Chapter 1 The Great Escape
The beeper began to whine at four twenty seven p.m. on Wednesday the 25th September, 1983. It was repeating a shrill C sharp at four second intervals which meant - for those of us who had bothered to read the manual - that it was a Class 1 emergency. This was a general alert being sent to every off duty policeman, police reservist and soldier in Northern Ireland. There were only five Class 1 emergencies and three of them were a Soviet nuclear strike, a Soviet invasion and what the civil servants who’d written the manual had nonchalantly called “an extra-terrestrial trespass”.
So you’d think that I would have dashed across the room, grabbed the beeper and ran with a mounting sense of panic to the nearest telephone. You’d have thought wrong. For a start I was as high as Skylab, baked on Turkish black cannabis resin that I’d cooked myself and rolled into sweet Virginia tobacco. And then there was the fact that I was playing Galaxian on my Atari 5200 with the sound on the TV maxed and the curtains pulled for a full dramatic and immersive experience. I didn’t notice the beeper because its insistent whine sounded a lot like the red ships peeling off from the main Galaxian fleet as they swooped in for their oh so predictable attack.
They didn’t present any difficulty at all despite the sick genius of their teenage programmers back in Osaka because I had the moves and the skill and all they had were ones and zeroes. I slid the joystick to the left, hugged the corners of the screen and easily dodged their layered cluster bomb assault. A lone straggler attempted to trap me with his guided missiles but I was miles too fast for him and skated casually out of his way. That survived, I eased into the middle of the screen and killed the entire squadron as they attempted to get back into formation. It was only when the screen was blank and I saw that I was nudging close to my previous high score that I noticed the grey plastic rectangle sitting on the coffee table, beeping and vibrating with what in retrospect seemed to be more than its usual vehemence. I threw a pillow over the device, sat back down on the rug and continued with the game.
The phone began to ring and it went on and on and finally more out of boredom than curiosity I paused the game and answered it. It was Sergeant Pollock, the duty man at Bellaughray Station.
“Duffy, you didn’t answer your beeper!” he said.
“Maybe the Soviet army blocked the signal.”
“What’s going on Pollock?” I asked him.
“You’re in Carrickfergus, right?”
“Report to your local police station. This is a Class 1 emergency.”
“What’s the story?”
“It’s big. There’s been a mass breakout of IRA prisoners from the Maze prison.”
“Jesus! What a cock up.”
“It’s panic stations, mate. We need every man.”
“Ok. But remember this is my off day so I’ll be on double time.”
“How can you think of money at a time like this, Duffy?”
“Surprisingly easily, Pollock. Remember double time. Put it in the log.”
“Another fine job from Her Majesty’s Prison Service, eh?”
“You can say that again. Let’s just hope we can clean up their mess. . .Listen are you ok with going to Carrick? I know you haven’t been back there since you were, uh, demoted. I could always send to Newtownabbey RUC.”
“Never fret, Pollock. I shall thrive on my native heath.”
“I hope so.”
I hung up and addressed the Galaxian Fleet hovering silently on the TV screen: “Return to your alien masters and tell them that we Earthmen are not so easly crushed,” and with that I pulled the Atari out of back of the TV and flipped on the news. HM Prison Maze (previously known as Long Kesh) was a maximum security prison considered to be one of the most escape proof penitentiaries in Europe. Of course whenever you heard words like “escape proof” you immediately thought of that other great Belfast innovation, the “unsinkable” Titanic. The facts came drifting in as I put on my uniform and body armour. 38 IRA prisoners had escaped from H Block 7 of the facility. They had used smuggled-in guns to take hostages, then they’d grabbed a laundry van and stormed the gates. One prison officer was dead and twenty others had been injured. “Among the escapees are convicted murderers and some of the IRA’s leading bomb makers,” said an attractive, breathless young newsreader in the BBC studio.
“Well that’s fantastic,” I muttered and wondered if it was anybody I’d personally put away. I made a cup of instant coffee and had a bowl of Frosties to get the Turkish black out of my system and then I went outside to my waiting BMW.
“Oh Mr Duffy, you won’t have heard the news!” Mrs Campbell said to me over the fence. I was wearing a flak jacket, a riot helmet and carrying a Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun so it wasn’t a particularly brilliant deduction from Mrs C, but I gave her a grim little smile and said “About the escape you mean?”
She tucked a vivid line of burgundy hair behind an ear. “Yes, it’s shocking, they’ll murder us all in our beds! What will I do with my Stephen upstairs on disability?” Stephen’s ‘disability’ was a steady diet of gin which meant that by lunchtime he was as pickled as Oliver Reed during the making of The Three Musketeers.
She was a handsome woman was Mrs Campbell even with her troubles and her 1950's nightdress and with a fag end hanging out of her mouth.
“Don’t concern yourself Mrs C, I’ll be back soon,” I said trying to sound like Christopher Reeve in Superman II when he reassures Lois that General Zod will be no match for him. I’m not sure she quite got the element of self parody in my Reeve impersonation but she did lean over the fence, give me an ashy kiss on the cheek and whisper “thank you.”
I responded with a little nod of the head, walked down the path and got inside my BMW. Before I put the key in the ignition I got out again and looked underneath the vehicle for mercury tilt bombs. There were none and I re-entered and stuck in a cassette of Robert Plant’s Principle of Moments. This was my fourth listen to Plant’s solo album and I still couldn’t bring myself to like it. It was all synthesizers, drum machines and high pitched vocals. It was a sign of the times and with the autumn upon us it was safe to say that 1983 was turning out to be the worst year in popular music for about two decades.
I drove along the Scotch Quarter and turned right into Carrickfergus RUC station for the first time in a long time. It was a very strange experience and the young guard at the gate didn’t know me. He checked my warrant card, nodded, looked at me, frowned, raised the barrier and finally let me through. I parked in the crappy visitor’s car park far from the station and walked to the duty sergeant’s desk. There had been a few changes. They’d painted the walls mental hospital pink and there were potted plants everywhere. I knew that Chief Inspector Brennan had retired and in his place they had brought in an officer from Derry called Superintendent Carter. I didn’t know much about him except that he was young and energetic and full of ideas - which, admittedly, sounded just ghastly. But this wasn’t my manor anymore so what did I care what they did to the old place.
