Homecoming: A John Dunn story

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The words came through distantly, and with unsettling hesitancy. ‘For what I have done, and for what I have failed to do.’  A catch in the voice made the words sound as if the speaker might be trying to read somebody else’s writing from a tally sheet with the aid of moonlight only.  Mack groaned and tried to double up to keep the pain of the words out of his ears.

“Sir, sir, what’s your name?  Sir?”

Mack refused flatly as he had all his life any address towards him that would link him with the kind of respectability of such address.  However, under the persistent questioning, and the insistence of the speaker, he groaned inwardly to force himself to acknowledge the question with the courtesy of any reply, even though it might be a curt brush-off.

“Whazzat?”  he mumbled.

“Sir, we have to know.  What’s your name?”

“Wha’s my name?  Why, don’t you know?  It’s Mack.”

“Mac.  I suppose that’s short for MacPherson, or something like that,” the voice mumbled, and then continued. “Fine, And now, surname?”

“Just Mack.  Mack Hogan, of course.”

“Hogan, Mac. Hmmm.  Can’t find anyone of that name on the list. There’s Hogan, Albert, and Hogan, Desmond, and even Hogan, McPhaedran, but no Hogan, Mac.  Trouble is, we have to be absolutely sure about every person who enters.  So I have to ask if you’re quite sure you’re Hogan, Mac.  Are you sure?”

“Well, ha,” Mack shook himself and readied his recollections for this enquiry. “You see, they’ve called me ‘Mack’ ever since I was an altar boy for old Canon Cavanaugh, and that was a long time ago, when I was in St. Mary’s School in Almonte.  But my name’s really Mark.  I think maybe you’d have one guy of that name here, one of the four evangelists.  Their pictures used to be on the pulpit in the Canon’s time.  That’s how I got named Mark.”

“Heavens yes, that Mark is here.  And is it you that’s named after him?  We’ve had a circular out for some time to be on the watch for someone named Mark.  Is that really you?”

“Of course it’s me.”  Mack replied a bit brusquely, as if he had to put this fellow from the Board of Directors in the big picture with emphasis.  “Of course it’s me.” he repeated in the ungrammatical vernacular of assent in the places of assembly best known to Mack. “Sure everybody knows me back there where I come from.  They all know me.  Whether it’s from pannin’ for gold on Sparks Street in Ottawa, or the Market Square in Almonte.  Mack Hogan.  That’s me.”

“Mr. Hogan,” came the voice of the Director in a tone of rare solemnity, “We should apologize to you, for the writing on this list is very faint indeed.  It’s almost as if our staff here have been waiting for you for a long, long time, and perhaps they’d even given up on you.  Perhaps you’re lucky to be here at all.  But now that you are, we’ll get on with the business end of it.  Incidentally, what’s that funny garb you’ve come draped in?  Sure we’re used to all kinds of outlandish attire on people arriving here nowadays, but you’d take the prize at any fancy costume ball in that outfit. Where’d you get it, and what is it anyway?”

Mack’s lower jaw jutted out in the manner of a pugnacious pouter pigeon.  “I’ll have you know,” he jawed, “This here is the new Canadian flag, and I’m beginning to recollect some of my friends wrapped it round me to help me try to remember something.  They wanted me to send them some message from wherever I happened to land up this time.  Tell me, what do they call this place anyway?  Is it the Mall in Ottawa?”

“Well, no, it’s not the Mall.  The Mall’s way off in that other direction.  Really quite a distance from here, but there’s a very easy path to it.  Wouldn’t take much to get there, especially for a man the likes of you.”

A stitch in his side caused Mack to swing round on another tack where he still puzzled over this place he’d landed in.

“If this ain’t the Mall in Ottawa, I can tell you it’s not the Perth gaol, unless they’ve changed things round there a whole lot since my last stay there, — and I’d kinda doubt that –, so I’m goin’ to tell you that I’ve no recollection of ever having been in this place before.  I can’t help wonderin’ what this place is.”

“You mean you don’t know where you are at all at all?”

“Look, fellas,” Mack went on agreeably to protocol per person.  “I’m beginnin’ to think it’s something I ate and it’s not agreein’ with my constitution.  The last thing I remember was Doc King sayin’ ‘Mack, I’m goin’ to put you in the hospital a couple of days to find out if there’s somethin’ gone haywire in your system’.  That’s what the doc said.  An’ I remember they pushed and punched me there in the feet and hands, an’ they stuck a needle in one of my fingers lookin’ for blood, an’, gee whiz, I wondered what next?”

