Blackwatertown

By Paul Waters

Maverick cop Jolly Macken goes looking for a killer, but accidentally starts a war

SUNDAY: Sergeant Jolly Macken didn’t want to be a policeman anymore. He felt hot despite the cool air of the Mourne foothills. The butt of his hand pressed on the polished handle of his baton, not yet drawn. He hated his job. He hated the crowd pushing at his back. He hated the string of men blocking the road ahead. All of them impatient for his signal – the ones behind muttering his nickname. He hated the verbal albatross that had been hung round his neck too. Jolly. Christ!

The stony slopes of fern and heather and gorse would usually lift his heart. The open land a refuge from complication and regulation. He’d feel the tension ebb from his shoulders. The small smile that would quietly creep over his face, unwitnessed. If Macken believed in anything, it was that there was no better place nor way for a man to be at peace than by quiet water, with a rod and line. Alone, but never lonely.

Today was different. Today he was only a hard-faced big man trapped inside a uniform. A stone bounced past his feet. The serenity of this County Down emptiness had been shattered long before. But at this moment of decision, all the shouting and jeering, the drums and the fifes, seemed to fade to silence in Macken’s mind. The violence was about to begin – the striking out at head and body with stone and bar and baton and rifle butt. And he was going to be the one to start it.

(…a few days later, after an early morning naked swim, Macken manages to turn the tables on two men who planned to rob him. But then Macken is himself taken by surprise…)

TUESDAY: …Once he was satisfied the intruders were gone, Macken broke into a fit of shivering. Adrenalin had carried him through, but now he was freezing. Time to warm up.

Just then, he heard a quiet, but unmistakeable sound of movement from the undergrowth close by. Macken stood completely still, then very slowly turned to investigate. It was coming from low down. He began to breathe again. Some animal, disturbed by their conversation. He stretched out the stick to poke amongst the leaves.

“Why don’t YOU hold it there?”

Macken froze again. Then there was the sound of a dull slap.

“You make quite the picture,” said the disembodied voice. “Though I don’t know how anyone could ever capture it with you shaking all over the place. Boy with stick, I suppose you would call it.”

Macken turned to the voice, a woman’s voice.

“Mmm, man with stick, then. Well, I suppose it is pretty cold this morning.”

Macken peered into the gloom and saw the third intruder he had missed. Peering back at him was an amused female face, framed by a cascade of curls loosely wrapped in a scarf. Macken could still detect faint sounds of movement, a small animal scratching, though the woman herself was still.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” barked Macken at last – angry with himself for being caught out.

“Now hold on,” she slapped the side of the box on which she was sitting, as if to emphasise her objection. It scared off whatever vole had been rooting round nearby, and the scratching stopped.

“You burst in on me,” she continued. “I was just sitting waiting for daybreak.”

“You were what?”

“Oh, you know,” she opened her hands. “A bit of early morning landscape sketching.

“But if you insist, I could try for something more classical. ‘Adonis at dawn bathe.’ How does that sound?”

She raised her right hand and made an L shape with a finger and thumb, like two sides of a frame. As she squinted through at him, Macken thought she had completely lost the plot, until he suddenly remembered…

“Jesus!” He made a panic-stricken dive for his clothes, to peals of laughter. She shouted. “I was only joking about the effects of the cold, you were fine the way you were.”

“Give me a moment to get decent,” Macken muttered, pulling on his uniform.

“Oh, it’s a policeman!” This revelation seemed to send her off even worse than before. “I should have realised. Sure, didn’t you show me your truncheon?”

It was no good, Macken couldn’t keep a severe face after that. His dignity marginally restored by his clothes, he stepped over for a closer look.

“I apologise for startling you and for my display. I thought I was alone. Is it always this busy round here?”

She was still chuckling.

“I admit I really was impressed back then. No, not with that. I mean the way you handled your stick.”

And she was off again.

“Sorry. Give me a minute… God, I never imagined this morning would be so – so exhilarating. Who are you anyway? You’re clearly not on poaching patrol.”

“I’m on my way to Blackwatertown. I’ve just been transferred.”

“You’re lost then.”

“I was just taking in some peace and quiet before reporting for duty. A chance to think. Or to not think, you know?”

“Yes. I do know.”

She smiled at him again – a gentler smile. He blinked. He did not know her from Adam, but she was easy to talk to. A shadow passed over her, but it was fleeting, and he saw that for all her bravado she was beautiful.

“This is unfair. You know everything about me,” said Macken. “Far more than I usually reveal on a first acquaintance. But I know nothing about you. What’s your name for starters?”

Macken had been going to say, a first date, but stopped himself in time. What on earth is wrong with me? he asked himself.

She tapped the box underneath her again, as if marking a decision, and stood up.

“Aoife Penny is my name. How do you do?”

She held out her hand most politely. Macken hesitated, repeating her name to himself the soft way she said it. “Eee-faa” Then shook her hand.

“Good morning to you too, Aoife Penny.”

(Later in the week, Macken mulls over a near-death experience – an accident apparently – and wonders if his fellow police officers are lining up an “accidental death” for him, just like the one suffered by the officer, Danny McMahon, who he replaced. He’s suspicious of Cedric, who he caught looking through his personal belongings. He meets Sergeant Gracey and Constable Bull in the kitchen…)

Macken sank into his bed. He contemplated the only picture on the wall. A dull watercolour of a nondescript river nowhere in particular. Odd, he thought, that anyone would go to the effort, however slight, of trying to brighten up a police room.

Macken wondered what Cedric had been after. There was little scope for concealment. It’s like a monastic cell, but with worse conversation, he thought.

