'Help Me Harden My Heart' a new story by Dominic Amerena

Dominic Amerena

Dominic Amerena

Dominic Amerena is a writer, editor and researcher from Melbourne. His work has appeared in The Australian, The Age,

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I’m scrubbing the word SCUM off the front door of our house. I wipe so hard that my wrists start to ache, but the red letters remain bold and bright, their edges dripping as if they’re bleeding.

The whipbirds are going mad in the fig tree by the fence, the way they always do before a storm. I turn and look at the dark clouds collecting over the buildings in the CBD. We live on the court up the top of Mount Coot-tha. Our view stretches all the way down through Toowong to the big bend in the Brisbane River, dishwater grey in the gathering gloom.

Inside people are moving around, slamming cupboard doors. I can hear their muffled voices in the living room. I lean my forehead against the door, against the red, dripping letters. The fumes from the turps are making me light-headed. I stay very still and I breathe deeply, again and again, trying to stop myself remembering.

Last night I was standing by our bedroom window, watching the Christmas lights on our neighbour’s roof. I heard Karl sit up in bed and start to sob. Eventually he swung his legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand, but he’d forgotten about his broken foot and crumpled face down on the carpet. He lay still. I thought he’d passed out, but when I crouched down beside him and ran my fingers through his hair I could hear him making this wet, barely there sound, a kind of whimpering, as though his lungs were full of water.

Once I’d gotten him back in bed I tried to feed him the sleeping pills Dr Joyce had prescribed, but he kept coughing them back up. Eventually I crushed the tablets into a longneck and fed it to him in sips between his sobs, the same way I used to feed Seth his formula when he was a toddler.

I’d finally got Karl down when I heard a car pull up out the front of the house. The sound of doors slamming and an engine ticking over. I heard the creak of our front gate and their boots on the path. Their voices were thick with drink as they walked along the verandah. I listened to a can rattling and the paint being sprayed across the door.

I was going to make a dash for the phone in the hallway to call the police, but I just stood there frozen, waiting for them to come through the front door and do whatever they’d come here to do. Looking back on it, I was almost thankful for the fear, I was thankful to not be thinking about him for a few moments. They finished spraying and I heard the sound of their piss hissing on the welcome mat, their voices fading into the night.

I must have got turps in my eyes, because they’re burning. I blink furiously and dab at them with the sleeve of my shirt, fumble the front door open and rush down the hall, making sure not to look into the living room. I make it to the bathroom, turn the sink’s taps on full. It’s only when the water hits my face that I realise I’m just crying again.

The mirror’s still flecked with toothpaste. Seth would always make a terrible mess when he cleaned his teeth. He brushed with incredible force, flicking toothpaste all over the sink and the mirror, the bathroom tiles. He brushed like he was trying to hurt himself, like he was trying to destroy something. The mess he made used to drive me mad, but since he left I haven’t been able to bring myself to clean it.

‘Mrs Kenny.’ It’s one of the agent’s voices, coming from the doorway. I try to block him out, to concentrate on my reflection in the mirror. I notice the search warrant balled in the front pocket of my shirt.

‘Mrs Kenny?’ He says my name like it hurts. ‘We need you.’

I follow him down the hallway towards the living room. His suit’s too hot for the weather and continents of sweat are spreading out from his armpits, from the small of his back.

My son’s teeth are spread out across our coffee table. The agent with the front rower’s neck is sitting on our couch taking photos with one of those big crime scene cameras that you see on the telly. Even though some of them have been sitting there for a decade or so, the teeth are still white, like life hasn’t got to them yet.

‘We’re taking these.’ He says, counting them into an evidence bag. ‘They will be used as evidence –’

‘Can I keep one?’ I say, in a strange, tiny voice.

‘Once the body has been identified the teeth will be returned to you.’

‘One. I only want one. Please let me keep one.’

I’m still saying please, as they usher me over to the couch, shove a glass of water into my hand. They confer in low voices by the living room door, and then one of them approaches me with the evidence bag, holds it open before me like a lucky dip.

‘Just one.’ He gives me a tight-lipped, toothless smile. His partner rams his phone to his ear, walks out the front door.

I put my hand in the bag, run my fingers through his teeth, those brittle little memories. The tooth I choose is an incisor, fine and long, with a pointed tip. I slip it into my bra.