“Yes,” said the Director, “What next?”

“Well, one night they gave me a pill to take with water.  Can you imagine that?  Water!  I said to the nurse, ‘Nurse, I’ve never taken any pill in my life.  An’ I can’t remember the last time I took any of that stuff in the glass either.'”

“Aha,” said the aide to the Director, knowingly.

“Look here, nurse,” Mack went on, “If I have to take that pill, do me a favour.  Perhaps you could just pick up that phone and call one of my friends — there’s lots of them at the Legion — and one of them’d sure get up here with something like the kind of medicine my system can tolerate.  That’s a word Doc King uses all the time. ‘His system won’t tolerate much’ he says, ‘We’ll have to treat him gently so we don’t upset his system.’  That’s what the doc says.”

“And did the nurse phone?”

“Well, they wouldn’t do it in the hospital.  An’ I had to choke down the pill with a gulp of that ‘aqua purer’ as my friend Dunc calls it, and the next thing I know is I wake up here in front of this place.”

“Yes,” the feller began.  “We’ve had notice for about three days now that we should be on the lookout for you.  Our records from the hospital indicate that the signals you sent out after the hospital tests were returned with a notation: ‘very weak, confused, no response, danger of expiry before allotted time.'”

Mack squinted.  He seemed to be groping through the maze of words searching for clues to understand the situation.

“Anyway,” the feller continued, “Here you are in the corral at last, where we’ve got to sort out the strays from the real buckos. Besides, we’ve got to look pretty closely into what our needs here are to see if there’s something you might be able to do in the meantime.  Tell me, what kind of work have you been doing lately back there in that place called Almonte.”

Candle flames that seemed to gutter momentarily in a stray breeze caused Mack to squint in his own peculiar quizzical manner, and even as he rubbed his eyes with a horny knuckle, incense from a censer in the hands of a passing priest cloyed the air round his proboscis, as Dunc used to call Mack’s nose.  And then came water sprinkled over the rooftop and the pain of that night of deprivation in hospital thundered again round Mack.  Strangely enough, no sense of pain struck him, only the quandary of his whereabouts.  Besides he didn’t particularly cotton on to the notion of work that had come in the man’s suggestion, and thought it best to work around that, scratching here and there until he found safer ground to travel on.

“Work?” he queried, “Just what kind of work do you do here anyways?”

“Oh, we’ve got a little of everything going on here.  In fact, we try to fit the work to the people.  We try to have them do pretty much whatever they like to do.  That makes for peace, you know, and brings real happiness to the inmates.”

“Inmates?”  Mack rocked back.  Had he landed in fact in the Perth gaol, a newly-renovated place of detention, with all the old familiar corners painted over?  Holy mackerel, what next? He resolved to be extra careful about his language.

“Are you the warden?” Mack enquired in a musing sort of tone.

“All our residents are patients of one sort of another, regardless of titles.  I’m not warden of this corral: just a member of the board of directors.  It would help us if you could tell us just what kind of work you have done in your time, and then we’ll see if there’s any thing we can make go for you.”

“Well,” Mack turned reflective once more, “I was in the Army one time, back there during the war.”

“Oh, you were in the army!  Did you have some kind of trade?”

“Ah” said Mack disparagingly, and making a wry face to divert attention from a phase of ill luck, “That was a long time ago.  You remember the time, I’m sure, why, you look as if you might have been through the war yourself, even the First World War from the looks of you.  So might you know the old Coliseum at Lansdowne Park?”

“In Ottawa?”

“Yes, of course. You know the place?  The Horse Palace?”

“We know the place quite well.”

“Well,” said Mack, “The old horse barn there.  That’s where I was stationed during my time in the army.”

“And how long was that altogether?”

