Smiling has got me into a lot of trouble. It made me look guilty at school. Which is mad, because if I’d been guilty I’d have taken care to look innocently serious and preoccupied with work.
But maybe that’s why I wrote this take on smiling and how if you do smile, the whole world will not necessarily smile with you.
It’s an excerpt from my book Blackwatertown.
Here’s the context. Jolly Macken (Jolly being his ironic nickname) is a Royal Ulster Constabulary sergeant in Northern Ireland in the 1950s. He’s been walking a tightrope. He’s viewed with suspicion by his colleagues because he’s a Catholic – nominally anyway – in a mainly Protestant pro-British force. He’s not trusted by his co-religionists because he is in the employ of the Protestant-ruled state. Macken has just, with bad grace, led a baton charge of police and Protestant marchers to clear a Nationalist barricade and so let an Orange parade proceed through a Catholic village. Though the police action was successful, Macken himself was embarrassingly entangled in a bicycle thrown at him by a protestor.
The main players in this wee bit include Jolly Macken, the District Inspector (Macken’s superior officer, in attendance as a civilian and member of the Orange Order), the Worshipful Master (boss of the local branch of the Orange Order) and Big Jim (Lambeg drummer in the Orange band). Oh, and the word “Fenian” is used as a derogatory term for Catholic.
Macken came to with a start, his face full of pedals and handlebars. During the seconds he had been stunned, the rest of the attackers had surged over the barricade and were now coming to blows with the defenders. It didn’t last long. The fewer Catholics were soon put to flight by the combined forces of law and Orange Order.
Soon beefy-faced farmers had planted themselves on top of the barricade, and were leaning forward with their hands on their thighs, catching their breath. The general back slapping began. They gathered in excited chatter round Big Jim, who now sat panting on a boulder, his vast girth quivering. The sight of that alone would be enough to send me running for the hills, thought Macken, still knotted up with the bicycle.
After a few moments watching the world from ground level, Macken began to try to shift the bike from on top of him. That brought the other pedal, the one not pointing skywards over his face, sharply into his side. He hissed at the pain and let the bike settle back on top of him for a moment.
By now his efforts had caught the eye of the victorious mob. The Worshipful Master was taking control of the celebrations now, quietening down the war whoops. He led three cheers and a prayer of thanks. He also managed to find time to thank the loyal officers of Her Majesty for helping to preserve the integrity of Her highways. And to draw attention to one person in particular: “Sergeant Macken there. Sadly, he does not have the stamina of people who are proud to walk the Queen’s highway. He’s found himself a bike to get himself home.”
The taunts began. “Come on you monkey!”
“Sure yon’s more of an old goat. He got his head stuck in the fence going for the pasture beyond. Can’t you hear him bleating?”
Realising that no-one was rushing to help untangle him, Macken summoned all his annoyance to turn on his side and pull his legs underneath himself. Then he was able to stagger, crab-like, to his feet, a walking deckchair. This delighted his audience all the more.
“Look at Jolly. He’s belongs in the circus.”
Macken gingerly extricated himself and slowly straightened up, leaning on the dented bike with one hand, rubbing his back with the other. But the scorn in the District Inspector’s look was far more withering.
“Come on Sergeant, stop horsing around! You’ll not be catching them on that pile of junk. They’re away off over the bog. Let’s take control of the situation here.”
Macken clenched his teeth and angrily dashed the bent and buckled bicycle to the ground.
The routed defenders were by now disappearing over the bog and hills in the distance. The Worshipful Master was attempting to calm his warriors back into walkers, and corral them into some sort of order in preparation for the resumption of the triumphal procession.
The District Inspector meanwhile was close shouldered in muttered conference with the man mountain that was Big Jim. Macken noticed the red piping on his band uniform trousers, but realised he had never seen him wearing the military style jacket. Maybe he couldn’t find one to fit. The shirt sleeves rolled up over his broad arms revealed dull flecks of blood drying on the skin. Looks like Big Jim has bloodied a few noses, thought Macken.
As he took in the scene, other band members joined in, making a circle, remonstrating in raised voices. Macken thought he had better give the District Inspector his support. What now, he sighed to himself. Isn’t winning enough for them?
He pushed his way through to beside his senior officer. They were all gathered round the Lambeg Drum, sat squat like a broad round table on the roadway. Laid parallel across it like an extra long knife and fork, were two Malacca canes – tapered and thinly splintered at one end, the fatter ends pointing to Big Jim’s brawny reddened arms.
You have to admire the sheer brute will it takes to lug that huge drum along the road for miles, thought Macken, whacking it with such furious abandon that the hillsides themselves flinch.
There was a scattering of red dots on the goat skin of the drum, near where the drummer was pointing a finger aggressively towards the District Inspector. Macken smiled ruefully to himself at his mistake – the blood had come from the drummer’s own wrists, from repeated contact with the wooden rim of the big drum. No matter how bad the situation was, he reminded himself, jumping to conclusions could always make it seem more blood thirsty than it really was.
Macken realised too late, he had just made another, worse mistake. In some cultures, a smile may be disarming. In Ulster, a nod will do just as well. In fact, far better. You nod in acknowledgement, respect or agreement. A smile may be devious, deceitful, ridiculing or weak.
“Funny, is it? Now we have this friend of the Fenians rubbing it in too!”
Spit from the irate drummer shot across the face of the drum hitting both Macken and his senior officer.
“Thank you Macken,” said the District Inspector under his breath. “I was half way to persuading them not to worry about it – until your helpful intervention.”
The District Inspector looked up the hillside. Macken followed his gaze, to where a couple of small figures were jigging about on top of a large flat rock. What they were shouting, Macken couldn’t tell from this distance, but he presumed it had something to do with the piece of cloth they had hung from the front edge of the projecting rock.
Macken closed his eyes for a moment and cursed silently. It was the green, white and orange flag of the Irish Republic. An affront the Orangemen were not willing to let go, even if it was but a pinprick in the hide of an elephant.
“Sort it out, will you, Macken.”
“Just get up there and get the bloody flag and let’s be on our way.”
What happens next? Well Continue reading