In late 1983 I was working nights in a Texaco petrol station on Denmark Hill. It was run by a couple of ex-firemen who’d bribed a Fire Service doctor to write them off as workers due to ill health. Back problems. For the princely sum of £500 they’d both received very generous compensation (according to rank and time served) and index linked life-long pensions. A few friends in the Postal Service had also trodden this path. For many, it was a motivating factor in seeking employment in the public sector.
I’d built up quite a social circle around my shifts. This was brought about by my penchant for drugs (which I sold and gave away to like-minded souls), my love of music (which I played loudly through the night) and my gregarious nature (which compelled me to invite strangers in for a puff, or a coffee, or a line of speed). Often, my new friends would spend most of the night hanging out with me. There’d be very few customers in the small hours back then. It wasn’t unusual if I served no one between the hours of 12.30 and 5.30 and I would occasionally employ a young friend to sit out front whilst I went in the back for a nice kip on one of the sun loungers that were on sale. He would wake me when things busied up a bit, I would then snort a foot-long line of amphetamine sulphate and re-take the helm.
On one particular night, I was getting stoned with Steve, a sex addict, speed freak, malarial, computer-whizz from Manchester and Polly, his sex-addict Australian girlfriend. We were smoking red-seal black, listening to Be-Bop Deluxe and watching the world slow down and go quiet. It wasn’t always silent, mind. On a full moon The Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital would go into lock down. When the wind blew from the north, you could hear the anguished howls of the poor bastards who had ended up there. Anyway, a green Ford Escort pulled into the forecourt and parked up. No one emerged from the car. It just sat there.
“They’ve been here a while”, said Steve, “You okay with that, do you want us to stick around?’
“It’s okay man, I recognise the car. I know the number plate.”
“Are you sure? We can stay a little longer if you want.”
“No, you two get off and have some sex. You’ve got to get up in the morning.”
I unlocked the door, let them out and waved goodbye.
Shortly after, three guys of about my age got out of the Escort. I didn’t recognise them. Their faces were not the ones I matched with that car, that number plate, but I knew the car. One of them indicated to me that the watering can was empty. The station didn’t have a hose, so we filled up the can from the tap in the kitchen area. As he approached the door I got up to open it. These were more innocent times. I had barely turned the key in the lock when the two other guys appeared (almost out of nowhere) and were pushing the door against me. I pushed back. A crooked arm forced its way through the gap. I continued to push back. They were shouting something at me. I pushed back. I felt something hard and cold against my temple. It was an automatic pistol. In a flash and thinking fast, I altered my defence tactics from pushing against the door to lying on the floor and grovelling. My new friends entered the shop and demanded that I got back on my feet. Under the circumstances I thought it would be imprudent, if not downright rude, to not do as I was told.
“Where’s the money?”
“There isn’t any really. Every time I hit £50, I have to put it down that chute into the safe.”
“Fuck! Open the till and sit down.”
The big white one moved to the till, the mixed-race one stood by the door, the small oriental one kept the pistol aimed at my chest.
“You’re not going to shoot me are you? I’ve got a one year old daughter.”
“Just stay cool and be quiet and you won’t get hurt.”
“Please don’t shoot me.”
He lowered the gun a little. As he did so his gaze fell on my old Chinese army satchel. It was sitting under the counter, its flap open. My gaze joined his and using my tractor beam, I pulled his eyes back to mine, then I lowered my gaze.
The big white one stepped past me and started taking packs of cigarettes from the display shelf. This wasn’t easy to do as the slots were narrow and deep with a little plastic bar at the front to stop them falling off. Despite my large hands, I’d become quite adept at it and offered to help.
“Look lads, I don’t want to freak you out, if anything I want to help you get out of here as quickly as possible. The Old Bill come in here for their crisps and their Mars Bars.”
“Fuck! Open that.”
The mixed-race one moved towards the counter’s glass display cabinet.
“Get that. Grab that, man.” He pointed at a large plastic remote control car. It wasn’t even a pukka one. It was one of those that’s got a fuckin’ lead. I didn’t point this out.
The big white one started looking around, his arms spread wide, questioning. I suddenly realised that they hadn’t brought a bag and offered to find one. I did and they bundled in the booty.
“Give us five minutes before you call anyone coz we’ll fuckin’ know if you have.”
“My intentions were never otherwise,” I rejoined, or probably would have if Deadwood had been on the telly back then. But it was something like that.
Shaking like a leaf, I went into the passage that led to the lavatory. I inverted the shop bucket, stood on it, removed a tile from the suspended ceiling, placed some of the contents of my satchel in the void and replaced the tile. Then I phoned Kevin, the owner. Then I phoned the cops.
Before I was allowed home, The Sweeney (for it was they) had some questions, lots of questions. Questions that were the same but worded differently and repeated in random order.
“You’ve just asked me that.”
“Just answer the questions, David.”
Cops always call me David. I prefer, Sir or even better, Mr McGowan and normally tell them so. But seeing as I was signing on at the time I was willing to let it go.
At one point, my good friend Sam showed his face at the window. He was probably hoping to pop in for a cup of tea and a smoke.
“Err, hello mate. Just been robbed at gunpoint.”
“Oh shit, I’ll catch you another time.”
The robbery took place at approximately 1 a.m. I got out at about 8 a.m.
During my time in the shop I’d been approached by a few of the more criminally minded characters I know, proposing a fake robbery. I’d never entertained the idea because I’m not that way inclined. Had I been, the barrage of the questions from The Flying Squad boys would have left me naked as a newborn baby. Throughout my grilling, one question kept coming up more than any other.
“Why do you keep asking about the car?”
“It’s a policeman’s car.”
I walked the four miles home to Lewisham in the pale morning light. Feeling numb. And grateful. I told myself, you will go back tonight. You will not be defeated. I told myself it was okay to be scared. I cringed when I thought about using Sam as an excuse to not shoot me. This was clearly the act of a poltroon.
I returned to work the next evening. I don’t think I’ve ever been so jumpy in my life. At one point, a cabby reached into his change bag and I recoiled away from the window, emitting a cry like that of a startled animal. Which I guess I was.
Later on that night, when London had gone quiet again, I returned to the passageway to the toilet. I inverted the bucket again, removed the tile and reached into the void and retrieved my £200 and my six ounces of hashish.
Some years later I received a call from the police telling me they’d caught the robbers, they also asked me if I’d be willing to stand up in court and identify the guys that had put a gun to my head. I told them, no.