Illustrations By Johnny Ryan
Set in east London, this story is for the most part true. Some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
We walked back from a fireworks display in Victoria Park. Gemma, my girlfriend, was tired and so headed home to her house. I took a small detour on my way home and popped into a local club for a nightcap and to see who was about. The place was small but rammed. I knew at least half the people there. I got tucked in and a couple of hours later left with a bunch of others and headed for my place.
I had opened Gary’s Place on Cremer Street a few weeks earlier. It was a great success. In fact, it was too great a success. So in a fit of “alternative” marketing genius, I closed it for a week or two in order to calm things down.
My drunken friends and I walked the few blocks to what had previously been my apartment, but which was to become over the next 14 months quite a famous (or rather infamous) illegal drinking place. While converting the place, I’d been working with two Albanian guys who were both called Pet. Along with us were Yoyo, Craig, James, Tim and Olga.
The older Pet and I were last through the ground-floor door and into the corridor which led to the lift. Young Pet was to go for cigarettes, as we had run out, and said he’d pop into a new bar that had opened next door a few days earlier to see if there were any girls there. He left, but as I was about to get into the lift, he came back realising he had no money. I asked Old Pet for some money. We got out the lift and Old Pet gave him some cash. The lift we had stepped out of went up to the fourth floor with five friends inside.
Old Pet and I waited for the lift to come back down. It seemed to take a long time, and just as we were about to take the stairs we heard the lift machinery kick in. The lift arrived and we got in. We were drunk and laughed about Young Pet going looking for girls, and were thinking how unlikely it would be that he’d come back with any. As it turned out, it was just as well.
We reached the top floor. The door to the lift opened and as it did, I glimpsed a shadow, then a black-clothed silhouette—a hooded figure, the eyes and mouth cut out, and then darkness. When I came to, I was on the ground and being pulled out of the lift by my hair. I glanced to the side and saw my friends trussed up with plastic hand-ties, lying face-down in the landing between the lift and the apartment door. They all seemed stiff. One of the girls began to whimper.
“Who the fuck is the boss? Who’s got the fucking keys?”
“I do,” I said.
“Give me the fucking keys then, you cunt.”
I moved and began to stand up.
“Who said stand up, you cunt?”
I was almost on my feet when they were kicked away from me.
“Give me the keys, you wanker.”
I tried to get the keys from my pocket.
“Hurry up, you fucking tosser,” he said.
This is when I saw the second of what were in fact four robbers.
“You know what this is?”
I looked up. He, as I was soon to realise, was the leader, and was waving a large blade in my face. But I could see that in his other hand he held a gun, the butt of which he had used to knock me out minutes earlier.
“A gun,” I said.
“No, not that—this, you prick.
He waved the serrated-edged knife in my face again.
“Get the fucking keys out your pocket, but stay on the ground.”
This I did, and when doing so realised that I had pissed myself.
The hot piss was only now becoming cold, or perhaps it was because I could feel the wetness with my hand.
I held the keys up, keeping my face on the floor. He snatched the keys. I could hear him try various keys.
“Which one is it, cunt?” he screamed. “Get on your feet, but keep your eyes down.” I got up and looked up. “Don’t fucking look at me,” he screamed.
I showed him which key opened the front door to the flat. He opened the door. I sneaked a look round and realised that there were four of them. All wore balaclavas with holes cut out for their eyes and mouths, like IRA terrorists. He caught me doing this. He did not like it one bit. He slammed me to the floor once again.
“Get those cunts in here and lock the fucking door,” he ordered. Up until this point none of the other robbers had said anything.
“All right,” came the reply.
Now, fully focused on me, the leader grabbed my hair and forced my face hard onto the varnished floorboards.
“Now, you wanker, where’s the fucking safe?”
“Through there,” I murmured and pointed toward my bedroom.
“Crawl,” he commanded, and with him still forcing my face flat against the floor, he made me crawl on my belly the width of the main room.
“Into the bedroom, you cunt,” he said.
Once in the bedroom, he started screaming, “Where’s the safe? Where is it? Where is the fucking safe?”
“There!” I said. “Just over there!” Once more, I made the mistake of lifting my head.
