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Billy Mack's War
By James Roy
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2004 James Roy
All rights reserved.
Danny slipped one hand into the pocket of his trousers and felt the cold smoothness of the medal resting there, heavy against his thigh. He wanted to take it out and have another look at it, one last look, but he remembered what Dad had said. A hundred thousand dollars, perhaps more, he'd said. So much money for such a little medal. So for the moment it was staying right there in his pocket, safely out of sight.
It's so typical, Danny thought, as the train ran by a big white house with a tennis court and a swimming pool. How typical that all anyone cares about is how much money this thing is worth. Sure, for an ugly little bronze cross on a blood-red ribbon a hundred thousand dollars did seem pretty extreme. But money was all anyone seemed to think about when they saw it. Except Mr Cullen, of course. At least he'd asked what Captain Mack had done to earn a Victoria Cross in the first place, but no one else seemed too concerned. To Dad it was a hundred thousand dollars, to Ellie it was a family heirloom, to Caleb it was 'some dumb medal', and to Shaun Gilmore it was something he thought he could just take from a boy smaller than himself. Something that was worth getting expelled for, Danny thought with a faint smile of triumph.
And to William McAuliffe, Captain Mack's son, it was just 'the medal'. He didn't seem to care one bit that his own father had personally given it to Danny as a reward for an act of bravery. He hadn't seemed to hear when Captain Mack said that he knew what he was doing, that the medal was his to give away, and that he wanted Danny to keep it. To William McAuliffe it was something that belonged in the family, end of story. And of all the things the Victoria Cross was, that was what now seemed most important to everyone. Dad said it had to go back, Ellie had said that the 'right' thing to do was to return it, even Mr Cullen had reluctantly agreed — in his usual thoughtful way — that the medal probably belonged in the McAuliffe family.
Danny didn't like this conclusion, not one bit. But he'd accepted it, and now he was off to return the Cross. He rehearsed his little speech again. 'Mr McAuliffe, I'm returning the medal that your father gave me. Dad says that it's very valuable and belongs in your family, and I know he's right. I'm sorry about helping Captain Mack escape from the nursing home. Even though I was only trying to help him, I can see now that it was a stupid thing to do. I hope I haven't made too much trouble for you.' And then he would hand over the medal, turn around and walk away. He wasn't going to ask where Captain Mack was living now, he wasn't going to ask if he could see him, he wasn't going to impose at all. 'I think they'd be glad to just leave the whole affair right there,' Dad had said. 'Just say what you've gone there to say, and leave in a dignified manner.'
Dignified. Danny sniffed. He hadn't felt very dignified when he'd fought Shaun for the medal in the middle of the schoolyard. He hadn't felt especially dignified when he was lying face-down on the footpath with Shaun's foot on the back of his neck. He certainly hadn't felt dignified when Ellie had helped him up with blood streaming from his broken nose. And he knew he wasn't going to feel at all dignified when he handed the Cross over to William McAuliffe and turned to walk away. But that was how it had to be. That was how it was going to be. Dad had been very clear.
The train began to slow, and Danny looked down at the approaching station. It was his stop, and he grabbed his bag and hurried down the steps to the door. As he stepped out onto the platform and into the heat of the sun, Danny unzipped his bag and took out Dad's street directory. He'd marked the page with a bookmark, on which he'd written William McAuliffe's address. It hadn't been all that hard to find — he'd found the right number with his third call — but he was still secretly hoping that the person who answered the door would be someone other than Captain Mack's son. A different William McAuliffe. Then he'd get to keep the medal a little longer, even if it was only for a couple of days, and he wouldn't have to recite his prepared statement just yet.
He checked the map once more before slipping the book away in his bag. Then he felt in his pocket again, just to be totally sure that the medal was still there. It was only then that he hoisted his bag onto his shoulder and started up the steps to the street.
