The Lies of Sleeping Dogs

By David Gardiner

(This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that
authorship is acknowledged and credited. The copyright remains the property of the author)

Through the little rivulets of water running off his umbrella, Liam Norris watched them lower his father's coffin into the damp Donegal earth. As the priest's muffled blessing came to an end, the pall-bearers, unhitching the ropes from the now invisible handles with just a fraction too much haste, started back up the hill towards the church, followed by the priest with his own large black umbrella, and the two rain-soaked altar-boys who hurried ahead with little pretense of reverence. The mourners, a group of seven or eight rather shabbily-dressed men of his father's generation, ambled over to Liam and Francie and solemnly shook Liam's hand one by one, looking him up and down curiously as they did so, telling him that they were "sorry for his trouble". Liam thanked each of them for coming and for his kind wishes, but in reality all that he felt towards them was a mild unease, mixed with guilt at his own lack of emotion throughout the entire ceremony.

After all, the old man had lived with Liam and his family for the best part of forty years. Surely there should be some sadness, some genuine grief? Perhaps he was merely numb. That was what people often said, that it doesn't hit you until afterwards. But he was pretty sure that that didn't apply to the present case.

When he was honest with himself he had to acknowledge that he and his father had been merely polite to one another during their time in America. There had been no real bond of affection. Connie had liked the old man of course, had been very close to her grandfather, but not Liam and not Ella. Ella hadn't really wanted him there at all, Liam was almost certain - after all, why should she? - but she had never said anything, even in private, and she had treated him with the utmost courtesy. His father's real life had not been lived at home anyway, it had been lived down at the Irish Center, where he spent his days telling stories to all his old cronies and to anybody else who would listen to him, about his life in Ireland as a celebrity and his wonderful boxing career.

The little group who had accompanied the coffin, none of whom Liam really knew, drifted away like the priest and the others, up the wet gravel path towards the gray stone church and the tree-lined road into Ballywellan. Liam paused a moment to let them get out of earshot, then strolled slowly after them, trying to hold the umbrella so that it would protect both himself and the bare-headed Francie by his side. "Thank you, Francie," he said quietly, "I'm really grateful for the way you handled the arrangements at this end. You did a wonderful job."

"Och, that was the least I could do. Sure me an' yer dad were never apart when we were little. We were like brothers. An' you had the hard part anyway. Getting the body over from California."

"Oh, that's quite common now. Lots of Irish Americans want to be buried in the old country. It's no big deal."

"I thought it all went very well," Francie ventured after a pause.

"Did you? ....... No, sorry, I'm not criticizing. It's just that...... I thought the atmosphere was a bit strange."

"Och. I know there weren't that many people walkin' behind the hearse, but Pile hadn't been back in Ballywellan for near forty years. The most of the people he grew up with are already here," he waved his arm across the sea of headstones.

"I wondered if it had anything to do with those two tragedies before we left Ireland. Do you think maybe they see us as.... an unlucky family?"

Francie seized eagerly on this explanation. "Aye! Just so! An unlucky family. That makes people cautious, you know."

The walk through the town had felt like a somber, surreal circus parade. Hundreds of people out to watch the little procession, standing silently at the street corners, or sheltering in doorways and under awnings, hats and caps in hand, perfectly silent, their faces completely unreadable. Net curtains at upper windows discreetly pulled back as they passed. Front doors opening a crack to reveal pale intense faces that followed their progress down the street. The unease in Liam's stomach growing steadily every step of the way.

There had to be more to it than just a silly superstition about an unlucky family. The people of Ballywellan knew something that Liam didn't. There was something in the air that he didn't understand. Whatever it was he was going to get to the bottom of it. Of that he was determined.

They had reached the funeral car now, and the gaunt, top-hatted driver, a figure straight from a Dickens novel, held open the rear door to let them in. "I'll take you back to where you're staying, Sir," he announced quietly to Liam as he climbed into the driving seat.

