April 5, 2009

I spy with my little eye...

A sudden movement in the rear view mirror catches my eye. A car is coming towards us from behind. It weaves from left to right as it drives up the road, coming to a stop a few feet behind us. I turn around and look. It takes a few instants for my brain to figure out that the writing on the bonnet – ECILOP in thick blue lettering – is supposed to be read in a mirror.
“Oh Shit, Mick,” I hiss at my colleague, photographer Mick O’Neill. He’s sitting in the back of the people carrier. “What?” he asks. He still keeps his eyes on our target, a building 100 yards away on a road that snakes away from the one where we are sitting. “It’s the cops.” I say. “Oh. Right,” he says, calmly. I feel my face burning. I hate cops coming up to you when you are on a stake-out. You never know whether they are going to say `cool’ and leave us at it – or tell us they’ll arrest us if we don’t move on. We’ve had complaints, you know.
The complaint came from a local citizen. As the cops grilled us in a polite and friendly way, he lurked at his driveway, about 10 yards away.
It came as no surprise that the cops were on to us. We’d been sitting at the same spot for, by that stage, three days, or around 36 hours. In the movies, you can do a stake-out for that length of time with no problem – in the real world, you’re spotted within minutes. After that, it’s only a question of whether people confront you themselves, or call the police: in this case it was both.
Mick and I were in Locks Heath, a suburb of Southampton. We were looking for Bob Campion, the third leg of the ménage a trois involving David Bourke and Jean Gilbert. While we were there, the jury in Bourke’s murder trial was out, considering its verdict. Campion had not come over to Ireland for the trial; we knew we had to get him. By the time we got there on the Friday, he’d already down an exclusive sit-down interview with The Irish Daily Mail and, as it turned out, the Irish Independent used a local agency to get a few words with him. No pressure, so.
The only problem was there was no sign of him when we arrived. After about four hours sitting 30 odd yards from his ground floor flat, I lost the head and decided to knock. There was no space for Mick to get a photo as the flat is surrounded by trees and a shed. But at least we’d know if he was there. Foremost in my mind was the fact that we’d be wasting time and money if we camped out here – and he was not. Or worse, just say some paper had bought him up and he was enjoying some hotel somewhere, while we were sitting outside his flat in a rented Zafira for days on end.
But when I knocked, there was no sign of him and it looked as of the flat was deserted. So we settled down to wait. And wait. And wait. And then wait some more.
People started no give us strange looks after around 30 minutes. I was in the driver’s seat; Mick in the back. Mick looking towards the flat complex, me looking in the rear view mirror, just in case. At first, people simply walked past, assuming we were workmen or visitors to other houses. Then, when they came back, they saw we were still there and, understandibly, became suspicious. Nobody approached us on day one: we were there from midday to 11pm. Nor was there any sign of Campion.
The next day, we got there at 4.30am. We had learned that Campion did night work, so we had to get there early, just in case he finished his shift at that time. We parked up, just as dawn was breaking. Nothing. Not a thing all day. By 8pm, the night had come – Mick remarked it was the first time he’s ever seen the dawn and dusk in the same job. I had to agree. We’d whiled away the hours listening to radio, talking crap and constantly scanning the area for Campion. We'd even played I Spy. I won hands down. I broke his serve when I guessed AV was the air vent on an old people’s home opposite us. He couldn’t get D for daffodils, either.
At around 3pm a neighbour approached us. “Curiosity has got the better of me...” “Ah,” I said. “We’re journalists from Ireland and we’re here hoping to talk to a man who lives down there,” I said, pointing to Campion’s flat. “He hasn’t done anything wrong, but he has been mentioned in a high profile murder case. He was the boyfriend of a woman who was killed by her husband. We just want to give him an opportunity to talk to us. But we have to wait for him to come...” “That’s fine,” he smiled. “Very interesting, actually. A murder case, you say. How exciting.”
So the hours passed. The neighbour would occasionally come out of his house, see us and nod conspiratorially towards us.
We were back the next day, a Sunday, at the same time. By 1pm we were going out of our minds with boredom, so the arrival of the second man at least broke the tedium.
I lowered the window and greeted him. “Hello,” he said. “I’m the local neighbourhood watch secretary and I just wonder what you are doing here. You have been noticed by a good few people...”
I went through the rigmarole of explanation. He then asked me for ID – something at which I silently bridled. There’s only one group in society to whom I have to show credentials – police. Everyone else can kindly go away. I made an exception in this case – hoping that would placate him and he wouldn’t call the boys in blue. I grudgingly showed him my card.
He nodded and walked away. But 15 minutes later the cops arrived. Mr Neighbourhood Watch had tried to contact my newsroom on the numbers on my card: the only problem was the numbers were Irish and did not have the international code. Hence him not getting through.
The police were actually fine. They took our details, listened to our story and said we weren’t doing anything wrong. Mr Neighbourhood Watch sidled up as we were talking to the police. He made some comment to officer before turning round – and walking straight into a lamppost.
“Now that’s Karma,” I said to the cop, who stifled a laugh.
The cops went away and we waited some more. It was actually the Monday, after 48 hours watching, that Campion emerged. “There he is,” Mick shouted. He hosed him down with his camera from the car, loosing off maybe 30 shots. When he gave the go ahead, certain that he had good pics, I got out of the car and approached him. “Mr Campion, I’m a journalist from Ireland...” “Good for you,” he said and kept walking.
But I managed to persuade him to talk, even though he kept walking up the road. All the while, Mr Neighbourhood Watch was watching from a distance – roaring at us to leave Campion alone.
But the wait was worth it. It always is.