Bloom of Youth
It was a strange spring that brought all weathers. My plane was almost delayed due to the previous day’s snow and as I sat on the plane destined for England I thought about a lot of things, the things that had caused me to be on this plane.
This giant steel bird would take me to my destiny, I thought. There was no time to be philosophical as I had an important role to play in what for us would eventually be a defining moment in the history of the chasm that has existed between Ireland and England for centuries.
As I sipped from the plastic cup brimming with gin and tonic, I wondered, was I happy being a cog for Irish Independence? Or was I fulfilling a personal vendetta against a country which had caused me so much pain over my lifetimes.
After the fourth or fifth I decided it didn’t matter as both roles were equally important as each other; that my personal anguish would hold hands with other tales of woe and after this assignment would finally be able to reveal the happiness that comes with defeating the old enemy.
Northern Ireland in this day was not as bad as the previous thirty years and the one I grew up in, but nonetheless there was still tit-for-tat violence and an uneasy political climate at Stormont that a return to the troubles was just a stone’s throw away.
Would we be the catalyst? Or would we be the freedom fighters to finally emancipate the Catholic Irish of the North. Finally, we would be able to realise our own potential, once the loyalist stench had finally been removed and we could all breathe Eire again.
The early eighties were a bad time for a lot of Irish and my family were no different. After the killing of four soldiers in Hyde Park, London, 1982 the English set out for reprisals and visited our home one night. Masked men blew a shotgun hole in our front door which sent pieces of splintered wood flying and awoke me from my sleep. All I could hear above the shrieks of my mother was the Loyalist screaming, “Do you denounce the IRA?” and my father refusing to.
He was shot at point blank range in the head and died instantly. I was taken downstairs to be with my sobbing mother. As they began to leave, I felt a sensation of which can only be described as external pins and needles throughout my body and a feeling I now know to be anger took over me.
I ran towards the gunmen, hands by my side, without knowledge of violence and got smashed in the head by the butt of a gun. As I fell to the f loor, dizzy and bloodied, I looked up at my mum in disbelief. I tried to get up but collapsed, still fuelled by the anger of what was happening.
I awoke in hospital two weeks later, not knowing my dad was dead and not knowing whether my mother was alive or not. I was paid a visit, I remember, by a man who told me to forget what I thought I saw and that I was in hospital because I refused to eat.
I was understandably confused and to this day sometimes question whether the woman who raised me after the incident is my real mother, but an imposter who of all things, remarried an Englishman. It was a few years later and my mother used to tell me that she did it for me … you know, so as I wouldn’t carry hatred in my heart for all Englishmen, we would eventually move to England.
After being released from hospital I found myself watching the news and trying to make heads or tails of what had happened. I had lost the ability to speak and watched, intently, reports of petrol bombings, the Falkland’s war, and loyalists blowing up Catholic primary schools which gave me some understanding of what had happened to me, but more importantly, it gave me an identity.
I didn’t know how long I was in hospital for but my mother and I moved in with the Englishman and his children. This man could turn violent, and so could his children, towards me but my loyalty to my mother would never wane.
That was not my last trip to hospital in my childhood and my sleep was being constantly interrupted by wondering whether my mother would be alive in the morning after another night of fighting.
As the plane touched down at Heathrow, I felt an overwhelming sense of being a square peg in a round hole. I didn’t belong in England … never have done; they didn’t want me here and I knew it. I just had to stay under the radar of the authorities until the time came. Whilst being raised in England, I returned home when I was sixteen, a few years prior to the Good Friday Agreement. I found work as a trainee chef and quickly integrated myself back into the community, with the intention of joining the IRA.
This wasn’t just to settle my own personal vendetta. As a young man beyond my years in tragedy, I found comfort in the ideology of the Republican movement and immersed myself in the history of the struggle for a united Ireland.
Whilst at this point I had never been directly involved in a murder, I was trained well in the art of bomb making and the belief that what we were about to embark on would change the landscape of Ireland forever.
My cousin was to greet me off the plane. We hadn’t seen each other for a few years so I was excited, if not a little apprehensive, about who he was spending his time with. My cousin, Jimmy Quinn, had established himself in the underworld through his ingenuity and penchant for violence against rival gangs in the city. For want of a better word, he was an enforcer.
As I waited for my ride, I thought about how we used to meet up as children and dream of being rock stars and taking the world by storm. As I nursed a pint of Guinness waiting in anticipation, I pondered how the Irishman’s brew of choice represented my life. Thick and dark like molasses to be weighed through until things came to a head. I interpreted this as there being light at the end of the tunnel.
I was raised in a small town called Peacehaven just outside of Brighton, which is now a city. History provides us with coincidences that if not formulated by others, bears a reminder to us all that the scars of the past still resonate on both sides. The Easter Rising of 1916 set the Irish on the course for a Republic. Peacehaven was established in 1916 and was meant to be a retirement haven for British soldiers after the First World War. The irony was not lost on me but little did we know about the British intentions for little old me. It was on this centenary that we hoped to stake our claim for a full independent Ireland. Jimmy was to greet me with an embrace I hadn’t known for some time. Even with the people who I trusted, I was always very guarded.