The house Danny was heading for was only a couple of quiet streets up a slight hill from the station. He looked at the cars parked beneath the wide branches of the oak trees, which over the years had pushed their way through the pavement. There were a few of what Danny considered to be normal cars. Some of them looked like they'd been parked there for some time, with white streaks on their windscreens and dead leaves collected along their wipers. But then there were the other cars: the Jeeps and the BMWs and the Peugeots. Danny slowed a little as he passed a silver Audi convertible. He'd have to speak sternly with Dad about getting one of those, certainly by the time he was old enough to get his learner's permit.
On the street corner was a small shop and a cafe. A thin young man with spiky hair and a long black apron was wiping down tables. There were no customers.
Danny checked the street-sign and took a deep breath. Number eighteen. He looked for the house numbers. Odds on this side, so he crossed the street to the high side. A dark green four-wheel-drive cruised slowly past just after he'd crossed. The medal was getting heavier in his pocket, the sun hotter on his neck. Danny wiped his palms on his jeans as he passed number eight, number ten, number twelve. He coughed nervously. He checked his watch. Right on time, exactly when Mr McAuliffe had said he'd be home. A lawnmower droned somewhere. A cat jumped down from a tall brick gatepost and disappeared under a hedge. No people anywhere.
Number eighteen wasn't the largest house in the street, but it was still a fair size, brick with bay windows, nice garden, with a white Commodore parked in the steep driveway.
A short flight of stone steps led up to the landing at the front door. Danny walked to the door, took one more deep breath and pressed the doorbell. From somewhere far away inside the house came the sound of electronic chimes. Danny waited. He waited some more. He was just thinking about pressing the button again when he heard footsteps. Through the leadlight panel in the door he saw a tall shadow, and he swallowed hard as the latch rattled.
The door swung open. William McAuliffe was taller than he'd remembered, and older. He frowned down at Danny. 'Daniel, is it? Or should I say, Private Snell?'
Danny said nothing.
'So, you've got something for me?' Mr McAuliffe's face was expressionless as he held out his hand, and Danny let go of any hopes that he might be invited inside.
'Mr McAuliffe,' Danny began, but his voice cracked and came out sounding like a girl's. He cleared his throat, pushed his glasses further up on the bridge of his nose and started again. 'Mr McAuliffe, I've got something for you.'
Mr McAuliffe blinked twice, like he'd just met a complete idiot and was humouring him. He said nothing.
'Um, I'll just get it for you, then.' Danny slipped his bag from his shoulder and sat it by his feet. Then he plunged his right hand deep into his pocket for the medal. He winced as part of the clasp on the ribbon drove straight under his fingernail, but he wasn't going to make any kind of sound. Not now, not in front of this tall frowning man filling the doorway. 'It's just here in my pocket.'
'The VC isin your pocket,' Mr McAuliffe repeated. He wasn't telling Danny where it was, he wasn't even asking. He was simply saying it, as if he couldn't actually believe that someone would just walk around with a hundred-thousand-dollar medal in their pocket.
'I thought it was safer there,' Danny mumbled. 'Nice and close.' He handed the Cross to Mr McAuliffe, who turned it over in his hand a couple of times, making sure it was in one piece.
'Good. Well, then, no harm done.'
Someone called from within the house, and Mr McAuliffe held up one hand to Danny. 'I'll be there in just a minute, love,' he called. His attention returned to Danny, but all he was doing was looking at him blankly. 'That's that then. Goodbye,' he said at last, and he began to close the door.
'I'm really sorry,' Danny blurted out.
The door stopped closing. Mr McAuliffe regarded Danny thoughtfully. 'All right,' he said at last. 'Thank you.'
'I didn't mean to cause any trouble.'
'I know.' Maybe Mr McAuliffe's face had softened a tiny bit — it was hard to tell. 'Thanks for bringing it back. Excuse me, my wife needs me ... She's got a ... Goodbye.' He began to close the door again.
'Where is he now?'
The door stopped, then opened once more. Mr McAuliffe seemed even taller this time, and he took a step out onto the landing. Danny tried to swallow, but there was no spit in his throat, just an awful, rasping dryness.