Running Carrickfergus CID branch on a temporary basis was my former adjutant, the freshly promoted, Detective Sergeant John McCrabban, and that was a good thing. I went upstairs slipped in the back of the briefing room and tried not to draw attention to myself.
“. . .might be of some use. We’re instituting Operation Cauldron. Blocking every road to and from the Maze. Our patch is the access roads to the north and east, the A2 and of course the roads to Antrim. We are coordinating with Ballyclare RUC. . .”
Carter was tall with a prominent Adam’s apple and brown curly hair. He was rangy and he leaned over the podium in a menacing way as if he was going to clip you round the ear. I listened to his talk, which spoke of dangers and challenges and finished with an echo of Winston Churchill’s ‘Fight Them On The Beaches’ speech. As rhetoric it was wildly over the top but some of the younger reserve constables clapped when it was done. As we were filing out of the briefing room I said hello to a few old friends. Inspector Douggie McCallister shook my hand. “It’s great to see you, Sean. Jeez, if you’d been here five minutes earlier you would have caught up with McCrabban and Matty but they’re away with the riot police. How ya been?”
“I’ve been fair to middling, Douglas. How’s your new boss?”
Douggie rolled his eyes and lowered his voice: “If he wasn’t a six footer I’d have said that he was a short man in need of a balcony.”
“Oh dear. You could always do the old Thorazine-in-the-whisky trick.”
“Total abstainer, Sean. Tea drinker. Wants to ban booze from the station, from the whole island too if his pamphlets are to believed.”
“I think they tried that approach in America with decidedly mixed results.”
“Aye well, one crisis at a time, let me sort you out with a duty roster. Can you still drive a Land Rover?”
“Does the Pope shit in the woods?”
I got my armoured police Land Rover and headed out with a group of nervous constables to a place called Derryclone on the shores of Lough Neagh. It took us over two and a half hours to get through all the police roadblocks so that we could reach our destination and set up our own roadblock. This was the much vaunted Operation Cauldron in action.
Radio 3 were playing Ligeti’s Requiem and the sombre mood wasn’t helped by the black clouds and the light rain and solitary crows cawing at us from sagging telegraph wires. When I opened the back doors of the Rover two of the men were reading their Gideon New Testatments, one appeared to have been crying and the sole Catholic reservist was, embarrassingly, fingering a Rosary.
“Bloody hell, lads! It’s like a Juarez minibus on the Dia de Los Muertos in here. Come on! This is routine. We are not going to encounter any terrorist desperadoes, I promise you.”
We set up our block along the sleepy B road by Lough Neagh and after an hour or two of nothingness it was evident to even the gloomiest young peeler that none of the Maze escapees were coming our way.
We saw helicopters with spotlights flying back and forth from RAF Aldergrove and on the radio we heard that first, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had tended his resignation, and later, that Mrs Thatcher herself had resigned.
No such luck. No one had resigned and I prophesied to the boys that when the report into the break-out was published no one above the rank of Inspector would even get a reprimand. (You can read the 1984 Hennessy Report for yourself if you want proof of my uncanny fortune telling abilities.)
Another Land Rover arrived at our road-block from Ballymena RUC and the coppers spoke in a dialect so thick we had trouble understanding them. Much of their conversation seemed to involve Jesus and tractors, an unlikely combination for anyone who doesn’t know Ballymena. Yet another Land Rover came in the late evening this one carrying lads from as far away as Coleraine. No one had thought to bring hot chocolate or hot cocoa or food or cigarettes, but the Inspector from Coleraine RUC had brought along a travel chess set just to have the satisfaction of beating all of us. I told him my Boris Spassky story (Reporter: “Which do you prefer, Mr Spassky, chess or sex?” Spassky: “It very much depends on the position.”) But he was not impressed and mated me in eleven moves.
It began to rain harder around midnight and the night was long and cold. In the wee hours we finally stopped a car: an Austin Maxi with an elderly female driver who’d been trying to get home from church since lunch time. In the boot, alas, there were no escaped prisoners. She did have a tin of shortbread and after some discussion in the interests of good community relations we let her keep it.
Bored senseless we listened in on the confused and contradictory police radio traffic. There had been some rioting in West Belfast but this was an obvious ploy to distract the cops so central command hadn’t diverted many troops or peelers to deal with it.
Just before dawn there was a bit of excitement on the southern part of the lough when an army helicopter pilot thought he had seen someone hiding in the reeds. The radio barked into life and we and several other mobile patrols were scrambled and sent down to check it out. When we got there a small unit of Welsh Guardsmen were shooting into the water with machine guns. As the sun came up we saw that they had done a good job of massacring an exhausted flock of Greenland geese who had foolishly touched down here on their journey to the South of France.
The Ballymena boys grabbed a goose each and we drove back to our outpost. I sat up in the Land Rover cab and tuned in BBC Radio 4. The latest news was that eighteen of the escapees had been recaptured but the others had gotten clean away. At noon we got the list of their names. They were all unknown to me except for one. . .but that one was Dermot McCann. Dermot and I had gone to school together in Derry at St. Malachy’s. A really smart guy, he had been Head Boy when I had been Deputy Head Boy. Handsome, good at games and charming, Dermot had planned to go into the newspaper business and possibly into TV journalism. But the Troubles had changed all that and Dermot had volunteered for the IRA just as I had once thought of doing at around the time of Bloody Sunday.
Through various machinations I had joined the police and Dermot had served several years in the Provos before getting himself arrested. He was a highly gifted IRA explosives expert and bomb maker who’d only been betrayed in the end by an informer. The grass fingered Dermot as an important player but there was no forensic evidence so some clever peeler had fitted him up by putting a fingerprint on a block of gelignite. He’d been found guilty and until his escape he’d been doing ten years for conspiracy to cause explosions.
