Fiction

The other side of the world

TELL ME A story, the boy said every night. So I did. Every night, a different story. Fairytales, Dr Seuss, favourite picture books. But always he wanted more, as if something was missing. I wouldn't tell him the old stories. The ones that keep you awake in the dark.

 

THE BACK LAWN is a rectangle of green. I clean the spade, sand the handle, sharpen the blade. I choose a spot in the far corner, thump the spade down, feel the blade bite. The ground is harder than I thought – we haven't had much rain lately. I lift the turf, lay it aside in small patches, widen the square of plain dirt.

‘What are you doing?'

My wife of twenty-three years has crept up behind me in her red velvet slippers. I wipe sweat from my forehead.

‘I'm digging a hole.'

‘What for?'

She eyes the dirt, the marred surface of her perfectly mowed lawn. We spent last weekend planting a neat border of mondo grass. Now her garden looks like a gaudy beach umbrella with a brown fringe.

‘I thought I might put in a pond.'

‘Here?'

‘Why not?'

There are lots of things I could say to convince her. I could talk about rocks, pond plants, ground covers, tiny darting goldfish.

‘I suppose...'

She waits and watches.

‘It's getting a bit hot. I'll do some more later.'

I put down the spade and walk inside to get a glass of water. When she has gone, I return and carefully dig up some more grass. After about an hour, I stop. I load the grass clods into a wheelbarrow and put them in the compost.

The lawn now has a neat rectangle of dirt etched into it. It seems about the right size to me.

 

AT DINNER, MY wife seems edgy. She fiddles with her wine glass, turns the music up and down, spreads crumbs on the table and then sweeps them up with her hand. Her rings glint in the candlelight.

 

EVERY SUNDAY I visit my mother. She is in a rest home, one of those almost luxurious residences with thick carpet and lined curtains and central heating to disguise the fact that they are prisons.

My mother is not allowed outside. Not even into the back garden. Once, she climbed the gum tree beside the fence and escaped. They found her in Myer, putting on lipstick from the sample display. Four colours at once, maybe more if they hadn't stopped her. They laughed and said how ‘sprightly' she was. Her carers were hoping I wouldn't sue, and I didn't.

Every Sunday, I sit beside my mother and she asks, ‘Who are you?'

I am tempted to say, ‘I don't know. Who do you think I am?' But I don't. I say, ‘I am your son, Charles.'

‘I don't have a son,' she says. ‘I'm not married. How can I have a son? That would be a sin.'

Sometimes I talk to her about my family, but she doesn't remember them either. She lives in the past somewhere, a place that holds sharp moments, people who are long since dead but still vividly alive to her.

So mostly I listen. I listen to other visitors trying to get their mothers and fathers to talk to them. It seems sad that all those words go to waste.

 

DURING THE WEEK we have normal dinners, my wife and I. We eat at the kitchen table with the small television on. We try to talk.

‘How was work today?' she says.

‘The same as usual. Dobbs is going on long-service leave next week. They've got a replacement in for him. Young man with earrings.'

‘Won't that mean more work for you?'

‘I don't think so.'

She knows that I have been shoved sideways, that I have a managerial job with nothing to manage. On a good day, I finish the crosswords in the newspaper by eleven. I have six more years before retirement. I spend a lot of time wondering why they haven't downsized me.

‘I had lunch with Mary today, then I went to the library and helped out with the book sale.'

I watch my wife's mouth move as she tells her story. She never deviates much from the plot. Someone must have told her that it's safer to stick with familiar details. That way you don't get caught out.

She is still an attractive woman. At business functions, I see other men, old and young, watch her move, smile when she laughs, offer to get her a drink. I stand with my back to the wall. I wait for the moment when her eyes will meet his. I imagine a spark leaping across the room, just for an instant, before they both turn away.

That's how I know who it is she has been sleeping with, making love with, fucking. Everyone else gets her full attention, including me.

 

I CLEAN THE spade again, test the blade. It is time to cut into the earth. I press down on the handle, use my foot to dig deeper, force the spade to carve bricks of dirt.

The hole slowly deepens. Soon it is a trench that widens into a rectangle again.

‘How deep are you going to make it?'

She is there again, a line creasing between her eyebrows. Her mouth is tight.

‘I'm not sure.'

‘You're not planning this very well,' she says.

No, I'm not. But I am doing it very neatly and precisely. Is it possible to be precise without having a plan?