Liam found himself thinking in camera angles again. Lighting, background music, shots and where the cuts should come. The funeral would have made a marvelous sequence in some low-budget horror film. He often perceived the world as a movie that he was making. It was a habit no longer subject to conscious control.

"Tell me," he asked as they moved off, "why did you decide to bury him so far away from my sister and my mother? Wasn't there any space left in the family plot?"

"Oh, yes Sir. But the thing was, he wanted a totally new headstone, all to himself, so that meant a new plot. And the one next to your mother's, even though it might look like empty ground, is what we call a mature grave. That means that if you dug down there you'd be uncovering old bones in no time at all. And nobody wants to do that. Wouldn't be proper, Sir."

"No, no, of course not. I just wondered."

The headstone. That was another thing Liam didn't really approve of. The old man had done the drawing himself. It was to be a long, low slab of Connemara marble with just the words:

Peter "Pile-Driver" Norris - Undefeated Heavyweight Champion of Ireland

and underneath the dates of his birth and death. Just that. No "sadly missed by..", no "Rest in Peace". It would be more like a boxing trophy than a headstone. But that was what the old man had asked for and Liam wasn't going to make a fuss.

"Say, would you mind if I got out here?" Liam suddenly asked the driver.

"It's raining, Sir," the driver reminded him, pulling in as he spoke.

"That's okay. I feel like a walk. I'll see you back at the hotel later, Francie."

- o -

"So this would have been your bedroom, would it, Mr. Norris?" The old lady gently pushed the door open. "It's my son's room now. He's a sergeant in the Guards in Dublin. Doing very well for himself."

"Delighted to hear it, Mrs. Rowe. Yes, this was my room..... with the little balcony over the stairs. The bed was the other way around then, facing the window...." As he told the old lady about how it had been, he began to feel himself a child again, back in that big untidy bedroom that overlooked the hall. He began to think back to the night that Loretta had walked out the front door, never to return. He could hear the storm again, the rush of the wind and the scraping of the branches against his bedroom window. Then, for the very first time, he remembered something else. He remembered that there had been voices in the hall: raised, agitated voices. Pile and Loretta, arguing. That was very unusual. Pile had often shouted at him, but almost never at his sister. He had heard some of the words, now they came drifting back from some lost recess of his ten-year-old brain. Loretta's voice was high, almost hysterical. "I don't care," she was shouting, "I'm going to see the doctor!", and Pile was thundering back: "I'll see you in Hell first!". It probably didn't mean much of course; Pile often talked like that when he was angry. But Liam was intrigued. What was it all about? Why had Loretta wanted to see the doctor?

His train of thought was interrupted by an insistent query from his hostess.

"I said, did you want to look at the master bedroom, Mr. Norris?" she repeated, the words forcing their way into Liam's thoughts.

"Oh, sorry, I was miles away. No, that will be absolutely fine, Mrs. Rowe. It was very kind of you to let me look around. And thanks for the tea...."

"Och, sure wasn't it little enough, and all the trouble you've been through..... And, it was a great thrill to meet a big Hollywood film producer."

He smiled as he made his way thoughtfully towards the front door, "I'm a director, Mrs. Rowe, I work more in the artistic end. The producer's involvement is more financial and administrative...." he lost interest in explaining himself. "Tell me, Mrs. Rowe - did you live in the town during my father's time?"

"Oh, I did indeed. I knew your family very well. Your mother was a lovely woman, Mr. Norris, a lovely woman."

"Kind of you to say so. Tell me - who would have been the doctor in the town back then?"

"The doctor? Oh, that would have been old Doctor O'Neill in Sheen House. He's retired this long time."

"Dr. O'Neill. Yes, I think I remember that name. Do you have any idea where he went when he retired?"