I hadn’t thought of Dermot in a long time but in the weeks that followed the break-out we learned that he had been one of the masterminds behind the escape plan. Dermot had figured out a way of smuggling guns into the prison and it was his idea to take prison officers hostage and dress in their uniforms so the guard towers wouldn’t be alerted.
Dermot got to South Tyrone and over the border into the Irish Republic. I heard later from MI5 that he and an elite IRA team had been spotted at a terrorist training camp in Libya. But even on that miserable Monday morning on the eastern shores of Lough Neagh with the mist rising off the water and the rain drizzling from the grey September sky I knew with the chilly logic of a fairy story that our paths would cross again.
Chapter 2 The Little Escape
It was late on a cold December day and Prisoner 239 was doing now what he did best: waiting. He had not always been good at this. As a boy he had been aggressive and forward. At school he had been brilliant but often impatient and rash. It was in the Maze Prison where he had learned about waiting. As an IRA leader he’d often been put in solitary where waiting had been his only companion. He had waited in the Maze for five years: learning, scheming, plotting. And here, in this concrete coffin on the edge of the desert, although it was harder to keep track of time, he was waiting again. In the first few days after his arrest he had raged and fumed and banged his fists against the iron door. “This is all a huge mistake!” he had yelled. “We were invited here!” But it hadn’t done any good. All that it had done was make them rush in with rubber hoses to shut him up.
He knew that he was not alone in the facility but here there were no prisoners in the cells on either side of him which increased his sense of isolation, as did the high window, the enclosed exercise yard and the guards who had been instructed never to talk to him or respond to his questions. But it only took him a few days to remember his old skills. He learned again to use the time and not to let the time use him. He read the French novels they gave him and what was left of the English newspapers after the prison censor had had his way with them. Censor is a lowly position in every culture and no doubt what the man cut from the pages revealed more than he could possibly imagine.
He began writing his thoughts down in the journals they left for him. On every other page he made drawings from memory of his mother, siblings and scenes from Derry. He must have known that when they took him to the exercise yard or the shower block they read and photographed what he had written, but he didn’t care. He wrote poems and notes for political manifestos and stories about his childhood. Perhaps he even wrote about me although I doubt that and certainly my name was not mentioned in the materials British Intelligence subsequently gave to me. In truth I was never one of his best friends; more of a hanger-on, a runner, a groupie. . .For a while in the sixth form I was even a comic foil, a court jester. . .until he tired of me and promoted some other loser into that position.
As the weeks dragged on, Prisoner 239’s journal entries grew more elaborate. He described his experiences growing up in the Bogside in the 50s and 60s. He talked about that awful day in Derry with the paratroopers had shot dead a dozen civilians who had only been marching for equal rights. . .He mentioned how Bloody Sunday had galvanised him and every other young man in the city.
Including me of course. In fact the last time I had seen Dermot McCann in the flesh was when I had meekly sought him out and asked if I too could join the Provos. He had turned me down flat. “You’re at Queens University, Duffy. Stay there. The movement needs men with brains as well as brawn.”
Of course after I had joined the peelers he had no doubt expunged all thoughts of me from his life. . .
On that last December day, Prisoner 239 had taken the thin white mattress off the bed and placed it on the cell floor. He wrote in his journal that if he lay in the corner of the cell near the door he could occasionally see a thin cirrus cloud through the high slit windows. He could smell the desert on the southern Khamseen and although he wasn’t supposed to know where he was being held, he knew that he was south east of Tobruk, probably less than a dozen miles from the Egyptian border. Freedom. . .if he could get out and make a break for it. And if anybody could get out of a Gadhafi dungeon it was Dermot McCann.
He lay on the floor and wrote about the sky as it changed colours throughout the late afternoon. He described the ful and flat bread they brought him at six o’clock. He wrote about the night-time prison symphony: keys turning in locks, the squeak of sneakers along a polished floor, men talking on the floor below, a distant radio, vermin outside in the hallway, a lorry clanking along one of the border roads and when the wind was right, the howling of jackals at one of the desert wadis.
Prisoner 239 wrote and waited. He explored the vistas of his own mind and memory. “Society improveth the understanding” he scribbled on the very first page of the book “but solitude is the school of genius!”
On that final December evening, he lit a red candle stub (red wax was on the notebook) made a drawing of a fox, fixed his blanket about him and went to sleep. No doubt he woke with the sun and when the guards came into his cell to bring him breakfast perhaps he sensed the change in their mood and attitude. Maybe he noticed that they were smiling at him and that one of them was carrying a brand new suit of clothes.
Chapter 3 The Incident
December. It had been a year now since I’d been thrown out of CID and reduced from detective inspector to the rank of sergeant – an ordinary sergeant that is, not a detective sergeant. As you can imagine after you’ve been a detective it’s very difficult to go back to regular uniformed police work in a border police station. The official reason why the RUC had busted me was because I’d broken a lot of chicken shit rules but really it was because I had offended some high ranking FBI agents over the DeLorean case and they’d wanted to see me brought down a peg or two.
Police stations on the South Armagh border were future finishing schools for alcoholics and suicides with the added frisson of being shot or blown up on foot patrol, but what did me in was the night we had to take Sergeant Billy McGivvin home after he’d caused a drunken scene in a pub. Billy lived in my neck of the woods and I’d actually been to his house once for dinner so I was put in charge of delivering him safely back. . .
It was nine o’clock at night and we were driving up the Lower Island Road into Ballycarry village. There were three of us. Sergeant McGivvin and myself in the back, Jimmy McFaul driving up front. In theory it was a double lane road but in fact it was merely a widened cattle track and Jimmy had us almost over into the sheugh because a car was coming down the other way.
