The BOOKPRESS May 1999

Bonfire Night


Jon Michaud

 
On a warm July evening just before dusk, Arthur McCree was driving along a narrow road in County Down when he came to a roadblock. It appeared suddenly out of the weaving hedgerow, two green Land Rovers parked aslant on either side of the road, funneling traffic into a narrow channel where soldiers stood with blackened faces and weapons drawn. As he slowed the car, Arthur looked in the tall summer grass beside the road for the gleam of a sniperís visor or gun barrel, but he could see only the thick flaxen stems swaying in the evening breeze. One of the soldiers stepped forward with his hand raised and Arthur brought the car to a complete stop.

"Good evening," said the soldier. "Where are you going tonight?"

Arthur looked at him. He was young and his nose was running, a silver trail leaking across his upper lip.

"Iím going to Ardlough."

"To Ardlough," repeated the soldier, sniffing. "And what business do you have in Ardlough?"

"Iím to attend a funeral."

"A funeral," said the soldier, absently. "May I see some identification?"

Arthur reached into his pocket and drew out his wallet. "There you are," he said.

The soldier sniffed again, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his combat jacket. He inspected the driverís license under the beam of his torch.

"Thereís nothing worse than a summer cold, is there?" said Arthur.

The soldier ignored him. "One moment," he said and walked to the back of the nearest Land Rover where a man wearing a headset was waiting. Two other soldiers moved towards the car, fingers on the triggers of their rifles. One of them sneezed, not raising his hand to cover his mouth. The cold was making the round of the patrol, Arthur thought. He looked across at the hedged bank beside the road, searching again for the helmet of the sniper who must be there, the shiny barrel of his gun. Maybe the sniper is sick as well, he thought, listening for a sniffle or a sneeze in the grass. But there was nothing.

The first soldier returned and handed the driverís license through the window.

"On your way," he said.

Further along the road Arthur came to a town where the Eleventh Night was being celebrated. The streets were filled with people, more people than could be accounted for by the size of the town, as though every farmer, shack-dweller, tinker and itinerant son in the district had come for the night. They stood in groups near pubs with a glass of beer in each hand, talking and taking in the evening, looking skyward for some signal, their expressions guarded but expectant. They were jammed into cars, circus-style, a driver with a cargo of moving limbs and laughing heads, hands at windows, hip flasks and tins of beer held to their lips. They walked along the pavements carrying children and folding chairs and garden furniture and drums and pipes. They wore bowler hats, their umbrellas hooked to their elbows. They were dressed in grey suits with orange sashes, or in their best summer dresses or in bleach-streaked jeans and mod apparel or short black skirts worn without tights, white legs fat and puckered to the kiss of the summer night. Some wore coats safety-pinned with Union Jacks, others carried banners bearing the Red Hand or the white charger or the King of Orange or the Cross of St. George, the material loosely furled in the breezeless evening. Traffic slipped forward in a choppy stutter. Deeper into the town, Arthur passed men laden with bundles of wood, boards, sticks, cords of tinder, two-by-fours and construction materials, as though a house were being transported across town piece by piece. From the backs of cars sections of drywall and gimpy tables and shattered cribs were taken. Finally, he came upon the great pyre itself, a stack of broken furniture, lumber, and oddments piled up in an open space, the assembled debris of the town, ready for a match. The eager crowd was gathering around, their numbers thickening as they waited for darkness to fall.

Beyond the open square the traffic eased. Arthur stopped to let families cross in front of him but soon enough he was free of the congestion and driving along the loughshore where the ferry was docked. On the pier, a burly man sat on a crate reading a newspaper, a barrel-sized dog at his side. Arthur brought his car to a stop and the dog began to bark, lunging forward on its tether, its mouth a giant hand-puppet with teeth.

"Shut up you," said the man, clubbing the animal into silence.

"How much?" asked Arthur cracking open the window.

"Three pound."

Arthur rolled down the window a little further and paid him.

"Looks like yer on yer own tonight," said the man. "Pull all the way up." He slapped the roof of the car.

Arthur drove up the clanking ramp and parked at the forward end of the deck. He could feel the boat rising and falling on the gentle waves of the lough. Ahead of him, above the raised front ramp of the ferry, a view of the plum-colored Mournes appeared and disappeared, appeared and disappeared.

He stepped out of the car. In the distance he could hear the incantory whistle-and-thud of the marching bands practising for the morningís procession. The sound seemed to come from everywhere, to rise out of the water itself with a lapping, tidal repetition. On deck the boat captain appeared from the gloaming, walking towards the pilot-house raised high on the side of the ferry like a watchtower. The old man was thin and bearded, the sparse silver whiskers clinging to his cheeks like cobwebbing. He was biting on a thick brassy key.

"ĎBout ye," he said, taking the key from his mouth and smiling. There was a gap in his teeth, as though his smile was something that had to be unlocked.

