2017 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition Runner Up

Runner-up   'The Hole' - by Regan Drew Barsdell




I hear movement and glance up, but it’s just a fantail dancing in the branches of an old kamahi. I lean into the shovel, wipe the sweat from my forehead and the sun lights up the tiny droplets of toil riding my forearm hairs. Shit, look how deep that handle sinks into my gut. They say that grief adds pounds, but I'm pretty sure it's the bachelor’s diet of oven chips and two-dollar pies.

Never had the patience for cooking. The boy took it over when Sharon left, pretty good at it too. Leaves me a plate in the fridge: half a tajine, a portion of meat-free shepherd's pie, maybe a pumpkin curry.


Ok, let’s dip the spade in and see how deep we've got. Mmm, needs to be maybe a foot deeper. Gotta bury your sorrow deep enough that you aren't tempted to dig it back up again.


Leaning over the hole I think about the other six families who've been doing the same thing, pitching their misery and regret into the earth. All those displaced souls standing in their backyards, beside unridden skateboards, untouched bikes, collapsed scooters. Looking up at the bright sun and wondering why they can’t feel its warmth.


Maybe some of them have vowed to ease up on the blame game, but I know it ain’t easy. Blame is like bad advice or a freshly carved Christmas ham, once you start dishing it out it’s hard to stop. You start off singling out individuals, but pretty soon you're spreading it far and wide: the school, the police, the Government. And then while you're going wide why not blame America? They've been popularising this sort of shit for generations now, serial killers, terrorism. And now High School shootings.


Eventually you realise that trying to shift blame to another nation, to another generation, to the things you can’t control, that’s shortcut thinking. Really, the only blame you've got the right to deal out is your own.


I'm almost down another foot or so, but I'm fetching a scolding. Three distinguished looking tuis are perched above me, black suited preachers in white collars, speaking in tongues. Reckon a cluster of them's gotta be named an inquisition. There's a pause in their interrogation, and within the silence I guess emotion overwhelms intent.


The simple truth is, we all knew those two dark souls would spawn something like this. Between them they tick every box on the psychopath checklist. Everyone knows the Spencer kid skinned the Peterson's shih tzu. Kidnapped it, tied it to a clothesline then skinned the poor thing. And no one doubts that smug prick Michael Barrett burnt down the Maybury Street dairy, and most likely lit up the back end of the daycare centre a couple years back. But the courts don’t convict on common knowledge.


The surest indicator though, is the abuse. The Barrett boy's dad was jailed eight years ago for beating six pints of resistance out of his wife. And God knows no wife beater ever got arrested on the first swing, so that kid must've been on the sidelines for some brutal witnessing. And I know Jacko Spencer from a brief stint in the slaughterhouse. He’s a drunk and a coward, incapable of preventing his wife’s trickle-down examples of emotional abuse.


When those boys found each other they became an interlocking yin-yang, 'cept both sides are black. Between them they began seeding evil, and now six people are dead.


I find my way back into digging, shifting another sixty, seventy kilos of dark earth from between root and stem. It’s cooling down now, a breeze lifts from the creek below, carrying damp smells and rattling leaves. I step up from the pit, needing to feel the sun on my neck again, even if just for the goosebumps. Too easy to spend all your time in the shade.


I walk a slow circle around the hole, crossing the thick roots of a totara, running a hand up the peeling bark of a kahikatea. I turn and lean back against its mossy trunk and peer up between branches at a cloudless spring sky. I think of the boy, maybe eight years old at the time, lying next to me in the shade of a beach macrocarpa, his bare feet wiggling back and forth. He'd asked something about the bleached logs strewn along the sands, but I was distracted. He sat up a little, looked down at me.


"I reckon they're dinosaur bones. Old man dinosaur bones."


I didn't reply, just let him tire of my silence, then heard him jump up and go running through that wind-licked boneyard, frightening up seagulls with his strange cries. Dinosaur noises I guess. Voices of the dead. At times like this hindsight makes you flinch.


I step back down into the pit, shoring up tears at the corners of my eyes with my shirt sleeve.


Yeah, those boys began engineering this a long time ago. Must be two years since the boy first came to us...well, to Sharon, but I overheard them from the kitchen. He told her they’d made the ginger-topped Cunningham kid strip to his underwear, then held him low to the ground and made him wriggle and cry for them. And as he's telling it, in the back of my head I’m imagining him, I'm picturing my overweight son at their feet, tears trembling at the base of his chin. And…well, I guess I might have pictured myself too.


I don't know what Sharon thought, but she ended up paying out grocery money on karate lessons down at the Baptist hall. Me, I'd have gone with boxing, but I'm not around enough to have much of a say. Long hours, night shifts, I'm out of synch with the kids' lives and insecurities. With Sharon's too.


