Jolley Prize 2017 (Shortlisted): 'The Leaching Layer' by Dominic Amerena

My neighbour has been digging a hole in his backyard for the past few days. The hole is quite large now, big enough to fit, say, a single bed, or – it’s hard not to draw the connection – a coffin.

He begins at dawn and works all morning, shovelling the soil and piling it in a neat mound next to the edge of the hole. Our house is on a leafy Footscray backstreet, far from the Princes Highway. My second-floor bedroom looks directly onto the fence between our houses, and I’ve grown accustomed to waking to the sound of soil falling, the martial clang of his spade striking rock, his grunts of exertion.

It’s just past seven on Tuesday morning and I drink my coffee (caustic, instant stuff) watching the back of his head – grey at the temples, bald on the crown – bobbing up and down in the hole. He is rangy and grave in painter’s pants and a flannel shirt. He has the slow, spare movements of a man who is used to physical work, who knows how to avoid tiring himself out.

I really should be writing – of course, of course, of course – but as he digs I read articles online about the heat wave, about bushfires in the east of the state. I read about tram tracks warping, about elderly people expiring in their homes. It’s the hottest summer on record (as was last year, as was the year before), and it’s hard not to feel that the world, in one sense or another, is coming to an end.

I tell my housemates about the neighbour later that evening, sharing cask wine – diabetes in a silver bladder – in the living room, on couches we filched from hard rubbish. There’s a cool southerly, but we have to keep the windows shut so the mosquitoes don’t get in. The internet told me that this is the worst year on record for mosquitoes.

He’s probably just building a pool, Heidi says, refilling her glass. Or a wine cellar. Just another DIY daddy. Heidi hasn’t been home for days and she’s looking wan and photocopied, with a hacking cough from all the smoke in the air. But she’s still moving with a kind of manic energy, nodding her head to the music (‘I Want Your Love’ by Chic). I’m like a shark, I remember her telling me just after she moved in, I have to keep moving to stay alive.

So this hole is what, some kind of penance for our soon-to-be-divorced daddy, Heidi asks? Our fooled-around-with-someone-he-shouldn’t-have daddy. Forgot-to-delete-text-message-history daddy.

Hit-the-bottle-hard daddy, says Rowan. TV-dinners-on-the-sofa daddy. Leaving-voicemails-at-all-hours-of-the-night daddy. They look at me expectantly, waiting for my contribution to our little parlour game. Come on, says Heidi, you’re the writer.

Over the past few days the hole has grown bigger – deeper too. Now my neighbour uses a stepladder to climb in and out. At the bottom of the hole the soil is lighter in colour, and – I can tell even from here – has a looser consistency. The internet tells me that this part of the earth is called the alluvium, or the leaching layer. It’s composed mostly of sand and silt, sapped of the minerals in the topsoil. The word, alluvium, sounds ceremonial to me, vaguely Roman; it reminds me of battlegrounds and blood sports, viscera spilt onto dirt.

I still don’t know what he does with the displaced soil. When he finishes work each evening, there’s a sizeable mound sitting next to the hole. Every morning its edges are scraped clean, like the site of an archaeological dig. The air’s still thick with smoke from the bushfires, and once it gets dark it’s usually pretty hard to see much of anything. There hasn’t been any work all week at the café, and it’s been too hot to venture outside, save for my daily trip to the Little Saigon market to buy vegetables, and if I’m feeling decadent, a tofu bánh mì.

You’re looking a little vampiric babe, Heidi said yesterday, as she passed me in the hallway between our bedrooms. Perhaps you should consider, you know, getting out more.

I’m just trying to stay sun smart, I said. Have you seen how big the hole is next door? She was looking at her phone, her fingers dancing a tarantella across the screen. Please refer to my previous comment, she said, clumping down the stairs.

It’s Tuesday again, or it could be Wednesday and the hole now takes up most of my neighbour’s backyard. The fence between our houses has begun to sag in the middle, and the tea trees at the rear of his property are pitching forward into the hole.

Facebook told me this morning that D’s book is about to be published. It’s called Inferno: Field reports from a country on fire and it’s slated, somewhat ironically perhaps, for release at the end of summer. Beside the cover art (a gauzy image of a bushfire sweeping across grasslands) there is a photo of D, looking straight at the camera, her hair matted against the side of her face.