'You've got some nerve, you know, youngster.' Mr McAuliffe smiled and shook his head. It wasn't a friendly smile, quite the opposite. 'You've got some nerve asking where my father is now, after ... after all that escape nonsense. Did you really think I'd tell you?'
'No, I guess not,' Danny said quietly, all the while cursing himself for even asking. 'I'm sorry. I'll go.'
'After everything that happened you want me to tell you where he is? After I had to move him again because ...' He stopped, shook his head. 'He's being cared for, properly this time, and that's all you need to know.'
'Okay. That's good,' Danny replied. 'Um, could you say hi to him from me?'
'I'll let him know you called. Goodbye.'
'Bye,' Danny said, turning and hurrying down the steps to the driveway. Slow down, be more dignified, he reminded himself crossly. Don't scurry away like a scolded dog.
'You might want your bag.' Danny turned. Mr McAuliffe was standing at the top of the steps holding the school bag out like a dirty nappy, and Danny knew he was going to have to go back up there and get it.
As he reached out for the bag Mr McAuliffe withdrew it, just slightly. 'I'll ask you just once more to stay away from my father. He's very old and rather frail, and he's had enough adventures in his life. More than enough. Do you understand?'
'Yes, sir,' Danny replied, dropping his eyes. 'I understand.'
'Thank you.' Finally the bag was handed over. 'Take care,' Mr McAuliffe said, before turning and going inside, closing the door with a solid click. And then, just like that, Danny was alone again, looking across the quiet leafy street, across the red tiled roofs, across the oak trees to the harbour and the city beyond.CHAPTER 2
Later that evening, Danny and Caleb were talking on the phone. 'So that's it, is it?' Caleb asked.
'Yep, that's it,' said Danny. 'Then the grumpy old bugger closed the door and I came home. End of story.'
'Well, I think that sucks.'
Danny said nothing, just held the phone to his ear and said nothing. What could he say? Even though Caleb always just said whatever was on his mind, this time he was right. It did suck.
'Are you there?'
'Yeah, I'm here.'
'Don't you think it sucks?'
'Yeah, I guess.'
'You guess? I'd be totally spewing if it was me.'
Danny thought about it. Yes, he was totally spewing about it, actually, the more he thought about it. But what was getting angry going to change?
'Look, everyone said I should take it back, so I did,' he explained. 'I didn't want to, though. After all, it was given to me by the person who owned it, so technically it's mine.'
'Exactly,' Caleb agreed. 'At least, it was until you gave it to someone else. Now it's his.'
'So did he offer you a reward or anything?'
'No, I told you, he just said I should stay away from Captain Mack, then he closed the door.'
'Oh.' Caleb sounded disappointed. 'I thought he might have the cops waiting for you or something.'
'The cops?' Danny laughed. 'It's not like I stole it.'
'No. No, of course not. Anyway, I'd better go. I think Dad wants to use the phone. See you at school tomorrow?'
How different this place is now, Danny thought, as he walked through the front gates of the school. Only a few weeks ago he'd wanted nothing more than to run away from St Lawrence's, with its lawns and gardens and uniforms, and the buildings that some of the more nerdy teachers insisted were 'full of tradition'. One of the history masters had even used the word steeped. 'These grand old buildings are steeped in tradition,' he'd said, his chest swelling with pride. Apart from a history master and a National Trust tour guide, who else uses that word, Danny had wondered. Besides, he's from Perth, so why does he feel so proud of a school on the other side of the country, even if, as he says, the buildings are 'steeped in tradition'?
No, this is a different place now, Danny thought, as he walked by the big glass doors of the front office. There was a group of older boys near the steps, and one of them called, 'Hey, it's Dan the Man!' and waved. Danny waved back — in a cool and understated way, naturally — but he didn't say anything.