This guy was becoming quite friendly, thought Mack, this might be a good time to bring him into his confidence.  “You must remember the place.  Perhaps you’d have known some of the fellas there.  We had one heck of a time there until we got to know the ropes.  One of the fellas in my gang got to know one of the cooks in the kitchen, and he borrowed raisins from him, and some sugar.  Sure that was the time when everything in Canada was on the ration, but the army always had raisins and sugar, an’ so, we had a nice friendly little grog shop goin’ up there in the rafters in the horse barn.  Three weeks the stuff gurgled an’ hissed, an’….ah well, you probably know the rest.  The bulls, those guys they called Provost Corps, they come in one night when me and three or four of the guys’re havin’ a little party.  “A wine festival” Dunc would have called it, and gosh, next thing I know somebody says “Fourteen days C.B.” An’ a guy says “Section 40, sir?”

“‘Right, sergeant-major. Section 40′,” the captain says, and next day they’re handin’ me discharge papers sayin’ I’m unlikely to become an efficient soldier.  How do you like that for party time?”

“So,” the questioner went on, “Mack, I’ll put a note down here that you’ve been a part time cook in the army.  But that was a long time ago.  What’ve you done, let’s say, in the past two years or so?”

Mack scratched his head.  He thought hard.  He looked around. “That’s hard to remember,” he began in a kind of reverie, but his musings came suddenly to a halt for he heard a voice that shook his recollections right down to the sub-basement.

“Vita mutatur, non tollitur,” a priest’s voice intoned.

“Say,” Mack began excitedly, “That’s in Latin!”

“That’s right,” the old greybeard said.  “So you know something of Latin too?”

“Confiteor Deo omnipotenti,..” Mack’s substance in Latin, rusting from long disuse, could grind no further than “I confess to….” But his bit of knowledge seemed to have scored points for him on the tally sheet in the old one’s hands.

“Mack,” said greybeard, “You haven’t told us much about what you can do, and really, we have no vacancies at the moment for cooks, or even part-time cooks.  This is a peaceful place though, and fellowship means a lot.  We’d like to find a vacancy for anyone who remembers even a bit of Latin.  I guess you must have been an altar boy one time, and we’d like to return the favour, if you get the drift of what I’m trying to tell you, ’cause if we can’t, there’s only the other place.  And it’s not so friendly.”

“Well, look, warden,” said Mack in desperation. “I’ve looked after the 50-50 for a long time.”

His hearers went into puzzlement.  “50-50?” they asked “What’s that?”

“Well, you know,” Mack urged.  “It’s the hockey draw, every Saturday night, at the Legion.  50-50. Half and half, half to the Legion, the other half to the winner of the winning ticket.”

“Is it a kind of lottery then?”

“Yeah, you could call it that.  We just call it the 50-50. Everybody in town knows about it.  It’s for the Legion.  You must know the Legion,” Mack said, looking up for confirmation from the Great Inquisitor.

“Yes, of course.  We hear quite a bit about the Legion.” said the feller.

“Well everybody there knows everybody else,” said Mack.  “That’s on week nights.  It’s a friendly place.  But when there’s a meeting, then it’s not ‘Gus’ or ‘Bill’ or even ‘Dunc’; it’s ‘Comrade Gus’ and ‘Comrade Bill’ an’…”

Mack stopped there as if at a roadblock, and then added the exception to the rule.  “Of course, Dunc is nothin’ but Dunc to everybody, meeting night or any old night.  He’s just Dunc to everybody.  That’s comradeship at the Legion.”

“Mack, that certainly does sound quite different.  After thinking it over, I recall we have one kind of job here.  It’s much like a gate-keeper.  You get to sit in a kind of sentry box and check the papers of people arriving to see if everything about them is in order before they’re let in from the corral.   It’s a boring kind of job in a way, but it’s much like a lottery too.  People take chances, much in the same way you did.  They punch out sometimes in hospital, sometimes in other places, and whey they arrive here, gee whiz, sometimes they act surprised as h…  Ah well, what I mean is, this place is, well, it’s just not for everyone.  Anyway, good men are hard to find these days, and only one out of a thousand is reliable enough for sentry-go as we call it.”

“I know just what you mean,” said Mack.  “We’ve had the same problem at the Legion for years.  I’ve been on the 50-50, oh for years now, and it’s been improving steadily every year since.
We’ve made money at it too.  Real money.  Helps the building fund. You must have a building fund here too from the looks of the place.”

“We do indeed, Mack.  So, I tell you what.  We’ll give it a try. Just remember though, we’ve no fringe benefits.  You’re locked in. Would that bother you as one of the working conditions?”

“You make it sound much like my winter quarters in Perth gaol,” replied the musing Mack.