- o -

Liam stood outside the back door of Dr. Kieran O'Neill's big double garage and hesitated. He could hear someone whistling inside, together with the occasional rattle of some metal object. He knocked. After a brief pause the door was opened by an elderly, thin and fit looking man with longish wispy gray hair and a trim beard. He wore a pair of clean blue overalls and beamed a smile at Liam from behind his owl-like perfectly circular brass-rimmed spectacles.

"My God!" he greeted his guest, "I know you! You're Pile Norris' son, aren't you? The Hollywood picture man?"

"Yes," Liam replied, pleasantly surprised by the immediate recognition, "your wife told me I would find you here. I hope I'm not interrupting anything."

"Interrupting only what was well due for interruption. Come in, come in! Take a...." he looked around at the furniture of the little workshop, the two benches, the storage racks, the power tools, the upturned packing-cases, "seat," he finished at last, motioning to one of the wooden boxes.

As Liam sat down he noticed the project on which the Doctor had been working: upside down on a piece of cloth in the center of the garage, it resembled at first an elaborate odd-shaped antique table, but further examination revealed it to be a beautifully crafted small musical instrument resembling a piano, its internal workings laid bare by the removal of a large painted bottom panel. Beside it, neatly arranged on another piece of cloth, were the tools that the Doctor had been using, for all the world like a row of clean surgical instruments by the side of an operating table.

"It's a virginal from the mid-Elizabethan period," his host explained, "basically sound but in need of some serious restoration.. This is the third one I've done. It's for the Berlin Conservatory. It's going to be played! Imagine that! It's going to come to life again. Now that's something I couldn't do for my human patients. It's beautiful. Isn't it?"

Liam nodded, deeply touched by the old man's reverence for the ancient object.

"That's the best relationship you can have with the past. Pick out the bits that were beautiful and worthwhile, nurture and preserve them, don't dwell on the sordid and the squalid. When I leave this world, which must be fairly soon, I want it to be just that little bit the better for my having visited. That's the only ambition I have left now."

Liam merely nodded again, he could think of nothing to say. Dr. O'Neill closed the door and sat on a box opposite his guest.

"Did my wife offer you anything to drink?"

"No, nothing for me thank you. I just wanted to have a talk with you, if you can spare a few minutes."

The Doctor smiled. "You know, when I was in medical practice I never worked as hard as I do now, but I think I can spare you a little while. What did you want to talk about?"

Liam paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. "Well - you know that my father.... passed away..."

"Oh yes. I heard he was to be buried in Ballywellan. You have my very deepest sympathy."

Liam told the old doctor about the funeral, the odd reaction of the townspeople, his feelings of unease. O'Neill listened without comment or interruption. "It just seemed like all those people were in on a secret that I knew nothing about," he finished. "The way they watched me was almost.. intimidating. Old Mr. Nair - Francie - he was fine, but the others seemed odd. Almost hostile."

"Did you speak to any of them at the funeral?"

"No, not really. Except the old man in the wheelchair, of course. Pedro McLaughlin. The last man my father ever fought. He sent a note to say that he wasn't well enough to come to the ceremony, but he would like to meet me before, at the hotel. His son came along with him to push the chair, and to interpret."

"Pedro didn't have very much speech then?"

"He could only talk in vowels. No consonants. It sounded a bit like Chinese. The son told me what he was saying. He said Pile didn't mean it, that it was okay. He came to issue some kind of forgiveness. Jesus that poor man was in a mess."

"Pile turned his brains into strawberry jam with one punch. Sorry, I didn't mean to be offensive."

"No, please, that's what I've come for. A bit of straight talking. I need to know the truth. Everything. I was only ten when we left Ireland, and I don't remember very much about our life back then. Most of what I know is what Pile has told me. I want to know what really went on: the bits he didn't tell me. I want the truth."

The old Doctor's smile melted away. He clasped his hands together over his tummy and looked Liam straight in the eye. "Truth is very strong medicine," he said quietly, "it should be administered with great caution."

