A Good Day for a Dog - Carlo Gebler

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FIRST HIS MOTHER HAD FIVE GIRLS: then she had two
stillbirths, both boys: and then, finally, at the age of forty-
seven, in the maternity ward in the County Hospital in
Omagh, she gave birth to him. It was 11 February 1957.
He was baptised six weeks later. It was a raw, cold Sunday.
His older sisters, who had come home especially for the
ceremony, shivered in their frocks as they clustered round the
font. He was swaddled in the Melanophy christening robe.
According to family tradition, Poor Clare nuns had made this
when Queen Victoria was on the throne. It was white linen
with an intricate lace breastplate, hem and cuffs.
The priest, Father John, took him in his coarse heavy hands
and leant over the font. Beyond the little diamond-shaped
glass panes of the nearby window, the sky went black. As
Father John intoned, hailstones fell with a whispering sound
on the gravestones and the stony path around St Malachi’s
chapel. They were still falling as the holy water was dashed
on his infant forehead. Father John pronounced his name,
Stephen Gerard Declan Pearse Melanophy. These were all his
father’s names. It had been decided, since Mother probably
wasn’t going to have any more children, to use them all up in
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one go. As it turned out, this was the correct decision: he was
the first, last and only son.
After the service, everyone went back to the family farm in
the townland of Tynvalt. Originally, when his grandfather
built it, this had been a long one-storey peasant’s cottage with
a thatched roof and a variety of farm buildings at the side and
the back. Then, in 1952, with a grant miraculously extracted
from the Stormont administration, the house got a second
storey, new windows, a tiled roof and two extensions tacked
on to the rear, one housing the scullery and the other the
bathroom and the lavatory.
With the dwelling went forty-three acres. In the wetter
places at the field bottoms and along the edges, sharp-
pointed rushes grew. On the dryer higher land Father
fattened cattle and sheep, and there were ten good acres that
produced silage. There was also a small garden where Father
grew potatoes, carrots and cabbage. There were crabapple
trees, too, that produced an abundance of sour fruit for jelly.
The family had turbary rights on a local bog that allowed
them to cut all the turf they needed for burning.
The farm never made money—it wasn’t big enough—so
Father had a job. He was a joiner by trade and from Monday
to Friday he worked for Henry McDowell & Sons, a shop-
fitter in the west of the province. He worked on the farm in
the evenings and at weekends and with the income from the
joinery supplementing the farm, the family got by—just.
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STEPHEN WAS A DELICATE BABY, CHESTY, prone to
coughing and sneezing, and was diagnosed at three as
having asthma. From the age of five, his school reports
described him as pleasant if sometimes dreamy.
     One Saturday afternoon in April 1966, when he was nine,
Father found him in the lounge playing with his plastic
soldiers.
      ‘Come on with me now,’ Father said. He was a powerful
man with long arms and legs, who only shaved on Saturday
night and whose face was covered with grey stubble the rest
of the week. His eyes were dark and blue, and the one on the
left was slightly lower than the one on the right.
     ‘I’m playing.’
     ‘Hatching, you mean.’
     ‘Hatching’ was Father’s special word for staying inside. It
was something Father disliked.
     ‘You need to stretch the legs,’ Father said.
     Stephen didn’t want to go out but that was better than being
told to climb up onto Father’s lap, which he really didn’t like
because of how Father pushed at him and made gurgling
noises and which, as they were alone now, he might as easily
have asked him to do. He followed Father to the scullery.
     ‘Put your boots on.’
He did so and followed Father through the back door.
Outside he found the grey tractor standing near the back
steps. It was an old Ferguson T20. The seat was painted red.
There was no cab.
     ‘Come on,’ Father said. ‘Hop aboard.’ Father hauled
himself up onto the metal seat. It was wide and sprung, and
it bounced with his weight. ‘Don’t dilly-dally.’
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     Stephen clambered up into the link box at the back and
crouched in the gully littered with wisps of straw, slips of
baler twine and empty Special Brew cans. Father engaged the
tractor in gear, rounded the house and rumbled towards
the main road.
     From his place in the link box Stephen stared back at their
house, imagining, as it grew smaller and smaller, that it was
a kite and the unfurling lane was the string and the further he
moved away so the higher in the sky the wind was lifting it.