"Hello," said Arthur, watching him climb spryly up to his post. A light went on in the pilot house and he could see the movement of the captainís shadow against the yellow glass. He turned away. On the horizon, the dayís last light was ebbing out of the sky and the mountains were slowly merging into the heavens. He had stood here countless times with his father, traveling to and from Belfast, every year the captain getting a little thinner and a little balder. Now the captain was a specter of a man, ghostly. In fact, everything was looking unreal to Arthur, the lights of the town on the water like the lanterns at a Japanese funeral, the dockmanís dog feral and growling on the pier. Suddenly he didnít know how old he was. He couldnít tell whether the sun was coming up or going down, whether he was going home or leaving again, whether the festivities were just beginning or drawing to their close. He put his hand on the warm bonnet of the Ford and tried to feel comforted by it.

In a moment, the deck began to thrum under his feet and this finally brought him back to himself. He saw the dockman on his way to raise the ramp. But before it could be lifted, there came the long peal of a car horn followed by the arrival of a pair of headlights sliding towards the dock along the shore road.

"Shite," said the dockman.

It was a bright crimson Rover, hubcaps shining and lines of light flowing across its gleaming paint. It drove straight up the ramp past the yowling dog and stopped just behind Arthurís Ford. The driverís door opened and a tall, wiry man stepped quickly out.

"Right there," he said.

"Hello," said Arthur.

"Aye," said the dockman approaching the driver. "Three pound."

Paid, the dockman finally raised the ramp and jumped to the pier. He tossed the looped hawser back onto the deck and waved at the captain in his yellow chamber. Sitting down, he unrolled his paper and stroked his dog into silence as the boat drifted away from the dock.

On board, the wiry man came forward and Arthur was able to get a better look at him. He wore his clothes tightly on his frame, combat boots with doublewound laces, drainpipe jeans and a thin blue jumper which stuck to his torso like a peel. His nose was broken and lined in a crooked perpendicular to his thick mustache. The eyes were dark, squelched in under the brows. On the four fingers of one hand he wore rings made from coins, an expensive set of brass knuckles. He seemed familiar: Arthur knew the type at least, a rucky lad. You would have expected him to be standing in front of a bonfire tonight, in the Belvoir Estate or along the Annadale Embankment, his voice full-tilt to the flames.

"I nearly missed yis, didnít I?"

"Yes," said Arthur. "Nearly."

"Pigs," said the man, gesturing back the way he had come.

They were moving. Arthur hadnít noticed at first, but they were gliding along the water, the lights of the jubilant town shrinking behind them. He stepped away from his car, towards the railing; he wanted some distance between himself and the stranger. He looked down at the water. The night was moonless and the surface of the lough was blank and without apparent depth, like a great well above which they were suspended.

"You want a smoke?" asked the man, approaching him.

"No thanks," said Arthur.

The man lit his cigarette and flicked the still-burning match at the water. "Does this take long"

"Youíve never come this way before?"

"No," the man said warily.

"About half an hour."

They leaned for a time on the railing, saying nothing. The man held his cigarette with thumb and forefinger, cupping it against the wind. When the first cigarette had been smoked down to a stub he used it to light another, flicking the spent nub into the water with a twitch of his nostrils. He hawked and spat and his phlegm looked phosphorescent as it arced through the air hitting the water silently like a rising fish. After a time he spoke.

"I thought yis might remember me," he said calmly. "I knowíd yis as soon as I saw yisóthem Jaesus eyes of yours. But I reckon you had a hundred of me in your time and I only had one Mister McCree."

Arthur recognized him now, not the nameónot yetóbut the young face nearly lost under the manís broken bones and whiskers. He remembered the boy this man had been. This happened all the time in Belfast, not a big enough city, not a place to lose yourself or hide from your past. Wherever he went he came across a student who had aged a decade overnight, sprouted a beard and a gut, new inches of flesh on his crown and smudges under the eyes. In some cases he was proud of any part he might have played in growing these men from the boys they had been. But more often than not, the sight of his former pupils filled him with dismay and a sense of futility. They were timeís signposts, progress refused. James Tanahillóthe name appeared like magic in his headówas one of the latter group.

"Tanahill," said Arthur. "I remember you."

"Yícan call me Jamesósince weíre not in the classroom now."

"James, then."

"Aye." He lit another cigarette. "Are you still teaching at old Methody?"

"Yes."

"A good number that, wouldnít you say. Summers off, holidays and all that. I reckon you can probably do it in your sleep now."

"It has its perks," said Arthur.

"Aye."

"And what are you doing with yourself, James?"

"Oh, this and that, you know. Jobís hard to come by. My friends get me work from time to time."

"You seem to have done well for yourself, even so," said Arthur eyeing the Rover.

"Oh that. Itís not mine. I borrowed it. Iíve got some business down in Armagh and I needed a car."

"I see." They were out in the middle of the lough by this time and it was very dark. The lights of Port Glen were some distance behind them and the lights of Castle Rock were still a long way off in front. Arthur looked up at the pilot house and saw the captainís shadow as remote as the distant shores.

