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High Spirits and Hi-jackings on the High Street

In the early summer of 1985 my father decided that it was time to upgrade the family car.

The refuse-skip shaped dark tan Renault 20 that had served the family so well was finally going to be ditched in favour of a more stylish model. And bucking the trend that the French were the coolest nation in Europe it was to their German neighbours that he looked to find the new form of vehicle to take him into his 40s.

Yes it was very much a borderline midlife crisis purchase in that it was both sporty and a saloon vehicle - a gloriously shiny, silky metallic grey BMW 525 with all the bells and whistles - well -alloys and electric sunroof at any rate!

As it turned out he would only have the car for 12 months as a result of what was probably divine intervention rather than an evidence of an oppressive police state in that he kept getting stopped by the police for speeding and he decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and got shot of it.

I remember one particular time when he was driving myself and my then best friend up the 25 miles of motorway to go to the cinema in Belfast, there being no picture houses at that time in our home town. We were running slightly behind schedule, and whilst I do not recall the speed we were going to make up the time, it was enough to have us pulled in after blasting past an unmarked traffic branch vehicle in the inside lane.

That was the day I discovered that the outside lane was called the ‘overtaking lane’ and not the ‘fast lane’ which is what everyone knew it as as far as I was aware!

Little did I know, at eleven years of age, that this would not be the only reason I would have call to interact with the security services that year.

With the school holidays coming up and the likelihood that boredom was going to set in swiftly thereafter it was arranged with my uncle, who had taken over the family business some years earlier, that I could work there for a week to give me something to do.

Whilst my father had moved on from the enterprise, which was by then a prominent wholesaler of wines, spirits and beers of all kinds, he had fond memories of his time in it and thought I would enjoy it.

It was clearly the most inappropriate job for a chubby cherub of a child like me to be doing but my uncle had agreed and I was introduced to the manager on the Monday morning and he set about finding things for me to do.

Driving forklifts to load the trucks would plainly have been the prime post I would have liked but for perhaps obvious reasons that was denied me. I did hand label bottles of sherry and fill crates with full bottles as well as ensuring I was well refreshed at breaktimes and lunch times with copious amounts of brand name fizzy drinks and crisps.

There was always going to be a limit to how much of those minor tasks were ever going to keep me from developing diabetes and so the task that was invented for me was to go out as a helper with the delivery drivers. The reason I know it was contrived is that sometimes I was going out with a driver AND a helper!

There were some interesting trips on the Tuesday and Wednesday to new fangled lands that I’d never heard of like Ballycastle and Irvinestown but that Friday at the end of the first week was going to be a quick run round Belfast before an early home time for the weekend.

The day started inauspiciously enough with my receiving a small brown envelope which as it turned out was a payslip containing my wages. To say they were paltry would be an insult to impecuniosity. However, I am wise enough to know that they were most likely nett of the cost of the childcare services my father had availed of by dropping me off there for the week!

We got to Belfast around 10am in a large lumbering lorry containing what I was later to learn was £13,000 worth of stock, a substantial sum even in today’s money.

The driver had pulled in the vehicle at the side of the road outside a premises called ‘The Liverpool Supporter’s Club’. It was early July about a week before the apex of the marching season in Northern Ireland on the 12th. There were signs of red, white and blue painting on the kerb stones and similarly coloured bunting hanging around the the streets.

I was in the cab of the lorry. Sitting on my own in the middle of the three person bench seating. I was looking around and observing the surroundings whilst the driver and helper were out working on taking out what the Scouse fans were going to be enjoying over the weekend when I noticed in the passenger side wing mirror the driver being surrounded by two or three men in green military camouflage fatigues and black balaclavas.

My initial thought was that it was certainly an odd thing to see but believe it or not I thought nothing particular of it. I mean, I was over a decade living through the troubles and whilst I’d never seen a paramilitary in real life, I’d certainly seen loads on the television, so what was the problem? What was to be afraid of?