I took that photo of her in my bedroom two summers ago, on a morning even hotter than this one. We were posing for goofy author headshots, staring sternly into the lens, chins in hands, cigarettes smouldering between our knuckles. We dressed in ridiculous outfits: the artists as early-career academics, as nineties slacker rockers, as health goths. She had just taken a job at The Age, and I was still getting the fortnightly stipend for the Masters that I never completed, and probably never will.

We fucked that morning with wet towels on the mattress and desk fans breathing on our backs, doo-wop blasting full bore to mask the sound. I remember that feeling – which in hindsight probably had a lot to do with the heat – of terrible urgency, of last rites, as if we had both been condemned for some hideous crime. Over the next nine months I used a lot of different words to describe the way we fucked: atavistic, mammalian, deranged. All too rarefied though, too literary. She said it was simple. She said we fucked red.

At that stage, we’d only known each other for a couple of weeks. It was a gossamer time when we seemed to be permanently drunk, when the hours we spent sleeping seemed like the most outrageous waste of time. We swapped books by the writers we loved, and we read them back-to-back-to-back-to-back, like a series of sacred texts. She showed me Myles and Nelson, Savage and Gaitskill; molten, tangled texts about bodies crashing against each other; tectonic writing, close to the core. I was more than a little embarrassed by my DeLillo and Perec, by my Wallace and Lerner. The neutered, preening stuff of smart men wanting to be told that they were smart. Our taste in books could be read as a neat metaphor for our relationship, though I’ve always been suspicious of metaphors.

I’m woken by a crash from next door. Still fuggy from sleep, I pad to the window and look into my neighbour’s yard. It’s just past six and the light is smoky and unresolved, lending the scene a certain nightmarish quality. One of the tea trees is on its side in the hole, its roots exposed obscenely, plumes of dirt rising into the air. Shirt open, my neighbour paces around the trunk, prodding it with his spade as if checking for signs of life. His belly is bigger than I had realised, a downy pouch of pendulous flab. It makes him look vulnerable, marsupial even. I imagine him as a victim of some natural disaster – like the people D spent so much time interviewing last year. He has just returned to his property for the first time since it (the typhoon, the tornado) happened, and this is him, shell-shocked and quietly devastated, picking through the rubble of his previous life, trying to make sense of what happened.

If D had been here she would have leant over the fence weeks ago, called him over with a neighbourly wave, asked him what he was doing. He would have told her about the extensions to the house, the granny flat that he was planning to build. D certainly wouldn’t be doing this – whatever this is – sitting here for hours on end, watching a hole growing bigger.

When my neighbour finishes digging for the day, I begin to read. I read about the deepest hole in the world, drilled into the steppes of north-west Russia. Before it was filled in with concrete, Soviet scientists dangled a microphone down the twelve-kilometre shaft. I’m listening to the sound of the earth, and it sounds – there’s no other way to put it – like a beating heart. I read about the Haidari concentration camp in occupied Athens during World War II. Through a hideous system of trial and error, the SS officers found that the most effective method of breaking the inmates’ spirits was to force them to dig holes and refill them, over and over again.

I’ve been telling myself that all of this reading is research for a story. It would fit within the cycle that I had been writing for my degree; a series of mordant character studies, in the style of the minimalists that I’d weaned myself on as an undergrad. Unnamed couples in outer suburbs, trying to work out precisely why they were so unhappy. The stories contained many a secret addiction, plenty of strained conversations in bed, the occasional death of a beloved pet (in florid detail). Something shocking always happened right at the end, or else the story began in the direct aftermath of a tragic event.

If I was writing about my neighbour this is how it would look:

It begins with the wife and daughter leaving for a month-long holiday to visit relatives in Athens. It’s the daughter’s first time overseas, a present for her sixteenth birthday. The husband couldn’t get time off from his construction job. The wife and daughter call home every day, but over the weeks my neighbour becomes increasingly withdrawn. He answers their questions with mumbles and grunts, if he answers them at all. He makes excuses to get off the line, claiming that he is exhausted from work, that he has been having these terrible headaches.

She knows that something’s wrong as soon as the taxi drops them off out the front of their house. The grass in the front yard is shin-high, the mailbox overflowing with flyers and pamphlets. There’s a phalanx of unwrapped newspapers on the verandah, the paper faded yellow from the sun. Wait here, the wife says to her daughter, her voice assuming an air of quiet command. The house is dim and stale-smelling, the curtains drawn. Oranges are rotting in the fruit bowl; a bin is tipped over in the kitchen. And dust, so much dust, more dust than it seems possible to make in such a short time. She immediately thinks heart attack, she thinks stroke, she steels herself to find his body, face down in the living room or the kitchen or – please god no – hanging from the ceiling. When she hears the sound of him digging out the back, she almost cries with relief.

