It was impossible to talk. The massed ranks of flutes and drums rendered conversation obsolete. They were marching through the city centre now and the canyon of multi storey office buildings echoed with the booming cannon shots of bass drums and the singing of drunk men. The air shrilled with Protestant righteousness and the bleating horns of frustrated drivers. The Orange Order was in town, the 12th of July celebrations in full swing and the triumphant parades of flute bands, with their escort of grim faced police officers and drunken hanger-ons, were heading back to their local districts.
Alec glanced over to the tribe on the pavement. Lobster faced men with sunburned arms and blue football tops staggered forwards with glassy eyes, polythene bags empty save for the odd bottle of Buckfast. Some were in full battle cry, lips flecked with spittle. The air was thick with stale beer and sweat. The ‘party tunes’ that had graced their departure from Glasgow Green had given way to triumphalist renditions of ‘fuck the polis’ and ‘you’re go’n tae get yer fuckin head kicked in.’ This was accompanied by raised arms and pointed fingers as he and the other officers were picked out with glee.
He counted the number of cops around him; less than half the number that had set off from Summerhill that morning. On arrival at the Green they had joined officers from other stations and formed a cordon as bands from every part of the city filled the park and got down to the main business of the day: the conspicuous consumption of alcohol and the settling of old scores. Orders for the day had been made clear. Intervention in disputes and minor skirmishes was to be taken only as a last resort. Most had ignored the order. As the first fight erupted some seized their chance to escape the unfolding Soddom and Gomorrah and arrested the first brawler they could lay their hands on. Long queues at Carlton Road office and lengthy report writing would ensure they were ‘out of play’ for the rest of the day. Alec, less street-wise and young in service did as he had been ordered. He had watched from perimeter as mounted officers participated in a series of Donnybrooks across the sun soaked open spaces of the Green. Each riot resulted in a further reduction in officers. Now, only a skeleton crew were left to escort the Summerhill Truth Defenders on the return journey and Alec inwardly cursed his erstwhile comrades, still behind desks in Carlton Road, safely filling out forms.
The band marched on, all sharp elbows and cocked heads, rhythmically swaying from side to side with a confident swagger. A bull-necked man with tattooed proclamations of Ulster Protestantism on his meaty arms, assaulted a large bass drum. Sweat coursed over his bald scalp and down his purple face, a mechanical toy powered by an inexhaustible supply of righteousness and White Lightning. In front of him were men with black bowler hats and puffed up chests who thrust out their chins under the snapping banner of a feather capped man on a large white horse.
A cheer erupted from the mob as a large bottle smashed on the roadway. It had been aimed at Ronnie walking on the other side of the parade. The target of the throw neither flinched or looked around. No point. There were too many in the crowd to make identification certain. In any case, it would have given rise to further jeers and threats. The hanger ons were getting confident in the knowledge that there were insufficient officers to do anything about it.
They were at the top of Bond Street now. It was early evening, but the sun was still high and shone down with fierce abandon. His collar felt gritty and the thick patch of sweat on his back sucked on his shirt. He avoided marching to the beat of the bass drum and maintained the same air of detachment his colleagues wore. As he cast an eye over to the crowd on the pavement, he remembered the advice one of the older cops had given him. ‘If you don’t show fear they’ll think yer made of iron.’
As they crossed the motorway, the first scuffle broke out. Dougie, his hat knocked off by a mistimed punch, grabbed a young man by the arms and was instantly swallowed by the mob. The cops closest to him rushed to intervene. There was a brief confusion of arms and legs as police and mob coalesced to the sound of flutes and drums. And then it was over. The crowd drew back and order was restored, but it was edgy and temporary. Alec could see the flushed faces of the pavement hyenas, the furtive glances and the conspiratorial winks. The scuffle had the makings of an initial skirmish before the main event. Individual groups began to form within the general gathering. They huddled together and, as they walked, selected various targets. He found that he had run his right hand down to the leather strap hanging from his baton pocket. Instinctively, he slid his hand through the loop and walked on.
Up ahead, the Inspector closed off junctions to traffic and harangued the band to quicken their step. Alec watched as the Inspector jabbed his fingers at the chief steward who shrugged and waved his hand lazily in the direction of the mob, but did nothing. A few of the band members looked over to the army of followers beside them and laughed. Alec calculated that they had just over two miles to go. It seemed inevitable that there would be an ambush long before they reached Summerhill. The only officers with a radio were the Inspector and the Sergeant. The absence of any means to call for help made him feel naked and exposed. He wondered how badly he would be beaten up and resolved to take one or two with him.
Summerhill’s district boundary was fast approaching and, in recognition, the band discovered a renewed sense of purpose. An edgier selection from their repertoire was trotted out and received with joyful acclimation by the mob. A rendition of ‘The Sash’ was followed by ‘No Surrender’. Alec thought the bass drum was going to implode, so viciously was it hammered by its owner.