To avoid dazzling the other driver Jimmy switched off the full beam headlights as the car went past. I looked through the Land Rover’s bullet proof windows but there was nothing to see: thick hedgerows on either side of the road and boggy pasture beyond that.
The Land Rover made a clunking sound.
“What was that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Jimmy said.
“It was something.”
“You think someone shot at us?”
I had heard bullets thudding off the armour plate of a police Land Rover dozens of times and none of them had made a sound like that.
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, we got to get McGivvin home,” Jimmy said.
The week before Billy McGivvin’s wife had taken their three kids and flown the coop. A lawyer told McGivvin that she was in England and that she was divorcing him because of repeated drunkenness and domestic violence. McGivvin had decided to refute her claims by going to the Joymount Arms in Carrickfergus and getting blotto. He had begun swearing at the other patrons calling the women ‘bitches’ and ‘hoors’ and when they’d tried to make him leave Billy had pulled out his service revolver.
McGivvin was a terrible police officer before his wife had left him and no doubt now he was going to be a lot worse. That didn’t concern me. What concerned me was the possibility that he was going to throw up over my uniform which was only two days back from the dry cleaners.
“It’s all right, mate, it’s all right,” I kept assuring him. “Soon be home.”
“Blurgghhhh,” he replied and drooled on the plate steel Land Rover floor.
We reached Ballycarry village without any trouble and found his farmhouse on Manse Street. Jimmy parked the Rover and dragged McGivvin out into the drizzle. We couldn’t find a key, even under a plant pot or the mat so we had to break in through the back door.
We stuck McGivvin in the recovery position on the downstairs sofa. We put a bucket next to him and loosened his shirt buttons. There was an enormous velvet painting of Jesus marching in an Orange Parade that Jimmy felt might be in vomit spatter range so we took it off the wall and put it in the dining room.
“I think that’ll do,” I said.
We walked back to the Land Rover and got inside. We were just in time to hear the Chart Show announcing the Christmas Number 1 for 1983. It was Only You by Vince Clarke - re-recorded by some tedious a cappella group.
“The musical taste of this country baffles me these days,” I said.
Jimmy smiled his twenty four year old smile and said nothing.
I persuaded him to switch the channel to Radio 3 and Bach took us back to South Armagh.
When we parked at the police station I noticed that the driver’s side wing mirror was cracked. “Look at that,” I said. “Could we have hit something on the road?”
“Nah, it was cracked before we left. I’m pretty sure.”
There was no sign of blood or other forensic material.
It’s probably nothing, I thought and we went inside the heavily fortified barracks to complete the remainder of our shift.
Chapter 4 Suspension Without Pay
We were nearing the end of the foot patrol, which as any peeler or squaddie will tell you, is the most sickening part of the whole business. We were close to the police station on the top of the hill and to be shot within sight of home would be very irritating.
The village was empty. It was a quiet Saturday morning well before the market. We walked down the middle of the road along the white lines.
The houses on the left hand side were in the Irish Republic, those on the right were in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Our job was to patrol this border and prevent smuggling and the free movement of IRA arms, personnel and money. The geography made it an absurd situation. When Northern Ireland had been created in 1921 everyone had assumed that it was only going to be a temporary solution to the problem of Ireland’s self rule. No one seriously thought that the complicated twisty county lines of Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh could possibly become the permanent and police-able border between two separate countries. Yet they had and this border now ran through fields, villages, sometimes through farms and individual houses. All along it there were exclaves, enclaves, salients and other utterly unpatrolable cartographical features.
And here in the village of Bellaughray the border ran through the centre of town. Technically we were supposed to keep to the right hand side of the road, because anything over that white dotted line would be an incursion into the sovereign territory of the Irish Republic and, in theory, a diplomatic incident; but if you did keep right you were exposed to snipers all along the County Monaghan hillside, so when I was leading the patrols, I kept us on the Eire side of the street where the houses would protect us.
Walking slowly and in single file we reached the central Bellaughray roundabout and now it was only three hundred yards to the station.
I had taken eight men out in full body armour and we were heavily laden with flares, radios and Sterling machine guns. As usual it had been an exhausting patrol. We had walked across boggy fields, over sheughs and stone walls, through swamp and slurry and cow shit. We had found no trace of IRA men or petrol smugglers or sheep stealers, or sheep shaggers come to that, but nevertheless we had all put our lives on the line for the last hour and a half.
The IRA snipers were good and thanks to Yankee dollars they had acquired sophisticated high velocity rifles. They knew our routines and routes and could easily have been waiting for us from a concealed den or lair up to three thousand feet away.
But they weren’t. Not this morning anyway. We went through the roundabout in single file and reached the tiny Catholic chapel.
The hedge around the tiny red brick structure bothered me. It was thick and you couldn’t see through it and anything could have been lurking behind it: a man with a gun, a concealed explosive device. . .
I sent Constable Williams to recon it while I signalled the rest of the patrol to drop to one knee. Williams went ahead, looked behind the hedge and found nothing.
He gave me the thumbs up.
“Ok,” I said, “Let’s move out. Nearly home lads.”
As was typical of these late December days the sun was more or less gone now, swallowed up in the mouths of huge chalky coloured clouds that were tumbling down from the Mourne Mountains. But even on the coldest days fear and the heavy equipment kept us drenched with perspiration. It was starkly beautiful out here under the austere slopes of Slieve Gullion. This was a hallowed landscape: Cuchulainn’s kingdom in the era of the Táin Bó Cúailnge and in St Patrick’s time the Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum – the promised land of the Saints. No Saints about today, or sinners come to that.
I walked on point for a couple of minutes and then nodded at Constable Brown whose face assumed the startled look of the stag in Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen.
“Go on, son, I’ll be right behind you,” I assured him.
He walked about twenty yards and froze. “Vehicles!” he yelled.
I looked up into the street. Two cars had parked themselves laterally at the ends of the road, one was a blue Ford Cortina, Mr McCoghlan’s, the local butcher, I thought, and the other was an orange Toyota that I didn't recognize. I wondered why they had blocked the road off. An ambush? A double car bomb? Or something completely innocent?
