ZANE R ADCLIFFE
A SHORT STORY
Belfast. April 1st.
Bobby McAllister took his seat on the Citybus and scanned The
Sun for news of a spaghetti orchard, a channel tunnel forged in the
17th century or a car that runs on baked beans. The only sniff of an
April fool came on page three where a topless Debbie, 19, from
Braintree, expressed her deeply held view that there should be more
female MP’s in Gordon Brown’s newly reshuffled cabinet.
Bobby returned his attention to the Su Doku that had been
giving him grief. He had almost completed the number-grid when logic
dictated that he should put a 4 where a 4 could not go. Somewhere
along the line he had made a fatal mistake and now there seemed no
way of unraveling the mess. That's the problem with these damn
puzzles, he thought. Your errors don't reveal themselves until it's way
It was a predicament familiar to Bobby. He was always making
bad decisions. Like the one that had robbed him of a left foot. And the
one that had compelled him to retire early, rather than accept the
RUC’s offer of a desk job. And the one that had inspired him to invest
his damages in dotcom stocks just before the bubble burst.
He revisited his Su Doku. The only solution was to rub
everything out and start all over again.
If only things were that easy, he thought.
The bus stopped to admit an olive-skinned man who took an
age to find his fare. He wore a rucksack and Bobby could not prevent
himself from thinking the unthinkable.
Typical, he thought, that just as the province was finally
growing accustomed to life without terrorism, a new breed of terror
was blowing in from the Middle East. Bobby liked to tell people that
the only reason the IRA had agreed to lay down its arms was because
Al Qaeda had given terrorism a bad name.
He stared hard at the olive-skinned man with the rucksack and
hated himself for doing so, even though the newspapers warned of
further suicide attacks and the need for public vigilance. He felt worse
when the man turned to reveal a brown-eyed baby strapped to his
Bobby fought his way to the doors. There was a loud hiss as the
bus lowered to let him disembark. This irked him. Surely they only did
that for the elderly and infirm? Damn it, he could still walk on his own
two feet. Even if one of them was plastic.
He carried his anger with him as he crossed Shaftesbury
Square. The prosthetic gave him an unnatural gait and Bobby thought
he could compensate by walking quickly.
He might not have been in such a hurry had he known that this
would be his last day at work.
Like Harrods in London and Jenners in Edinburgh, Devlins
department store sold everything from sofas to soda bread. Eighteen
brands of television, forty-one styles of hat, eleven varieties of smoked
salmon and over nine hundred shades of lipstick took space on its six
floors. If you were so inclined, you could buy cream for your shoes,
your scones and your arsehole.
The store’s eponymous owner, Francie Devlin - a man who had
profited more from the Troubles than anyone sitting round a table at
Stormont - had eschewed a life of bomb-making, racketeering and
drug trafficking to plough his energies (and his ill-gotten gains) into
turning the former RUC station on Donegal Pass, and its neighbouring
buildings, into a single towering edifice that would redefine the words
Bobby reckoned that this wasn’t exactly a difficult task. It
wasn’t that long ago that the Belfast ‘shopping experience’ was likened
to Beirut but without the glitzy window displays.
He showed his pass at the staff entrance. They would normally
give it no more than a cursory glance but this morning there was a
new guy on the door and he held Bobby’s photo up to his face to
ensure a match.
Bobby liked the store at this time of the morning, just before the
rabble was let in. There was a soothing, almost soporific quality to the
purr of the vacuum cleaners, the hum of the floor polishers and the
wind-chime clinking of coat hangers, as the shop floor was readied for
action. But this was never enough to divert him from the bitter irony
that Francie Devlin had regularly tried to blow up this building in the
seventies and eighties, yet now he was investing heavily in its
regeneration and rebirth.
He made his way through women’s frillies and nodded a ‘good
morning’ to two girls opening boxes of bras. He heard one of them call
him ‘Perv’ under her breath.
It wasn’t the first time. He guessed it was something to do with
his age, the fact that he lived with his mother, and the fact that every
morning they saw him take a short cut through racks of lingerie to get
to his locker room. And the limp probably didn’t help. On more than
one occasion he’d had to steady himself by making a grab for a
He tried hard to appear unphased by the girls’ name-calling but
he couldn’t kid himself.
It wasn’t that they didn’t respect him. Bobby had learned to live
with that. Hadn’t his dignity died the day he joined the Devlins
No, what bothered Bobby was that these girls didn’t understand
him. They didn’t even want to understand him. He guessed that they
didn’t want to confront the horrible reality that one day they too would
become fat, slow and bitter, stripped of any last redeeming vestige of
These last few years Bobby had noticed a real difference in the
young folk round his way and it wasn’t just because he was getting
older. He was sure that this generation was cut from a different cloth.
He saw an arrogance in their eyes and in their posturing that he had
never identified in the kids he’d bundled into his Saracen little more
than a decade ago. Kids today, he reasoned, they think they’re
untouchable. Invincible. That wasn’t the case in the Belfast that
Bobby remembered, where you were always one stray word, one silly
act, or one wrong turning away from a beating or a bullet. You were
far from invincible. And it kept you in line, or so he believed. Little
wonder we had the lowest crime figures in the UK, he liked to tell
people. The Troubles kept us in line.