“Paul, it’s great to see ya. I can’t believe you’re here finally.”
I told Jimmy it was good to see him and asked what he planned for the evening.
“Let’s get feckin arseholed!”
I was only too eager to oblige. Jimmy had made inroads into the Russian mafia with the intention of getting an arms pipeline established. They were eager to supply arms in exchange for us opening up business opportunities in London and Ireland.
Jimmy had warned me how fuckin’ crazy and paranoid the Russians can be but I was their contact from the IRA so I had to make sure things didn’t go tits up! We met in the backroom of a pub called the Dewdrop Inn. This was a typical spit and sawdust pub. As I waited at the front bar, Jimmy acknowledged the barman and asked whether the Russians had arrived.
“Stay here, Paul. I need to go and see what’s what.”
I smiled in reverence, took a sip of Guinness and scoped the locals to see if anyone was paying undue attention than was warranted on a drizzly afternoon in London.
“So, is it true Guinness tastes different in Ireland than it does in England?” the barman asked, trying to make small talk. I looked him up and down and replied abruptly, “I don’t know.”
“Well you’re from the Emerald Isle, aren’t you?”
I pondered this question, took another sip of Guinness and replied even shorter. “Not yet.”
Rear View Mirror
The pub had a bust of Queen Elizabeth on the bar and it was all I could do not to pull out a black marker pen and deface it.
“Give me a chaser barkeep, will ya? And feckin decorate this place; it’s depressing!”
I was becoming increasingly aware that eyes were burning in the back of my head and I was getting more intoxicated on the smell of lemon Pledge than this shite masquerading as Guinness. After ten minutes or so Jimmy emerged from the backroom and ushered me towards him.
Our contact was a man named Vladimir and unbeknown to Jimmy and me, he had brought his daughter to sit in on the meet. The attraction was instant and I was unprepared for these feeling that stirred in me. I didn’t need the distraction but the heart wants what it wants.
Isabella was her name and she was beautiful. She had long black hair that shone when the light in the dingy backroom caught it and cobalt blue eyes as deep as any ocean. Vladimir greeted me first.
“Hello, Paul. We have heard a lot about you. Nice to finally meet you.”
It took me a few seconds to answer as I was fixated with Isabella so I smiled and nodded in reply, “Nice to meet you, Vladimir. Is this your wife?”
Vladimir looked like a gargoyle with thick greasy hair that licked his shoulders. He was constantly running his fingers through his hair in between taking sips of tea and seemed slightly hunched. I put this down to him being a very tall man in a room with low ceilings.
“No, this is my daughter, Isabella.”
I took her hand and kissed it, which appeared to unsettle Jimmy. I acknowledged this by making Vladimir aware that I was in awe of her beauty.
“You can always tell a man of honour by his offspring.”
Vladimir politely acknowledged my gesture with a smile.
“Can I ask why you speak English and then have a southern Irish accent?”
This enquiry from Vladimir brought creases to his forehead. I explained that I was born in the North, raised in England and had adopted the republic accent after I started hanging out with Jimmy in my youth on holidays with the family. “It’s a Republican accent anyways!” I exclaimed.
After we finished the small talk I proceeded in telling Vladimir how we proposed getting the artillery required into the country. The plan was to set up a printing company and have printers sent over from Russia.
We had checked and believe it or not this was a cost-effective solution to setting up a paper. The weapons would be carefully moulded into the workings of the printer, as if they were part of the machine. We didn’t envisage any problems but we had the security on the payroll.
The Russians would take care of their side and Jimmy’s contacts this side. Jimmy had also rented a lot of lock-ups to which the printers would be sent to. In London you could get whatever you wanted as long as the money was right. Each lock-up was picked for its ability to be seen from a vantage point to minimise risk of being caught.
This was to be the heavy artillery stolen after the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, which we hoped would scare the b-Jesus out of the English and then we would give the declaration of war.
“We have a flat rented for you, Paul.”
This was Jimmy’s way of hurrying up the meeting. As we were getting ready to leave, Vladimir insisted that Isabella come with us to get a taste of London. I was only too willing to oblige but Jimmy (though he didn’t say it) had reservations.
“Let’s get Paul settled in first, hey Vlad?”
Jimmy went on to explain that as it was my first night there was other business to attend to but we found resolution and it was agreed upon that Isabella and I would meet up the next day.
“What the fuck did you do that for, Jimmy?” I asked on the way out of the Dew Drop.
“Paul, don’t worry. You’ll be able to get your leg over if you want but not with her … we don’t want to complicate matters.”
I thought about what Jimmy said but decided if anything was to happen between me and Isabella then I would keep it secret.
