The Leaching Layer

My neighbour has been digging a hole in his backyard for the past few days. It, the hole, is quite large now; large 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 through the morning, shovelling the soil out 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 fairly accustomed to waking to the sound of him working: soil falling, the martial clang of his spade striking rock, his wet 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.

I call Caroline at the café to see if she needs me to come in. She shouts over the hiss of the coffee machine that it’s looking pretty quiet unfortunately, that she’ll keep me in mind for the Saturday shift.

I’m too wired to go back to bed, so I sit and watch my neighbour. 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 (not that I would really know). Every few minutes he leans his spade against the side of the hole, kneads the knots in the small of his back.

I really should be writing – of course of course of course – but as he digs I read articles online about the heat wave, about the 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 picked up from hard rubbish, surrounded by the detritus of housemates past and present (bike frames and milk crates and a piece of matting which could have once been a prayer rug). There’s a cool southerly, but we have to keep the windows shut so the mosquitoes can’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.

Didn’t there used to be a whole family next door, Rowan asks. If I remember correctly, the daughter was quite the little pianist. ‘Do Re Mi’ and ‘Chopsticks’ round the clock. It would be stretch to say that she showed promise. He pulls at a joint, sinks further into the couch. I give him half an hour before he greens out.

So this hole is what, some kind of penance for our soon-to-be-divorced daddy, Heidi says. 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.

I’ve been living here for two years but I remember very little about our neighbours: the half hour of piano practice every evening, the smell of frying garlic wafting through our living room window. The tinny drizzle of footy commentary on the weekends. I remember the massive Hilux half-parked on the nature strip, so that other cars could squeeze past it; a plastic bag of herbs (basil and thyme and [maybe] oregano) that was left on our front veranda a few days after we moved in. There was a Post-It note stuck to the side saying, Welcome to the neighbourhood from your friends next door. All in all, pretty slim pickings, narratively speaking.

Of course I don’t say anything and by the time I’ve checked back in the conversation has mercifully turned to other topics (asylum seekers and MDMA and the heat the heat the heat).

When we were together, D— – my scrupulous journalist ex-girlfriend – used to say that I was terrible at imagining the lives of others. Now, I can kind of see what she means.

Over the past few days the hole has grown bigger, and deeper too. Now my neighbour uses a stepladder to climb in and out of it. 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 eluvium, or the leaching layer. It’s composed mostly of sand and silt, sapped of the minerals present in the topsoil. The word, eluvium, sounds ceremonial to me, vaguely Roman; it reminds me of battlegrounds and blood sports, viscera spilt onto dirt.

My neighbour has begun to work with a feverish intensity. He hacks at the ground like he’s committing a hate crime, crouched crablike with his nose close to the soil.

I still don’t know what he does with the displaced dirt. When he finishes work each evening, there’s a sizeable mound sitting next to the hole, but in the morning its edges are scraped clean, like the site of an archaeological dig. I suppose that he must ferry it away in the night, though I’ve never been able to catch him in the act. 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. For weeks now, the internet has been recommending that people with respiratory conditions should stay indoors, that they should consider wearing surgical masks.

There hasn’t been any work all week, 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 banh mi.

There’s also the problem of sunscreen. My skin is hyper-pale, with a tendency to turn puce and puckered after only a few minutes outside. Creams and lotions give me horrible rashes, especially the home brand stuff at the Coles on Barkly Street, the only brand that I’ve been able to afford recently. So on days like today (in other words: every day), I’m trapped inside until late afternoon, when the sun is less psychotic.

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. Occasionally my neighbour stops digging for a few moments, levers the spade into the tangle of roots and mashes the blade about, trying to dislodge them.

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 D—, looking straight at the camera, her hair matted against the side of her face.