Smoke was coming from both exhausts. I raised my fist so everyone could see it and then I pulled it down. Everyone dropped to one knee again.
“There goes my arthritis,” Constable Pike complained.
“Just get down,” I said. “And keep your wits about you.”
Eventually everyone assumed a crouching or half kneeling stance - all the better to hit the deck if it was a car bomb and white hot shrapnel came tearing towards us.
We waited. A raven landed in the road ahead of us and began pecking at something. The cars just sat up there, blue smoke curling from their exhausts, the engines turning over quietly. Constable Daniels started whistling What’s New Pussycat? more or less off key. I took out my binoculars and looked at the scene. There were two men in the two cars and they appeared to be talking.
“Hopkins, go up there and investigate!”
“Why me?” Constable Hopkins asked.
“Because it’s your turn on point,” I said.
“When Inspector Calhoun leads the patrol he always investigates anything suspicious,” Hopkins protested.
“That’s why they pay him the big bucks, isn’t it? Now get up there and investigate before I take my boot to your arse!”
“All right,” Hopkins said moodily.
“McBeth, you go with him, staggered formation, at least twenty feet behind. And both of you stay on your toes!”
Hopkins and McBeth went up to the two parked cars while the rest of us held our breaths.
I knew what the pair of them were thinking.
This is how it ends.
An explosion of cordite into the layered chevrons of ignition powder. Logarithmic expansion. The explosive thrown out of its plastic casing. Vermilion fire. An entire life lived and ended in an instant. . .
McBeth and Hopkins reached the cars and talked to the men inside and came back to us.
“Two old geezers having a chin wag. It’s all clear,” Hopkins said.
I nodded and just as I got to my feet I heard a loud crack from somewhere up in the hills. I didn’t need to give the order to hit the deck. Before I could even open my gob to bark an order everyone was already on the ground.
“Anybody hurt?” I yelled and called the roll.
“I’m all right.”
“Despite your best efforts, sergeant, I’m ok, too!” he said bitterly.
“Aye I’m all right.”
“Did anybody see where that came from?”
No one had. No one had seen anything and no one knew what the sound had been. Up ahead the two old geezers were still talking.
The question was how long we should remain lying here. We couldn’t hug the tarmac all day. “Ok, Pike, McBeth, McCourt get over to the left hand side of the road and scan those bloody hills. If you see a scope glint or a puff of smoke shoot it. The rest of you, let’s retire by half squad at three quarter pace up the road. When we’re a hundred metres past them, we’ll stop and cover them. Everybody clear?”
“Yes, Inspector Duffy!” several - but not all - of them said.
Pike, McBeth and McCourt ran to the ditch on the Irish Republic side and pointed their machine guns at the hills. Of course if it was a sniper he’d be concealed and thousands of feet away and the effective range of the Sterling was a hundred feet max but if the three of them blazed away together they might hit something.
The rest of us got to our feet and ran up the road. We stopped and let Pike and his mates reach us.
We did this two more times until we reached the station.
No one shot at us. If it was a sniper, he was a very cautious one. One shot and then done. We patrolled this road every day. His opportunity would come again.
I let every man in the squad go in the barracks ahead of me and then I went in last. I didn’t completely relax until the thick iron gates closed behind me. As usual I was utterly exhausted when I walked through the double doors of the locker room, but the bastards didn’t even give me a chance to get my body armour off. . .
The bastards were two tall, humourless plain clothed goons from Internal Affairs. They were wearing old fashioned black woollen sports jackets over white shirts and matching red ties. One had a ginger peeler tache, the other a black one.
“Constable Duffy?” Ginger Tache asked in a vague Scottish accent.
“Come us with us to Interview Room 2,” he said.
“Can you hold on a minute?” I said and made them wait while I took off my kit.
I followed them along the concrete corridor to the interrogation room, normally reserved for suspects. They were in there with Constable Jimmy McFaul. Jimmy had evidently spilled his guts about something because there were tears in his eyes and he couldn’t look at me.
I had no idea what this could be about. The cannabis I had lifted from the evidence room in Carrickfergus? But that was a long time ago and what had Jimmy to do with that?
“Have a seat, Duffy,” Ginger Tache said.
“Can I get a drink? I’ve been on foot patrol along the border. Thirsty work, but you proud boys in Internal Affairs wouldn’t know about that, would you?” I said and went back outside, got a can of Coke from the machine and put it against my forehead. I popped the can, took a big drink and joined them again.
I sat next to McFaul. “What’s going on Jimmy?” I asked him.
His eyes were fixed on his boots.
“Were you driving a police Land Rover on the Lower Island Road, Ballycarry at approximately 9.45 P.M. on the night of December 20th?” Black Tache asked.
“You were the only Land Rover on the road that night. There’s no point in denying it,” Ginger Tache added.
“Your mate has told us everything. You were on the road and you were driving and you hit someone and you didn’t stop,” the other goon said.
“Jimmy, you said I was driving?” I asked him.
Jimmy said nothing and kept looking at the space where his lying eyes intersected with the floor.
“You hit someone, Duffy. From what Constable McFaul says you didn’t even realise it, but you hit a man,” Black Tache said.
“Is he ok?” I asked.
“You knocked him into the sheugh with the wing mirror. He was shook up and he broke a finger, but he’ll live. Twenty year old lad on his way back home from football practice. He had his rucksack on his back. You hit that. That’s maybe what saved him from a more serious injury.”
“Thank God for that,” I said.
“He’s still going to sue us though isn’t he?” Ginger Tache said.
“I don’t know what the Ghost of Fuck Ups Past here has told you but I wasn’t driving that night. I was in the back of the Rover trying to stop Sergeant McGivvin from choking on his own vomit or puking on my green union suit. Sergeant McGivvin will verify that.”
“We’ve already asked him. Sergeant McGivvin doesn’t remember anything of the incident,” Black Tache insisted with a sleekit smile. “So, it’s just your word against Constable McFaul.”