“For the last fucking time, keep your face down on the floor.”
He kicked me hard in the ribs. I crawled over the bedroom floor to the small bedside cabinet and, keeping my face firmly on the floor, fumbled and pulled open the cabinet door inside of which was the safe.
“Right, you prick, what’s the combination?”
It was 1-9-6-2, and I had never before forgotten it, but for the life of me, it had gone, I just could not remember. I panicked. The emptiness was overwhelming—the emptiness of fear and the utter lack of control over anything, any movement, and now even any thought.
“Come on, you cunt. What’s the fucking number, the code for the safe?”
“I can’t remember,” I said, and then 2-0-0-2 came into my head, and then my age. “You fucking better had,” he said. “Who else knows it?” Then I remembered my date of birth.
“One nine six two,” I said.
“Open the safe,” he shouted.
“I’ll have to lift my head to do that.”
In saying this I realised to what extent he had had complete control over me and everything I did. It was perversely also the first thought of my own I’d had for God knows how long—apart from, that is, that sinking feeling I had when I stepped out of the lift door and realised we were being robbed.
I opened the safe. I knew there was around £3,000 in it.
“Right, you—on your feet but don’t you dare fucking look at me.”
I stood up.
“Hands behind your back.”
I did as I was told. He then attempted to tie my hands tightly. For some reason he screwed it up, but blamed me. “Don’t get fucking clever with me.”
This time he punched me in the ribs, in the same place he’d kicked me before. Painful, very painful. He grabbed me by the hair and frog-marched me back into the main room. Everyone was now lying face-down in a line by the sofa. No one said a word.
“Get down and don’t fucking move.”
He then ordered one of his cohorts to come with him.
“If any of these cunts move, knock them out,” he said.
From the bedroom I heard him say, “Count that.” Then soon afterwards he said, “Where’s the fucking rest, you prick? All this for three K? You fucking tosser.
“That’s less than a grand each. You said there would be much more than that. Right, turn the fucking place over.”
I heard them come out of my bedroom.
“There must be more money!” He kept repeating: “All this, all these cunts… for this?”
From where I was lying, my cheek on the wooden floor, I could see the older of the two Pets trussed up next to me. With his eyes he indicated to where both he and I knew there was another £1,500. It was in the base of the large green sofa we were all lying next to. He screwed up his face as if to say, “Don’t tell them.” Then, from nowhere, darkness again, but this time with no pain.
A large sofa cushion had been thrown over my head. For just a few seconds I thought that this was it—they were going to shoot me through the pillow to dampen the noise. This was when I regained more clarity. I realised that they were in fact not wanting to kill me or anyone, for that matter. In a flash realisation and a surge of adrenaline, I understood that all they really wanted was to get out clean without causing serious injury to anyone. They had no doubt calculated that getting away with this was highly possible, as I would be unlikely to call the police. Let’s face it, how was I to explain to the authorities the money, the bar, the seating for 60 or more people, and the four toilets. I relaxed, or at least became less tense. For the first time in what felt like forever, I heard myself breathe.
All seven of us lay there as the search for more money went on. As time passed and none was found, the conversation between the robbers became increasingly agitated. They raised their voices as they argued over how little money they had uncovered.
It seemed if at least one of the robbers was trying to disguise his voice. His deep gruff voice was badly disguised to sound like a much higher-pitched one. He was clearly putting it on.
The leader was repeatedly shouting about how much of a risk the whole thing had been, and how they had expected only one person or maybe two—how he had been told only the owner and maybe his girlfriend would be here. The thought of Gemma being involved in this made me shudder. He kept talking about how they had to tie up and deal with so many people for so little money. How could it have been so much of a fuck up?
He kept repeating, “What a waste of time.”
Knock, knock, knock. Someone was at the front door.
“Shhhhhh,” demanded the leader. He got complete silence.
Suddenly it went light as the pillow covering my head was removed. This shocked me out of the strange, calm numbness into which I had retreated and had almost become cocooned while not having been the focus of the leader’s attention.
“Who the fuck is that?” he whispered.
He was right over my ear. I could feel his hot spit on the side of my face.