"I really need to know. For myself, and for Connie."

The Doctor did not reply straight away but started to slip out of his overalls, revealing a scuffed pair of brown trousers and an old pullover. "Do you fancy a walk?" he inquired.

- o -

As they strolled along the twisted, overgrown path that threaded its way between the trees by the side of the little river, Dr. O'Neill at last returned to Liam's question. "So now. You want to know all about your family. Or at least all that I know about them. Let me just say that I don't advise it. It's the kind of thing that's much better left in peace. You and your daughter have nothing to gain from raking over Pile Norris' ashes."

"I'll take that chance. Believe me, I won't give up until I find out about it. Whatever it takes."

"Please yourself. A few less secrets for me to carry to the grave. I'll be loaded heavily enough without those particular ones. Where do you want me to begin, then?"

"Right back. When my father started boxing. Did you know him back then?"

"I knew him all his life, more or less. He was a couple of years younger than me. He started boxing - if you can call it that - around about the year I went to Medical School. He was a great big bruiser at seventeen. Looked like Desperate Dan out of the Dandy. He started fighting in a booth at the fairs around Letterkenny and Donegal. You paid half-a-crown to fight him, and if you were still standing after three rounds you got a certificate that you could frame and a five-pound-note. He used to say that nobody ever stayed the three rounds, but it wasn't entirely true. One or two did, not many."

"You mean... he was a fighter in some kind of freak show?"

"He was a fairground booth fighter. There were lots of them back then." He looked at Liam's expression. "Are you sure you want me to go on with this?" he asked gently.

Liam ignored the question. "How come his family allowed him to do that? They had stud farms. They weren't poor. How could they let their son do that?"

Dr. O'Neill scratched his beard. "The Norris family had stud farms," he confirmed, "but Peter wasn't really a Norris. He started to use that name when the fight promoters in Dublin took him on. They were trying to build up his image. His real name was Nair."

"Nair." Liam stopped walking. "That's the same name as that old man. Francie. His friend."

"They were more than just friends. That old fellow Francie Nair, if I'm not mistaken, would have been a full brother to Pile Norris. Mind you, it's hard to remember. The breeding efficiency of the Nairs put the local rabbit population to shame. And they didn't live in conventional family groups. More... extended families."

Liam tried to cover up his shock, tried not to admit to himself how repellant he found the idea that that peculiar old man, with his dreadful clothes and his faint smell of urine, was his full blood uncle.

"Who are they then, these Nairs?"

"Travelers. Tinkers. Well known all around Donegal and Letterkenny. They're decent enough people, the most of them, but they weren't the kind of family that Pile wanted."

"I see. So he disowned them."

"Disowned them. Rejected them. They didn't forgive him for a long time, but judging by what you told me about the funeral, they came to say their last good-byes."

"So that's who all those people were... on the street corners..."

"I would think so. Good of them to come at all, really." He looked around and motioned towards a fallen tree-trunk. "Why don't we sit down?"

They made themselves comfortable. Dr. O'Neill noticed that Liam had grown pale. "Enough truth for one morning," he urged, "or do you want to go further?"

"Further," Liam whispered, "Everything."

"You have to admire Pile in some ways," the doctor continued, "He came from nowhere and he went a very long way. He invented himself, really. Learned to read and write when he was twenty-five years old. Learned to speak grammatically. Got rid of that awful West Donegal tinker accent. Started giving interviews to the Press and getting seen in all the right places. It's the American Dream, isn't it?"

"I suppose it is," Liam agreed doubtfully. "Okay. We're going all the way. There's more, isn't there?"

"All the way? Well... when he married your mother, she was already pregnant with your sister. He was very displeased about that, she didn't fit in with the image he was trying to build-up. He had wanted to marry money, preferably old money, and your mother certainly wasn't that. They got off to a very bad start."

"I can remember arguments. I didn't know what they were about though."

"Do you remember your mother's death?"