     Halfway down the lane the tractor lurched sideways onto a
muddy track. The ground was soft and its monstrous wheels
threw mud and stones into the air. Stephen watched the muck
sheeting up and then, when that got boring, he stared at the
huge gorse bushes and imagined they were the upturned
galleons out of a pirate story lying on the ocean floor.
     The tractor stopped. ‘Get down and open the gate,’ Father
shouted.
     He jumped out. In front of him was the stone wall with a
buckled galvanised gate in the middle. He lifted back the
wire keeper and opened it. Father drove through into what
they called Dermot’s Field and stopped. Stephen shut the
gate and got back into the link box.
     The tractor moved slowly up the track. There were sheep
everywhere, with heavy, grey coats snagged with twigs and
bracken stalks. Where were they going, Stephen wondered.
Perhaps they were on their way to see a new lamb?
     Then he had another thought. Perhaps Father had found
an old gun. He knew the IRA hid weapons on the farm in
Grandfather Melanophy’s day in the 1920s and Father had
told him they were still hidden somewhere.
     The engine made a new noise as it started up the steepest
part of the track, a back to front S with treacherous falls on
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either side that ran between two huge boulders. On his right,
Stephen saw the first. Sometimes, on summer days, he would
climb up the spindly ash that grew on the far side and lie on
top of it for hours, watching the clouds in the sky. Then the
second reared up, bigger than the first, and then, once it was
gone, the track straightened out and Father drove on, higher
and higher. Stephen guessed they were going to the
sheephouse at the top where the ewes went to lamb. So, it
wasn’t a gun, as he had hoped, but a new lamb he was going
to see.
     His father stopped the tractor and dragged on the
handbrake. This was a fierce noise, like a chain being pulled
through a tube. Stephen had a real sense of height now. He
could see right down Dermot’s Field to the stone wall and the
gate they’d driven through. He could see what they called the
Lawn and their concrete lane with the cattle grid at one end
and their house at the other.
     ‘Get down,’ Father said.
     He jumped and felt soggy ground beneath him as he
landed. Father got down behind him.
     ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Don’t dilly-dally.’ That was the second
time he’d used the term. What was the rush? Stephen
wondered.
He went round the tractor. The lonely stone sheephouse
with its roof of corrugated iron was in front of him with a
massive gorse bush on the right. To his surprise, instead of
heading for the sheephouse, Father went behind here. He
followed. Perhaps, after all, it was a gun he had been brought
to see.
Behind the bush, he found Father with his flies unbuttoned
and his penis pulled out. It was long and hard, red and
swollen.
He’d never seen it like this before and he was frightened.
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     ‘Now you rub it, son,’ Father said.
     He didn’t want to but this was Father speaking. Father had
a temper—he hit Stephen’s mother too. He wasn’t in a temper
now but he could get into one quickly.
     Stephen took Father’s penis. It was hot and squishy even
though it was hard too. He rubbed it and looked at the sky. It
was filled with great clouds that were black below and white
on top. He could hear the sheep nearby and some were
tearing at the grass with their teeth, making a wrenching
noise, while others were bleating. His father gave a grunt and
there was something warm and sticky all over his hand. He
wiped it off with a dock leaf.
     Father buttoned himself away. ‘Don’t mention this to your
mother,’ he said, ‘not unless you want the toe of my boot up
your hole.’
     Stephen nodded and threw away the dock leaf. It had
made a green stain on the back of his hand.
     ‘Did you hear me?’
     ‘I did.’
     ‘Not a soul.’
     ‘Yes,’ he said.
     ‘No, you mean.’
     ‘No,’ he said.
     After that he had to touch Father’s penis many more times.
Usually this happened behind the sheephouse or in different
fields behind gorse bushes though sometimes he had to do it
in the bathroom at the back of the house. It was always cold
in there and the bleach Mother used to clean the lavatory
always caught at the back of his throat and made him feel as
he did when he cried.
     In his next school report, he was called lazy, obstructive
and uncooperative. Mother was puzzled—something was
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wrong, she was sure of it. Several times she initiated a
conversation but she never got an answer from her son. He
eluded her when she interrogated him. He had an idea she
wanted him to tell her what happened but he wasn’t going to.