I nodded. So that was how it was going to be.
“Both of you are hereby suspended without pay until the conclusion of this inquiry,” the big Scottish bastard said.
“You can keep your gun for personal protection, but you are not permitted to leave Northern Ireland and you are not to report for duty,” Goon #2 added.
Jimmy accepted the verdict and slunk out of the interview room. He had gotten his story in first. He was the grass and I was going to be the fall guy. In other words I was completely screwed. Ginger Tache sat down in Jimmy’s seat. “I’m Chief Inspector Slater,” he said, offering me his hand.
I didn’t shake it. I knew this game of old. First the stick, then the carrot up the arse. “What’s all this about?” I asked. “Just tell me the bottom line.”
“The bottom line? It’s over for you, Duffy. You are not being graded on a friendly curve. You should see your file, mate. Christ on a bike. It’s got red flags all over it. You were lucky not to have been kicked out in ‘82. You’ve been on probation ever since,” Slater said.
“I wasn’t driving the Land Rover,” I said.
“What do we care? You’re our boy for this month. A nice juicy sergeant. All we need is our quota and you’re it,” Slater said.
“I wasn’t driving!” I insisted.
“Your mate Jimmy says you were. He’s clean and we’ve got your dirty, dirty file clogging up the works.”
I lit a ciggie. “So it’s all been settled then has it? I’m the scapegoat?”
“You’ve been in the RUC, what, eight years?” Slater asked.
“Closer to nine,” I told him.
Slater leaned in towards me and smiled an ugly yellow-fanged grin. “It doesn’t have to end in scandal, does it?” he said.
“Ok, give it to me. What’s the deal?” I asked.
“You’re not eligible for a pension or benefits but we’ll give them to you if you accept full responsibility and quietly resign without this becoming a big deal.”
“And if I don’t resign?” I asked.
Slater made the throat slitting gesture. “Full disciplinary proceedings. Make no mistake: you will be found guilty and you will be dismissed the force without severance or a pension. And don’t think being a fenian will save you. In your short not so brilliant career you’ve managed to piss off a lot of people.”
I nodded, stubbed out my cigarette on the desk and got to my feet.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
Chapter 5 The Letter
The New Year. 1984. But there was no Big Brother watching us. No one gave a pig’s arse. Ireland was an island floating somewhere in the Atlantic that all sensible people wanted to drift even farther away, beyond their shores, beyond their imaginations. . .
The year limped in. The days merged. One morning it was sleet, the next rain.
I walked the town and when I got home I checked the post to see if my dismissal papers had come through for me to sign. Carrickfergus was a mess: large areas had been zoned for demolition and reconstruction. It was EEC money and the locals saw it as a good thing but it wasn’t because it only meant that we were high on the EEC list of Towns That Are In The Shitter.
I walked the streets and drank in the pub and watched TV late into the night when it was all public information films warning kids about the dangers of drowning in quarries or lifting up strange packages which were really trip-wired explosives.
One night the elderly woman across the terrace had some kind of seizure and started screaming “He’s coming! He’s coming!” Who was coming was never explained, but she had proclaimed it in such a convincing way that a minor panic had ensued and the whole of Coronation Road had come out.
Another night we heard a two thousand pound bomb in Belfast so clearly that it might have been at the end of the street.
Signs, portents, single magpies, black cats, bombs, bomb scares, helicopter traffic. . .
Finally one morning a white envelope sitting on the hall mat.
I took it to the living room and stirred the embers in the fireplace. I lit a fag, took a deep breath and ripped it open. A boilerplate full “confession” to be signed, notarised and returned to RUC Headquarters in Belfast.
The terms were comparatively generous. In recompense for an admission of wrong doing I would take early retirement and receive a pension although I hadn’t put in enough time.
I read through the document twice, poured myself an emergency Glenfiddich and signed everything that needed to be signed.
At nine I went into Carrickfergus and found Sammy McGuinn, my barber, who was also a notary public. Sammy was the town’s only communist and it was he who had turned me on to the strange delights of Radio Albania. He read the document and shook his head. “I know you don’t see it now, Sean, but this is a very good thing. As a member of the police you were nothing more than a lackey in a tyrannical government oppressing the will of the people. A Catholic too! Smart lad like you.”
“It was a job, Sammy. A job I was good at.”
“Power is bad for the soul!” he said and went on to talk about Lord Acton Jurgen Habermas and the Stanford Prison Experiment.
“Yeah, could you just notarise the form for me, Sammy?”
“Of course,” he said and added his seal and signature while muttering something about Thatcher and Pinochet.
“I can see you’re down, I’ll throw in a hair cut,” he said and put on the happiest music he could think of which was Mozart’s symphony number 40.
Mrs Campbell saw me coming out of the barber’s: “In getting your hair done, Mr Duffy?”
“I don’t get me hair ‘done’. I get it cut,” I replied dourly.
I crossed the street to the post office, bought a first class stamp, fixed it to the return envelope, mailed the letter and just like that I was off the force.
Chapter 6 The Visitors
Time moved on. Days to weeks. Weeks to months. Cold February. Damp March. As Ezra Pound says, life goes by like a field mouse, not even shaking the grass. Usually I went to the library and read the papers: parochial news, fossilized editorials, a narrow frame of reference. I sometimes checked out classical LP’s and did nothing until six o’clock when it was seemly to get quietly hammered on Polish vodka or County Antrim poteen, listening to Wagner or Steve Reich or Arvo Pärt. Strange millennial music for strange millennial times.
I went to the dole office and they told me that there was no point signing on. With my retirement money coming in I would be means tested and would not be eligible for any other kind of income support. The unemployment officer told me I should move to Spain or Greece or Thailand or someplace where my monthly check from the RUC would go a long way.
I felt that this was good advice and I got a few books on Spain out of the library.