"You know, it pains me a wee bit to admit this, but all my life ever since I left your classroom, Iíve been thinking about what you tried to do fer me."

"Is that so?" Despite himself, Arthur was pleased.

"Aye. Iíve still got those two books you lent me. Sorry I never returned them to you like. I didnít even read them either. To this day, Iíve only ever read one book in my lifeóall the way through."

"Whatís that?"

"The Bible."

"Itís a good one," Arthur allowed.

"It was all theyíd give me in Crumlin Road, so I read it. What the fuck, right? Itís not like Iíve read it since I got out but I still think of some of them Bible stories. Would you reckon that counts, thinking about the Bible instead of reading it?"

"Iím not a minister, but Iíd say so. Though I imagine thereís still nothing better than reading it."

"Aye. I appreciate that, I do. And maybe when I get to Armagh Iíll find myself a nice wee bookshop and buy myself a Bible and read it, but for now Iíve still got some of them stories in my head. I think about them. Theyíre a great way of passing the time. Do you know which story I think about the most?"

"Which one?"

"The one about the good samaritan. Do you know that one?"

"Of course."

"Thatís a good story."

"Yes it is," said Arthur.

James stopped sucking on his cigarette and looked at him. "Well, Mr. McCree, I needyis to help me...to be a good samaritan if yílike."

"Of course, James. What can I do?"

"Aye, well. The thing is, I need yer car."

"But you have a car."

"Strictly speaking, I donít."

"Whatís that then?" Arthur pointed at the Rover.

James shook his head. "No," he said.

"But the checkpoint. Surely-"

"I stole it out the car park up at Aldregrove. Some fat bastard on his holsówonít notice it missing for a fortnight."

"I see."

"Trouble is, the carís too good for the likes of me. I knew it, like, but there was nothing but fancy motors in that car park. I could see the soldiers back there wereóthey didnít think I looked like someone who should be driving a Rover. I should be driving something like that." He pointed at Arthurís Ford.

"Iím afraid I canít help you, James."

"Aye. The thing is, Iím not giving yis any choice there Mr. McCree." He lifted his jumper to expose the pommel of a gun in the belt of his trousers.

Arthur felt the tendons in his calves tighten up and buzz. He looked into Jamesí eyes and saw no charity there.

"All settled then?" asked James.

Arthur looked away.

"Thatís right. Weíve still got a few minutes to go, donít we. Weíll just stand here and chat a bit more and when the time comes, you just get in my caróthe keys are in there."

"What about my bags?"

"We havenít time to be messiní with bags."

Arthur leaned his forearms on the railing and looked at the approaching lights of Castle Rock.

"Are you married, James? Do you have any children?"

"Iíve got a wee girl in Belfast."

Arthur was uncertain whether this meant a daughter or a lover.

"I never asked yis where yis was goiní tonight."

"Ardlough," said Arthur.

"Whatís there?"

"Home. My father died."

"Iím sorry to hear that. But at least youíll drive up in style." James smiled at him.

The lights of Castle Rock were rising in front of them now, as if the town were moving and they were still. Arthur could see the streaks of cars along a road. Off to one side, he saw a single flame appear in the darkness and then another and then the sudden immolation of a bonfire. In no time at all, there was a neat mountain of fire with orange rings of spectators circling it like participants in a dance. He half expected the entire town to catch fire.

"Beautiful, isnít it?" said James.

Arthur said nothing. He could see the dock now and another man waiting there, this one without a dog.

"Iíll take yer keys," said James.

Arthur removed a key from his ring and handed it to James.

"Never you fear. Iíll take good care of her. Itís been great seein yis. I hope it wonít be the last time."

Arthur looked up at the pilot house and saw the captain waving to the man on the dock. He heard the Fordís engine come to life and saw his own shadow cast at the dock as the headlights came on. He walked to his car and tapped on the driverís window.

"Aye?" said James, rolling it down.

"The petrol gauge doesnít work. Thereís about half a tank in there now. You should make it to Armagh without any trouble."

"Ta," said James.

The Rover was new and comfortable. It smelled vaguely of cologne and wood shavings. The engine, when he started it, was so quiet that he thought it had stalled. He put his hands on the leather-covered steering wheel and watched the lowering of the ramp and then the tail-lights of his Ford swirling away from him in the night. The dockman was waving him off the boat.

Arthur put his foot to the accelerator and the car jumped forward as though spring-loaded. Before he knew it, he was moving through the town, gliding, weightless on the carís suspension. Like driving a cloud, he thought. Around him, there were bonfires in the gaps, flares of autumn amid the dark foliage of summer. He saw them down sidestreets. Darkness, then the lively piles of orange flame, more darkness and another bonfire. The streets themselves were deserted, lightless. He moved quickly through them and soon found himself alone on the road to Ardlough, driving a stolen car to his fatherís funeral.

Jon Michaud is a writer living in New York. "Bonfire Night" is the first chapter of his almost-completed novel, The Glorious Twelfth.

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