A few moments afterwards both doors of the lorry cab opened and two terrorists got in on the passenger side and one got in on the driver’s side. The one who was now at the steering wheel lifted up his face covering with one hand revealing a healthy shock of thick blond hair and with the other hand he tried unsuccessfully the pull the driver’s door closed.

The trailing mercenary getting in on the passenger side similarly was unable to close the door.

They were naturally confused as the maths wasn’t adding up – 4 doesn’t fit in a space for 3! Then blondie looked at me in the eye, panicked and pulled back down his balaclava before shouting at the others ‘Where the F—K did the kid come from??’

What happened next still seems like something out of a comedy farce. All three exited the vehicle leaving me sitting there on my own again. They were joined by about three other similarly dressed acquaintances and I could tell they were having a discussion about how to proceed. Looking over and pointing at me and then going back into a huddle.

I recall thinking that this was all very odd and that whilst it was certainly a funny jape, that if they didn’t hurry up and move along we were not going to get the run finished on schedule.

At no time did I think ‘We’re being hijacked!’

The thought never, and I want to be clear here, it never crossed my mind whilst I sat there waiting for them to return to me. Indeed I thought the driver and the helper were coming back any minute.

Instead the driver’s door was opened and I was ushered out and was pointed towards one of the gang members who was standing at the entrance to a nearby alleyway and told to go to him.

I ran up like the good boy I was and then led down a narrow passage way that divided two rows of houses whose rear entrances backed onto each other.

About a third of the way down I was told to go into the back of one of the houses and into a small outhouse that was about a foot and a half- at least- deep in household rubbish but also contained my two workmates.

‘Stay there til we come back for you. Don’t move away from here. We have people watching you.’ we were told. Sure enough looking across the way there was a newly constructed building that was up to the second story and we could see a bricklayer eyeing us up.

‘You know, this happened last year too.’ the driver said, ‘but the guys were treated a lot better. They were taken into a house and given tea and biscuits.’ An image of that came into my head and I wondered whether if I’d been involved in that incident they might have sprung for a Fanta and a packet of Tayto Cheese ‘n’ Onion.

About 30 minutes later no one had returned to get us and the driver decided that it was a bluff and we should just go to the nearest police station.

He and the assistant began to gingerly exit the trash heap we were in and eyeballed the brickie on the adjacent site who looked at us oddly but not in a way to make us think he was going to be raising any alarm. He was probably wondering why two grown men and boy where hiding in the back of a derelict house.

It took about 10 minutes of stilted walking and checking the route ahead for us to get passed the spot where we had last seen the vehicle and get to Tennant Street Police Station. As we approached the reception desk I saw the clock behind the officer on guard and noticed that it was almost 2pm.

That means that rather than half an hour we’d actually been stuck in that garbage tip for six times longer than I had thought. Well they do say that time flies when you’re having fun.

I will always remember the words of the policeman when the driver explained who we were. He broke out into a big smile and said ‘Every cop this side of the Mississippi is looking for you guys!’

He seemed genuinely delighted with himself, as if he’d solved a particularly hard ‘Where’s Wally’ cartoon.

It added to the sense that what had happened was a bit of fun, not to be taken too seriously and that was exactly how I had been taking it.

I don’t even think the police were actually out searching for us at all, not even every cop that side of the Lagan were keeping watch for us I imagine.

Indeed, were it not for the requirement to have a record of the event for the £13,000 insurance claim, I doubt they’d have even taken our statements. I recall mine was a rush job as word was sent up that my uncle was there to collect us.

At no time did I feel unsafe or in danger and I look back on it now as just a funny story; but one that illustrates what Shakespeare’s Danish prince knew hundreds of years earlier:

‘...there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so...’

As we commemorate 12 months of the Coronavirus pandemic this week I think its important to appreciate that sentiment and what it means for all of us struggling to come to terms with the impact of the biggest threat to our way of life we have ever experienced.

We will have been affected in many ways and we can chose to see them as good or choose to see them as bad - it’s entirely up to us, but finding the good might make it much easier to come out of feeling like its been an opportunity rather than a catastrophe!

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