A Good Day For A Dog, originally published in 2008, deals with Stephen Melanophy, a professional career criminal. Petty thievery, borstal, meeting serious criminals, graduating to be a trusted drug-smuggler, and now a seven year stretch in HMP Loanend. All he wants is to do his whack and make the best of it until he gets home to his wife and children. But nothing is ever that straightforward in prison. His friendship with a young lifer, Willie, drags him into vendettas on the wings. Carlo Gebler’s insightful portrait of crime and punishment is also a vivid illustration of the unseen violence visited upon souls, confining the minds and hearts more surely and more brutally than any prison sentence. It is also an oblique but devastating commentary on the realities underlying Northern Irish life in the last forty years.
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.
‘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.’
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 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
‘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 hadmade a green stain on the back of his hand.
‘Did you hear me?’
‘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 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.