Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Elaine Lennon

Leonard Higgins was an honest man. Modest, middle-aged, unassuming, non-descript. A quiet kind of a man. A man who operated at a very low velocity. The kind of man you’d never notice.  A family man. His wife and children were on their annual trip to her parents before they’d head for his parents’ farm together and then they’d all go to Bundoran in August. It was ever thus.

After he took his older daughter’s camogie stick to the sitting room, wrecked a ghastly painting with big creepy eyes that followed you, bashed a few horrible ornaments displayed on a dusty sideboard, knocked over the standard lamp and upturned a chintzy chair, he entered the kitchen and ate his breakfast. Cornflakes with gone-off Monaghan Milk, last night’s leftover sausages smeared with Colman’s English Mustard and hot Barry’s tea, no sugar. A slice of brown toast scraped with butter and Rose’s Lime marmalade.

“Waste not, want not,” he said, forking the remaining pork innards into his mouth.

He patted his tummy and looked at his watch. They’d be here any minute. Best leave the dishes unwashed.

It was a simple plan.

Chick Mawhinney. Fifty-two. Wiry. Dapper. Close-cropped grey hair, the kind an American would call a buzz cut, often covered by a Trilby hat. A checked sportscoat shiny from too much dry cleaning.

Sonny Kiernan. Forty-one. Musclebound. Shoulders. Black tinted square-framed shades. Never got over Elvis dying. Now his quiff was replaced by a greying mullet.

Frankie Smith. The runt of the litter. Skinny. Limped. Covered it up wearing biker boots. Fresh-faced, prone to blushing. Liked a leather jacket, even in the heat.

An orange Ford Escort with a souped-up engine pulled into the tree-lined driveway. The property was not overlooked. It was a quiet neighbourhood. Nobody was up at half-past five this summer morning except the birds and the cows in the fields that bordered the bungalow.

Leonard opened the front door.

“Good morning,” he said. Chick was standing there with woman’s tights pulled over his face. Frankie was by his side,

“Morning, Boss,” said Chick. “I’d better come in.” He walked briskly past Leonard, through the hallway, checked out the sitting room and nodded approval at the mayhem.

He watched as Leonard rolled up his shirtsleeves and loosened his tie.

“Ready,” said Leonard.

Chick pulled out a length of rope and tightened a noose around Leonard’s wrists.

“Sorry about this,” said Chick.

“It’s perfectly fine,” said Leonard.

“Got everything?” asked Chick.

Leonard rattled the key chain hanging from his trousers.

“Leave the door,” said Leonard, as they opened the back door to the car. “Looks better.”

Sonny was in the driving seat.

“Start the engine,” said Chick.

“I’m smothered,” gasped Sonny. “The wife likes a forty denier.”

Frankie sat in the back, a nude twenty rolled up on his face with his mouth showing. “I’m a bit claustrophobic,” he said as Leonard slid in across the plastic seat cover with Chick pressing in on him on the other side.

“Drive!” said Chick.

Sonny put his foot to the floor.

“Sorry, but you know what comes next,” said Chick. He put a plastic Dunnes Stores bag over Leonard’s head. Leonard inhaled quickly and then relaxed.

They wound their way along the high country hedges and by a Texaco forecourt at a crossroads where a German shepherd prowled guarding the neighbouring coal merchants, through the suburban road filled with houses on either side on the outskirts of town. Then they got to the Church of Ireland where the streets split either side. They turned to the left.

“A certain amount of dishonesty is bound to beget a certain amount of dishonesty,” said Leonard.

“What’s that?” asked Chick. “It’s the bag,” he said. “I didn’t quite catch it.”

Leonard repeated the line.

“Who said that? Voltaire?” asked Chick.

The Pink Panther,” said Leonard.

They passed the Post Office, the Surgical Hospital, the Milseanacht Breifne bakery across from the Market Square and after Woolworths they pulled up in front of the bank.

Sonny kept the car purring.

“Do we need the engine running?” asked Chick.

“Best idea,” said Frankie. “She can be a bit temperamental.”

Sonny eyed him in the rearview mirror.

“Hurry up, now,” he said. “And pull those tights down over your mouth.”

Frankie did as he was told and jumped out and ran to the newly installed ATM, reaching for the inside of his jacket.

“What are you doing?” asked Chick, on him like a fly, leaving Leonard like a headless chicken on the footpath, turning this way and that.

“I need some small notes for the busfare,” said Frankie. “I’ve nothing on me.”

“Are you mad!” said Chick. “Get over here!” He pushed Leonard in front of him with a knife pointed into the small of the man’s back while Frankie sheepishly stood to one side.

Chick untied the rope bunching Leonard’s hands together.

“Keys!” said Chick. He looked up to the CCTV camera.

Leonard fumbled with the chain. He found the Chubb and the smaller key and opened the double door.

Frankie looked up and down the street like they’d rehearsed.

Chick and Frankie pulled him inside the building and Chick pulled the plastic bag off Leonard’s head. He straightened up inside the dimly lit vestibule and they followed his lead to the door at the end of the customer counter.

“I need to turn off the camera outside,” he said, as he pressed a button on a wall.

He used a key to open the door. He used another key to open his office where he switched on the overhead light and a fifth key to open the top right drawer on his old oak desk.

They followed him to the vault through a double door behind the assistant manager’s office. He hit another light switch to get the combination right on the safe. His hands were dripping perspiration. He was surprised by his own nerves.

He opened the safe and methodically divvied up piles of cash to each man. Frankie unfolded a rucksack and filled it. Chick used the plastic bag that Leonard had been wearing on his head.

Leonard looked at another pile of money. He shrugged and handed it over to Chick.

“Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb,” said Leonard. “Now, tie me up.”

“Do I have to, Boss?” said Chick.

“Go on,” said Leonard.

Chick handed Leonard back a thick bundle of hundred-pound notes bound by a rubber band.

Leonard waved it away.

“I owe you,” said Chick. “We all do.”

“Not at all,” said Leonard.

“A fair exchange is no robbery,” said Chick.

“Right you are,” said Leonard. He put the cash in his trouser pocket. He’d find somewhere else later.

“I have to hit you,” said Frankie.

“I know,” said Leonard.

Frankie covered his fist with a chamois and Leonard fell over, hitting his head on the vault’s opened door.

“Sorry, Boss,” said Chick. He and Frankie pulled Leonard into a sitting and then a standing position and helped him back to his office where they used the rope that had been around his wrists to secure him to his captain’s chair.

Leonard looked at the clock. Half-past six.

“You better go, lads. I’ll be fine. Eric Farrell will be here by nine o’clock. Good luck!”

The men fled to the street, pulling the door behind them.

The blow to Leonard’s head was harder than anyone had appreciated and Leonard passed out, sweat beading his shirt collar and blood dripping from his mouth. He came to after twenty minutes and remembered he was bound to his chair. He tried to bounce backwards towards the wall, away from the desk, but quickly gave up. It wouldn’t be long now. He looked up at the clock again. Ten-past seven. Another two hours, more or less, before the alarm would be raised.

Frankie and Chick had checked the street before getting back into the car.

“Shit,” said Frankie. “Is this really happening?”

“Calm down,” said Sonny as he revved up. “There’s nobody chasing us. This is not a film.”

Sonny took the corner down Bridge Street and Chick shivered as they passed the Guard barracks by the Abbey. Everyone knew what they did to men in there. It was all over The Sunday Tribune six months earlier: turned out the local speciality was beating men to death without leaving a mark. Any men would do. Anyone hanging around drunk on street corners late at night. A random passerby. A fiddle player earning a crust outside Quinnsworth. Whoever. A character who shared the name of a comedian could destroy a man’s liver with one blow and nobody would know when he died of organ failure three months later. Nothing funny about that. The dogs on the street knew all about it. They heard the screams.

Sonny braked at the Bus Station allowing Frankie sufficient time to get out of the car without destroying his good leg.

“Good luck,” said Chick, as Frankie opened the door. “Frankie.”

“What,” said Frankie, his jacket caught on the handle.

“Take the stocking off your head.”

Frankie boarded Donnellys’ early bus to Granard. Jimmy the driver was smoking a Players on the pavement.

The Escort chugged down the old Railway Road. There was no railway any more. Fianna Fáil  had closed all the lines in Ulster twenty-five years earlier in case any of those damned Cavan people wanted to shop in Belfast on Saturdays.

Beyond the golf club where the road split in two, Sonny stopped for Chick to jump into his dirty yellow Skoda, which he’d parked earlier by the old lord’s estate.

Leonard sat on his chair as the assistant manager untied him and shouted at Mary Kelly the secretary to phone the Guards. When they arrived with their squad cars and blue lights they asked Leonard to describe the men who kidnapped him.

“There were three of them. Their faces were covered with stockings. They attacked me in the house and packed me into their car with a plastic bag over my head so I saw nothing. Nobody spoke.”

Unfortunately for the Guards the robbers had been so clever they had forced Leonard to disable the single camera at the front of the bank.

“Out of town job, no doubt about that,” said one Guard.

“Probably funds for a border job,” said another Guard.

They admitted they were baffled. They drove Leonard home and saw the front door wide open and the broken up sitting room and the interrupted breakfast dishes on the table in the kitchen. Not a fingerprint to be had. Not even Leonard’s.

“Up early, then?” said the Inspector, seeing the plate and cutlery and half-drunk cup of tea.

“I was thinking of heading to the golf club, what with the family away,” said Leonard.  “It was fortunate they weren’t here. Otherwise, who knows what might have happened. I dread to think.”

Back at the bank, Leonard sat at his desk for the rest of the day while Mary and Eric brought him cups of tea and fretted and sympathised. He looked at the mortgage documents in front of him red-stamped ‘Call In’ by head office in Dublin.

Charles Ivan and Esther Mawhinney. £27,000 behind in payments on their main residence. Their handicapped daughter had had to be put in a special home when she got too much to handle. The bills were astronomical. They had no other children.

S. James Kiernan. Owed £49,000 on the farm he’d inherited from his father who died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-nine leaving a widow with three children. Sonny had been working on the place from the age of eleven. Now he had young sons of his own. He’d been selling off the remaining cattle at the mart on Tuesdays and impersonating Elvis at pubs around the county on Fridays.

Francis Thomas Smith. Newly married. A former motorcyclist who lost his left leg racing in the North West 200. Now he owed £31,000 on the garage he thought would be his life. His wife was heavily pregnant and unable to work. Her parents were dead and left her nothing but debts and a grudge. There was no money coming in.

It was the 31st July 1982. Through his office’s barred windows Leonard watched as clouds lifted and the sun shone. He put the documents in the locked box in the bottom drawer of his desk.

“No deposit, no return,” said Leonard.

Karen and the girls would be home in a few days. He’d probably have finished reading 52 Pickup by then and return it to the public library for his wife. He wondered what she’d like to buy for herself. Some new ornaments, for starters. What would he do until they returned? He might get in a game of golf to aid his recovery from the great shock of being abducted and forced to participate in a heist on his own bank. He patted the wad of notes in his breast pocket and lit a cigarette with clenched white knuckles. He allowed himself a cautious smile.

Leonard Higgins was an honest man.

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