"More or less. I can remember the funeral. She died of a fall, didn't she?"

"That's what Pile said."

"You didn't believe him?"

"I assisted the Coroner. We thought the injuries were suspicious, but we didn't say anything. It wouldn't have held up in court."

"What are you saying?" Liam could feel a cold sweat breaking out on the palms of his hands, " That he killed her? That my father murdered my mother?"

"It's only speculation. Manslaughter would be nearer the mark. You did know about your father's temper, didn't you?"

"I knew.... that he could lose control at times... "

"Exactly. That was how he won his fights in the ring. Sheer temper. As soon as his opponent hurt him, Pile would get mad and lash out with a blow that would fell an elephant. That was all he had really, that mad-man's punch. He couldn't box for nuts. He'd never have won anything on points. He used to break bones in his right hand quite regularly, through the bandages and the glove and everything. Now, I think your mother offended Pile in some way and he let fly. Knocked her into eternity. That was what we all thought but there was no way to prove it. I'm telling you this in the strictest confidence, you understand."

Liam nodded, his head reeling. "But, he never hit me," he whispered, "or Loretta,,,, he shouted at us, but he never hit us...."

"Without meaning to sound melodramatic, if he had hit you I don't think you would be here today telling me about it." The Doctor glanced at Liam: he was beginning to look quite ill. "Enough?"

"Is there more?"

Dr. O'Neill hesitated. "Why did you come to see me? I mean, why me in particular?"

Liam had forgotten that part. Now he remembered. He told the Doctor about Loretta's parting words on that fateful night.

"Going to see the doctor," the old man repeated. "I wish to God she had seen me. I think I could have saved her life."

"So, you knew what was wrong with her? What it was all about?"

O'Neill picked up a twig and started poking among the fallen leaves at his feet before he replied. "There were things we didn't bring out into the open at her inquest as well," he said quietly. "For example, at the time of her death, she was about three months pregnant."

"Pregnant?" Liam's face was blank, "I don't think that's possible. She was only fourteen years old. She didn't have a boyfriend..."

"Liam, before your mother's ... accident... she came to talk to me about Loretta. Now, it isn't easy for me to tell you this, but she suspected that Pile Norris was interfering with Loretta. I asked her to bring the child along for examination the following day, after school. Your mother never lived to keep that appointment."

Liam's head was reeling. He was no longer really comprehending what was being said. "But in the year that my mother died," he whispered hoarsely, Loretta would only have been.... twelve years old."

"I'm afraid it happens, Liam. Younger than that sometimes."

Suddenly the churning mass of emotion that was sweeping over Liam resolved itself into a searing anger. "God damn it!! Didn't you feel any responsibility for... for whoever was going to be his next victim?! I let that man baby-sit my daughter! They've been alone together... from the day she was born he's....... How could you do that? How could you say nothing and let me trust that goddamn pervert?!!..." Liam felt like doing exactly what Pile would have done; lashing out and pounding O'Neill's bones into little pieces.

"Now take it easy, Liam. I did everything that I could. I had a word with the Guards, and with the priest, and of course the nuns at Loretta's school. But since we didn't have anything that would stand up in court we had to be discreet. We couldn't just wade in with a vague suspicion of your mother's. It might have been nothing at all. It could even have been malicious. She could have been saying those things to get back at Pile for some grievance."

Liam's initial blind fury was spent. "But you didn't think it was nothing, did you?" he whispered.

"Honestly, Liam, I wasn't sure. The nuns didn't spot any of the usual signs either."

"The usual signs! My God! Just how usual is it for a man to rape his twelve-year-old daughter?!"

"I'm a doctor," O'Neill replied quietly and sadly, "I have had my innocence surgically removed."

Liam waited for his breathing to return to normal before he said anything else. "Loretta's death?" he whispered.