It ain't easy, feeling alone in the midst of family, but then my Dad left me to grow up with minimal tending. Mum, she left Dad for Cancer when I was four years old, and after that the old man only ever got excited about two things: the unions, and title fights. Then the unions were killed off by privatisation and globalisation, and boxing became a pay-per-view joke. So most of Dad’s last years were spent some place between despair and apathy. I guess it was inevitable I’d catch a little of what he had.


Suddenly I'm running at the totara, taking a big swing with the spade and bam! my hands explode in a shuddering ache. The tool flips and tumbles into the ferns and I’m left shaking the shock and sting out of my wrists. I bark out a curse that silences the birds and stills the wind. This shit hurts so much. I was actually disgusted by my son sometimes, by his gentleness, his weirdness. I withdrew from him early on, scared I'd infected him. But Sharon always stuck by him, by both the kids. I look up, expecting one of the preacher-birds to be eying me up, but even the sun's decided to steer clear of me, dipping behind the hills.


Sharon saw those two degenerates even more clearly than I did, saw their impact on the community. So six months ago she marches up to Jack Spencer and gives him both barrels. Told him everyone knew his kid and the Barrett boy were into all sorts, bullying, thieving, drugs. Told him someone needed to reign them both in, or there’d be harm done. Real harm.


Only problem was, she did this at the pub, on a Friday night. She did in front of me, and Eggy Sands, and Barry O’Neill. So when she runs out of words and looks to me, what the fuck can I do?


“Boys'll be boys, Sharon.”


And even as I said it, I felt my heart shrink a size or two. She stood there for a few seconds, looking like she was eating her own teeth. Then she stormed out, and I knew that all her suspicions about me had turned from a gas into a solid. Two weeks later I'm standing at the door telling Sharon she can piss off to her Mum's if she wants, take Georgia and all, but that the boy and I are staying right here.


I should have let her take him, he'd be alive now, he'd still be breathing. They all would. I told him we'd spend more time together, and I thought he looked hopeful. But I wonder now if that look was actually doubt, if maybe the hope was all mine. I meant to do it, to spend more time with him, but I'm working overtime because we're a single income family now. I'd get home late, he'd leave the house early. And I'm not stupid, I knew I was gonna lose him unless something changed. Lose him to a gang, or a religion, or a bottle of pills.


So when he just asked out of the blue, I didn't think it through. I didn't pause to wonder why this semi-vegetarian, caring, sensitive kid wanted to learn the art of killing. All I saw was a chance to build a bond. An opportunity to offer guidance, and yeah, maybe to show him I was good at something. I honestly saw teaching him to put a hole in a target at fifty metres as the last best chance we both had.


So I didn't offer to teach him something else, fishing, or bush skills, or wood carving. No. I taught him to squeeze the trigger gently. I asked him if the safety’s on, but I didn’t ask him if he’s ok. And I didn’t much mind that he was there as I locked the guns away in the safe, didn't care that he'd see the combination. It wasn't him kidnapping animals or flicking matches. He'd never been abused, didn’t drink. He was a quiet kid, sure, kept to himself. But fuck, that’s genetics. I thought maybe if we’d shared an interest we'd both have come out of our shells a little.


I told him he couldn’t touch the assault rifle until he got his license and he was cool with that, just shrugged and gave a little smile. But I showed him how to use it. I did what the law says, I locked up the ammo separate from the guns. But the combination on the ammo box is my birth date, which is the same as the PIN number for my bank card, which is...well, it’s the same as the combo on the gun safe.


I imagined us firing off a few shots while he chatted about his day. I imagined offering the odd bit of advice, but mostly just listening. But we didn't converse. I’d just say "good shot", or "always check your target." He had a good eye, a steady hand, and he listened, and in just a couple of months he was shooting better than me. Pretty soon we were just lying next to one another, staring down a barrel and ignoring the periphery. And now, in the shadow of it, I understand that for him it was never about building bridges.


I sink to a position of subservience before the hole, the cool earth quickly chilling my knees. This gun, the only one he didn't take, is a dreadful weight in my hands. I lean forward, tilting, letting the rifle roll into the pit. It rests there, relaxed in its power. I get unsteadily to one knee, then use my hands to push myself the rest of the way up. I look about once more for the tuis, or even the fantail, but I'm alone. I draw up the spade and begin laying the earth back down.


He left a note, but it didn't say a whole lot. Said he wanted to be cremated, didn't want to be a burden on the earth. But I'm thinking a man has to bury something if he's to move on from this.





Regan is a novice writer based near the seaside in Wellington on weekdays, and under the mountains in a house truck on the weekends. He hopes that the key to writing evocative and original stories is to utilize personal experiences, as this gives him license to try anything and everything at least once. Unfortunately it also means that his debut novel "Space Unicorns on Mars" has been shelved for now.


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