They were leaving the city centre and now skirted the motorway. On the far side lay a cobbled verge and high metal railings. On his side, a broad pavement, now filed six deep with angry young men. They sang and punched the air with renewed vigour. It was rhythmic and synchronised. Their unity was unnerving. In that moment they looked like Hitler youth, fervent and confident. The mob began to chant ‘you’re gonna get yer fuckin heads kicked in’ once more. This time individual officers were pointed out. Eye contact made. Dreams of revenge for arrests past were looking more and more like reality.
Alec stared straight ahead. A few hundred yards away stood the underpass. The boundary of Summerhill sub-division. Somewhere within that short distance all hell would break loose and he glanced over to the baying mob to see who within it would be his most likely combatants. His muscles thrummed with the strain of the adrenaline pumping around his frame. He was never more conscious of his slim build than at that moment. The young men, just inches from his shoulder, suddenly seemed bulkier and stronger. Even the rat faced teenagers of a few moments earlier looked hardier and sharper. Up ahead, he could see Dougie, back straight, head held high, his tunic flecked with white spit. He resisted the urge to examine whether his was similarly adorned.
His senses were acutely attuned to his surroundings, every detail more colourful and exact than before. The blue stitching on the Rangers football tops, the nail varnish on the fat girl pushing the buggy up ahead, the seagulls wheeling on the thermals above. He saw the Sergeant stride towards him looking confident. Head up, shoulders back, a thin smile on his face. He spoke to each officer as he worked his way from the front of the parade to the rear. A nod from each cop in return. The Sergeant fell in beside him and leaned close to his ear.
“Just hold your nerve a wee bit longer son. Help has arrived.”
He nodded his understanding. A smile, rising from a deep place, was suppressed. It was still too early to say how this would go and he had no idea what shape this ‘help’ would take, but something was afoot and the conspiratorial nature of the message filled him with a guilty pleasure. They reached the underpass, the sound of the bass drum crashed and boomed against its roof and walls, echoing and amplifying the visceral chanting of the mob.
The first repetitive winks of blue on the roof of the underpass signalled the change in fortunes. He looked down and saw the police vehicles with their reflective stripes and semper vigilo insignia. They were parked up on either side of the main road. Some on pavements, some blocking off the side streets, all had their blue lights activated. A rhapsody in blue. Men in black uniforms stood by their vehicles and waited. One strode forward and spoke to the Inspector. As the Inspector jabbed a finger at the mob, the officer nodded and turned to his men.
The rhythm of life altered in that moment. A ripple passed through the band, as if a broad river had met the inbound tide of a great sea. They marched onwards but it now seemed that progress had become laboured. It was if the band willed themselves forward because there was no option of going back.
Some of the pavement hyenas saw the future in that moment and ran. Intuition borne of experience. The majority, their senses dulled by alcohol and the last residues of bravado, walked on. No fists were pumped. They resolutely avoided the gaze of the officers beside them and watched warily for a movement or an action that would confirm their growing fears. The Sergeant walked up beside Alec.
“Just point out anyone who behaved in a threatening manner.”
Alec nodded. A number of officers detached themselves from their parked vehicles and converged rapidly on the band and its escort.
It was at that moment the mob broke. Like pigeons from a market square, they took flight and scattered as officers, arms outstretched, sought to catch anyone they could. Some, quicksilver and sharp, ducked and weaved their way to freedom. Others were embraced and brought to the ground. It was brief and brutal. Some struggled. Some did not.
The band marched on. It’s remaining members cursed and spat as they passed fallen comrades. They too were plucked from the ranks and arrested. Stewards arms held wide, pleaded for clemency, but all who could be arrested had been arrested. The police vehicles, filled to capacity, sped off in the direction of Corsair Street.
Alec remained with the band. It marched on, devoid of an escort and playing to no one but the odd passing pedestrian. He looked around. The Sergeant and the others had stayed too, determined to see it through to the end. They smiled and exchanged pleasantries with the flute players and drummers, who responded with veiled threats and a chorus of ‘fuck youse’. The vans returned. More drummers and flute players found themselves en route to the police station.
It was a much smaller group that passed Corsair Street a short time later. More an American Civil War re-enactment than a ‘most loyal’ Orange Order flute band. The bowler hats, tipped towards the ground, looked tired. The banner sagged and limped. Drums beat a tattoo for those incarcerated nearby. Flutes, discordant and shrill, kept up pretences but it was clear their hearts were no longer in it. The band marched slowly up the hill to the orange lodge and, under a setting sun, played a desultory God Save The Queen. Alec watched as the remnants of the Summerhill Truth Defenders disbanded in silence.
It was over. Nothing to do but return to the office, stand down and go home. As he walked down the hill to the main road, Alec found himself in the company of the Sergeant.
“Thought we were going to get a kicking Sarge.”
The Sergeant pursed his lips and nodded.
“Yup. Nearly did. But we held our nerve. Didn’t show fear. Keeps them guessing you see…buys you time.”
Alec felt tired. His legs had turned to wood and his shoulders ached. The adrenalin that had carried him to this point had seeped away to be replaced by an ocean of weariness. But he felt at peace. Like he’d passed a test.
“So. What’s the lesson Sarge? Never give in?”
The Sergeant smiled.
“Aye son. No surrender…”