O'Neill hesitated. "You've filled-in one detail that I didn't have before. Here's what I think happened. She left that night in the middle of a howling gale to come and see me. Pile chased after her in a foul temper. In a blind panic, most likely. I think he hit her - either with his fist or just with his open hand. He broke her skull like an egg-shell. She would have died instantly. He threw the body into the sea and walked to the Garda Station and reported her missing. That's what I think happened. I can't prove a word of it. Two days later the body was washed up on the shore at Drumallan."

Liam's voice had almost deserted him. "The wind was supposed to have blown her over the cliff," he rasped.

"That's right. And it has happened once or twice. You can get freak gusts up there on a stormy night. But there was only one impact injury to the girl's head and no abrasions. Anybody who falls over that cliff hits the rocks on the way down, they get torn to pieces. That didn't happen to your sister. Either the wind blew her fifteen or twenty feet out from the cliff so that she missed all the rocks on the way down, or else..." he lowered his voice, "or else Pile Norris held the body up over his head and flung it out to sea with all the power of those great tree-trunk arms of his."

Immediately the scene manifested itself to Liam as a helicopter shot taken from over the sea, just below cliff-top level, lightning bolts and driving rain in the background, the camera tilting down to follow the body as it fell. What a shot! What a bloody brilliant shot! He jumped to his feet and just made it to the relative cover of the nearby bushes before the contents of his stomach discharged themselves on to the yellowing leaf-mold. O'Neill completely ignored the incident, waiting for Liam to return before he continued.

"I know you think we should have said something," he went on quietly, "but we didn't have any proof at all. There was no DNA testing back then, you know. We couldn't have proved that that was Pile Norris' baby she was carrying. We couldn't have proved that he had hit her, even if we could prove that somebody had. It was all circumstantial. All that would have happened would have been a nasty trial, a good year or two for the lawyers and the newspapers, ending no doubt in an acquittal. I think that would have affected your life a bit more than a few dirty looks from the Nairs at Pile's funeral. What would have been the point?"

Liam was silent for a long time. "At least I would have known," he managed to say at last, "I would have had some kind of warning."

"That's true. We had to balance that against the harm it would have done. It was.... a matter of judgment. What we decided to do was to take Pile aside and put the fear of God into him. He knew that if he ever did anything remotely like that again it would all come out. Every bit of it. We made sure that he understood." O'Neill paused. "So - he took you over to America, got a job looking after the horses for one of the big Hollywood studios - the rest is your own life, I don't have to tell it to you."

A few minutes passed in silence, then the two men got up and started to stroll back towards the road. Liam seemed a little unsteady and the old doctor took his arm. "You know," he said, conversationally, "Pile Norris had no right to put that on his gravestone. He wasn't the undefeated heavyweight champion of Ireland. He lost to Pedro McLaughlin on a disqualification, for failing to obey the referee and for throwing an illegal punch. That was the last punch he ever threw as a professional. It mashed-up Pedro McLaughlin's brains. The promoters didn't want to have any more to do with him after that. Neither did the fans. Pedro isn't going to be very pleased when he hears about that gravestone."

- o -

For the first time ever the gleaming chromium-and-glass concourse of Los Angeles International Airport felt cozy and welcoming to Liam. It was a world of shallow commercial crap, but it was his own world and he was comfortable in it.

Ella and Connie were waiting for him, just beyond the customs barrier. They seemed to radiate normality with their beaming smiles and bright, pretty dresses. As soon as he had dragged his cases through, and they had kissed and exchanged a few greetings, Connie wanted to hear all about Pile's funeral. Liam did not reply at once. He looked at her lovely young, expectant eyes and thought for a few moments.

"I wish you could have seen it," he said at last, "the whole county came out to walk behind the hearse. The head of the Irish Boxing Federation was there, and the Minister of Sport. There were people running up to the hearse with flowers and trying to load them on to the hood....." As he warmed to his theme he began to hear the background music, to see the camera angles, the lighting, the dolly shots, the crane shots.....