He had promised Father and he knew that if he broke his
word the consequences would be terrible.



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ON THE SATURDAY, AFTER HIS TENTH birthday, the man
came to lay poison to kill the rats that ran about the sheds.
Mother went out to talk to him. Stephen went to the press in
the kitchen and opened it. There was her handbag on the
shelf, black and shiny with a yellow brass clasp. He pressed it.
The two interlocked arms at first resisted, then gave way with
a satisfying click. The bag fell open and the smell of Mother’s
perfume rose up to his face, a dense, solid scent distantly
reminiscent of the lilies in the chapel at Easter.
     He reached in and took out her black leather purse. His
mind was still. He had made a decision and now he was
following through and he knew he must not waste time either
with thinking or with considering any doubts he might have
about what he was doing.
     He undid the zipper and the purse fell open, like an
accordion, to reveal three separate pouches: coppers in one
part, small silver coins in the next and big silver in the third.
That was his mother: always organised.
He took a couple of coppers, a sixpence and a florin, which
left some change in each compartment, enough he hoped to
ensure that she wouldn’t notice. He closed the purse, clicked
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the handbag shut and returned it to its place in the press. He
felt calm as he closed the press door, then incredibly cheerful.
He wondered why he’d never thought of doing this before
when it was so easy. A few seconds was all it had taken.
     With his hand in his pocket, holding the money so it didn’t
jingle and betray him, he went out of the back door and down
the steps. Mother and the rat-man were by the door of the turf
shed, talking.
     ‘Just going for a little dander,’ he shouted.
     ‘Where?’ his mother asked.
     ‘Just down the lane and back.’
     ‘Are you going on the road?’ she called.
     ‘I’ll be careful,’ he said.
     He set off. It was a raw spring day. Their concrete lane was
rough and scored with dips and lines, and the water that had
collected in them was frozen and showed white except where
the wheels of the rat-man’s van had broken the ice. The sky
above was full of ragged white cloud with patches of watery
blue behind.
     He walked smartly to the end. Here, the spars of the cattle
grid were dusted with slippery ice. He crossed gingerly,
stepping from beam to beam, until he reached the tarred
road. Walking on, he began to count the telegraph poles.
There were thirty-eight between his lane and his primary
school, St Brigid’s. When he got there he went on and kept on
counting too. He counted a further six, making a total of
forty-four, at which point he reached his destination:
Heggartys’ shop.
     It was set back from the road. There was a greasy forecourt
with a rounded kerosene pump and smaller petrol and diesel
pumps. The shop was clad in corrugated iron and looked like
a toy house, with its centred door and windows on either
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side. The Heggartys’ home, a low building made of stone, lay
behind. As usual, all the curtains inside were pulled shut. The
Heggartys had a reputation for oddness and this was one of
the reasons. Besides running the shop with his old wife,
Samuel Heggarty was the caretaker at St Brigid’s school.
     Stephen opened the door, the overhead bell pinging, and
went inside. The shop was dark and smelled of flour,
molasses and bacon. There was a wooden counter with a
gleaming brass rule behind which old Mrs Heggarty sat on a
high stool. She was a heavy woman with a vast bust who
gave the impression, owing to her size and weight, that she
was sluggish. In fact, she was acute and quick, noticing
everything.
     ‘How’s Stephen?’ she said.
     ‘Fine.’
     ‘What sort of a day is it out there?’
     He shrugged.
     ‘Cold, I’d say. What can we do you for today?’
     He put all the stolen money on the counter.
     ‘Who’s a lucky boy?’
     ‘Me.’ He bought a bar of Fry’s Turkish Delight, a packet of
crisps, and spent the balance on penny chews. He left with
everything in a brown paper bag. He went to the tiny quarry
at the side of his school. A century earlier limestone had been
mined there but now it was abandoned. There were two huge
rocks side by side in the middle of the floor—they were called
‘the oul pair’ locally—and he put himself behind these where
he knew no-one could see him from the road. Then he scoffed
everything, taking care to put the wrappers and papers back
into the bag. On the way home, he threw his rubbish into the
big bin that stood just inside the gates of St Brigid’s.