The picture was askew. Macken unhooked it to set it straight. He saw it had been covering an untidy gouge in the plaster. A bullet hole.

Macken felt a chill creep through his core. They said Danny had died in an accident with a gun. But no one had said exactly where. Suddenly Cedric began to seem like something more sinister than a trigger-happy buffoon.

Macken was not the sort of Catholic much given to rosaries and holy water. Given how rarely he attended Mass you might say he was not much of a Catholic at all. But he understood that under tribal rules, he was as permanently labelled as anyone more fervent. So he had not been expecting a gushing welcome from his Protestant colleagues. That was normal.

However, this was getting out of hand. Though he may not have shared Danny’s religious enthusiasm, they had two significant things in common. Both Catholics. Both on the receiving end of bullets.

Of course, they’d missed him, conceded Macken. And Cedric opening fire had been an accident. A big difference.

Except that Danny had apparently been shot by accident too. So what was really going on here, thought Macken. And what was that note about? Am I being paranoid, he thought? Or am I next?

A shrill whistling from downstairs broke through Macken’s deliberations. That’s what I need, he decided, a wee cup of tea.

He clattered back down to where Sergeant Gracey was filling a large teapot.

“Finally, we have proof that you’re a real policeman. The ability to sniff out tea the instant it’s made.”

He held out the kettle: “Stick this back on the stove for me.”

Macken reached for it, but Gracey jerked it back.

“Watch it! Get yourself a rag.”

Macken noticed Gracey had a cloth wrapped round the handle. He picked up one for himself.

“That’s better. Don’t want you to burn your fingers, do we?” said Gracey. “Especially that trigger finger, eh? Never know when it’ll come in handy round here.”

“Expecting more trouble?” asked Macken.

Gracey set a big mug in front of Macken and lifted up the sugar. He answered Macken’s nod with one, two, three heaped spoons.

“Now then,” said Gracey, raising his mug in salute. “The cup that warms.”

Gracey let the steam from the mug bathe his face. He looked up again, redder and shinier.

“Trouble? Hope not. The main risk to our sleep tonight is a farmer imagining things and firing off his shotgun at a shadow. Times like this, people get carried away.

“Before you know it, his wife has raised the alarm, the whole thing gets blown up. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had a farmer trying to explain to me why we’re both standing out in his yard in the rain for no good reason.”

“What do you tell him?” asked Macken.

“It can go either way. Some people try to blame you for their embarrassment. Poor defenceless Protestants being left unprotected by RUC men tucked up in warm beds. Intruders long gone by the time you lot finally arrived.

“Usually though, they save their anger for the wife. We have a cup of tea, and he tells us what great lads we are. I tell him you can’t be too careful these days. That’s for the wife’s benefit. Might save her from getting the back of his hand. I seldom leave empty-handed. Eggs, bacon, maybe a chicken.”

“That’s generous,” Macken admitted.

“A wee present to stop the story of the eejit who shot up his own farmyard doing the rounds,” Gracey nodded. “There’s nothing they enjoy more round here than someone else’s misfortune.”

Macken added: “Especially if it’s self-inflicted?”

“You’re learning fast. Maybe you’ll fit in here after all. The chorus goes up: ‘Oh, he brought it upon himself.’ Sure, that’s meat and drink round here.”

Macken drew himself up.

“So what about Constable McMahon. Did he not fit in?”

Gracey’s smile faded. The room temperature seemed to drop, despite the heat from the stove. Macken tried again.

“Some accident wasn’t it?”

“That’s right,” said Gracey coolly. “Some accident. A bad episode. But life goes on.”

“Cedric was poking round my room. Looking for Catholic things, he said. What’s going on?”

Gracey held his gaze, then seemed to come to a decision.

“Don’t mind Cedric. He’s just curious. He was pals with McMahon. Probably saw him as an exotic creature. Though God knows why, he was just some taig from the city. Sorry – a Roman Catholic from Belfast. Nothing special.”

Gracey took a sip.

“But to Cedric, he held an air of mystery, with his religious medals and his holy pictures and his rosary beads. Cedric was pretty shaken up when he died.”

Gracey shrugged again, signalling an end to his story. No you don’t, thought Macken.

“So what happened?”

“A round was discharged accidentally. Maybe he was cleaning his gun and hadn’t made it safe.”

“Bit careless.”

“I wasn’t there, Macken. No one really knows for sure.”

“It happened in his room, didn’t it? My room. On my bed. I knew this job was dead man’s shoes, I didn’t realise I was sharing his sheets.”

“Did Cedric tell you?”

“Are you joking? Get sense out of Cedric? Get information out of anyone here?

“I found the strike mark. At least someone had the decency to cover it up. I’ll sleep much easier with a wee picture the last thing I see before I close my eyes, rather than a bullet hole over my head.”

Bull breezed in rubbing his hands.

“Mandear! Tea on the go and you haven’t told me! What’s the world coming to, eh?”

He poured himself a cup and turned to the other two.

“A wee heater, either of you? No? If there was a biscuit or two we’d be set rightly now, so we would.”

Bull looked at them both, hope not quite extinguished. Neither responded.

“No harm in asking. So what’s happening? You both hiding from work?”

All of a sudden, it felt too warm and too crowded for Macken. He put down his mug and opened the door. He felt Gracey’s hand on his arm as he stepped out.

Shielded by the door, Gracey whispered.

“That’s where McMahon had his Holy Roman picture hanging. Not appropriate in a police station. Jesus holding up a heart with a crown of thorns. The bullet went through it. Shot through the sacred heart.”

Macken walked away without looking back.

(…Even more will be revealed, inside the pages of Blackwatertown.)

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