but a security check point at the Rosemount roundabout made him double-back. He went into Brooke Park, a thoroughfare to Northland Road. He walked through the park, a few people were there, some like him using it as a short cut, an elderly man walking his white dog. He noticed a queue of cars at the bottom gate, maybe stopped for a security check point, so he went to the park’s side gate, but that was shut. He ventured on to the bottom gate. Everyone was being stopped – cars and pedestrians. The security forces had been alerted to the news of the robbery. Two more army Land Rovers appeared and soldiers flooded the streets. It was too late to turn back into the park as that would bring attention to himself. All the cars were being searched, the pedestrians were being body searched and identified via a radio check. Mick was third in the queue for searching. At his turn to be searched, Mick held out his arms and produced a driving licence. The soldier casually searched him until he checked his name by radio, and immediately he nodded to another soldier who came to stand behind Mick. The soldier said:

‘Up against the wall, stay there, mate.’

A few minutes later a police Land Rover came down the middle of Northland Road, lights flashing. Two burly police officers grabbed Mick and placed him into the back of the vehicle. Mick was arrested.

At the station he was led to an airless interrogation room, with one table and four chairs. He had been sitting there for what seemed like hours and questioned twice about his involvement with the IRA and the robbery. The first time was casual and friendly.

The second time he got a smack on his face that knocked him off his chair and pinned him against the corner, his arm up his back, his hair pulled back. He expected that treatment. He said nothing.

The final interview, a thin policeman, friendly with red cheeks, talked about his arrest record showing him what they had on him. This time, the policeman said he was spotted by a patrol coming out of the post office and going up a lane. It was the one he had planned as an escape route. They had produced the mask and hoodie that he had worn on the robbery, all displayed in plastic bags in front of him. He was going to prison, he said, and not leaving the station. He was caught.


                                                                                                                                                                 © Hugh Vaughan 2017

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