So yes, it annoyed Bobby that the bra girls felt so free to dismiss
him. Their name-calling was a far cry from the ‘good mornings’ he had
received when he had walked into this building with two good feet as
an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Of course, you couldn’t
call them RUC anymore. They had been rebranded as the PSNI. They
called it progress, but Bobby thought it made them sound like one of
those superbugs that people were now contracting in hospitals.
Regardless, the Devlins building had been his main place of
employment for his twenty-five years in the constabulary.
In those days he would stroll in with his head held high and not
a hair on his freshly pressed green uniform. Some trick for a dog
handler. His Sarge would slap him firmly on the back and ask him
how Rhona and the kids were doing. His best mate Jack Ferris would
look up from his morning Ulster and give him a dead cert in the 2.45
that would invariably be shot dead and turned to glue by 3.15.
There’d be a hot Punjana and an iced bap waiting for him in the
Nobody asked Bobby how Rhona and the kids were doing any
more. They knew better than to ask.
He pushed the door labelled ‘STAFF ONLY’, unbuttoned his coat
and rifled his pockets for coins to feed the coffee machine. It also
made tea, Bovril and something called a Chocamochaccino, but in
truth they all tasted like creosote.
Bobby heard a door shuck open behind him. A woman’s voice
‘Bout time, McAllister. Glad you could join us.’
It was a voice that could cut diamonds. Or rip telephone
directories. It was Brenda. Bobby’s supervisor. The face that sunk a
Bobby looked at his watch. ‘But it’s 8.40,’ he protested. ‘I’m
always in at 8.40.’ He showed her his wrist.
‘Aye, and I told you to be in here at a quarter past,’ she replied.
‘It’s our big day, or had you forgotten? Today is the official opening of
Devlins department store. And we have a Royal visitor. Let’s hope
Prince Andrew didn’t sleep in.’
How had Bobby forgotten?
‘I still think it’s odd to have an official opening nearly two years
after we’ve actually opened,’ he said.
Brenda barged past him. Walked right through him like he
wasn’t there. People had started doing that to Bobby.
‘Francie Devlin always said that he’d keep the champagne on ice
‘til the beauty spa on the top floor was completed,’ she said. ‘He’s a
‘Perfectionist? Perfectly barmy, that’s what it is. People are now
flocking to Francie to get their nails done. A dozen years ago they
queued up outside his door to get their nail bombs done.’
Brenda stirred her plastic cup with a biro and gave Bobby a
look that could ice baps. ‘Just get your fuckin’ uniform on.’
He emptied his coffee into the sink and opened his locker. He
slipped on the navy pullover and iridescent puffer jacket that defined
him as ‘Security’. There was a time when a uniform had invested him
with a responsibility to safeguard the six counties. Now his only
responsibility was to protect a ‘reformed’ terrorist’s profits from the
grabbing hands of petty shoplifters.
Not that Bobby was allowed to apprehend any thieves himself.
The management didn’t allow him on the shop floor. They feared that
his limp would only encourage people to steal in the confidence that
they could make a successful run for it. So Bobby’s sole role in life
was to man a small detention area, annexed to the staff room, and
preside over the waifs and strays that got hauled in. He had to make
sure that they didn’t go walkies, until the proper law arrived.
When Brenda was safely gone, Bobby removed something hard,
black and heavy from his coat and transferred it into the warm
confines of his puffer jacket.
They had taken his foot. They had taken his uniform. They had
taken his wife and kid. (Indirectly, though he’d be the first to admit.)
But they were never going to take away his right to remain armed.
He had always carried a gun. Why should it be any different
now that peace was slowly solidifying? Why should he stop protecting
himself just because City Hall could now get yer woman from The One
Show to switch on the Christmas lights in a city centre that used to be
a no man’s land after 7pm?
It wasn’t as if Bobby was irresponsible with a firearm. He wasn’t
one of those American high school kids who shoot up their gym class
because they’re told to play in ‘skins’. He wasn’t about to hose the
staff canteen with bullets just because they’d neglected to put a non-
dairy option on their menu.
No, Bobby was a responsible adult. A highly trained adult. He
respected his gun. He knew how to look after it and carry it. He knew
when to use it. More importantly, he knew when not to use it. They
could never take that away from him.
The morning passed, as it invariably did, at a snail’s pace.
Bobby wasn’t sure why, but it seemed that people preferred to steal
things later in the day. Morning mustn’t be a good time for
kleptomaniacs, he figured. Perhaps they’re stealing a few extra hours
of sleep. Or perhaps the converse is true and thieves are actually more
prolific before mid-day. They’re just better at not getting caught.
Maybe, he thought, as the day wears on you get careless, over-
confident, and a little more devil-may-care when you stuff things
down your pants. Like a whole hock of ham. Or a 50-inch plasma.
