It was impossible to talk; the massed ranks of flutes and drums had rendered conversation obsolete. They were marching now through the city centre and the canyon of multi storey office buildings echoed with the booming cannon shots of bass drums and the massed singing of drunk men. The air shrilled with flutes and the bleating horns of frustrated drivers. Alec glanced over to the tribe on the pavement. Lobster faced men with sunburned arms and football tops staggered onwards with glassy eyes and slack jaws, their polythene bags empty save for the odd bottle of Buckfast. Some were in full battle cry, lips flecked with spittle, and the air was thick with stale beer and sweat. The ‘party tunes’ that 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.’ The latter was accompanied by raised arms and pointed fingers as individual cops were picked out with glee.
Alec counted the number of cops around him. Less than half the number that had set off from Summerhill that morning. When they’d arrived at the Green they’d been joined by officers from other stations and formed a cordon around the park as bands from all over the city filled up the space and got down to the main business of the day; the conspicuous consumption of alcohol and the settling of old scores. They’d all been briefed. Intervention in disputes and minor skirmishes to be taken only as a last resort. But most had ignored the order and as soon as the first fight had erupted officers had seized their chance to escape the unfolding Soddom and Gomorrah and arrested the first brawler they could lay their hands on. The long queues at Carlton Road office, the subsequent form filling and laborious report writing would ensure that they would be ‘out of play’ for the rest of the day. The less street-wise and young in service did as they’d been ordered and watched from their perimeter cordons as mounted officers participated in a series of Donnybrooks across the sun soaked open spaces of the Green. Each riot resulted in a steady reduction in officers and now, only a skeleton crew were left to escort the Summerhill Truth Defenders on the return journey. Alec inwardly cursed his erstwhile comrades, safe beside desks in Carlton Road, filling out forms.
The band marched blithely on, 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. Rivers of sweat trickled over his bald scalp and down his purple face, a mechanical toy powered by an inexhaustible supply of righteousness and White Lightning. Before him, men with black bowler hats and puffed up chests 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 Alan walking on the other side of the parade. The target of the throw neither flinched or looked around for there was no point. There were too many in the crowd to make identification certain and any case that would have given rise to further jeers and threats. There was no doubting the increased air of danger. The hanger ons were getting confident in the knowledge that there were insufficient officers to do anything about it.
They crested the small hill at the top of Bond Street. It was early evening, but the sun was high and it shone down with fierce abandon. His collar felt gritty and the thick patch of sweat on his back sucked on his shirt at each swing of his arms. He avoided marching to the beat of the bass drum and focused on portraying the same air of detachment his colleagues wore, the advice of the older cops still in his ears. ‘If you don’t show yer fear they’ll think yer made of iron.’
It was as they crossed over the motorway at Charing Cross that the first scuffle broke out. Dougie, his hat knocked off by a mistimed punch, had grabbed a young man by the arms and was instantly swallowed by the mob. Those closest to him rushed to intervene. There was a brief confusion of arms and heads as police and mob coalesced to the sound of flutes and drums. And then it was over, a sudden disentanglement. 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 the initial skirmish before the main event.
As they marched on, individual groups began to coalesce within the general gathering. They huddled together as they walked and selected various targets. Alec found himself pointed at and instinctively ran his hand down to the leather strap hanging from his baton pocket. He quietly put his fingers through the strap and walked on.
Up ahead, the Inspector was closing off junctions to traffic, harrying 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. The band members looked over to the little army beside them and winked and laughed. Alec calculated that they had over three miles to go. It seemed inevitable that there was going to 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.
The district boundary for Summerhill was approaching and the band discovered a renewed sense of purpose. An edgier part of their repertoire was trotted out and was 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 had left the city centre behind 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 who sang and punched the air with renewed vigour. It was rhythmic and synchronised. Their unity was unnerving, like hitler youth, fervent and confident. The mob began to chant ‘you’re gonna get yer fuckin heads kicked in’ again. This time eye contact was being made with individual cops. Dreams of revenge for arrests past were looking more and more like reality.
Two hundred yards to the underpass. Two hundred yards to the boundary of Summerhill sub-division. Somewhere within that short distance all hell would break loose and Alec glanced over to the baying mob to see who within it would be his most likely combatants. He could feel his muscles thrum with the strain of containing the adrenaline pumping around his frame. He felt weak and never more conscious of his slim build than at that moment. The young men just inches from his left shoulder seemed bulkier and stronger. Even the rat faced neds of a few moments earlier looked hardier and sharper. Up ahead strode Dougie, his back straight, head held high, tunic flecked with white spit. Alec didn’t look to see if his was similarly adorned.
His senses had become acutely tuned 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 at the head of the parade. The seagulls wheeling on the thermals above. The make and colour of the cars a half mile up the road. He saw the Sergeant stride towards him, confident, head up, shoulders back, a thin smile on his face. He spoke to each cop in turn, working 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.
“Just hold your nerve a wee bit longer son. Help has arrived.”
Alec nodded his receipt of the message. 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 Sergeants message filled him with a guilty pleasure. They reached the underpass, the bass drum crashing and booming 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. Like the way light ripples on sand through shallow water. He looked down and saw police vehicles with their reflective stripes and semper vigilo logos. They were parked up on pavements, some blocking off side streets beyond the junction, all with their blue lights on. A rhapsody in blue. For a brief moment he recalled a scene from the Italian job as thirty men in black stood by their vehicles and waited. One strode forward and spoke to the Inspector who jabbed a finger at the band and the throng on the pavement beside it. The other 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 was harder to achieve. It was if they willed themselves forward, because there was no option of going back.
Some of the pavement warriors saw the future in that moment and ran. Intuition borne of experience. The majority, slack jawed, senses dulled by alcohol and the last residues of bravado, walked on. No fists were pumped. They 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 him again.
“Just point out anyone who behaved in a threatening manner.”
Alec nodded. A number of officers had detached themselves from their parked vehicles and were converging 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 of the mob, quicksilver and sharp, ducked and weaved their way to freedom. Others found themselves embraced and brought to the ground. It was brief and brutal. Some struggled. Some did not.
As the band marched on some of its members cursed and spat as they passed fallen comrades. They too were plucked from the ranks and arrested. Stewards, arms held wide, heads cocked to one side, pleaded for clemency, but all that 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, now devoid of an escort and playing to no one but the odd passing pedestrian. He looked around and saw that the Sergeant and the others had stayed too, determined now to see it through to the end. They smiled and exchanged pleasantries with the remaining 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 forward towards the ground, looked tired. The banner sagged and limped. The drums beat a tattoo for those incarcerated nearby. The flutes discordant and shrill kept up pretences but it was clear their hearts were no longer in it and it was a less than glorious band that marched 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 and disappeared.
It was over. Nothing to do but return the half mile 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. But we held our nerve. Keeps them guessing you see…buys you time.”
Alec felt suddenly tired. His legs had turned to lumpen wood and his shoulders ached. It had been a long day and 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…”