I was turfed in the back with nothing but a toolbox to sit on. There were wee drawers full of screws that rattled as the van went, and it went all right. My da drove like a demon, chucking me left and right through every dip and turn. ‘I need a piss,’ I called, but he couldn’t hear. I stood up, put my mouth to the gap in the chip-wood panel between the front and back and told him I was bursting.
‘You’ve a bottle in there,’ he shouted. ‘Piss in the bottle.’
The two-litre bottle of coke was half-empty and flat, so I stood up and undid my jeans. It was a rigmarole with the van belting round corners and me clawing out for something to hold on to while targeting my purple helmet in the hole and squeezing a drip. Ended up wetting my hand, but still near filled the bottle, the piss going a funny shade of black mixed in with the coke.
We stopped in a narrow lane with trees hanging down. The door slid open, hitting me with glary morning light sore in the eyes. My da was standing in boots and weather-all’s like he was ready to storm a beach. ‘Do you need to go?’ he said.
I said I did and hopped out.
There were more fields, trees cuffing the fields and shabby looking hedges, a house across the way. One of those houses you see in the country with a pointy roof and slab-grey walls. I took myself out of my jeans and thought this is where we’re supposed to be. But I couldn’t see any sheep, not in that field or the one beyond where mist smudged the grass. A breeze tickled. I gave myself a nip.
‘Watch out for them birds,’ Bimbo shouted, twiddling his baby finger at me. He was cooped up in the passenger seat with the door hanging open. The van tilted down with the weight of him. He’d been my da’s mate since before I was* *spat out and he got on like this was something he had over me. My da paced with his phone to his ear, his head tilted as if to hear.
‘We’re on the lane,’ he was saying. ‘We said nine o’clock. If these culchie bastards catch a whiff of us we’re chinned.’
I sat on the ground with my back against a tree and stayed well clear. My da took his rustling seriously. Him and Bimbo were at it flat out every Sunday, and I was forever getting roped in because I stayed with him at the weekends and hadn’t a choice. Sure what else would I be doing? Playing football? Throwing stones at lampposts?
The cow shite was the worst. The stink was everywhere and had me heaving. Bimbo didn’t give a fiddlers. He sat there munching crisps, his greasy fingers burrowing into the bag. ‘Gimme one,’ I said, and he flicked me the finger. ‘Go ahead. Just one.’
I didn’t even want one. I was bored to the bollocks and trying to get a reaction from him. He slapped a handful into his mouth and offered the bag.
‘There’s nothing in it,’ I said.
Bimbo grinned potato-pasted teeth and dropped it to the ground.
‘Magill’s going to meet us farther on,’ my da said, slipping his phone in his pocket and pulling the side door open.
‘Farther on where?’ Bimbo said.
‘Down the road. Get in the back, Gavin. We’re going.’
I stayed where I was. My da wasn’t much taller than me, but he was stocky and strong with shoulders that could charge a bull. He held the door open like he would for a lady, and I could see into the back; the manky floor cluttered with wire coils and carpet and the toolbox I’d spent half the morning wrestling to hold on to. For a mad moment I wanted to fight him.
Few more years, I thought, and patted the dust from my arse.
We met the fella Magill on another lane. There was a jeep parked up with a trailer big enough for horses, and Magill standing by with his country arms crossed. He was big and bald and looked at me with a gammy tilt of the head. ‘I need you to give me a hand,’ my da told me. ‘Bimbo’s back’s playing up.’
Magill swiped gravel with a laced boot and stared.
‘It’s heavy, so be easy,’ my da said, bending down to pull the trailer from the tow bar. ‘Ready?’
I said I was, but the sudden unsteady weight caught me snoozing. My feet slid on the stones and Magill smirked.
‘Wee bit to the left, Gavin. That’s it. Take your time.’
I’d a good grip, but the bar was cutting the hands off me even though my da was taking most of the weight. I could feel it lighter on my side and was mortified. He swung the trailer round like it was nothing.
‘That’s us,’ he said, hooking it to the van. I let go and checked the red lines carved across my palms.
