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Authors: James Roy

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BOOK: Captain Mack
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FIVE

From the street the hospital was really nothing more than a few plain brick buildings surrounded by trees, flowers and lawns. There were some old people out in the garden sitting on benches, and a couple of them were in wheelchairs.

“You want to come with me or wait in the car?” Ellie asked. “I'll only be a minute.”

“I'll stay here,” Danny replied.

“See you soon.”

Danny wound down his window, but even then it soon got too hot to stay in the car, so he got out and went in search of some shade.

He found a bench in the shadow of a nearby gum tree and was quietly waiting there when he saw a tall old man walking slowly across the lawn. At least, he'd been tall once. Now he all hunched over. He had big ears and hardly any hair, and Danny thought he looked a bit like the BFG. But what really caught his attention was the man's black eye-patch.

He spotted Danny, hesitated, then turned deliberately and headed straight for him. As he got closer, he said in a sharp gravelly voice, “Well I do hope ye're not going to just sit there, Private.”

“I beg your pardon?” said Danny.

“On ye feet, lad, and let's see ye salute. Or don't ye salute officers in these parts?”

Danny stood uncertainly before saluting quickly and nervously.

“Hmm,” growled the old man. “Not the best I've seen, but it might have to do. Now stand straight while I inspect ye.”

“Inspect me for what?” Danny asked.

“Termites, what do ye think? It's an
inspection,
Private, so stand tall, will ye.”

Danny did as he was told. He felt a little silly, standing to attention in the middle of a garden while an old man in an eye-patch and a dressing gown looked him over, but finally he was done, and he patted Danny on the shoulder. “Very well, Private. But ye'd best tidy up a wee bit before the next inspection, or we'll have to arrange a month of latrine duty for ye. They might treat us like savages here, lad, but there's no need to behave as if we agree. I making myself clear?”

“Yes sir,” Danny replied, tucking his shirt in tightly.

“So what's ye name, lad?” the old man asked, looking sternly down his nose at Danny.

“Danny Snell, sir.”

“I've not seen ye here before, Snell. Are ye new?”

“No, I'm just waiting for Ellie, then we're going home.”

“Home, ye say? But ye've only just arrived.” He sounded amazed.

“Yeah, I know. She said it'd only take a minute,” Danny explained.

“So ye can come and go as ye please, then?”

“Sure, I guess,” said Danny.

“And no one saw ye?”

Danny shook his head. “I don't think so. I just came over here and sat down.”

The old man nodded and raised his eyebrows. “I don't know how ye did it, Snell, but that's good news nonetheless. We can use a man like ye around here.”

“What for?”

“Anyone who can come and go without being seen is valuable, lad. Morale gets low, ye see.”

“Oh,” said Danny. Then, wondering about the old man's accent, he asked, “Um … excuse me, are you English?”

“English?” The old man furrowed his forehead and scowled. “I'm Scottish, and ye'd best not forget it, lad.”

“OK, I'll try to remember.”

“And what are ye staring at now, lad? Have ye never seen an eye-patch before?”

“Oh,” stammered Danny, caught off guard. “Yes, I have. Sorry.”

“It's not polite to stare. Didn't ye mother ever teach ye that?”

“Sorry,” said Danny again. “I didn't mean to stare. It's just that I used to wear a patch. Only for a while. To straighten this.” He took off his glasses and pointed at his crooked eye. “It didn't work,” he added.

“Indeed not. Well, I'll let it go this time. Just don't be caught staring again.”

“OK. Um, is your patch for … for a turned eye like mine?” Danny asked.

“No, lad, for this.” The old man poked a long finger under the edge of his patch and lifted it to reveal a pink star-shaped scar where his right eye should have been. “Are ye happy now, Private? Are ye happy now ye've seen me scar? Shouldn't ye be running screaming in terror by now?”

“Sorry,” muttered Danny.

“Sorry who?”

“Pardon?”

“Sorry
sir,”
the old man prompted.

“Sorry sir,” Danny repeated.

“Better. Very well, as ye were, Snell. And I'd better see a salute before I turn my back, lad.”

“Yes sir,” said Danny, giving the crispest salute he could manage.

“And lad,” said the old man in a much lower voice, “don't forget about Tierney. He needs your assistance more than ye might realise, and there's none of us here can do a thing to help him, so it's down to you.”

“I'm sorry?”

The old man frowned impatiently. “Ye must know that I can't say more, lad — not here. He's relying on ye, so get moving now.” And turning slowly, he began shuffling away, muttering to himself and leaving Danny standing alone in the middle of the garden.

