Jack McCormack was known about town as a right dag. You’d think it would be an insult to be likened to dags — the dried balls of shit that hang off sheep’s asses — but in New Zealand, where sheep far outnumber people, references to these wooly beasts randomly permeate the language. If a man is thought to have done something idiotic he’s a sheep’s arse but if the same bloke has come into good fortune he’s said to have the whole sheep’s arse. Rattle yer dags is synonymous with “hurry up” and a right dag is someone who is extremely entertaining but in a twisted, shitty kind of way.
Jack wasn’t feeling very entertaining on November 5, 1956. He drove his carpentry van down the Esplanade — the main street in his small town, Kaikoura — and turned into his driveway at precisely 5 o’clock. As he scuttled back up the gravel drive toward the street he heard the back door of the house open. The plump figure of his wife, Irene, in a bluish house-dress (like a bruise, he thought) appeared on the steps: “You be home by six,” she called out. “The kids are relying on you to light the bonfire.” He waved an arm in her direction, batting her away. Fix the window in the lav; take the kids out for once; lay off the booze. Jack had laid down his life for his country and this is what he got in return? He set off down the Esplanade, following the curve of the bay and the beach of gray pebbles, heading toward the Pier Hotel, one of four watering holes in a town with a thousand residents.
Jack glanced across the road at the pyres of twigs and sticks and bits of old lumber, topped with scarecrow effigies that lined the beach as far as the eye could see. It was Guy Fawkes Day. That very morning his youngest had asked him about Guy Fawkes.
“He was a Catholic bloke many years ago who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament.”
“Why did he do that?”
“Because the new king wasn’t Catholic and that pissed him off. He was lighting the fuse when he got caught, poor bugger.”
Bloody Protestants, Jack thought, staring at the bonfires. He, along with nine brothers and sisters, was raised Catholic but he wasn’t fanatical about it like his mother — always praying and blessing God whenever something good happened. What about the bad crap, he wondered. Where was God then? Where was God during the bloody war? His mother said often enough that she had prayed daily for him and his brothers while they were overseas — Jack and Cyril in North Africa and Europe, the two younger boys in the Pacific. She claimed that it was her prayers that brought all four boys back, uninjured. This gave Jack pause and this alone was enough to get him to church every Sunday, taking his two daughters with him. Irene refused. She said she didn’t believe in it. Jack wasn’t much of a believer himself, but a certain loyalty to his mother — and the possibility that there was a God to whom she had a direct line — kept him on the side of the Catholics.
As a lad, Jack had enjoyed Guy Fawkes Day. Each year he and Cyril — the oldest boys in the family — organized the rest of the kids to gather newspaper and wood; they pinched a tin of kerosene from a neighbor’s garage (careful to return it to the exact same spot later in the day) and carried their booty to the beach where they built the biggest bonfire possible. He loved lighting it with his brothers at the arranged time, along with other families, and watching the whole thing go up in smoke. All that had changed since the war. The bursts of flame, the effigies falling apart and the sounds of firecrackers stirred unbidden images of trenches, garish wounds and his fellow soldiers blown to bits. The sight of a few kids and their parents putting the finishing touches on their pyres before they rushed back inside for an early evening tea blackened Jack’s mood. They know bugger all of what we went through, he thought.
He didn’t hear the Austin coming up behind him until it backfired, leaping forward with a violent screech. Jack was instantly back in Monte Cassino in a bombed out crater on the side of the mountain. He was shivering with cold and hunger. The crater — meant to protect him and his mates — was filling with water from weeks of relentless rain. He could no longer feel his toes and he feared looking at them. But it was the constant wail and pounding of incoming mortar, the din magnified by the rocky terrain, that frequently made him want to climb out of that stinking mud hole and walk toward the German artillery. “Bloody Huns,” he cried out, but the Austin was already out of earshot. Jack turned up the collar of his light wool jacket and huddled into it against the cool breeze from the Pacific.
When he pushed open the door of the pub, cigarette smoke, the smell of beer and the warmth and familiar odor of male bodies enveloped him. “McCormack, yer ugly bugger. Yer just in time to shout us another round.”
“That’ll be a cold day in hell,” Jack yelled back, pushing through the path that was opening for him to the bar, which he reached just as a pint of Lion Red slammed on the counter in front of him, froth sluicing over the sides of the glass. He pulled out a smoke from a squished pack in his pants pocket. Pete Barnes, who had been at the front but not in his squadron, stood next to him with a match ready. With cigarettes in their mouths and pints in their clutches, Jack and Pete pushed through the crowd to find their mates.
The pub cheered Jack up a bit, as it always did. His close friends, most of whom had been in the war, drank pint to pint of lager with him. They spoke little of that time, but the physical jostling and raised voices brought it back — at least the parts they wanted to recall, mostly when they were on R&R in Egypt and Palestine. Remember when McCormack here tried to get on that bloody camel, pissed out of his mind. The little fella in the skirt was shouting at the bugger: get up, get down. McCormack was wobbling all over its hump like she was a sheila . . . “At least I got on the bugger,” Jack replied. “More than I can say for you wallies,” but his words were drowned out by laughter, glasses chinking and calls for another round.