 

I DECIDE TO tell my mother about the hole. She listens intently, nodding. ‘Is it a pond?' she asks.

‘I don't know. Maybe,' I say. I feel a thrill of happiness at her interest, even though she probably thinks I am the gardener at her father's huge columned house.

‘How deep will it be?'

‘I haven't decided yet. I thought I might dig until it seems perfect.'

‘Perfect?' She frowns. ‘Can a hole be perfect?'

I can't answer. I want to say yes but I'm not sure where that would take us.

‘You shouldn't dig a hole for no reason,' she says. ‘Someone might fall into it.'

For a moment I'm angry with her. Then she says, ‘Who are you?' and I laugh.

It is Friday morning. I have just finished the crossword when I'm summoned to the director's office. He is fifteen years younger than me and he has never been able to grow a proper moustache, although he's been trying for as long as I have known him.

His secretary makes us real coffee and I know something is wrong. I know what he is going to say before he says it. All I'm waiting for is the amount of money they will offer to get rid of me. It is larger than I expected but not as much as I'd hoped for.

His face reddens as I sit in silence. I want to say something that he will remember but my mind is blank. Then I think about the hole and suddenly I can't wait to get home and pick up the spade again.

 

I TELL MY wife over a Saturday night dinner of candles, burnt lamb chops and peas.

I've never seen anyone go white before. It makes her eyes darken and glitter, and her mouth thins out to nothing. I realise she is biting the inside of her lips. I think I see a tiny smear of blood.

‘What are you going to do?' she asks. ‘Are you going to find another job at your age?'

‘Probably not.' I think about her Chanel perfume, her designer clothes, her last pair of shoes that cost $800. Maybe she's worried she'll have to buy things at Kmart now. ‘I think we'll be okay financially. I've made good investments, the house is paid off...'

‘But – what will you do all day?' she says wildly.

She's worried that if I'm home she won't be able to see her lover. I smile at her. ‘I have a hole to dig,' I say. I push my plate aside. ‘I think I'll make myself a sandwich and watch TV.'

On the way to the kitchen I turn off her classical music.

 

ON MONDAY MORNING, I don't go to work. I can't endure the last two weeks they offered me. I can do the crossword at home. But after breakfast, I can't wait to get back to the hole.

When I dig deeper, I discover a new layer of earth. Instead of dark, rich brown, this layer is caramel. When I was a boy, we used to joke about digging to the other side of the world, right through the middle.

My wife comes to stare at the hole. Her face is stony but I can't work out if it's the hole or my being at home on a Monday that upsets her most. I take a break for lunch; the house is empty.

When I return to the hole, I realise that it looks like I am digging a grave. I sit by the hole for a while. Maybe my mother is right – a hole should have a purpose, and even if I don't know what it is yet, I know it's not for a coffin or a body.

I widen the hole until it is a square.

 

ONE NIGHT, AFTER a long, stressful day, when the boy asked me to tell him a real story, I gave in. I shouldn't have, but by the time I realised, it was too late.

I told him the story my father told me when I was very young, a story about black creatures who lived under the ground and came up through the drains and slipped into people's houses through their pipes and plugholes. In the story, the people managed to fight off the creatures because only small ones could fit in the pipes. Until one day a man digging a garden accidentally opened up one of their nests. And that was the end of the humans.

The boy had nightmares for weeks, and refused to enter the bathroom or the kitchen unless someone put plugs tightly in all the holes. Finally, I had to tell him a new story, one I made up, about how the humans conquered the creatures with a mix of bleach and water in spray bottles. The boy carried a bottle around for years before he finally threw it away.

 

BY THE NEXT weekend, my wife is almost beside herself. She says she can't bear seeing the ugly mess I have made of her lawn. The angrier she gets, the more patient I become. I am waiting for something, but I'm not sure what.

On Sunday, I visit my mother. I take her two goldfish in a small tank, set it up with filter and plants, and leave fish food with her carers. She is entranced by the fish and sits staring into the tank while I watch her.

‘What are their names?' she asks.

‘They don't have any yet,' I say. ‘I thought you might like to name them.'

‘I think I'll call them Charles and Bernard. I always liked those names. I would have called my children Charles and Bernard, if I'd had any.'

I open my mouth to tell her that she did have two sons, and that she called them Charles and Bernard, but I don't want to upset her. It's the first time she's mentioned Bernard in thirty years.

Maybe her dementia is not such a burden after all.