“Pet,” I said.
“How many?” he asked.
“Just him,” I said.
Next it went dark again and I heard the door being unlocked. Then, seconds later: “Get on the fucking floor, you cunt. Get down. Get his fucking phone off him and tie the cunt up.”
Young Pet had arrived with the cigarettes. Fortunately he hadn’t picked up a girl.
“Tell me, you prick,” he said to me, screaming through the pillow. “Is there anyone else coming?”
“No, no one.”
“There better fucking not be or I’ll fucking kill you, you cunt.”
I heard the crunch of Young Pet’s phone being smashed underfoot. Craig Cooper was lying a few people nearer the door than me, but I could hear him clearly as he, completely out of the blue and in his broad Mancunian accent, said, “Wait a minute, is this a fucking kill-o-gram or what?”
I could hear the robbers as one. They stopped. No movement. No shouting. No arguing. And then quick steps, a short silence. Then a thud. “Any of you think this is a fucking joke, you’ll get the same,” he said.
I later found out that the pillow which had been covering Craig’s head had been removed, his head pulled back and the leader had whispered into his ear, “So you think this is fucking funny, do you?”
He then thumped him with the butt of the gun on the temple, knocking him out.
Some days after the hold-up, it dawned on me that these guys must practise how hard to hit people on the temple in order to render them unconscious, but no worse. That got me to thinking: how did they practise this? I thought maybe they did it using blue breeze blocks and could learn how to get the force of the blow just right, based on the depth of the dent the butt of the gun makes on the brick.
The search for more money continued and was getting more and more frantic. Removing the pillow, the leader shouted right into my to ear, “Money, you cunt—there must be more.”
Then another kick in the ribs, but mercifully the opposite side this time. Just as this happened there was a shout from the bedroom. “Got more.”
I assumed they’d found the charity money I had collected. I had run the London Marathon weeks earlier, but had not yet sent the cash in.
“That’s fuck all. Sixteen fucking grand is what you said we’d get from this. This is shite, a fucking waste of time.”
The leader now sounded livid.
As the pillow that covered my head was removed I could see Old Pet lying next to me. The pillow wasn’t placed well over his head. His eyes—he was looking at where the money was and he was letting me know.
The leader must have noticed something as he started on Pet, asking him if he knew. Pet said he had no idea. They’re made of strong stuff, those Albanians.
He turned to me. “What were you looking at, you cunt?”
He held the gun up as if to hit me once again.
“In the lining of the sofa,” I told him.
I listened as a knife cut through the cloth of the sofa and within seconds they had recovered the £1,500 hidden there the previous week.
Again, I listened as the searching and the breaking of the place continued, along with the increased arguing. Then yet another unheard voice, like the other, sounded strange and put-on, definitely disguised.
“There must be drugs in here at least. Come on, there must be some more?’’
“Something?” a voice asked, almost an apology.
“You, you are a fucking prick,” the leader said to him.
I could hear more things being frantically thrown around and broken. Then no noise. Complete silence.
From nowhere, the leader snatched the pillow from my head and flipped me over. He pointed the gun at me.
“Do you know what this is?” he said.
Then he shouted, “Open your fucking mouth.”
I froze, tight-lipped.
“Open your fucking mouth!” This time he screamed at the top of his voice. I opened my mouth.
“Do you see this, you cunt?”
The barrel of the gun was waved in front of my eyes. I could see the gun much more clearly than before, and it seemed strangely, frighteningly, homemade, as if adapted or converted. This created a completely new and intense fear in me.
“Open your mouth! I said open your mouth!”
All the time I was thinking that this gun might very well go off, but not on purpose. By mistake!
He screamed, “You cunt, open your mouth!”
I hadn’t realised I had closed my mouth. I did as I was told. He put his foot on my chest, leaned forward, stuffed the barrel of the gun down my throat, and then to my astonishment whipped of his mask and, with his face right up in mine, screamed at the top of his voice, “Where’s the fucking money?”
