This story was the winning entry in the 2016 William Taylor Memorial Short Story Competition The Judge’s Comments were: The Night of the Big Music is, in the best sense of that term, a very good yarn, allowing us to understand how important it is to understand what it means to be who we are and to honour the bonds of kith and kin.
“The Night of the Big Music” by Dale Thomas
When Davy Johnstone died the twelve surviving members of the Taumarunui and Districts Caledonian Pipe Band convened in the courtyard of the Manunui Fire Station, on Miro Street. It was past ten o’clock, dark and starry in the valley, but a fog was rising off the river and soon it’d dim the shine of a basket moon. Ferg Sutton said they’d best get started, and the others nodded. It was sure going to be one for the locals to remember, some thought.
Don Rees gave the big drum a couple of measured poms, and the rest of them filled the bags from their lungs. Little Colm MacFadgen rattled the snare and then, together, in one strident blare, the incomparable sound of bagpipes cleft the night asunder.
They did it for Davy, for Scotland, the Scottish, and for the oath they’d swore on joining the band, even though there’d be hell to pay afterwards. Sargent Adler had already said at Davy’s wake that he’d not stand for any of that piping racket. “You do that in the light of day like decent folk, if you must do it at all, but not tonight, I’ll not have it,” he’d said, and added “There’ll be none of that nonsense we had when old Dougie went …” He didn’t finish, and all stood around wondering where Dougie really went, up or down? Of course when old Doug Virtue died it was Davy Johnstone himself who’d played the pipes in church. Him, Jackie and Ferg, and Father Aiden pushed them out the door, physically pushed them, with Davy all the while still blasting out his tune. Father said they were a heathen instrument and he would not abide them in God’s House.
And so on the night of the Big Music the pipes filled the night air. First with ‘Flower of Scotland’, then ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which was a favourite of Davy’s, and finally ‘Goin’ Home.’ From far up and down the valley people came out onto their doorsteps to listen. The thing about the Scottish pipes is they’re made for Scottish hills. Highlands. Well Manunui was in the highlands too, in a valley on a high plateau not dissimilar to the heathered hills of Highland Scotland. It too was a place where ten men’s pipes could be heard clear for many miles around. It was a huge sound the bagpipes made, and they were the only instrument in the world that filled such an enormous space. There wasn’t a soul in those King Country hills that night that wasn’t moved in some way by the richness of that sound. And every heart, whether with a patch of ancestral tartan on it or not, skipped a bit faster; and each Celtic eye shed an involuntary tear. On the night of the Big Music all around the songs of Scotland echoed throughout the star-struck, navy-blue night.
Soon the moonlight passed beneath a veil of fog and the pipers stopped. The silence was suddenly heavy with the weight of emptied pipes. It was only then that Melly McIlroy noticed Sergeant Adler and Constable Scott walking towards them. In the background was the red, white and blue light of the police car flashing manically like a tattered Union Jack in a storm. Sergeant Adler had a look on his face which didn’t change when Don pommed his drum, just once, which made Jackie Holster chortle a bit.
Sergeant Adler was not amused. And from the twitching movement of his upper lip it was clear he had something short, sharp and hurtful to say. But, the moment he opened his mouth to vent his carefully calculated ‘how-dare-you’ speech, Jock Kellas cried “Long live Scotland!” and blew an almighty blast from his Grandad’s pipes. Immediately the others took up the refrain, ‘Scotland the Brave’ and played as though their hearts would burst. All the pipers faces shone red and white, then navy blue in the flashing lights, and they began to march on the spot in time with Colm’s drum. They played it twice over and after they ended you could hear a roar from the people of the valley somewhere. Meanwhile the head of police stood there fuming as Constable Scott radioed for help.
It was the night of the Big Music, and, in these parts, it’s not just the Johnstone’s who speak of it still.