 

ON MONDAY, THE sun shines brightly and by eleven the whole garden looks full of colour and happiness. Except for my hole. I haven't worked on it for several days. It seemed pointless to go any deeper.

At midday I fetch the small ladder and climb down into the hole. I lie on the bottom, gazing up, seeing nothing but blue. I wonder what to do with the hole. In California there is an underground garden connected by a series of tunnels and rooms, one of which holds a pond with a glass bottom. There is a room under the pond. The man who built the complex used to sit under the pond and watch the fish through the glass.

I think about how to create this in my hole, but it doesn't seem right. I climb out and put the ladder away.

 

MY WIFE HAS left me a note, not on the kitchen table where I might find it immediately, but in the lounge room, under the remote control. I waited until my stomach was grumbling loudly before I heated up some canned tomato soup and made half a dozen pieces of thickly buttered toast. I thought briefly about my wife's lectures on cholesterol and then forgot them again.

When I carry my dinner into the lounge on a tray, there is the note. I don't open it at first. I pour myself some wine, eat my soup and toast, and watch TV. After I've had another glass of wine and tidied up, I open the note and read: I am leaving you. I think you need help. I will be in touch. Alyssa.

She never was very accurate. She has already left; what exactly do I need help with (I'll be able to do the housework now I'm unemployed); and she hasn't been in touch with me for years.

I laugh. Then I go to bed and read several books, dipping into each one, taking turns. I find myself smiling every now and then.

 

THE NEXT DAY, I fill in some of the hole and drive to a garden centre that specialises in ponds and water features. I come home with several hundred dollars' worth of equipment and materials, and a book about ponds and waterfalls.

By the end of the week, I have built a four-foot-high waterfall using a load of rocks, and finished the pond, installing eight large goldfish.

I decide to bring my mother home for a visit. My wife would never allow me to take Mum out. She said it wasn't safe.

 

MY WIFE PHONES and leaves messages on the answering machine. I can't work out whether her tone is apologetic or annoyed. I don't return her calls. Instead I dress in my suit and tie, for the first time in several weeks, and visit my bank manager and then my solicitor.

At night, I read into the small hours then fall asleep and dream vividly of my son. He appears as a boy of about ten, happy and boisterous, playing in the garden with a friend while I watch through the window. I can't hear them, although I know they are shouting and screaming with laughter. I wake with tears on my cheeks.

For the first time, I investigate what my wife has taken with her and what she has left behind. All of her clothes, shoes and jewellery have gone, and when I notice lighter patches on the walls, I realise she has also taken some paintings and photos but I have no idea which ones.

In a cupboard in my study, I find an old framed photograph of Bernard and me, taken after a muddy football game. We are grinning, victorious no doubt, covered in splatters of mud and grass. I hang the photo in the lounge on one of the empty hooks.

 

ON SUNDAY, I bring my mother over for lunch. She doesn't want to leave her fish at first, until I assure her they will be fine and I have some of my own.

When she sees my pond and waterfall, she claps her hands. I fetch a chair and a hat for her and she sits by the pond for half an hour, feeding the fish and watching them dart around.

After lunch, she walks around the house, admiring the furniture. In the lounge room, she stops in front of the photo. I panic. I should have hidden it from her. Then I think that she probably won't know who it is.

But her face shows differently. Tears fall down her cheeks and she whispers, ‘Bernard was such a lovely boy.' She turns to me. ‘What happened to him? Why doesn't he come and see me any more?'

I don't know where to start. I say, ‘He can't, Mum. He's ...' The word won't come. I search around for an alternative. Gone to God? Passed away? Left us?

She leans towards me and brushes a speck off my shirt. ‘How about a cup of tea?' she says. ‘Will the owner mind?'

‘Mind what?'

‘Us being in his nice house. We'd best not stay too long.' And she walks into the kitchen.

‘I'm sure he won't mind,' I say to her back. She just nods.

 

THAT NIGHT I find what I hadn't known I was looking for. The family address book. In it is the address and phone number of my son. He is living in London. The other side of the world.

I wonder if he is married. I might be a grandfather. I pick up the phone and put it down again.

Bernard never was a very good swimmer. He told me once that he was scared of the water, especially at the beach where he couldn't see the bottom. But he was more scared of our father. Otherwise he would never have attempted to swim out to the buoy that day. No boy likes to be called a ‘gutless wimp', least of all by his dad.

I pick up the phone again and dial. It will be breakfast time in London.

 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review