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.

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Published in August 2017, no. 393

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