It is a freezing cold morning. Still. Dark. I'm driving somewhere I've never been before. Somewhere completely unfamiliar. Way out east. My tiny, yellow car is a bubble of warmth. The de-mister working overtime. Frost attacks and retreats across my windscreen. The GPS on my phone says next right. I turn and drive up a small, steep hill. The engine rumbles up to the crest and the road drops away to a large, bushy lot. And an old scout hall.
Two very large four wheel drives sit at the edge of the lot. Each adorned with various carpentry tools. They belong to Rob and Steve. I pull up behind Rob and switch my engine off. I inhale deeply. Rub my eyes. And get out of the car. My skin immediately feels the chill. My back finds the ache of yesterday. And the day before. Things slow in time, I exhale a thick clutch of fog. And I begin to trudge in a steady routine. Removing the tools from Rob's car and carrying them over to the old scout hall.
Steve and Rob slowly emerge from their vehicles, finishing their coffees.
“Whoo hoo! She’s a frosty pig this morning,” Rob’s greeting warms me only slightly. The sight of him in shorts, slightly more.
“Aren’t you a little late, Barra?” I bristle at the use of an intolerable nickname and the assertion that I’m tardy. I’m sure Steve was hoping for the double.
“Fuck no. It’s seven on the dot.” I reply.
“Lucky Pauly-Boy’s not here ‘ey, Barra?” Rob chimes in.
I trudge back to Rob’s car for another load of tools. Rob and Steve slowly make their way to stand in front of the unimpressive, grey cinder block building. I carry the tools to where they stand and place the cases at their feet.
“What the fuck is this?” Steve asks.
“An old scout hall.”
It was similar in its bland unusuality to an old scout hall that I can remember. My Mother’s church used one for Sunday school. It was cold. And uninviting. But kids always got out of hand. So that was fun. And If you were willing, they would coach you to speak in tongues. I can still recall the words I used. Keh ruhmba teh ruhmba see deus. Random kid gibberish. It was exciting and scary at the time. Insanely bad parenting in hindsight. But I’m sure worse things have happened in an old scout hall.
“Demo?” I ask.
“Most of it,” Steve says and breaks off, walking back to his car.
“But not you, Baztec... You gotta dig.” Rob says.
“Yeah?... Sick.” I arch my eyebrows. Wide eyed and full of shit. “Where?”
Rob begins to walk and I follow him around the back of the old scout hall.
The building is shrouded in trees, bushes and scrub. Except for a small cleared yard around the back. Rob walks to the back wall of the building and kicks an old terracotta sewerage outlet.
“You gotta dig round this, about six hundred mil’ deep, six hundred wide. Five metres straight back, then a cross section. Follow the pipes.” Rob instructs, pointing to the back of the yard.
Steve appears with a shovel and crowbar. “There you go, Barra,” he passes me the shovel, smiling. I take the shovel and begin to dig as the sun rises over the old scout hall.
The earth is cold and hard. I stick the shovel into the grey dirt, its surface slick in the freezing air. I stomp on the shovel to break the ground. Dig down and toss the dirt. My hands hurt immediately. I will get to count the minutes in pain and regret. My hands will warm up. I strike the soil. Stomp on the shovel. Dig down. Toss the dirt. The earth builds up slowly in two neat piles. I dig and dig as the sun continues to rise behind the old scout hall.
My breath is no longer visible when I remove my jumper. Sweat is collecting in my hair. Rob and Steve have scaled the building and begin removing the metal sheet roofing. Their tools screech and whir in the background. A large skip is delivered. I continue to dig. Remove my shirt. And take a deep breath. I strike the soil. Stomp the shovel. Dig down. Toss the dirt. Blisters begin to form on my hands. My shoulders and back ache. The pain pushes me to dig harder. I square the edges of the ditch every few shovel loads. Six hundred by six hundred. Five metres. Cross section. Follow the pipes. I strike the soil. Stomp the shovel. And hit some concrete. My back jars slightly. I stop for a second and let out a gasp of air to the blue above. The sun hangs in the sky, casting Rob and Steve in long raven shadows above me. I squint and hold my hand up as they peck at the roof of the old scout hall.
I continue to strike the soil. Stomp the shovel. Dig down and toss the dirt. For around four metres, until I hit the cross section of pipes.
“Smoko, Barra!” I hear Steve call from the other side of the building.
I grab my jumper and shirt and go to my car for food. I return and sit beside Rob and Steve, straddling my small esky. I try to enjoy my wet chicken sandwiches. The frost and fog is gone, but the cold remains. I put my shirt and jumper on.
“That hole is one pretty little piggy, Baztec!” Rob says, grinning. Never one to enjoy the silence.