‘No messing about now,’ Magill said. ‘It needs to be done early.’ ‘What time does he leave?’
‘Ten. He does the milk round.’
My da said happy days and they talked prices. The fields around us were hilly. Still it smelled of shite, a wet sludgy smelling shite that stinks your clothes for a week. My da would drop me home that night and my ma would look at me, disgusted, and kick me into the shower. ‘Where’s he had you?’ she’d say, and I’d be tempted to tell.
Magill got into his jeep and farted back down the lane. My da stared. People said we looked like each other. We’d the same dark hair and eyes, and we both raised our eyebrows when we were talking like we were trying to see over glasses neither of us wore. Sometimes my ma would look at me and gasp, and I’d feel an awkward flush of pride.
‘You all right?’ he asked.
Before I could answer, Bimbo stuck his vending machine head out the window. ‘Any chance? There isn’t a sheep in sight and Gavin’s mooching for a tussle, aren’t you, kid?’
We drove along roads that were more like dirt tracks than roads, and it took us half the morning to find the place. By the time we did, my arse was aching from trying to stay on the toolbox without face-planting the floor. We pulled up by a gate on a leaky back road bordered with bushes, and got out.
It was ewes we were after, these ones with black faces staring across the field like burglars in balaclavas. We leaned on the gate with our elbows at our chins. My da was chewing at the bit to get going. ‘We’ll go left round the side of the field,’ he was saying. ‘Cut back across and filter them this way.’
Bimbo spat stringy gobs and joked about throwing a few woolly ones in the back with me. Then it was quiet. We were in the blunt-end of nowhere. The sky domed out and the stillness hung. The farmer’s house was a few fields over. It was a big gaff with two chimneys and windows you could swim in. The car was still in the drive and I wondered how he’d react when he came home to find half his flock gone. The insurance will cover it, my da always said, and that the sheep were being raised for slaughter. If anything we were doing the fluffy friggers a favour, and their dopey-headed faces hadn’t a clue.
My da straightened up. The car was pulling out of the drive. Too far away to hear, some sheep turned their skulls and chewed. ‘That’s us,’ he said.
We broke the lock and opened the gate wide, pulled the trailer round and set the ramp down. There were a few testy baas. One looked at me like I’d dumped in its garden. My da was whispering, ‘there now. Good and slow, lads. Take her easy.’
A big mummy sheep came tearing forward, and stopped. We moved slowly towards them, me and Bimbo fanning to each side while my da spread his arms like a preacher. The sheep started backpedalling. They never knew what to be at when we came for them like this. They bunched up with worried eyes and put me in mind of fish in a tank; when they moved their wool puffed and they could’ve been floating.
‘Easy now,’ my da said.
We had them yards from the gate. They were bumping into each other trying to find a way between us; we closed in fast. They panicked and squealed and made a run for it. Some squeezed between the gate and road while others got halfway up the ramp and took a tumble in the tussle. Black legs buckled like burnt matchsticks and we were there, grabbing muckles of clumpy wool and shoving them in.
We got the trailer closed and locked. The road was clogged with sheep babbling between the hedges. ‘That’s the ticket,’ my da said, while Bimbo held his knees and coughed to catch his breath. I slapped his back.
‘You all right, fat boy?’
He spat between his feet, too puffed out to speak. ‘C’mon,’ my da said. ‘We need to split.’
I held onto the toolbox under me as the bottle of piss-coke rolled across the floor. The rush had me giddy. We had at least twenty, and we were like bandits tearing across the country. It would get even better when we sold the sheep and my da laughed his whooping laugh and slipped me a few quid to keep me sweet. I listened to Bimbo and him bantering in the front and wished I was sitting between them, all three of us buzzing off each other with the sheep in the trailer wondering what the hell had just happened.
Then we stopped. The front doors screeched and closed with a crack. My heart slipped. I tried to open the side door and it was locked. ‘What’s happening?’ I said, and didn’t get an answer. I tried to see into the front and couldn’t make anything out. There were voices, and I imagined my da running one way and Bimbo the other; me left in the van surrounded by silver Skodas. I banged the door.