She stands on the back step, appalled by what she sees. She calls out to him, but my neighbour gives no indication that he hears her. For a minute or two she thinks it’s a game. She claps her hands to get his attention, stamps her feet, totters along the edge of the hole, saying things like, Okay now, show’s over, and, Stop mucking around. Eventually she scrambles down the stepladder into the hole.

The daughter is still on the front verandah, crosslegged on an overturned suitcase, imagining the worst. The suitcase is stuffed with food and presents for her father – a bottle of raki, a pair of leather sandals, a Panathinaikos football jersey (I’ve been googling).

The wife prods her husband in the back, grabs him roughly by the shoulder. Him! The man she’s been married to for half her life, the only man she’s slept in a bed with. This man, who’d peel potatoes at the sink at dinnertime, humming along – horribly out of tune – to his daughter practising piano in the living room. The man who brought his wife breakfast in bed – poached eggs and cucumber and roast tomatoes, a fingerbowl of green olives – every morning for two months when she’d had post-natal depression after their daughter’s birth.

She begins to hit him, but my neighbour continues to dig, oblivious to the fists thudding into his back. Another tea tree barrels into the hole and she falls with it, lies flat on her back incanting his name over and over (what would it be? Alex perhaps, maybe George is better; something softer, innocuous). Without warning he drops the spade, looks down at his wife with sad, sleepy eyes and levers himself to the ground. And that’s how the story would end, with the two of them lying next to each other, the tips of their toes touching the trunk of the tea tree, and the sky blooming pink above them.

Would I write myself into the story of the hole, I wonder, the nosy neighbour, watching everything unfold from his window. I’ve never been particularly good at blending the real with the imagined; I’ve always liked to keep them strictly separate, compartmentalised. But I suppose there’s a first time for everything.

Of course this is only a sketch, but reading over it, the final section doesn’t quite work (if any of it does). All of my fiction has tended to end in a similar fashion: with a darkly opaque moment or image, suggestive of something sinister and unsayable. What exactly that is, is anyone’s guess.

I’ve often wondered why I find myself gravitating towards these scenes of domestic melancholia. Perhaps it’s a reaction to my parents’ three decades of stolid matrimony: their nightly one-and-a-half bottles of red, their Sunday morning cryptic crosswords, their annual holiday to the same camping ground in Port Fairy.

We’ve really done a number on him haven’t we, my dad said, a couple of years ago, after I’d shown my parents a story that had recently been published.

It was about a wife who, over the course of a week or so, is driven (temporarily?) mad by her husband’s incessant snoring, and ends up trying to smother him with a pillow. Though I remember very little of it, I believe it ended with an almost identical image to the story I sketched above; husband and wife lying side by side, in the eye of the storm, not knowing what to say to each other.

I don’t snore do I, my dad had asked. Well, not like that anyway, my mum said. It’s not about you Dad, I said. Well who’s it about then, he was starting to sound perturbed.

I had no idea. The characters I had been creating (and killing off) had very little basis in reality. They were cadged and cribbed from characters I had discovered in other books, blurry composites leached of life.

I’ll put the kettle on, my mother said after some time, taking the journal from the coffee table and sliding it carefully into the bookcase. My father called out after her, Just make sure you wake me up if I’m ever snoring like that.

I am just drifting off when I hear crying through the wall, coming from Heidi’s room. I pull on a kimono (one of D’s old ones that she never picked up) and shuffle down the hall. Heidi’s door is wide open, and she’s propped up in bed, headphones on, wearing a T-shirt and boxers. Her eyes are covered as if she’s playing a game of peekaboo, her body trembling with sobs.

Late one night at the end of last summer, Heidi found me trying to jimmy open the living room window. Apparently I had vomit down the front of my shirt and cuts on my elbows and my house key was nowhere to be found. Apparently I was so drunk that Heidi couldn’t understand anything I was saying. She sat me in the shower with my clothes on.

I had been with D at the Reverence. When she arrived I had been sitting in the beer garden, nursing a Coopers longneck (my fourth) and reading a book that I’d hoped would impress her (The Argonauts perhaps, or something by Claudia Rankine?). It was the first time that we’d seen each other for over two weeks. She had been posted to the newspaper’s rural desk and had been on assignment covering the bushfires. She’d managed to get the Invasion Day long weekend off, but was heading back to the country the following Monday. She was still in her work clothes when she arrived, her hair clipped primly away from her forehead. When she leant in to hug me, I remember her hair smelt faintly of cinders.