The agent is looking at me like I’ve gone mad as he takes the evidence bag off me. I follow him to the front door. He tells me to expect a call as soon as the remains have been analysed. He tells me that I should know by tonight. Through our bedroom door Karl’s snoring is like water going down a drain. As the agent talks I nod, all the while looking at the words JIHAD SCUM scrawled across our front door.

I’m lying on my side on the living room rug, switching telly stations whenever a news bulletin comes on. Time has operated strangely since Seth left. Sometimes it feels like every second’s being seared into me. Other times whole days will pass without me even noticing. I’ll be sitting at the kitchen table and the light will change outside and I’ll realise that I’ve been there for hours.

The phone rings. I urge myself to pick up, to get it over with, but it clicks over to the answering machine, and there’s Audrey’s voice saying that she’s at the supermarket on her way home from work and asking what groceries I need.

The old recording was Seth saying: ‘We might be in, we might be out, but leave a message and you’ll find out!’ We recorded it when he was just starting Year Nine. Karl was still working in the mines outside Mount Isa, and Seth and I were alone in the house. I wrote the message out for him and begged him to read it into the machine. I suppose I wanted us to sound like a happy family. He read it in his soft, stumbling voice, often pausing between the words. It sounded like he was apologising for something he’d done wrong.

Karl and I erased the message after they started playing it on the news, trying to match it to the hooded figure’s voice on the videos. By that stage Seth had been gone for a week and we already knew he wasn’t coming home.

The press had got hold of the blog he put online after he made it to Syria. They were already coming up with nicknames for him: The Tropical Terrorist. Sicko Seth. The police had taken Seth’s computer, but we managed to get the blog up on the iPad. We read it sitting on the side of the bed, our backs to the window, trying to ignore the journalists milling about in the front yard.

It was full of isms. Terrorism and patriotism and atheism and capitalism. It was full of threats against the kids and teachers at his school. But there were Seth’s spelling errors too, his childlike turns of phrase. He called those hooded men in the desert his best mates, he called them cool and awesome. He said they were the only ones who ‘know what I’m about’.

Last year Seth would sit with us while we were watching the news. When a report came on showing those men firing guns into the air, he’d say things like, ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ or ‘The government is trying to pull the wool over our eyes’. He’d say the words tentatively, like he was feeling how they sounded coming out of his mouth. He’d look at me while he spoke, to see if I was reacting. We thought it was just stuff he’d picked up in Media Studies. We were just glad he was showing an interest. We suggested journalism courses for him to study at uni, once he’d finished school.

When I saw the videos on the news, I knew it was him of course. I recognised his voice immediately: the stuttered starts of his sentences, the way he softened his r’s into w’s. Rhotacism, the speech pathologist called it. Rhotacism, expressive language disorder, anhedonic tendencies. Since Seth was born, Karl and I have become fluent in the language of dysfunction, all those long, cold words trying to classify his sadness.

He was a quiet child, turned in on himself. He went around with a permanently pained expression, as if he was missing a layer of skin. We sent him to counsellors for a while, but none of them seemed to make him any better.

Once Karl got laid off from his job in the mines, we couldn’t afford the therapy. ‘He’s just a late bloomer.’ Karl said. ‘This is probably the best thing for him. He’ll be fine.’

The storm’s mucking with the signal of the TV now, and the screen’s showing a scrambled image from a vacuum cleaner ad with the slogan, ‘For When Life Sucks’. Seth used to help me get the TV working. He was always good with electronics, things with screens and buttons, things he didn’t have to talk to. Sometimes I’d put all the cables in the wrong sockets at the back of the set top box, just so I had an excuse to speak with him.

I go into the bedroom to check on Karl. He’s on his back, staring up at the ceiling with the half-drunk longneck beside the bed. He looks ridiculous with his whippet chest, the big, clunky moon boot. Karl’s always been a runner, but after Seth left, that’s all he did. He’d run down from Chapel Hill across the river and all the way out to Oxley. He’d run through the night, out to Brisbane’s city limits and back, until he got stress fractures in his foot. They got so bad that he couldn’t even stand up. While he ran I cleaned until the house smelt like bleach like nothing, everywhere except Seth’s room.

‘Are you feeling any better?’ I kneel beside him. He just snorts and shuffles onto his side, reaches for the beer. He winces as he takes a sip.

‘How much longer are you going to do this for?’ I ask, taking the bottle from him. ‘You have to get out of bed eventually.’