“Sorry I took so long,” said Ellie when they were both back in her car.

“That's OK,” Danny answered. “I was being inspected.”

Ellie blinked and looked confused. “Pardon me?”

“I was being inspected by this old guy with an eye-patch. He thought we were in the army and he was my officer or something.”

Ellie smiled. “Sounds like you've just met Captain Mack.” She pointed at some low buildings beyond the trees of the garden. “He lives in one of those units through there.”

“Why do you call him Captain Mack?”

“Because he carries on like he's an officer in the army. He believes he's a prisoner-of-war.”

“But why Mack?”

“It's just a nickname. His real name is McAuliffe. He's Scottish.”

“I know, he told me. So is he a real army captain?”

Ellie shrugged. “I don't honestly know. I mean, of course he's not in the army anymore, but he might have been once. It's hard to say. You see, Captain Mack is … how do I say it nicely?”

“Nutty?” suggested Danny.

Ellie frowned and smiled at the same time. “We prefer not to refer to elderly people as ‘nutty', even if they do seem … less able to see reality for what it is.”

“How does he look after himself?”

“Barely,” answered Ellie. “It won't be long before we see him in the hospital section. See, some days he's really quite sensible, and other days he spends all his time inspecting visitors or evading us guards.” She laughed. 'You caught him on an inspection day, I'm afraid.”

“How did he lose his eye?” Danny asked. “Was it during the war?”

Ellie shrugged again. “I've never thought to ask.”

“Maybe he really was in the army,” Danny said to himself, half hoping that he was right.

SIX

During their walk between the station and school the following morning Danny told Caleb about the funny old guy with the eye-patch. Caleb laughed when he heard about Captain Mack's demand that Danny salute. “And did you?” he asked.

Danny smiled and looked at the ground. “I did, actually,” he confessed.

Caleb laughed again. “Is this guy
all right
?” he asked, drawing circles in the air around his ear.

“Yeah, he's OK,” Danny said defensively. “He's just old.”

“And dippy.”

Danny didn't think much more about Captain Mack until the period before lunch, when he in the library looking up some information for a Social Studies project. He saw a book about battleships which had been left out on one of the study desks, and it immediately made him think again of the old man with the eye-patch. It especially reminded him of what Captain Mack had said just before he'd walked away — about helping Tierney. This was puzzling. Danny didn't know anyone with that name, so how could he possibly help him? He didn't even know where to start looking. Perhaps Caleb was right — maybe Captain Mack was just old and dippy.

For some reason that explanation didn't satisfy him, so as soon as he arrived home, he found the phone books and flipped to the T's. He wasn't entirely sure how to spell Tierney, but he had a fair idea. Looking it up in the White Pages was a definite long-shot, but he felt he couldn't relax until he'd at least checked. If there were just a couple of names listed then he could maybe call them and ask if they knew an old Scottish man, and whether they knew why he might want to arrange help for them.

There were more than a couple of Tiemeys listed — there were a couple of columns of them. That's pretty much that, then, Danny thought, and was returning the phone books to the little table in the hall when he heard Ellie come home.

She came to her door after he'd knocked a second time.

“Oh, hi Danny,” she said wearily. “Um … I guess you want to come in.”

“If that's OK.”

“Yeah, come on,” she said, holding the door. “You might as well sit by me in my hour of misery.”

She led the way into the kitchen and dropped into one of the chairs. There was a glass on the table in front of her. Then without apparent reason she stood up again, as if she'd just remembered something important she'd forgotten to do. “You want a drink or anything?” she asked.

“I'll just have water too,” Danny said.

“That's not … OK,” Ellie said, taking a clean glass from the dish-drainer and filling it from the tap.

“Are you all right?” Danny asked when they were both sitting.

Ellie heaved a breath and sipped from her glass. “It's been what you could call a hard day.”

“Why? Not enough other nurses?”

She smiled weakly. “That problem's always there. No, other things.”

“Like what?”

The leg of her chair screeched on the floor as she stood up suddenly again and went to the fridge, sticking her head in it like she was searching for something. She seemed to be looking for a long time. “Like what?” she said at last. “Like people dying, Danny.
That
kind of hard day.”

“Oh.” It was difficult to know what else to say.

At last Ellie closed the fridge door and sat back down. There was nothing in her hands, and her eyes were perhaps a little red. “That makes for a hard day,” she repeated quietly. “It's the worst part, even though you know it's bound to happen. You try not to get attached, but you do, and eventually old people …” She stared into her glass for a while, then raised her head and looked at Danny and attempted a smile. “Anyway, that's not your problem, is it?”