“Yeah?” I offer with little enthusiasm. “Well... I’m enjoying the masochism.”
“What?” Steve asks, chuckling incredulously. “What was it again?” He looks toward Rob.
“Jesus was a carpenter...” Rob answers and they both laugh.
“Jesus...” Steve laughs again. “I still don’t take you for the religious type.”
I exhale at the thought of explaining myself again. “I’m not... And again, I understand how the concept may be lost on the two of you.”
“Well... You dig a good hole.” Steve offers in consolation.
“Hold up... Look who’s here, boys.” Rob nods in the direction of a van pulling up to our parked cars. “Old Pauly-Boy.”
“Always at smoko.” Steve adds.
The two of them stand and make their way over to Paul’s car. I continue to eat my cold, wet chicken sandwiches and I look up at the roof of the building. Peeled back and exposed. Memories drift up from the body of the old scout hall.
The three men walk and talk. Discussing various aspects of the renovation that is to take place. The destruction that comes before. I try in vain to overhear anything interesting and finish my sandwich. I stand, shoving my hands in my jumper pockets and begin to walk back to my hole. Paul finishes up his short conversation and we cross paths along the way.
“Barra.” Paul nods and looks quizzically at me as I pass. “Look, mate...” He continues in order to get my attention.
I pause and turn to face him. “Yeah?”
“You wanna know one of my pet hates?” He starts. Not really a question, but a statement of intent to continue. “Hands in pockets.”
“Yeah?” I cock an eyebrow.
“I had this kid working for me, always walked around with his hands in his pockets.” He stuffs his hands in his pockets petulantly and grimaces, po-faced. Mimicking the young slackers he loathes.
“I want you up and about, ready to go... You know what I mean?” He asks.
“Yeah.” I answer and remove my hands from my pockets.
“Well...” He pauses as if struck by some small revelation. “I don’t mean now, but... You know?”
“Yeah.” I finish and begin walking back to where I left the shovel. Paul returns to his car. I strip back down to my singlet and continue to dig. I strike the soil. Stomp the shovel. Dig down. Toss the dirt. My hands sting. I dig and dig and dig. Cutting through the earth. The sweat of my brow beads in the bright sunshine behind the old scout hall.
The roof almost entirely removed, Rob and Steve begin to gut the building. Screeching and whirring is replaced by banging and clunking. The occasional loud crack. I continue to dig, fashioning the cross section around the pipes. Squaring the edges. Digging a deep crucifix in the hard soil. I hear someone say something from inside.
“What?” I look up to see Rob standing at the start of the ditch.
“You’re going to have to get in there and remove the dirt from under the cross section of pipe... Dig down a bit more.” Rob says. Smart or compassionate enough not to grin.
“Yeah?” I answer.
I lower myself into the trench and continue. My shoulders and back finding new ways to ache in the confined space. The bottom of the trench is a sticky clay, which quickly cakes on my boots as I dig. The day continues on. And I dig. Fighting the clay which sticks to everything and refuses to give easily. I dig. And dig and dig and dig. Through lunch and into the afternoon. Stopping only for water. Knowing that the less I break, the earlier I can leave the graveyard of this old scout hall.
The debris from the demolition fills the skip. A second pile of old plaster and timber begins to build. Rob and Steve take sledgehammers to the western most wall. The cinder block construction cracks and topples easily. It’s guts spilled, the wall ripped asunder. It looks a stark contrast to the peculiar grey block of this morning. I wonder what the builders would think of the fate of this old scout hall.
I dig. The pain in my body dulling as three o’clock draws near. My feet feel cast in concrete as they sink, deeper still into the clay. I dig. Slowly now, hoping the lull in my rhythm doesn’t send me to sleep in this shallow grave. I dig. Until the last of the sticky clay is removed from beneath the pipes. I grind to a halt and look at my watch as the seconds tick to three o’clock. And the shadows once more begin to envelope the old scout hall.
I use the last of my energy to lift myself out of the trench. Grab my clothes and carry the shovel back to where Rob and Steve continue to demolish the cinder block wall.
“I’m done.” I say and drop the shovel to the ground.
“What time is it?” Steve asks.
“Three?” Rob enquires with suspicion. But not of the correct time.
“Three.” I state emphatically. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You’re not going to help us pack up?”
I sling my jumper and shirt over my shoulder and trudge back to my car. Stomping away the clay from my shoes. The aching, which had dulled as I neared the bottom of the trench, returns in earnest. My back and shoulders stiffen as I get into my car. I exhale deeply and start the engine. Staring off into the horizon. I drive away and take a last look into my rear view mirror. And watch the shadows suffocate the carcass of the old scout hall.
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