‘I know.’ He looks up at me and for a few seconds I see the old Karl, the Karl with that full, thrilling laugh and a smile like a lit bulb; the Karl who wouldn’t try to drink himself through this.

‘Were there people here before?’ he asks.

I want to show him the tooth, tell him that it’s finally over, but instead I just kiss him on the head and hand him back the bottle.

‘Don’t worry about it love. It was just more journalists asking about Seth.’ He drains the rest of the beer, closes his eyes. By the time I reach the bedroom door it seems like he’s already asleep.

Seth was an accident. Everyone else called him a miracle. He was born just before my forty-fifth birthday, though Karl and I had stopped trying to conceive years before that. I had restricted fallopian tubes, what one specialist referred to as lazy tubes. We used to joke that they were Catholic tubes, that God tied them in punishment for never tying the knot with Karl. Money was too tight for IVF and Karl didn’t want to raise someone else’s child, so adoption was out. We decided to make do and get on with our lives. When I stopped getting my period I thought that menopause had started early, but then I couldn’t fit into my work uniform and I started craving bacon at all hours of the night.

He was six weeks premature, a knuckle of skin and hair in the incubator. His immune system was so weak I had to wear gloves and a surgical mask when I finally got to hold him. The doctors said it was unlikely he would ever reach a healthy weight, that there could be developmental delays. I nodded along as they spoke, but I wasn’t really listening. I was praying to a god I didn’t believe in that he would survive. Even if he was stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, even if he couldn’t speak to me, even if he didn’t know who I was. I cupped his welt red body in my hands and I prayed.

‘Have you spoken to the police about the door?’ Audrey unloads shopping on the kitchen table. Cans of soup and tinned peaches, a 10kg bag of rice. Food for an apocalypse.

‘Bloody animals. You shouldn’t have to put up with that you know.’

Audrey’s been bringing us groceries to save me from showing my face in town. Her son Jackson was in Seth’s year at school. We met judging the long jump at the boys’ athletics day. I was a good ten years older than most of the other mothers, the only one with liver spots and crook wrists. Some of them mistook me for Mrs Hawkswell, the English teacher who was set to retire at the end of term. One of the mothers even stood in front of me and grilled me about her child’s performance.

Audrey was the only one who bothered with me. We measured the jumps, chatting about our sons’ teachers, their marks, what we wanted them to study at uni. Jackson was top of the class and dead set on engineering. I said that Seth was a whiz on computers, that he was passionate about current affairs. I didn’t tell her that he’d put a padlock on his door, that he never seemed to sleep. I didn’t tell her how worried I was.

While I jotted down the distances of the jumps on a clipboard, Seth was trudging round the track, headphones crammed over his long black hair. The other kids snickered as they bounded past. He clumped along, glaring at the ground, annihilating it with his eyes. I wanted to do something, to reach out, but I knew how it would look, the ancient mother with the daggy sunhat, trying to hug her son.

Now Audrey and I sit across from each other at the kitchen table, both of us looking down at our laps, waiting for the kettle to boil.

‘How are you feeling?’ Audrey says, gripping my hands in hers. I can smell rosewater on her wrists.

I’ve been asked that question so many times: by counsellors and by the journalists who were camped outside our house, by the police even. By Karl, by my second cousin on the phone. The truth is that I don’t know. Dr Joyce says it’s important to try to label my feelings, to give myself permission to grieve, but it seems dishonest to say that I’m feeling fine or bad or sad or empty or numb. Audrey’s hands are still in mine and I have the mad idea to squeeze them, to squeeze them so hard that her fingers break, but I keep my eyes on the table top, use my bitten fingernails to pick at the divots that Seth used to score into the Formica with his knife and fork at dinnertime.

‘Let’s not talk about that.’ I say in that voice which doesn’t sound like mine. ‘Tell me about Jackson’

She gets up and tips the tea leaves into the pot, leaves it to steep. When she sits back down she’s looking at me warily. ‘Jacks is good. He got through all of his exams okay, but he said that Chemistry was tough. He’s heading down to the Gold Coast for Schoolies and then he’s going with his mates on a road trip. We’re trying to get him back for Christmas because Paul’s family is flying in from up north.’ I swim in her voice, her easy, normal words. ‘If you and Karl don’t have any plans you’re welcome to join us, it won’t be anything fancy but –’

‘He told us he was going to Schoolies,’ I say. ‘Seth did. A few months ago he said that he wanted to go with mates to Bali. We were just happy that he had friends, though we’d never met any of them. He seemed, I don’t know, content since the start of this year. He’d cut his hair and the teachers said he’d started paying attention in class. Sometimes he’d even talk to me when he’d get home from school. He just seemed like he was getting better, like he was finally becoming a regular teenager.’