“I guess it's not, but …” He still didn't know what to say.

“Did you come over with a question, or just to say hi?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah, I did have a question. Um … Captain Mack said something yesterday that I didn't quite understand. I guess I didn't understand it at all.”

“What was it?”

“He told me to look out for some guy called Tierney. He said he needed help or something. Is there someone at the hospital with that name? One of the other old people.”

Ellie bunched her eyebrows together as she thought. “Tierney?”

“I think that was it.”

Ellie shook her head. “Doesn't ring a bell. Maybe Captain Mack was just having one of his fantasies. He does that sometimes.”

“He said it was really important, and that there was nothing he could do to help, so it was up to me.”

She shrugged. “I can't help you with that one, Danny. Sorry.”

“Oh.” He paused. “Well, in that case I was wondering if … I mean, would I be able to come and see Captain Mack sometime? Just for a little while? I want to ask him about Tierney.”

“I'm sure he'd love you to visit.”

“Really?”

“You name the day, Danny, and I'll arrange for you to see him. Make it a morning shift and I can even bring you home afterwards.”

“How about tomorrow?” he asked.

“You're really serious, aren't you? Sure, tomorrow sounds fine.”

Danny smiled. “Great. I guess I'll see you there.” After school the next day Danny got off at his usual station, but instead of heading straight home as he did every other day, he walked in the opposite direction, towards Lady Smythe. He hadn't told Caleb about going to visit Captain Mack again. Maybe when he knew more about this Tierney person he'd tell him. Perhaps he'd be able to help.

He couldn't find Captain Mack in the garden, so he went through the main entrance and asked one of the nurses if he could see Ellie.

She frowned impatiently. “Ellie who?”

Ellie had never bothered to tell him her last name. “I don't know,” he said finally. “She's a nurse here.”

“What does she look like?”

“About this tall with short black hair,” Danny answered.

“Oh, I know who you mean,” the nurse said. “Hang on.” Then she marched off down a corridor, and Danny stood and waited.

A couple of minutes later Ellie came in. “Hi, Danny. What's up?” she asked.

“I came to see Captain Mack again, if that's OK,” he said.

Ellie smiled. “Sure,” she said. “I'll show you where his unit is.”

“This is it,” she said as they stepped up onto the little porch. “I hope he's home.” She pressed the doorbell, and somewhere inside the unit Danny heard a soft
dung-dong.

After a bit of a wait there was some rustling inside. “Hang on, I'm on my way. Who is it, anyhow?” asked Captain Mack's gravelly voice.

Ellie nodded at Danny. “Go on,” she said.

Danny cleared his throat. “It's me — Danny. We met a couple of days ago.”

“We what? Danny, ye say? Danny who?”

“Snell. Private Snell, remember?”

There was another, longer pause. “I don't remember any Snell. Ye'll have to do better than that.”

Ellie leaned close to Danny's ear. “He can get suspicious,” she explained. Then, in a louder voice, she said, “Come on, Captain Mack, it's me, Ellie. Danny's been kind enough to drop in and visit you. You met him on Monday — you even inspected him.”

“Did I now? And who did ye say ye were, lassie?”

“Oh, come on, you know me. It's Ellie, the nurse.” She knocked on the door. “Now stop being difficult and open up.”

There was yet another pause. Finally the old man said, “Right then, I'll let ye in, but there'll be measures taken if ye prove hostile.” The latch rattled, then the door swung slowly open. Captain Mack glared down at Danny with his good eye. “Snell, was it? Ah yes, I think I remember ye.”

Danny saluted. “Afternoon, sir. Can I come in?”

Captain Mack returned the salute. “Very well.” He stood back to let Danny and Ellie into the dimly lit room. “I'll be watching ye closely, mind,” he added.

Ellie was trying not to smile. “Danny, I'll be finished in about an hour. I'll come and get you then.” She closed the door behind her, leaving him face to face with the old man.

“I see ye managed to get through again, lad.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Excellent job. Well, what do ye want, then?” Captain Mack asked.

“I'm just visiting.”

“What for?”

Danny shrugged. “Just because.”

“Because why? I don't need visitors. They drink my tea, breathe my air, waste my time.”

“I know you don't need visitors, sir. But I had to ask you something.”

Captain Mack said nothing. He just waited for Danny to go on.

“I … I wanted to ask you about Tierney, sir.”