I walked the streets. Observed. Observed like a detective. Kids playing football. Kids painting death’s head murals on gable walls. Fiddle players and cellists outside the bank busking for coppers. Men in the High Street offering to recite you any poem you could think of for the price of a cup of tea.
One evening in the pub I got in a fight. Standard fare. Old geezer bumped me. I said excuse me, pal. Out came the fisty cuffs. I got him with a left and before I knew what was happening the bastard had jabbed me five times with his right. Chin, stomach, kidneys, stomach again. . .He must have been sixty if he was a day. He helped me to my feet and bought me a drink and span me a yarn about winning a middleweight belt and training John Wayne for his performance as an ex boxer in The Quiet Man. It was a likely story but I was so addled I couldn’t tell if it was legit or bollocks. . .I went home in a taxi, drank a vodka gimlet, took 10 mg of Valium, half a dozen aspirin and went to bed.
In the wee hours I woke and looked at the aspirin bottle next to me and wondered if this had been a cowardly, half hearted suicide attempt. Cowardly because I still had my service revolver, which as an ex policeman, I was allowed to keep for up to a year after I’d left the force. That was the way to do it. Point blank with a hollow point .38 slug straight across the hemispheres.
My guts ached and I walked to Carrick hospital and a surprisingly full waiting room. Lynchian post midnight bus station characters. The Open University on a black and white TV. A beardy physicist: “Life is a thermodynamic disequilibrium but entropy will take us all in the end. . .”
My guts were killing me so they put me on a drip. The doctor on call said that I would live but that I wasn’t to mix my medicines. He gave me a leaflet on depression. I went home, wrapped the bed sheets around me and went into the landing. My newly installed central heating had sprung a leak and the repair man had said that he needed to get a part from Germany to overhaul the whole organ-like apparatus. It would take weeks, he explained, maybe over a month, so I’d rented another paraffin heather and in truth I liked it better. The paraffin heater was my shrine and I bathed in its warmth, its sandalwood aroma and the light of its magenta moon.
I lay before it and let the hot air wash over me like a blanket.
A long time ago I had killed a man with a heater like this.
No. Was that me? Did such a thing really occur?
Or was it a fragment, a dream. . .
Oarless boats. . .Dream ships. . .The half light of the wolf’s tail.
I went downstairs.
Rain. Sky the colour of a litter box. An army helicopter skimming the dogged brown hills.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror. I was skinny, scabby, pale. My nails were long and dirty. My hair was unkempt, thick, black, with grey above both ears and on the sideburns. I looked like the poster boy for an anti heroin ad. Not that I’d go that route. Not yet. And speaking of the exotic gifts of the Orient. . .Wasn’t there a. . .
I rummaged in the rubbish bin under the kitchen sink and found a roach with an inch of cannabis still left in it. I made a coffee and topped it with a measure of Black Bush. I went back into the living room, searched among the albums until I got the Velvet Underground & Nico. I put on Venus In Furs, drank the coffee, lit the roach off the paraffin heater flame and inhaled. Paraffin. Hashish. John Cale’s viola. Lou Reed’s voice.
Revived somewhat I went outside and picked up the milk bottles. There was a strange car four doors down on the Coronation Road bend. A white Land Rover Defender with two shadowy figures inside. A man and a woman, she in the driver’s seat. I made a mental note of the car, popped the top off the gold topped milk and poured it into my coffee mug. I stared at the car and drank. It began to drizzle from a dishwater sky.
“Jesus is Lord!” another one of my enthused neighbours yelled as a morning greeting. I took a final look at the car, closed the door and went back into the living room.
“I am tired, I am weary. I could sleep for a thousand years,” Lou Reed sang as I lay down. The music ended, the stylus lifted, moved an inch to the left and the song began again.
There was a faint creaking sound from outside. Someone at the gate. The post or the paper or—
I grabbed the revolver from my dressing gown pocket and checked that it was loaded. But somehow I knew that the people in the Land Rover were not going to be terrorist assassins. . .
I heard voices and then a confident rap on the door knocker.
I went into the hall, looked through the fisheye peephole every cop had installed as a necessary precaution.
The man was a tall, balding, slightly harassed-looking guy who would make an ideal “innocent bystander injured in shooting” story for the news. He was wearing a blue suit and his shoes were shined to autistic levels of perfection. He was about 25. She woman was brown haired, pale, thin, grey eyed. Somewhere around thirty. No lipstick, makeup, jewellery. She was wearing a black sweater, a short black skirt and black low heeled shoes. She wasn’t pretty, not classically so, but I could see how some men would lose their heads for her (some women too). There was an intensity, a self possession to her that was uncommon.
I put the .38 back in my dressing gown pocket and opened the door.
“Mr Duffy?” the man asked with an English accent.
“May we come in for a moment?”
For just a sec I wondered if they were, in fact, a really good hit team. It would be the sort of thing a really good team would do. Ask if they could come in and when the door was safely closed and your back turned, plug you. . .but they were almost certainly those English Jehovah’s Witnesses that I’d heard everyone complaining about down the fish and chip shop.
“Aye, go into the living room, just to the right there. Do you want tea?”
Both of them shook their heads. Perhaps, like Mormons, they didn’t drink tea or coffee.
“Are you sure you don’t want any? The kettle’s on,” I shouted.
“No thank you,” the woman said.
I made myself a mug, poured a packet of chocolate digestives onto a plate and carried it back into the living room.
She had taken the leather chair and he had been relegated to the sofa.
They took a biscuit each. Missionaries didn’t deserve the Velvet Underground so I put on Lou Reed’s fuck-you masterpiece, Metal Machine Music, an album of feedback loops and screeching guitars.
“Do we have to have the music?” the man asked.
I nodded. “Of course! In case they’re listening,” I said.
“In case who’s listening?” the man wondered.
I pointed vaguely at the sky and put my finger to my lips. I sat down, dipped a chocky biscuit in the tea and ate.
“So. . .Jehovah,” I said.