‘But there’s no such thing as a regular teenager.’ Audrey says. ‘You never know what they’re thinking. Sometimes I’ll try to talk to Jackson and he’ll just stare right through me. Sometimes I think “who is this person?” How could you have known?’

‘We bought him the passport. We bought it for him. It was supposed to be a reward if he passed all his exams, but he disappeared before, well, you know all that. The police think that the recruiters gave him the money for the ticket to Turkey.’

‘You can’t blame yourself. It could have happened to anybody.’

Audrey’s nodding along as I talk, head cocked in concern. I imagine her getting home in an hour or so, popping her head into Jackson’s room to make sure he’s had something to eat. I imagine her getting him ready for his trip, making him promise to take plenty of photos, telling him to call her if he needs extra cash, feeling so thankful it wasn’t her son. Momentarily I hate her, I want to throw her out, but I don’t know whether I can bear sitting alone in the house, waiting for the phone to ring.

‘You probably think there were times when Seth hurt animals or something like that,’ I say. ‘But I never noticed any anger in him. It just seemed like he was never really there. I don’t know. Karl and I tried to get through to him, but maybe we were too old.’

At my last session Dr Joyce said I’m in control of my own story. I can choose to interpret this however I want to. It’s my decision how I remember Seth, how I choose to think of him.

I walk over to the fridge, take the laminated newspaper clipping from under the magnet. I bring it over to Audrey. It’s a photo of Karl and I standing at night in front of the fig tree down the side of the house. We’re bathed in a milky light, from the white fairy lights wrapped around the tree’s branches. The caption says, ‘Karl and Clementine Kenny: the King and Queen of Christmas’.

‘We won that silly competition that the local paper runs, you know the one, for best decorations.’

‘Of course.’ Audrey says.

I take the photo from her, hold it up to my face. Karl had come home from Bunnings one day, his car loaded with boxes of fairy lights. Dozens of them, all white.

‘He said we were going to have a white Christmas.’

‘Who did?’ Audrey asks, confused.

Karl would get up on the roof in the mornings and sometimes in the late afternoon when it wasn’t too hot, piling the lights into mounds so they looked like banks of snow. When he turned them on at night, it looked like we were in Europe in the middle of winter.

Seth, who was ten or eleven at the time, spent most of the summer holidays on the computer. One night, I heard him walk out of his bedroom and into the garden. I followed him down the side of the house, tiptoeing so he wouldn’t hear me. He was standing under the branches of the fig tree, looking up into the light, as if in a trance.

‘He looked so peaceful.’ I put the photo down on the table.

‘Who did? Seth? I can’t see him in the photo.’ Audrey, sneaks a look at her watch. ‘Well, Clem it’s getting la– ’

‘Wait. I’m trying to remember.’

When Seth finally noticed me standing there he smiled and said, ‘I’ve never seen snow before.’ We kept the lights up for months after that. Every night when it got dark we’d take our dinner plates and eat on a rug under the tree. Then there was a big storm and the cabling was wrecked. It took Karl a few days to get it working again, and the next time we took Seth out to look he said that the light hurt his eyes.

Audrey doesn’t have any idea what I’m talking about, but I’m seeing things clearly for the first time, I’m seeing that this is the Seth that I should choose to remember.

‘They think they’ve found his body,’ I say. I’m speaking so quietly I can’t hear myself over the rain. I say it again. ‘A bomb blast in a shopping centre. They came this morning for his teeth.’

Maybe I didn’t say anything, because Audrey is yawning and standing up from the table. ‘I better get going Clem, before it starts hailing.’

She pauses for a moment to see if I’m going to say anything, then disappears down the hall. I feel the storm building in my ankles and wrists, the way it always does since my arthritis got worse. How could I feel the weather changing, in my own body, but I didn’t pick up the change in him? Feeling tired, I get up from the table and walk to the back of the house. I haven’t been in his room since the police came for his things, but I lie on his bed. The glow-in-the-dark stars on Seth’s ceiling are dimmer now, but I can still make them out. I count a couple of dozen before they all blur together.

I can hear Audrey’s footfalls coming down the hallway. She’s knocking at the door, pushing it open.