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     He started counting telegraph poles again but gave up


because thoughts started coming. It was wrong to steal, but
now he had, he expected to feel something—sad or bad. He
did feel something but for a while he wasn’t quite certain
what it was. Then he realised it was regret. He should have
taken more. The crisps had left him feeling thirsty, and if he’d
had another coin or two, he could have bought a fizzy drink.
He was vexed with himself now that he hadn’t.
     He reached home, climbed the steps and went through the
back door into the kitchen. It smelt of spuds, cabbage water
and flour, mixed with the sour ammonia-and-peardrop smell
of the rat-man. He was at the table, drinking tea with Mother.
He had a sharp face. If he’d whiskers and a tail, as Father
often said, he’d have passed for a rat.
Mother looked up. He glanced at her casually. He wanted to see if there was anything about her manner that suggested she knew.
     ‘Did you have a good dander?’ she asked.
     It was her nice voice. No, he thought, she hadn’t noticed.
So, he really should have taken more, shouldn’t he?
     ‘I did,’ he said.
     ‘A boy who likes to walk,’ said the rat-man. ‘That’s as rare nowadays as hens’ teeth.’
     ‘Oh, he’s a good boy,’ Mother said. ‘Do you want some
squash?’ she asked. ‘You must be thirsty.’
     ‘I do.’
She got up and put half an inch of orange squash in a glass
and added water. She gave it to him and he gulped it down.
‘Thirsty boy,’ she said. ‘That must have been some walk.’
He felt a tiny twinge. He had taken money from this kind
woman. Then he remembered what he had bought—the
sticky Turkish Delight, the salt ‘n’ vinegar crisps and the
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penny chews. He re-experienced the pleasure he had known
leaning against the boulder and cramming everything into
his mouth. The twinge vanished ...



4


TWO DAYS LATER HE RAIDED MOTHER’S purse again.
He didn’t take everything because then he would have been
found out.
     The weekend after he did it again. There was less change
than usual, and he could take only enough for a few penny
chews. As he crouched in the quarry behind the big stone and
devoured them, he realised that he needed to find
somewhere else to steal, preferably outside the family.
Heggarty’s shop, from where he had just come, was an
obvious target, but old Mrs Heggarty was always there,
hovering and watching. Then he thought about St Brigid’s,
his school. He could see the buildings from where he was. In
the middle of the morning, if he asked to go to the toilet, he
would have access to the cloakroom and there wouldn’t be
anyone around. It had never occurred to him until this
moment and it seemed an inspired idea.
     The Monday following, just before midday, he put his
hand up.
‘Yes?’ said his teacher, a cross woman with stooped
shoulders called Mrs Hardy.
     ‘Can I go to the toilet?’
     ‘Wait until lunch.’
     ‘I can’t,’ he said.
     ‘Yes, you can.’
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     ‘I can’t, I really can’t.’
     ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, go on but you be sure to come
back as quickly as possible or you’ll be in trouble.’
     ‘Yes, Mrs Hardy ... ’
     He sprinted to the cloakroom and started counting.
     ‘One, two, three, four ... ’ he began, and as he did he patted
the pockets of the coats hanging from the pegs.
     Whenever he felt something interesting he stopped and
searched. By the time he reached a hundred, which was the
point at which he had agreed with himself he would stop and
go back to the classroom, he had found a bar of Cadbury’s
chocolate, a shilling, two halfpennies and a packet of Sweet
Afton cigarettes.
     He swallowed the chocolate, hid the money and the
cigarettes in his coat, then sprinted back to his class.
     ‘You were a long time,’ said Mrs Hardy, as he came in.
‘What kept you?’
‘Number twos,’ he said.
There was laughter from the other children.
‘That’s enough,’ she said, ‘and you’ll do me fifty lines after
lunch. “I must not back-answer Mrs Hardy.”’



5


OVER THE MONTHS THAT FOLLOWED, HE stole from
Mother and he stole from his fellow pupils at St Brigid’s. He
even stole a few coppers from his father’s trouser pockets. No
one appeared to notice what he was doing. He grew bolder,
and as he grew bolder, he grew covetous. At the end of
November, at the Sunday market that straddled the border, to
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which his father would sometimes take him after Mass, he
saw a catapult. The frame was stainless steel with thick
yellow rubber strung between and a pouch for the stone of
soft black leather. The price was a pound and he wanted it.