It felt like an awkward first date; we talked over the top of each other, or we didn’t talk at all. She told me about the towns she had been visiting, the fire-blackened lunar landscapes. She showed me a photo of a koala with the pads of its paws burnt off. She spoke about the good works of the volunteers from the CFA, the RSL, and the Salvos (I sneered internally when she referred to them as heroes). It’s horrible out there, she said, but I’ve never felt so alive.

She’d been sending me recordings of the interviews she’d conducted with victims of the bushfires. I’d given them a cursory listen, but had always found myself switching them off after a couple of minutes. There was something about the recordings that made me feel uncomfortable, the rawness of those broad, broken voices, the way the syllables sounded like they were being torn at the seams. There was something grossly intimate about them; it was like listening to strangers having sex. They made me jealous of her for the first time in our relationship.

My plan is to collect them into a book, D said, an oral history kind of thing. Have you ever read any Svetlana Alexievich? I shook my head, went to the bar to buy a jug.

It went on like that for another hour or so. She told story after story, and I said very little in reply. We both got progressively wasted. At the end of each of her anecdotes she would pause and wait for me to say something, but I was continuously, embarrassingly, drawing a blank. When the conversation faltered for what felt like the hundredth time, she reached into her bag and produced a printout of a story I’d sent her, the margins crawling with red ink.

It was about a couple whose teenage son had left to Syria to fight with ISIS. A sombre, sexless thing, it comprised of little more than the two of them pottering around their Brisbane home (there tended to be a lot of pottering in my stories), poring over old photo albums and school reports, trying to work out how any of this could have happened. Of course I know next to nothing about parenthood or ISIS. I’ve never even been to Brisbane. Between Wikipedia and Google Street View, I can usually fake my way through most scenarios, but something in this story felt especially confected.

D gave me a thin-lipped smile and began to read. I’ve long deleted the story, so besides a few phrases I have no idea what she said that night. But I remember her chilly smile, the dramatic inflections she used while reading the dialogue, as if she were acting in a pantomime. Mercifully, she stopped after a page or two. It’s just so depressing, she said. Are you aware of that?

Good writing is supposed to depress the comfortable, and comfort the depressed, I replied.

Where did you pick that one up from? She rolled her eyes. I just can’t see any of you in here, she shook the pages like she was wafting away an unpleasant smell.

It was an argument we’d been having in various iterations since we had first gotten together, but tonight was the first time that there was any real venom in it. D felt that fiction was great fun, but that it was basically a distraction, a form of escapism; a system of pretty lies. She thought that fiction was never as interesting as the stories that could be found in real life. I on the other hand thought that journalism was the domain of unimaginative plodders. To me, the desire to interview and record, to construct an exact replica of what really happened, was not only impossible but also tedious.

I bet you’ve never kept a diary, have you, she asked. She didn’t even wait for me to shake my head. I don’t think you’d have any idea what to write in it, she said, you’re completely petrified of real life.

But real life is boring, I said, cutting her off. She waited for me to say something else, but I stared her down until she looked away. We simultaneously drained the rest of our drinks. If you think real life is boring, she said standing up, you need to get out more.

I thought she was going to the bar or the toilet, but after twenty minutes she still hadn’t come back. I stayed in the beer garden until closing time and the next thing I remember is cold water hitting me full in the face and the figure of Heidi looming above me, yawning with one hand, while she hosed me down with the other.

I tiptoe into Heidi’s room, sit at the end of her bed. She tenses up as soon as she feels my weight on the mattress. She still has her hands over her eyes, though I can tell that she’s looking at me through a chink in her fingers. In the half-light of the room, I can make out the words printed on her T-shirt, I BATHE IN MALE TEARS.

I’ll ask her what’s wrong, and she’ll tell me the whole sordid story (drugs, boys/girls, something along those lines). I’ll talk to her about D and our neighbour and the story that I’m planning to write. I’ll walk her through the plot points, workshop the ending with her. I’ll tell her that I write these kind of stories because I’m trying to invent the drama lacking in my own life; that deep down I think people are only interesting when they’re falling apart (though I’ve only ever witnessed it in books, on screens). I’ll tell Heidi that my stories are not unresolved because they’re gesturing towards some deeper meaning, but because, for the most part, I don’t have anything to say. Perhaps I’ll be crying by this point (though probably not). If I am, maybe she’ll let me wipe my eyes with the hem of her shirt, and I’ll make a joke about the slogan written across it.