Captain Mack frowned, put his finger to his lips and shushed. “Keep it down, lad. Tell me, how is the boy?”

“I've had … trouble,” Danny said.

Captain Mack looked alarmed. “What kind of trouble?”

“I don't know where to find him.”

Captain Mack nodded seriously. “Keep looking, lad. Just keep looking. It's all ye can do for now. He's out there somewhere, trust me.”

“I see,” Danny replied, despite not seeing at all. “OK, then I'll keep looking.”

“Good for ye. Is that all?” Captain Mack asked.

“No, there was something else. I wanted to know, were you really in the army? Ellie didn't know.”

Captain Mack tried to straighten up. “Seventy-second Highlanders, my boy. Which regiment are ye in, then? Communications, I'd guess. They always send the wee'uns out to Communications in these parts. Part of the push, no doubt.”

“No, I'm still at school,” Danny corrected him.

“Not posted yet, then.” It wasn't a question.

Danny sat down cautiously on the edge of the faded old couch. “Um, no, not posted yet,” he agreed, deciding that it was probably easiest to agree with everything for now.

“Do ye usually sit down before invited to do so?” snapped Captain Mack, and Danny hurriedly got back onto his feet. “Ye've got a lot of training to do yet, lad. What did ye say ye name was, then?”

“Snell, sir.”

“Right, I recall. Private Snell, Communications. I'll remember that. Well, it doesn't look like ye're planning to leave, so can I offer ye some tea, Snell? They let us keep a couple of these civilised habits here.”

“Thank you, sir,” Danny replied. “If that's OK,” he added.

Captain Mack pointed at the faded and stained couch. “Park your behind, Private. I'll not be long in the mess.”

“What mess?”

He rolled his eye and pointed into the tiny kitchen. “Where ye make the grub, of course. What are ye, Private — daft?”

“Must be, sir,” Danny replied meekly.

“Right,” grunted Captain Mack, making his way into the kitchen. “Daft wee-uns. It's not their fault. Send them out practically babies,” Danny heard him mutter.

There wasn't really much to see in Captain Mack's front room 'just the old worn furniture, a TV, and a bookshelf with a few books and a couple of photos on it. The faded curtains were drawn, keeping the room depressingly dark.

After a lot of jingling and clanging about in the kitchen, Captain Mack reappeared. He was concentrating on carrying two cups of black tea. “I'd give ye crackers, but Cook says we're still rationing,” he explained as he set the cups down on the coffee table. Then he slowly lowered himself into one of the armchairs. “Well, drink up, Private — ye 'll be needing ye strength.”

“What for?” Danny asked anxiously.

“What for?” repeated Captain Mack, almost laughing. “Ye
are
daft, aren't ye? Survival, laddie. Survival and maybe even conflict, that's what for. Oh, don't look so concerned, Private. Burma's not so bad, once ye get used to the wee parasites.” He raised his cup. “After all, they let us have tea.”

They drank their tea in silence. When Danny had nearly finished — which took him a while, since he wasn't used to drinking tea, especially without milk or sugar — Captain Mack pushed himself slowly up onto his feet.

“I think we've done enough for now, Private. If ye stay too much longer there'll be suspicions aroused. Can't have that, so I think ye'd best be on yer way.”

“Oh,” said Danny, standing uncertainly and handing over his cup. “Um … okay then. I guess I'll go.”

“I think so, Private. Best if we tread carefully. It's just as the old saying goes.”

“Which old saying?”

Captain Mack spoke in a quiet voice, almost a whisper. “The jungle has eyes,” he said.

“Oh.”

“Aye. They watch everything, ye know.”

“Do they?”

“Aye, for certain. But stay in touch. We'll talk again, the two of us.”

“When?”

“Best we don't say. Not out loud. Ears …” The old man leaned close and narrowed his good eye. “They're everywhere.”

“Okay. I'll remember that. Bye then, sir.” Danny went to the door and opened it.

“Very good, Snell. Oh, and Snell.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Forgetting something, are ye?”

“Oh, yes. Sorry, sir.” Danny turned, snapped to attention and gave the smartest salute he could manage.

“Don't be seen,” warned Captain Mack, and the door closed behind Danny with a tight click.

“How was he?” Ellie asked as she and Danny walked to her car.

“Nutty,” Danny replied. “Sorry, but he was,” he added when he saw her eyebrows start to bunch into a frown.

“Any news on Tierney?”

He shook his head. “And I still don't know who he is.”

Ellie laughed. “So, are you coming to see him again?”

“Yep, with biscuits.”

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