Jimmy’s local was the Kings Arms and we arrived just as a fight was kicking off. This was a usual occurrence as the cliental were typically crooked; some small time some big time. The Landlord was an ex bare-knuckled boxer with a gammy eye and an attitude to match. Jimmy found him harmless but I seemed to take an instant dislike to him.
“You alright cunt features?” sneered the uncompromising landlord, Neville.
“Yeah, good thanks, Neville. Meet my cousin, Paul.”
”Oh, for fuck’s sake, not another one of you Paddies! You’re taking over the place, aren’t you?” The landlord, Neville, looked mockingly in my direction.
“Something like that.”
I hushed as Jimmy ordered drinks and we made our way over to a table. As we sat, Jimmy decided to start pointing out faces he knew and explaining, if need be, the reason they became known by their particular name.
“That’s One-Ball Bobby!” exclaimed Jimmy with a broad smile on his face. He went on to explain how he got shot in the bollock during a botched raid on a jewellers.
“He’s funny as fuck!”
Jimmy raised his glass in Bobby’s direction and Bobby reciprocated.
“I don’t fuckin’ like that Neville,”
Jimmy nodded to me in response and weighed in.
“He’s a bit of a prick; gets above his station but he’s well connected.”
As the night continued, we got drunk and I was struggling to keep up with all the names of the people I was introduced to. We ended up on a table getting leggy with One-Ball Bobby who was an armed robber by trade.
He had done eight years back in the day for his part in a robbery on an armoured vehicle. He never grassed on who was behind the heist and was respected for that. If you ever needed a gun, he could get hold of one, no questions asked. Then there was Sonny Lee. He was more of a distinguished character. He had his trademark camel-coloured overcoat on and was the man you saw if you wanted your money laundered.
After a few laughs at the landlord’s expense, Bobby decided to regale us with the story of the day he got his bollock shot off.
“The raid was nearly over. I was the last one out the door and then the owner decides he wants to be a hero.”
He went on to say how lucky the shot was as one of the fellow robbers fired off a warning shot that rebounded off a steel door and hit him in the misters. I asked, “So, which one was it Bobby? Your right or left?”
“Well, theirs no fuckin’ right one to get shot off, is there Paul?”
Bobby laughed at this last comment just as a couple of fine-looking women walked passed and Bobby started trying to grab their attention … very loudly.
“For fuck’s sake, give it a rest, Bobby,” gasped Jimmy as his Guinness went down the wrong way when he gulped it in. At this point, Sonny weighed in and went on a rant about how no girl is safe from Bobby’s radar.
“You have a disease!” said Sonny, “leave the girls alone for one night, will you?”
“It’s not as if you get anywhere with them, is it?” both Jimmy and Sonny added.
“Bollocks! Soon as the girls hear I’ve had a bollock shot off they all want to see it!”
Bobby then proceeded to pull his trousers down until Jimmy stopped him.
“Put it away, Bobby. Nobody wants to see that.”
It was getting near closing time and Jimmy went for last orders. At this point, Sonny started to tread sheepishly into washing money that I might be earning whilst in England.
“It’s my first night, Sonny, and I don’t want to talk shop but I’m sure we can do some business in the future.”
Sonny smiled at me and replied, “I’m sure we can.”
As the final bell went, I decided to put a few coins in the jukebox. As I was f licking through the songs, I caught some fella giving me the eye and whispering to his friend about me. I decided to ignore them and went back to our table.
“Who are those fellas over there?” I asked Jimmy. Jimmy went on to explain that the guy giving me the eye was a fag called Phil and that him and his friend were always looking for fresh meat in the bar. Just then one of my songs came on the jukebox. It was a song called Someday by the Strokes which has a part that sounds like “Oh, my arse is lacking in depth, said I will try my best.”
As Phil was still trying to catch my attention, I decided to jump up on the table and sing along with my newly formulated lyrics while feigning putting a bottle of beer up my bum. This drew laughs from our table which unsettled Phil who looked at me and ran his fingers across his throat.
“Did you see that, Jimmy? That cunt, Phil just threatened me.”
“Are you joking?” replied an angry Jimmy but before Jimmy could finish his sentence I ran over to where Phil was standing and glassed him.
Jimmy rushed after me and managed to stop me kicking Phil’s head in proper as other patrons weighed in to stop the fight. Neville, seeing this, got out his baseball bat, stood on the bar and shouted, “Right, which cunt wants it?”
Jimmy looked at Neville and remarked, “There’s no trouble, Neville, just a misunderstanding. All sorted now.”
As everyone spilled out of the pub Jimmy said, “Time to see your new digs then, Paul.”
As we got to the f lat, I realised it was in a pretty rundown area. It was not as if I was expecting the Ritz but I knew I needed to keep away from local trouble if I were to succeed in my mission. I apologised to Jimmy for my part in the argument with Phil and he remedied my concerns by telling me not to worry about it.
“We meet the priest tomorrow, Paul,” whispered Jimmy before driving off.