A number of things seemed to happen all at the same time at this point. Firstly, his face was indelibly imprinted on my mind. Secondly, there were his evil eyes—black, narrow snake-like eyes. Eyes that I’ll never ever forget for as long as I live. At the same time as he unveiled his face, the adrenaline that had kicked in some time ago, and had allowed me to think slightly more rationally, completely disappeared and with its disappearance I slipped down to a dark place. A darker place is beyond imagining—an overwhelming gloom the like which I had never experienced came over me. I felt myself drop, at first as if through my upper body. Slowly, with no sense of time and in complete silence, I sank gradually through my chest into what felt like a black nothingness. I could see nothing as I felt the darkness become heavier and denser. I sunk deeper and deeper through my stomach, my lower torso, and then my legs, and then as if not through my body at all— perhaps myself or soul—and all this time there was no noise at all. And then I stopped. It stopped. I had some sense that I had gone as far as I could—to my feet or the ground or the earth.
Then complete peacefulness, I felt at rest and somehow, somewhere, both outside and inside myself all at the same time. Was I dead? Then, slowly, I felt I was rising. And then I screamed, or thought I’d screamed:
So loud, so clear and just once, but for what seemed like a long, long, long time. Then the reverse happened, but this upward journey became quicker, much quicker as this world became lighter. During this time I can’t remember closing my eyes—perhaps I did—but at the end of the scream, as the light slowly came back and as I began to grasp awareness and as his twisted face came into view again… unbelievably I felt calm. His taught weasel-like features discernibly softened. Had he got his answer? It seemed so.
He spun me back around and put the pillow back over my head. “Right, that’s it. Let’s get the fuck out of here.’
“You fuckers do not move. Just do not move for 20 minutes.’
“I mean it—move and you’ll fucking regret it.”
The door to the flat slammed shut. That, it seemed, was that. It seemed my face, my internal journey, had convinced him that there just wasn’t any more money anywhere else in the flat.
Time had been inestimable during the hold-up. Now it dragged, as the leader’s words were ringing in my ears. However, it seemed we had got away without any injury. Well, without any serious physical injury. Despite still being tied up, I felt a sense of freedom as the adrenaline of the fear slowly dissipated and my muscles relaxed for the first time in the absolute silence and darkness.
I was the first to move, trying to get my hands free. Then from nowhere, a scream. Like a sledgehammer, and at the top of his voice: “What did I say? Don’t fucking move, you fucking shithead cunt.”
The leader was still there in the room. He kicked me hard in the thigh. He was in control yet again. By pretending to have left, he allowed the other three to leave. The door slammed shut once more. Silence.
We lay there for another 20 minutes or so, when Old Pet said to me, “All right, Gary, they’ve gone. See if you can get the ties off your hands.”
I did, and then untied Old Pet and then we both freed the others. We sat stunned and quiet for a minute or so. Then I walked over to the bar. They had wrecked it. I found and opened a 50-year-old bottle of Scottish whisky, got some glasses, and passed everyone a glass. “OK,” I said, “whoever wants to go the police on this, and I mean any one of you, then we’ll call them right away. But I have to let you know that I don’t want to. As you all know, I have been running this place, and I want to carry it on.”
We were all shaken-up, but we were alive.
“Let me say again,” I repeated, “if any one of you wants to call the police I will do it right now.”
I then asked each person individually. Each said that they did not feel the need to get the police involved. We all sat quietly for a few minutes. I topped up the glasses, swigged mine back. I was sitting next to Yoyo. I gave her a hug and she began to weep a little. After consoling her, we sat quietly talking about the experience. I asked her how loudly I had screamed.
“What scream? I didn’t hear you scream. You didn’t scream.”
Had it been only in my head that I had screamed? I was later to find out that experienced pilots, in some cases less than a year from retirement, who were involved in fatal plane crashes, often screamed “Mother” as their last recorded word. I poured some more whisky into my glass, finished it and then threw the heavy glass at the wall. This made everyone jump. For me, I suppose it was some kind of statement of release.
I left the room, and went to my bedroom, which had been trashed. I sat on my bed and cried. I got some clothes and stood at the door and listened for a minute or two to my friends talking. The sense of relief was palpable. I needed to shower, as much to remove the affair from my skin as the piss-wet trousers I was wearing.