She took that photo in my bedroom two summers ago, on a morning – this is what it seems like now – 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 90s 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 of our cries. 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. When we swapped the 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 van Neerven; 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 my 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 rather 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 seven 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 and 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 imagined, 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. Maybe he would have babbled something nonsensical, and we could have concluded that he’d gone mad (from grief, from the heat, whatever). 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 northwest 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 a Puritan sect from Montana in the nineteenth-century called the Diviners. They dug thousands of holes across the prairies over the course of a couple of decades, trying to access a portal to hell. When they reached bedrock they flooded the holes with holy water, hoping that it would seep below the leaching layer, down to the devil.

I read about the Haidari concentration camp in occupied Athens during the Second World War. 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, technicolour 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 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, so he’s not joining them. 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 veranda, the paper faded yellow from the sun. Wait here, the wife says to her daughter, her voice assuming an air of quiet command. She opens the front door, walks tentatively down the hall. 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, wrist-slitted in the bathtub. 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; he continues to dig with those measured, maddening strokes. 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, OK now, show’s over, and, Stop mucking around. Eventually she scrambles down the stepladder into the hole.

The daughter is still on the front veranda, cross-legged 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). She’s pinching the skin between her thumb and pointer finger to stop herself from crying.

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 the pieces his daughter would practice 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, after she’d had her first miscarriage.

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 soft sounding, something innocuous). Without warning he drops the spade, looks down at his wife with sad, sleepy eyes. He levers himself to the ground, his hips crackling like kindling. 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. Of course what exactly that is, is anyone’s guess.

I’ve often wondered why I find myself gravitating towards these scenarios of domestic melancholia. Perhaps it’s a reaction to my parents’ three decades of matrimonial bliss: 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 father said, a couple of years ago, after I’d showed my parents a story of mine that had recently been published.

The story 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 that the piece ended with an almost identical image to the story I sketched out above; husband and wife lying side by side, in the eye of the storm, not knowing quite what to say to each other.

I don’t snore do I, my father 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.

Of course I had no idea. The characters I had been creating (and attempting to kill off), had very little basis in reality. They were cadged and cribbed from aspects of the people depicted in the stories I was reading at the time. In effect my characters were ghosts of ghosts, blurry composites completely 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 crying, though Heidi said that I was so drunk that she couldn’t understand anything I was saying. She took me inside and 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 out 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 silent, fire-blackened landscapes (It’s like being on the moon, I remember her saying). 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.

Over the past couple of weeks she’d been sending me recordings of the interviews that she’d conducted with the 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 total strangers make love. 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 Alexeivich? I shook my head, went to the bar to get 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 that 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 words she spoke 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 a fart. I just don’t understand why you would want to write this particularstory.

It was an argument we’d been having in various iterations since we had first gotten together, but tonight was the first time (that I can remember) that there was any real venom in it. D— felt that fiction was great fun, but 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 plodding tradespeople with little-to-no imagination. To me, the desire to interview and record, to construct an exact replica of what really happened, was not only impossible, but also tedious.

Have you ever kept a diary, she asked, you haven’t, have you? 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. 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 halflight 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. She’ll ask me why I write these kind of stories, and I’ll tell her that I’m trying to invent the drama that I perceive to be lacking from my own life; that deep down I think that 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 really 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 St, and the sparrows flitting about in the trees behind our house. Feeling strangely apprehensive I walk to my window, 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. From here the path looks like some kind of infernal diving board, from the knowable world into an abyss, a void (it looks nothing like that of course, I just can’t find the right words to describe it). 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 it – a little abandoned. So there’s to be no resolution, no dramatic ending, at least none that I will 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 out 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. It’s already hot, and I try to stay to the shadowed parts of the pavement.

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 hellish smell in the air: the charnel stench of over-roasted flesh, the simpering odour of liquefied fruit. A fireman in a cherry picker is drizzling water onto the roof – here I’m reminded of the image of Heidi watering me down in the shower – though by now the blaze seems to be pretty much extinguished.

The police have cordoned off the area at Coward St. 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 curb, 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 that 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 skin on the back of my neck starting to simmer.

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 out into a large living room, the same room as I had I imagined in the story that I sketched out 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 that 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, the side of 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 that I’ve thought about so much. He is beckoning me with his hand. Nothing like this has ever happened, I think, as I step towards him.

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.