What’s wrong Heidi, I say, squeezing her foot, do you want to talk about it? She hits me hard in the wrist. Don’t fucking touch me you creep, she hisses. Get out of my room right now or I’ll scream.

The clock beside my bed says 8.37. I listen for the sound of my neighbour (George?) working. I hear cars moving down Nicholson Street, and the sparrows flitting about in the trees behind our house. Feeling strangely apprehensive, I walk to my window and open the blind to find the backyard next door completely empty, save for the hole of course. It now takes up the entire area from the back fence all the way to the concrete path that leads away from the rear of the house. The tea trees are arranged in the middle of the hole, as if in preparation for a funeral pyre (obviously a big no-no in this kind of weather). My neighbour though, is nowhere to be seen.

I stump down to the kitchen, feeling disappointed, and – I have to admit – a little abandoned. So there’s to be no resolution, no dramatic ending, at least none that I’ll be privy to.

I’m in gym shorts and D’s kimono, waiting for the water to boil, when I hear raised voices coming from the front of our house. I slip on a pair of thongs and go outside to find people milling about in the street, in their dressing gowns and pyjama bottoms. They’re holding their hands to their mouths, pointing towards the centre of the suburb and a tower of black smoke billowing into the sky.

Rowan’s out there too, taking photos. Come on man, he says, ushering me over, let’s move in for a closer inspection. He skips along, occasionally stopping to hurry me up. We turn onto Nicholson and there, a few blocks down, is the Little Saigon market on fire. Its façade is a slumped, smouldering wreckage, and there’s a charnel smell in the air. A fireman is drizzling water onto the roof, though by now the blaze seems to be pretty much extinguished.

The police have cordoned off the area at Coward Street. They stand behind the tape shooing away onlookers and saying, Kindly return to your homes, and (really!), This is not a drill. It’s hard not to think that it’s like something from a movie. I wonder if that’s what the police are thinking too; I wonder if they are trying to act the part.

Some of the bystanders (stall owners presumably, or particularly avid shoppers) are huddled together, crying and hugging each other. Everyone else is filming the fire on their phones. I wonder if anyone died, Rowan says, waggling his eyebrows.

Heidi is leaning against a gum tree across the road, smoking a cigarette. I start to approach her, my hands stretched in front of me, as if to say, I come in peace, but she gives me a withering glare, makes her fingers into a crucifix, like she’s warding away evil spirits.

Eventually the crowd begins to disperse. I stay for a while longer, watching the families sitting on curbs, staring stony-faced at the markets. I try to remember the recordings that D sent me last summer, the way that those people described the fire: It was like the world being ripped open, said one. Towers of flame, like the apocalypse. We lost everything that day, everything that we’d worked for, everything we held dear. But I realise that I’m inventing again, that these words are mine, not theirs. I head back home when I feel the back of my neck starting to burn.

Our front door has expanded in the heat, and is jammed fast in the frame. I’m about to walk round the side of the house to get in through the living room window, when I notice that my neighbour’s front door is wide open. I’m not thinking anything when I walk through his front gate, past the thigh-high grass and the mailbox overflowing with flyers. From the front door the house smells wet and earthy, like being underground. After the hallway, the house opens onto a large living room, the same room I had imagined in the story that I drafted yesterday (was it yesterday? last week?): there are the same pale wooden floors and the high ceilings with Victorian cornices; the same claw foot couch upholstered in green velvet. But in this version the room is completely buried in soil. It’s piled almost to the ceiling, over the couch and the coffee table in front of it.

If I keep walking I will come to the kitchen and the door opening onto my neighbour’s backyard. To my left is a white door, with a set of footprints pressed into the soil in front of it. Something tells me he must be in there.

I can feel the weight of the soil, pressing up against the door, and I have to lean hard to get it open a few inches. My leg sinks in up to the knee as I edge into the room. I wonder how long it will take me to find his body, how long I will have to scrabble around on my hands and knees, siphoning through the dirt until I feel an ankle, an ear, his belly.

But in real life my neighbour’s sitting up in bed, one leg folded over the other. He is still in his painter’s pants and flannel shirt, both stained a dusky brown from the dirt. He is looking at me with that sad, sleepy smile I’ve thought so much about. He pats a space on the bed beside him, sending a puff of dirt into the air. Come in, he says, in a voice that sounds nothing like what I’d imagined, I’ve been waiting for you.

Published in August 2017, no. 393

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