‘There are people outside. Where’s Karl?’ Audrey starts shaking me. ‘Clem. Clem. Get out here quick.’

Light’s shining through the frosted glass panels on the sides of the front door. We rush into the living room, peek through the curtains. The sky’s still dark but our front lawn’s lit up, the grass soupy with mud. The sound of an engine over the rain. I see the outline of a ute and a spotlight on top of the cab shining into the house. Figures jump down from the tray, walk through the front gate. They’re wearing hoodies and sunglasses and they’re carrying golf clubs.

There are thumps on the front door, on the roof, on the outside of the house. Audrey grips my hand like Seth used to when he was young. Something smashes through the window beside us and lands on the coffee table. There are cackles of laughter. I see a smear of red on the broken windowpane. The next one lands on Audrey’s sandals. It’s a cane toad, with a hole in its side from where the golf club went in. Its heart ripples in its chest as it bleeds over Audrey’s toes.

‘Bastards. Call the police, Clem,’ shouts Audrey as she runs for the front door, flecks of glass flying from her hair. I follow in slow motion to the threshold of the door. Outside I can see two figures waiting by the birdbath with buckets in their hands.

‘That’s the mother.’ I recognise his voice from the night before. One of them trips Audrey as she runs past and she skids into the grass. They hoist up the buckets and dump the cane toads over her. They roar like they’re at a football game, as the toads writhe and skip across her hair her face her chest.

‘Not on our fucking watch, you terrorist bitch,’ one of them jeers.

I can’t move from the doorway. I should be running for the phone, or to help my friend, but I just stand here and take Seth’s tooth from my bra, squeeze it as hard as I can.

Seth found the teeth the day before he left. I kept them in a Milo tin at the back of the pantry. When I came home from work he was sitting at the kitchen table in his school uniform, looking disgruntled, the teeth arranged in front of him.

‘I’ve been saving them.’ I smiled and put my hand on his shoulder.

‘But why do you have them?’ He stared at me blankly.

‘Because they’re a part of you.’

‘That’s fucked up.’ He wrenched my hand away, scattering the teeth on the floor. He stared at me from his chair while I crawled across the tiles, counted the teeth back into the tin. Maybe that’s how I should remember him instead, staring down at me with those blank blue eyes. Maybe this will help me harden my heart.

‘Mum?’

The spotlight shuts off and someone jumps down from the cab of the ute, runs over and crouches beside Audrey. The rain’s so heavy it takes me a moment to recognise Jackson, her son, the captain of the rugby team, with his long lean arms and pink cheeks. Frantic, he flicks toads off her, hugs her close to him. He helps her up and ushers her into the ute. The others stand around as if deciding what to do.

‘Come on. Let’s get the fuck out of here.’ Jackson calls from the driver’s seat. They climb in and the ute careens down the street, flicking mud behind it.

I still haven’t moved. I watch the Christmas lights glowing on our neighbour’s roof as they drive away, glance down at my hand. A runnel of blood is trickling down the middle of my palm, from where the tip of Seth’s tooth has pierced the skin.

He swallowed one when he was nine years old. He shook me awake in the middle of the night and told me in a breathless, lisping whisper that he thought the tooth would grow in his tummy, that it would eat him up from the inside. I was just so glad he was telling me what was wrong. I took him into the kitchen and made him a cup of Metamucil. We played Battleship until he could go to the toilet. I reminded him to wipe. I told him that in a few days the tooth would be gone and that seemed to calm him down. I took him back to bed and we counted the glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling until he fell asleep.

The phone starts to ring in the hall. I walk in from the verandah, stand in front of the cradle. I don’t pick it up. Instead I take Seth’s baby tooth, the last part of him that hasn’t been taken from me, and place it in my mouth. I remember when Seth woke me that night, I remember his wild white face swimming in the dark. This is how I choose to remember him. At first the tooth settles in my throat, but after a few swallows I get it down. I rip the phone’s cord out of the socket.

Karl’s stirring in the bed when I get in beside him, put my head on his chest. He’s slept through this whole night, it seems like he’s slept through all of it. I can smell beer and sweaty skin under his leg brace, but I nestle in as close as I can.

‘I thought I heard Seth before?’ He says, still half-asleep. ‘Is everything alright?’

The hailstones sound like teeth chattering on the roof and we lie there, thinking of him, side by side in the eye of the storm.

‘Help Me Harden My Heart’ was commended in the 2016 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.

Published in ABR Fiction

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