‘Daddy. Daddy, where are you?’
The door skimmed open. My da looked flustered. ‘I need you to stay here and mind the van,’ he said.
We were parked on a road at the back of the farmer’s house we’d just done over. There was a field between us and it, and the heady musk of hedges hung in the heat. ‘No way,’ I said. ‘I’m not staying here.’
I was scundered red and not for letting him see. He glanced at the ground, then at me hunched under the roof. I hadn’t called him Daddy in years. The guilt was in his gammy face and I felt bad for it.
‘We have to be quick,’ he said, and stepped back to let me out.
We made across the field like mercenaries. The grass squelched and we kept low, dodging the breeze that cupped the field and the trees all around it. Bimbo was panting behind me, and when we got to the bushes and forced our way through the sticky smelling branches, he had to stop.
‘I’m gonna puke.’
We pushed through to the back garden. A gnome was fishing in a pond and there was a swing set by the shed, a football net in front of the stables, and all sorts of dainty looking flowers snuggled up to the house. My da tried the back door and was surprised to find it locked. ‘Look,’ he said, and pointed to the conservatory. One of the windows was hanging open.
He climbed through, knocking an ornament of a woman in a dress to the floor. I glanced back towards the van, but couldn’t see it through the bushes that were smattered with sun. ‘You scared?’ Bimbo said. I told him nah, and he looked at my legs as if he could see them shaking.
The back door opened and my da was there, beaming. In we went, through the kitchen and into the hall. Our footsteps echoed. That’s how big it was. They echoed. The floors were wooden and glossed to a sheen, and a glittery looking chandelier dangled above us.
‘Keep dick, Gavin,’ my da said, pointing to the front room.
Him and Bimbo headed upstairs and I did what I was told. The curtains hung to the floor, and I could see to the end of the driveway and nothing much else. You’d think a farmer would have a humble wee gaff with a sitting room and a fireplace and a few scenic paintings on the walls. Maybe you’d catch a whiff of boots, or dog, but not here. It smelt of leather and dusty picture frames and made me think of a library. The ceiling couldn’t be reached with a brush pole, and there was a piano in the corner by the bookshelves. A music book on the stand was opened at the page of a tune called ‘Für Elise’. It made me uneasy. They were taking ages upstairs. I was about to call up when my da came waltzing into the room, his neck hanging with gold necklaces that blinked in the early morning light simpering through the window. He’d a rucksack full of stuff slung over his shoulder, a paddy cap on his head. ‘What do you reckon?’ he said, puffing his chest out like a man in a portrait. Then he took the hat off and slapped it on me. ‘There you go. Farmer Gavin.’
Bimbo stomped in with another rucksack and they looked around the room,
but nothing tickled their fancy. ‘We need to head on,’ Bimbo said. ‘What about the stables?’
‘Fuck the stables. We’ve enough.’
My da checked the time. He wasn’t ready to give over. ‘Yous two take the stuff back to the van and I’ll meet yis there.’
‘I’ll stay with you,’ I said.
He handed Bimbo his rucksack and I waited on him to say no, but he didn’t. When we got outside, Bimbo lumbered his way towards the bushes and I followed my da to the stables. It was only when we got close that I heard a radio playing classical music. The stables had been divided into pens and there were dogs in each of them; black Labradors that danced on their hind legs and stuck their snouts through the railings for a sniff.
‘No good,’ my da said, then stopped at the last cage and clapped. The dogs loved this and howled. ‘Is there a lead?’ he said, before spotting one hanging by the door and grabbing it.
I didn’t feel right about this. I glanced towards the house, then at the football net in the garden making shadows on the grass. A breeze groomed the flowers and the gnome at the pond was blushing. My da opened the cage and a border collie stepped out, smiling. ‘Look at him,’ he said. ‘He’s a cracker, isn’t he?’
I heard a gentle crunching sound and thought it was the radio. My da was scratching the collie’s chin. ‘This fella’s going to make our job a lot easier,’ he said.