“Who?” the man asked and blinked so slowly you wondered if Lou Reed had given him a mini stroke.
I brought the tea cup to my lips and nodded at the lass. I looked into her strange pale eyes and suddenly remembered that we had met before.
I froze in mid drink. You know poker, don’t you? So you know what’s it like when you’re playing Texas Hold Em and you’re sitting there with a three and a five off suit and it’s the big blinds and you’re short stacked and the dealer spreads the flop and it’s a two, a four and a six. . .and just like that you’ve gone from the shit box seat to the bird dog seat in the blink of an eye. The blink of a bloody eye. . .
And now I was feeling slightly foolish sitting here in my dressing gown and fluffy slippers.
“We’ve met, haven’t we?” I said to her.
“I don’t think so,” she said in a refined English accent with an ever so slight foreign echo to it.
I got up and turned off Mr Reed. “Oh yeah we’ve met before. Not a hundred yards from here in Victoria Cemetery, in 1982. You left me a note about a case I was working on. You’re MI5, aren’t you?” I said.
Neither of them had any idiosyncrasies that would render them vivid but that was the point, wasn’t it? I had only seen her for a fleeting moment and her hair was a different colour, but it was her. The fact that I was right was communicated only by a momentary eye twitch and a slight pursing of the lips.
“Any chance of getting some names?” I asked.
“I’m Tom,” the man claimed.
“And I’m Kate,” the woman claimed.
I took a big gulp of the sweet tea and set it down on the coffee table.
“So, Tom, Kate,” I began. “Exactly how badly are you fucked and why do you think I can help you get unfucked? There are plenty of coppers. Plenty of good coppers. What is it that I bring to the table? Eh?”
I gave the man a wink and his lip curled in distaste. He didn’t like my new found pantomime joviality. She, however, smiled. “You bring several things, Sean. First, you’re very good at what you do. Second we don’t want the man we’re looking for to know that we’re making a special effort to find him; of course he knows that the police are after him, but if two people like Tom and myself were to go around asking questions. . . Well, that just might set the alarm bells ringing a bit louder than we’d like. And third and most important of all, the personal. You actually know the individual that we’re seeking.”
“You went to school with him,” Tom added.
I digested this information. Part two was a half truth. She and Tom wouldn’t be going around asking questions – they’d have proxies in the RUC or Special Branch to do that. But MI5 were like those English officials in Raj who could never completely trust their Sepoy soldiers. The RUC was leaky and unreliable, whereas I was safely outside the system. I would be grateful to have a job. Grateful and pliant.
I sipped some more tea, had another biscuit and lit a cigarette. Of course it was obvious who they were talking about: I had only been to school with one man that MI5 could possibly be interested in and that man was Dermot McCann.
“Mr Duffy, if I could just suggest a—” Kate began, but I cut her off.
“You see the thing is, love, I’ve retired. I’d like to help you but you’ve arrived too late. I’m putting the house on the market, I’m selling up and I’m moving to Spain. I’ve picked out a nice wee spot with a view of the Med and with my RUC pension coming in every month I’ll be sitting pretty.”
“What will you do with your time?” Tom asked.
“Nothing. Relax. Listen to music. Did you know that Haydn wrote 104 symphonies? Who’s heard more than half a dozen of them?”
Kate bit her lip and looked at me benevolently. “Look, Sean, we deeply regret the way you have been treated in the last year.”
“We work for the Security Service as you intuited.” Kate said.
I was excited now but I let my anger bubble through: “It’s easy to say that you deeply regret it but you didn’t actually lift a finger to help me, did you?”
“It wasn’t our purview,” Kate said.
“Or maybe you caused the whole thing, eh? Maybe you’ve done it to get me on the way down and then you chaps swoop in as my saviours from across the sea? If that’s the case, I’m afraid its backfired pretty fucking spectacularly. I’ve moved on. I’ve moved on mentally and spiritually and very soon I’ll have moved on geographically too. I’m done with Northern Ireland and the Troubles and Thatcher and MI5 and this whole disagreeable decade. I’m very happy to take my wee bit of hard earned scratch and go to Spain,” I said.
Tom looked concerned but after a moment’s thought Kate shook her head.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
I set my tea cup on the mantle, stubbed out the cigarette in the dolphin ash tray and rubbed my chin.
“No, believe me, I’m leaving. I’m like Macavity the fucking Mystery Cat. I’m not here. I’m already gone.”
Kate sighed, waiting for the histrionics to be done with.
I slipped in the dagger. “And if you want me to locate Dermot McCann for you before I go it’s going to come at a very high price.”
Tom was shocked to hear the near the name Dermot McCann so early in the conversation but Kate merely arched an eyebrow.
“What price?” she asked.
And now we had the 64000 dollar question. What the hell did I want?
“Full reinstatement to the rank of detective inspector. Full remission of pay and seniority. My record to be expunged of any wrong doing. A posting to a police station of my choosing. And something else. . .”
“What?” Kate asked.
“An apology for the way I’ve been treated. An apology from the top.”
“The Chief Constable?”
“From Mrs Thatcher?” Tom asked, amazed at my chutzpah.
“Well not from fucking Dennis.”
“You must be out of your mind, chum!” Tom exclaimed, his eyes bulging in his head.
“That’s what I want. Take it or fucking leave it.”
“You know we could make things very unpleasant for you,” Tom said.
I got to my feet and got close to him. Practically nose to nose. “No mate, you don’t want to be starting in with the threats, that’s the wrong tack completely,” I said.
Kate cleared her throat, stood and brushed imaginary crumbs from her blouse.
“I assume a letter of regret signed by the Prime Minister would be sufficient?” she asked in a business-like voice.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Well we’ll have to see what we can do then, won’t we?” she said.
She waved Tom to his feet.
I saw them to the front door. “We’ll be in touch,” Kate said.
“You better make it soon, love, I hear Valencia is lovely this time of year.”
“Actually, it’s surprisingly inclement,” she said and walked briskly down the garden path.