     The following day, even though there was a whole week to
the next market, he went to Mother’s handbag and took out
her purse.
     In at the back, she kept her supply of Free State notes for
when she shopped over the border. He found two red ten-
shilling notes and a single pound. Which should he take? Such
a large note as the single was apt to be noticed, then again
without the two ten-shilling notes the space might look so bare
that Mother would be alerted to the fact that some of her money
was gone. It did not occur to him to abandon what he was
about to do and try another day when she might have more
notes. He had made up his mind. He must have a pound now.
     He decided that the single was the least risky option. He
took it out and returned the purse to its place in the handbag,
taking care to put it back exactly where he’d found it. Then he
crept upstairs and hid the note under his mattress, after which
he straightened the covers so it would not look to his mother,
if she happened to glance in, as if his bed had been touched.
     At the moment that he took the note, he had been faintly
troubled by having to make a choice, but now that the note
was hidden, he was elated. It was partly the amount he had
taken and it was partly the thought of the gleaming catapult
that would be his. Confidence followed this surge of joy. It
would not be noticed, and even if it were, it would not be
found. How would Mother know where to look? All he had
to do now was wait.
     He had forgotten one thing though. This was November
and Christmas wasn’t far away. The day after he stole her
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money, Mother went to Sligo to do some shopping. In
Murray’s shop, she found a blouse that she thought would be
lovely for Hannah, her eldest. It was silk, white and it would
lift Hannah’s pale complexion, she thought. The price was a
penny less than two pounds.
     She carried the blouse to the counter. Mr Murray loomed
behind. She knew him slightly, having shopped there many
times over the years.
     ‘Mrs Melanophy,’ he said. He was a man in his fifties with
a creased face, and glasses that magnified his eyes, and a
white tape measure hanging round his neck.
‘I’d like this,’ she said, proffering the blouse, ‘but I wonder,
is two pounds your best price?’
     Mr Murray examined the price tag. ‘I’ll knock five
shillings off.’
     Mother nodded. He always gave her a good price.
     ‘I’ve the notes here.’ She tugged her purse out of her
handbag and pulled out the notes. ‘Oh,’ she said.
     There were two red ten-shilling notes in her hand but the
green pound note was missing. A flush spread up her neck
and over her face. Did Mr Murray think this was a ploy, that
she was presenting all she had in the hope he’d let her have
the blouse for that? It was a trick she’d seen others try but she
wouldn’t stoop to that. ‘I could have sworn I had the money,’
she said, ‘but it seems not to be there.
     ‘Will we hold it for you?’ asked Mr Murray. He didn’t seem interested in whether she had the money or not, which
was a relief.
     ‘Will I leave ten shillings?’ she asked.
     ‘Don’t worry Mrs Melanophy.’ He threw the blouse onto the shelf under the counter. ‘It’ll be here when you come
back. Even if it’s Christmas Eve, it won’t go anywhere.’
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     That night, Mother said to Father, ‘Did you take my Free
State money?’
     They were in the kitchen. Father was sitting on one of the
chairs he’d taken out of their old Austin Cambridge and he
was pulling on his water boots. It was dark outside. He had
been home from work for half an hour but she hadn’t been
able to talk to him until now because, as he always did when
he got home, he had spent the first twenty minutes on the
‘throne’, as he called the toilet.
     ‘What would I want your money for?’ he said.
     The chair from the Austin Cambridge was covered with
slippery blue leather and his boots were dull black with a
grimy, textured, cream lining inside. He was on his way out
to fodder the cattle in the byre.
     ‘I have my own money. I don’t need to be taking yours.’
     ‘I know that,’ Mother said carefully. She didn’t want this
escalating into a row. ‘I just thought you might have
borrowed some to pay for something if you were in the
south.’
     ‘Such as what?’
     ‘I don’t know.’
     He got up, stamped one foot and then the other to force his
feet down into the boots.
     ‘You’re a fucking idiot,’ he said. ‘If you don’t know what
I’d have spent it on, you can’t know I’d have taken it, can
you?’
     ‘I suppose,’ she said.
     Her husband went out.
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