By the time the big grimy clock over the bar signaled the approach of 6 o’clock, Jack was feeling the better for it. The publican called out, “Last call, gentlemen, please,” and a wave of men, Jack included, surged to the edge of the bar, lining up three pints of lager and a couple of shots of whiskey each. On the count of three they emptied their glasses (pint, shot, pint, shot, pint) as fast as they could while the other patrons slammed the palms of their hands on the wooden counter in rhythm with their shouts: “Drink, drink, drink!” A taut wire loosened inside of Jack.
He stumbled a bit as he left the pub, steadied himself, pulled another Winfield from the pack and lit it before heading back down the street — this time on the grassy verge of the beach. He gazed out over the ocean, breathing in the roiling blue waves and the town tucked in the curve of the peninsula. His eyes followed the sweep of the snow-tipped mountains that met the sea where the road north twisted and turned through the hills toward Picton at the tip of the South Island where the ferry shuttled passengers daily between the two islands. Best bloody view in the whole world. He often said this to anyone who would listen, adding “and I’ve been all over.” Jim, his young apprentice who hadn’t served, once replied, “Better than the view from those bloody trenches, eh Jack.” One fierce glance from his boss, and Jim never spoke on the subject again.
Jack was more than a bit tipsy. Even though he was in a better mood, the sight of the pyres still rubbed him the wrong way. The street was deserted, most families inside hurrying to finish their meals in time to get to the beach at sunset to light their fires. Jack wandered off the strip of grass onto the stones of the beach and headed toward the first pile of neatly stacked sticks and branches. He gazed up at the effigy of Fawkes — a wooden cross covered in sacking, topped with a makeshift head of burlap stuffed with newspaper, two large black buttons for eyes — rising high above the crisscross mound of sticks. Jack put his hands in his pockets, swayed slightly, and pulled out his matchbox. He sheltered the flame from the wind and held the matchstick to the fluttering strands of kerosene soaked paper poking out from under the twigs. He waited until the fire took hold and then stumbled across the uneasy pebbles to the next waiting bonfire. He lit this one as well, and the next, quickening his pace, laughing now, moving clumsily down the jagged line of pyres, striking a new match at the base of each one.
The front doors of the houses on the Esplanade began to open. People tumbled out into the street. Most stood awestruck and open mouthed at the spectacle of their creations burning prematurely. “McCormack, you crazy bugger,” one man shouted. “You bleedin’ eejit,” another said. Children began to cry. Mothers pulled their little ones in close, casting dagger eyes in the direction of the joker who was ruining their holiday. Three men fell away from their families, approaching Jack from all sides. Their fists made it clear that they planned on beating the living daylights out of him. Another man joined in: “Yer looking for a knuckle sandwich, you poxy bastard.”
Jack put his fists up, drunkenly punching the air — right, left, right. He’d show those bloody krauts. Suddenly, an arm was around his shoulder: Pete, from the pub, breathless from running the last fifty yards. “Yer a right dag, Jack,” he said, as more of his pub buddies arrived, patting his back and laughing. “A big round of applause for our returned soldier, Jack McCormack. He’s given us the biggest bloody bonfire we’ll ever see,” Pete yelled. Arms across shoulders, the men formed a haphazard line as they lurched down the street singing at the tops of their lungs: waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me. They sang with the same lust they’d had while marching in formation at the beginning of the war, training in the Maadi desert when they still had a thirst for battle. Other men, young and old, joined them on the street. The women and kids stepped back as they had that day in June, 1945 when Kaikoura had a parade for the soldiers who had been arriving in dribs and drabs, some heavily bandaged, some on crutches or stretches.
When the group approached Jack’s house, he broke away and ran toward his wife standing on the sidewalk with their daughters. “Come on girls,” he said, including Irene, reaching out for them. They bustled down to the beach, to the bonfire that Irene and the girls had carefully constructed earlier in the evening, now ablaze, the flames just beginning to flicker at Guy’s sad-sack face.
A cheer went up and people began to clap and hoot while others rushed back to their houses to grab fireworks. The crowd surged toward the beach reaching out for hands as they went, readying themselves to dance around the fires, now in full blaze, a bit late, but in time to sing Guy, guy, guy/Poke him in the eye/Put him on the bonfire/And there let him die. With Irene at his side, Jack held the small hands of his two girls in front of their bonfire and watched the sack head tilt to one side — black button eyes drooping — before it fell into the burning embers.
Carolyn Stack is writing a memoir that speaks to the forces that drove her away from New Zealand – her native country. She ran off at the age of twenty to travel the world and finally settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work pivots on the theme of emotional violence. She is a psychologist and psychoanalyst, and she lives and practices in Cambridge. She runs a professional/fictional blog on her website: www.carolynstack.com.Carolyn Stack's website »