Christmas was always a busy time for us in the old Newry Mineral Water Company and the year of 1967 was no exception.
With Christmas only a couple of days away we were working very late at night. In those days the licensing laws for the closing hours of pubs was very strict. All Public Houses had to be closed at 10 pm; Clubs could remain open for the sale of alcoholic drinks until 11 pm. That left us with a problem with our late deliveries.
What we used to do was leave all our last calls of the day to pubs that had large back yards that we could drive into. This system clearly put the back bar of the Boulevard Hotel at the top (bottom?) of the list as our last stop, for two reasons; first, the same family owned both the Boulevard and the Newry Mineral Water Company, which meant we would have no complaints about how late we were calling to deliver; and second, the Boulevard Hotel had a great big yard to the rear; the yard was just off Lower Water Street (The Back of the Dam).
On a dark night the
We pulled the lorry in to the Boulevard’s big yard and closed the gates behind us. That yard was a strange sort of place, sandwiched between Boden’s and the old UTA bus garage. It was very ramshackle, full of old beer crates and bottles; there were clumps of nettles and weeds growing in between the rocks and rough stones that formed the surface of the yard.
In one corner of the yard was the chassis and body of an old lorry, and in another corner there sat an old motor hearse. The place had a deathly silence about it and its eeriness was enhanced on this particular night by the soft luminescence of a crescent moon.
We weren’t long in getting our delivery of beer and Guinness for the Boulevard unloaded and packed away in the Hotel’s store. Brian the driver went to the bar to get his docket book signed while I stayed behind to tidy up the rest of the load on the lorry and tie it down again.
I climbed back into the cab to wait on Brian. Even though it was late I knew that I might have to wait quite a while for his return! The Boulevard being our last call for the night, the barmen would treat him to drink and then have a bit of craic with him.
To pass the time while waiting on Brian I switched on my little transistor radio that I kept in the cab of the lorry for such occasions. As usual Radio
Feeling bored I cast my eyes around the yard for something to occupy me. My eyes came to rest on the old hearse.
It was an old
‘I think I’ll go over and check out the old hearse’, I thought.
‘I’ve been meaning to do that for some time! Just have never got around to it’.
Then a little voice in my head said,
‘Are you mad? It’s the middle of the night, and that vehicle over there is a hearse. You know, a hearse!!!
Dead people – and all that!’
The thought was a little scary, but the best way to get rid of any fear is to confront it.
So out of the lorry I got, and strolled, as nonchalantly as I could muster, over to the hearse.
The old vehicle was in a very sorry state; years of neglect had defiled its once-bright chrome, and now the rust peeping through the dull paintwork whispered ‘neglect’ better than any tongue could utter.
The door was stiff to open, and when it did finally succumb to brute force, it sagged pitifully on its hinges. I slid in behind the steering wheel and pulled the door. It closed with a screeching creak, that awful sound of metal rending on metal.
The interior of the old vehicle was dank and musty. It had a large bench seat, and the gearshift was on the steering column.
I messed about for a bit, changing gear and pretending to drive. After a time it began to dawn on me that it was cold inside the old hearse, decidedly colder than our lorry had been – more so even than it was outside in the cold frosty air.
The little voice in my head whispered again,
‘I don’t like this, Martin, just get out of here’.
This time I listened and took heed. I dropped my hand down to where the door handle should have been. NO DOOR HANDLE! It was missing! I felt around for the window winder, and it was missing also.
‘Don’t panic!’ I thought! ‘Try the other door.’
I slid across the bench seat to the passenger door. As with the driver’s door, there also was no door handle, or window winder.
By this time the little warning voice within my head was screaming,
‘We’ve got to get out of here!’
There were two choices open to me; firstly try and break a window, or secondly, slide along the back of the hearse and try to release the tail gate.
The back of the hearse! ‘That’s where they place the coffin in!’
Not a pleasant thought.
Strange as it may seem today I baulked at the wanton vandalism of smashing the window of that old vehicle. I must admit though, it seemed the better option and I half- heartedly placed my foot on the windscreen and pressed, ‘testing the water’ so to speak.
To push in the windscreen of a car whilst sitting in a very loose and unsecured seat is not easily done, so I soon gave up on that idea.
I had no choice now except plan B. Sliding back the glass partition to the rear of the cab I proceeded to wriggle through. As I slid face down along the rear of the hearse I couldn’t help but wonder who might have been the last passenger carried in here.
Also, try as I might, I couldn’t stop my mind from drifting back a few weeks to when I went along with my friends to see Dracula, Prince of Darkness at the Frontier cinema. This thought didn’t help matters one little bit.
Reaching out for the tailgate I again felt around the inner panel for some sort of door-release mechanism. It took but a short time for me to realise that there would be no such fitting as an inside, rear tailgate handle on a vehicle of this type. Think about it! Passengers carried in this particular compartment would not normally require one!
Realizing that I would have to try a completely new approach to my predicament I decided that I would slide back to the driver’s seat and try to remove the panel from the driver’s door. Hopefully this would give me access to the window-winding mechanism and in so doing would enable me to drop the side window down and make my escape.
Out of the side of my eye I discerned a movement in the shadows outside the hearse. All my previous fears came back to me in a rush!
This was frightening.
What startled me most was that suddenly – with a loud creak – the tailgate mysteriously lifted, and I felt a draft of cold air waft into the vehicle.
Then a voice said loudly,
What the b***** hell are you up to?
Do you not realise how late it is?
We’d better be going home now’.
It was Brian the driver! He had returned and released me from my strange prison.
I didn’t want to appear foolish so I muttered something about only wanting to try the hearse out for size.
‘I just wanted to see if it would fit me,’
I squeaked, now sounding, to my own ears, more foolish than had I just kept quiet!
Brian gave me one of those looks! You know, the look that sums it all up without having to say a word – the sort of look that seems to say,
This generation is just crazy’.
Even though the experience was a little frightening, I was proud that I had kept the presence of mind I had during my ordeal.
It was to stand me in good stead for another frightening experience that was to take place not more than six months later.
On that occasion I got myself locked in a coffin!
But that’s a story for another day.