His legend had grown since he'd had his nose broken while standing up to Shaun Gilmore and Grant Hume, and he felt sure that remaining quietly dignified about it could only add to that legend. He was Dan the Man, the bespectacled hero who'd managed to bring the reign of Gilmore and Hume to a sudden and humiliating end. In a funny sort of way the glasses probably helped his image. Quiet and slightly nerdy, but ready for action. Like Superman, except for the red undies worn on the outside.
He'd always just assumed that he was Shaun's only victim, but since The Expulsion at least five or six boys had taken the time to come up to him and thank him for 'getting rid of Gilmore'. And that was in addition to the boys who nodded, winked, said hi, called his name, offered high-fives, asked him to play footy at recess. However, in keeping with his Superman image, he was always noble in the face of such open adoration. 'It wasn't anything, really,' he'd say with a casual shrug. 'It's easy to fight if you know you're right.'
But despite all that, he still wasn't in any kind of busting hurry to run into Shaun outside of school. In a dark alley, or in an empty park, for example. Or even in the middle of a crowded department store. Plenty of places to hide a body in a soft furnishings section.
There were one or two people who weren't quite so gracious about Danny's role in getting Shaun and Grant booted. He didn't say it straight out, but Mr Whaley hadn't seemed at all happy. And he still wasn't. 'Morning, Mr Snell,' he said as Danny's class streamed into the science lab. 'Feel free to sit anywhere you like — there are one or two empty seats near the back.'
Danny frowned. Was that what his dad would call 'a dig'?
'Ah, no, I think we might separate you two,' Mr Whaley said, as Danny and Caleb both sat down.
'Why, sir?' Caleb asked.
'Why? Would you like me to spell it out?'
Danny sensed that Caleb was about to say, 'Yes, I would, actually,' so he quickly stood and picked up his books.
'Thank you, that's much better,' Mr Whaley said, as Danny shifted to an empty desk a couple of rows back. 'We've got a lot to get through today, so we won't be requiring any distractions.'
But then, later, as Mr Whaley was talking about mineral deposits in sedimentary rocks, it happened again. 'What else might one find deep in these kinds of rocks?' he asked. 'Does anyone know? Anyone at all?'
Danny had his hand up in an instant. He knew this.
Mr Whaley looked around the room, straight past Danny. 'Anyone at all?' he repeated.
Now Danny started waving his hand. He definitely knew this — he'd seen it on the Discovery Channel two days before.
'Yes, Mr Snell, I can see you leaping about like you've got a hornet's nest in your knickerbockers ...' (here he paused for the soft laughter of Year 7 boys) 'but I'd like to give someone else a turn at answering a question.'
Caleb turned his head and raised his eyebrows. Danny hadn't answered a single question yet today.
'Mr Wilson,' Mr Whaley said, turning to a pale, worried-looking boy with very thin red hair and about a million freckles, who was sitting in the front row. 'Do you know the answer?'
Simon Wilson shook his head and muttered something that to Danny sounded a lot like, 'I don't know that, sir.'
'Coal! Yes! Well done, Mr Wilson,' said Mr Whaley, his eyes darting in Danny's direction. 'You can put your hand down now, Mr Snell. Someone else has already given me the correct answer.'
Excerpted from Billy Mack's War by James Roy. Copyright © 2004 James Roy. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Also by James Roy,
Chapter 1 – Danny,
Chapter 2 – Danny,
Chapter 3 – Danny,
Chapter 4 – Danny,
Chapter 5 – Billy,
Chapter 6 – Danny,
Chapter 7 – Billy,
Chapter 8 – Danny,
Chapter 9 – Billy,
Chapter 10 – Billy,
Chapter 11 – Danny,
Chapter 12 – Billy,
Chapter 13 – Danny,
Chapter 14 – Danny,
Chapter 15 – Billy,
Chapter 16 – Danny,
Chapter 17 – Billy,
Chapter 18 – Billy,
Chapter 19 – Billy,
Chapter 20 – Danny,
Chapter 21 – Billy,
Chapter 22 – Danny,
Chapter 23 – Danny,