I peeked out of the stable and saw a car mowing across the driveway. ‘Daddy,’ I said, and hated myself.
He heard it too. He straightened up and shushed me. ‘Wait,’ he whispered,* *and stood with his back against the wall to see out. When he looked at me again and saw my face, he nearly choked. ‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘Take it easy.’
He turned away like he couldn’t cope. The dog stood by him and I was raging at his giddiness, and the dog’s happy obedience, and my own humiliating panic. I wanted to lock myself in a cage and pray to God the farmer would feel sorry for me when he found me. My da was in kinks laughing. ‘You’re pale as a plate,’ he said, and covered his mouth with his hand.
The engine knocked off. A woman on the radio was wailing her lungs out.
Tails slapped the ground.
‘Soon as he goes into the house we bolt for the van, right?’ my da said. ‘Right,’ I said, and as soon as the word left my mouth, we heard the gentle
click of a door closing and were away like stink.
The collie bounded between us, its tongue loping out the side of its mouth as we broke through the bushes and into the field. The necklaces were still clattering about my da’s chest as I held the beak of my Paddy cap and hoped the farmer wouldn’t have the sense to look out the window and see us bailing across the bleached grass towards the van where Bimbo had the engine started. I dove into the back and the dog leapt in with me. The door slammed and we hammered up the road the way we came, left onto another road so crooked and rutted the dog was struggling to keep its feet. He looked at the drawers full of screws like he couldn’t understand why they made such a racket. We were tossed up and down and the trailer full of sheep hurdled along behind. I couldn’t see us getting away with it, yet we were. The jittery potholed roads soon gave way to tarmac. We were on the motorway. My da and Bimbo were
giving it stacks in the front while I cuddled the shaky dog between my legs.
I checked its collar. His name was Butch.
We drove for so long Butch boked on the floor and it smelt like something pulled from a hole. I scratched him behind the ear and he tilted his head and sighed. Every time I stopped, he’d nudge my hand with his soppy nose and rest his chin on my thigh. He was always smiling, even while he boked, and kept looking at me like he was mine. I didn’t know how to tell him he wasn’t.
I tried to sleep but my stomach was going bucko. I couldn’t be sick. It would only give my da something else to laugh at. He’d look at Butch’s sick and my sick and chuckle at my luck. So I gulped and breathed. My ma swore by breathing in your nose and out your mouth, and the thought of my ma made me sore.
When we got to where we had to go, my da let me out and I plonked myself on the ground. We were by the sea, and the grass was dusty with sand. The fields sloped down to the water and the water was blue to the horizon. Behind us was a cottage, and beyond that were fields and cattle in the fields. No trees. Barely a bush. Only the road we came from, and the green fields under the sky.
I sat with my legs crossed watching Butch sniffing and pissing every few steps. My da and Bimbo looked into the back of the van and winced at the stink.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Bimbo said. ‘What’d you eat?’
My da got wipes, climbed into the back and started dabbing. I don’t know why him and my ma broke up. I was too young when it happened for anything to be made of it. All my ma ever said was, ‘he’s your da, and I’ll not stop you from seeing him.’ Like it wasn’t up to her. Even when he forgot to pick me up from school and I had to sit at the gates with a teacher I could tell was mooching to get home. Or when he ditched me in his flat until stupid o’clock in the morning, then came wailing in the door with a woman in heels that scraped the floor.
He dropped the sick-stained wipes out onto the grass. Bimbo stood by chewing a straw from a carton of juice he’d guzzled just before. ‘Some craic that was,’ he said. ‘Never seen your da run so fast in my life.’
My da was on his knees in the back of the van, face still pinched with the smell. He told Bimbo to go see the fella down the road. The bald fella who gave us the trailer. Magill. He was leaning with his back against a gate, watching us. Bimbo went on his way. Butch followed with a curious wiggle, and my da was stuck with me. An uncertain bleat quavered from the trailer. My da went to the passenger side door and got some air freshener, sprayed it in the back and stuck his head in to make sure the sickly smell was gone. Then he trudged round to the driver’s seat and hoked about for something. When he came back, he stood with his hands buttered to his pockets like he didn’t know what to do.