This was the sort of intellectual offal that Bobby was commonly
left to contemplate as he manned a soulless, windowless detention
room that contained no detainees. His only company was a bluebottle
that was becoming increasingly maddened by the strip lighting on the
Bobby made a fresh move towards the coffee machine but
thought better of it and returned his posterior to a warm plastic seat.
Those guards at Guantanemo, he thought. I’ll bet they aren’t bored.
Not with the tools at their disposal. And then he smiled at the idea
that he might be allowed to play insanely loud and unbearable sounds
to a room full of shoplifters – detuned violins / babies screaming / the
Reverend Ian Paisley - to extract on-the-spot confessions.
Bobby guessed that today’s shoplifters had been put off by the
heightened security for the big Royal opening. He never thought he’d
live to see the day when the House of Windsor accepted an invitation
from Francie Devlin. Talk about hands across the barricades. Bobby
reckoned that Prince Andrew had only signed up to the visit on the
condition that Devlins agreed to stock his brother’s Duchy Originals.
Who knows, Francie might have got a visit from Charlie himself, had
he given him a more prominent, end-of-aisle display.
Aye, these were strange times, alright. Economics before
politics, that was the new mantra. On the plus side, we’d stopped
shooting each other, thought Bobby. But look what we’ve inherited:
laughable house prices, fusion cuisine and stag weekenders throwing
up on our pavements. At least the national football team had started
scoring again, though Bobby was sure that this was unconnected to
the peace process.
It was strange for Bobby to see the store crawling with armed
police. He was touched by the nostalgia of it. He wondered whether
they’d been given orders to shoot on sight. And he’d bet his weekly
wage that they’d be using bullets with ballistic tips. That way they
could shoot you on the spot and not worry about ricochets. Quite a
deterrent if you’re thinking of stuffing a blouse into your handbag, or
so Bobby imagined. For he had never stuffed a blouse into his
handbag. Bobby had never stolen a thing in his life.
Well, apart from the gun, that is. But technically that wasn’t
stealing. He had just neglected to give it back. And because his
departure from the force had coincided with their relocation from the
Donegal Pass station and the scaling down of the police force in
general, the gun – and its paperwork - had got lost in the hullabaloo.
The door opened and Bobby got to his feet. Or foot.
Brenda presented him with the first catch of the day.
‘Martine Baron,’ she announced as she nudged a hesitant
woman into the room. ‘Least, that’s the name she gave me. Silly cow
tried to leave the food hall with her coat balled round a tub of Aptamil.
Unlucky. It’s just about the only food item we tag.’ Brenda set the tub
of powdered baby milk on one of the tables. ‘She’s refusing to open her
hold-all, so we’ll have to wait ‘til we can get a police officer in here
before we can establish whether she’s stolen anything else.’
‘It’s my gym bag,’ the woman explained. ‘And I haven’t stolen
anything. It was a misunderstanding.’
‘Of course it was,’ said Brenda. ‘Isn’t it always.’ She turned to
Bobby. ‘She’s entitled to speak a female officer but the cops outside
say she’ll have to wait a while. They’re all too busy watching Prince
Andy’s ass. Least, that’s the bit I’ll be watching.’
Bobby reckoned that watching Brenda’s ass would be the
easiest job in the world. You couldn’t miss it as she tried to squeeze it
back through the door.
He turned to the baby powder woman. She didn’t look like the
type to shoplift – smart business suit, expensive haircut, good bones
and teeth. But then, not many of the people hauled into this room
ever did look like thieves. It wasn’t as if they all wore stripy shirts and
carried bags with ‘SWAG’ printed on them. If there was one thing
Bobby had learned in his two years at Devlins, it was that almost all
of us are capable of dipping our hands in a till. Doctors, lawyers,
lottery millionaires, he’d detained them all. The strangest had been a
guy in a wheelchair with stumps where his hands should’ve started.
He had tried to leave the store with a book wedged in his teeth. A
hardback, at that. It had taken three of them to pull it free. Jaws like
a rottweiler. Bobby had wondered why the man had chosen to steal a
book. How would he turn the pages? And what would he be wanting
with The Art and Wonder of Origami ?
Bobby reckoned he’d seen it all. But this woman still stuck out.
Not because she was female. In Bobby’s experience, women stole more
often than men. At least, they got caught more often. He’d read
somewhere that despite the inherent male desire to play contact
sports and drive high-octane cars, women are more genetically
disposed to taking risks. That’s why they wear high heels.
But Bobby was still surprised by the woman before him. There
was something about her that didn’t sit right.
He offered her a seat. ‘Please … I just need to get a few details.
It’s a formality.’ Bobby found his clipboard and pen. He checked his
watch again. ‘Time of incident … one forty-four.’
The woman sat down. She set her gym bag on the floor and
carefully slid it between her legs, positioning it under the seat. She
looked anxious. But it was an anxiety twinned with sadness. Like a
rabbit in the headlights that, far from being blinded, is fully aware
that it’s about to get hit.