I walked through the huge living room of my flat and was about to go into the shower room when I happened to glance towards the front door of the loft. Lying there, eyes closed, was James. “Christ,” I screamed.
We had been talking and drinking for at least 20 minutes and no one had noticed that James wasn’t with us. He was lying there, looking very dead.
I ran over to him and put my hand under his nose and could feel his breath on my hand. I shook him and he woke up, and as he did he smiled and said, “Have they fucking gone then?” It appeared James’s shut-down was simply his coping mechanism. We all laughed for the first time in hours.
At around the same time, Craig Cooper started asking if I had seen one of the robber’s trainers.
He kept repeating this.
“No,” I said.
But he kept banging on about how rare they were and how he thought he had seen someone wearing them around the neighbourhood. He just couldn’t remember who. I thought no more of it for the time being.
When showering, in my head, I kept thinking how lucky we were that we got through this thing without anyone being seriously injured. I looked at my thigh. It was badly bruised, my ribs were too. I got out of the shower and looked in the mirror. I had quite a large bump at my temple. Still, not bad, considering. As I was getting dressed, I began to think of the impact this might have on the drinking den I had barely launched. After all this, I was thinking about the word-of-mouth impact of this event on my place.
Back in the room, I decided that I’d ask each person not to mention the event, while being fully aware that they would. I knew they wouldn’t be able to help themselves. And as it turned out, some, maybe all of them, did talk a lot. I spent my time regaling two stories in rotation to pretty much anyone who asked me about it. As it transpired, that turned out to be most people in the neighbourhood.
The first story was that a couple of lads from the estate tried to get in through the ground-floor door and I chased them away with a big stick. The second was that ten raiders abseiled in through the windows from the roof, automatic weapons, knives, guns and samurai swords in hand. All dressed in black with balaclavas on.
The third story? Well, it was out there already—packaged with my co-captors individual embellishments added for good measure. No need for me to add to it. The result, as I’d hoped, was that no one really knew what happened, if anything really did happen at all. Was it just bullshit made up by me? Some sort of inverted PR?
Two weeks later, I got a call from Craig Cooper. He’d remembered who wore the trainers. It was JC, a “friend” of ours. A scouser who had lived in the area for years. Further to that, JC had, since the hold-up, not walked by the Bricklayers Arms on his way home, something he had done for months previously.
What was I to do? There was no way of knowing for sure if it had been JC who had planned and helped execute the robbery. Even if he did, I could never prove it. If I could prove it, what was I to do? Go to the police? Shoot him in the arse as a way of saying I know it was you, and give me my money back? No, I wasn’t a gangster. I’ve never handled a gun, never mind fired one. No. Some other solution would have to be found.
Then, some months later in The Griffin, I got a chance to at least determine for myself if JC had in fact been involved. It was Sunday afternoon and JC, along with four or five others, was drinking, having watched the football. JC invited me over to the bar where they were standing. I was a little pissed, maybe a little high. Anyway, I had a plan. After a few minutes in their company, I put my arm around JC’s shoulders and started telling the story of the hold-up.
At first he went rigid, then he tried to release himself from my increasingly tight grip. He became more and more agitated, unable to show me any kind of eye contact. At this point a friend of his, Bill, whom I’d met some years ago, came into the pub. He glanced at JC with a look of incomprehension and fear, which at first I didn’t understand. As I continued telling the story, and his friend tried to interrupt, it dawned on me just who his friend was. He was the one with the squeaky/gruff disguised voice. With this realisation, I insisted on recapping the story for Bill, a short way through which he abruptly left, leaving his pint untouched on the bar.
So at once I confirmed that JC was there, that he most probably made the gang aware of the opportunity, and that Bill was one of his accomplices and had probably put the little firm together and organised the job.
I realised at the same time that this extremely awkward position I had put JC in would perhaps be my less-than-perfect revenge. But revenge it was, of sorts, and would have to do. I have since then subjected JC to this “revenge regale” a number of times and will continue to do so on most occasions when I see him, to one degree or another. Bill, as far as I know, is currently doing ten years for armed robbery.
© Gary Fairfull 2009