‘So do you like the dog?’ he said.
I said I did, and he asked me what I wanted to call it. ‘His name’s Butch,’ I said. ‘He’s got a collar.’
‘Sure that doesn’t matter. You can call him anything you want.’
‘You can’t just change his name. That’s not how it works.’
‘But he’s your dog now.’
‘No he’s not. He’s not coming home with me, is he?’
I sounded more dramatic than I’d meant to, but stealing sheep was one thing, this was someone’s dog. My da took a step back. He hadn’t a clue how we’d gotten onto this. Neither had I, yet it seemed more important than anything.
‘Your ma wouldn’t have a dog,’ he said, like she was to blame. ‘But sure you’ll see it at the weekends, won’t you?’
‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’
His face softened and he bent down beside me. ‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry. Sure you can come stay with me on a Friday and I’ll drop you home on the Sunday morning. That would work all right, wouldn’t it?’
I shrugged and said it would, not knowing how to say what I was trying to say.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he said. ‘I’ll be gutted not having you with me. You’re good at the rustling. But if it’s not what you want to do it’s okay. We can work round it.’
I knew he was trying to make everything better, but I felt like I was taking a weight off his shoulders. Bimbo called out. He was coming up the road with Butch strutting by his side like his work for the day was done. My da straightened up. ‘That’s us,’ he said. ‘Come on. We did good. A wee smile would go down a treat.’
He poked me in the ribs, playfully pulled the Paddy cap down to my eyebrows. I slapped his hand away. ‘Stop it,’ I said.
I hit his hand with more force than I meant to and he looked hurt, then torn, like he couldn’t decide if he should shout at me, or apologise.
Instead, he left me sitting there and went back to the van. Him and Bimbo got in. Butch ran alongside them trying to chew the wheels as they reversed down the road. There was nothing else to look at. The land was flat and green and quiet. It was no different from anywhere I’d seen before, yet I felt weirdly alone. I watched them climb out of the van and say a few words to Magill. Butch was put on his lead and the trailer doors pulled open.
For a second, I thought the trailer was empty and that the sheep had disappeared. I could imagine my da’s face paling and Bimbo’s stupid mouth falling open, them both turning to me like I had something to do with it. I wished that I had. I could’ve left the trailer open and let the sheep tumble out as we made our escape down the motorway. They’d bounce between cars like fleecy pinballs causing all sorts of havoc as my da drove on, clueless.
But the sheep hadn’t gone anywhere. Out they came with their coats all scraggly, hobbling down the ramp and across the field on woozy legs. I could hear my da’s voice. He was on his tiptoes pointing things out to Magill. He patted Bimbo on the shoulder like he couldn’t have done this without him, and I made up my mind. I didn’t want to see him anymore. The next weekend he phoned, I’d tell my ma I didn’t want to speak to him. I’d tell her the same thing the weekend after and the weekend after that until he stopped calling and I didn’t have to listen to him at all.
When the sheep were in the field and the gate was locked, the van came hankering up the road to get me. The windscreen was glazed white in the brightness, and I could just about make out the shape of my da at the wheel and Bimbo stuffed into the passenger seat. Then I saw a little head; Butch squeezed between them squinting in the sun. The horn beeped. ‘Hurry up,’ Bimbo said, but I wasn’t for moving. He said something to my da and my da got out and came round the front of the van. His face was dripping. He wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his arm and pulled the side door open.
‘Have you coke left? I’m choking for a drink.’
‘Behind the toolbox,’ I told him, and he knelt in and lifted the bottle that had darkened in colour and cooled in the shade. He looked at me as he unscrewed the lid. Bimbo watched, and Butch sat on his lap and watched with him. I stayed where I was. The breeze lapped my ears. Somewhere at the other side of the road, a ewe bleated. My da held the bottle to his lips, expecting me to stand up. I could smell the sea. It smelt like piss.