Digging It by Diana Devlin

My dad told me when I was, like, seven or eight that if I dug long enough I’d eventually reach Australia. And I believed him. I mean, why wouldn’t I? He’d worked on building sites all his life, knew about that kinda stuff. Ryan, he’d say, you dig hard, son and I tell you, you’ll strike gold one day but you gotta put the effort in. He was big on effort, my old man. Work ethic, he called it. Refused to accept that jobs weren’t as easy to come by nowadays, especially for people who came from shitholes like Dilly.

Last week of the summer holidays and the sun was still splitting the sky. Amos and I didn’t know what to do with ourselves it was so damn hot. None of the girls wanted to hang out – probably worried their make-up would melt or their hair would go frizzy – so we decided to head for the beach. May as well make the most of it before the big exams. We’d soon be locked in our rooms for the best years of our lives, extracted by our parents for dentist appointments or lectures on fuckin personal hygiene.

I opened the front door. Amos gave me his usual lopsided grin and hi-fived me as he stepped inside.

‘S’at you got there?’ I said.

‘This,’ he said, holding up a bulging Asda bag, ‘is our survival kit, man. We got crisps, cookies and coke, lotsa coke, we gonna have a good time bro.’

‘Sweet,’ I grinned, ‘an I raided Caitlin’s room so we got chocolate too. Doin her a favour, seeing as how she’s always on a diet.’ Amos dropped the bag on the sofa and threw himself down next to it while I went for a pee and splashed water over my face.

We took the back road down to the beach, the one we all used to cycle down when we were kids. No one went that way any more because of the weirdos that hung out there during the day. The place was overgrown with giant weeds and stuff and you couldn’t move for empty cans and broken buckie bottles. But it was quicker and if you kept in to the wall under the trees you didn’t get roasted in the sun like when you took the main road through the village. Mum would’ve freaked out if she’d known but what the hell, she was at work and it was our last few days of freedom. We deserved a break.

As we pulled the gate shut behind us, I stopped suddenly.

‘Wait there, I got an idea, be two seconds.’ Amos grunted and pushed his black curly hair out of his eyes.

‘Hurry up, man, the coke’ll be boiling by the time we get there,’ he moaned. I returned with two spades from the garden shed.

‘Thought we could do a bit of digging.’

‘Yeah?’ Amos squinted at the rusty spades in the sun.

‘Why not, I’ve always fancied visiting Oz! Come on, it’ll be a laugh! Just like when we were kids. You never know, we might find something interesting.’ Amos placed a hand on my forehead and shook his head slowly.

‘Definitely a case of sunstroke, my man an you only been outside thirty seconds.’

‘Shut it,’ I laughed and handed him a spade.

Twenty minutes later, we were on Dilly beach. This was the life, just me and Amos and a shitloada chillin. For ten minutes, we sat on the soft sand, heads back, eyes closed, taking in the rays. Man, it was hot.

‘Wot say we try this digging lark then?’ Amos said. I’d almost forgotten about the spades and was feeling kinda lazy in the heat.

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘let’s chill first, man, no rush.’ I was starting to doze off when I felt a sharp nudge in my side. ‘Wot the fuck!’ Amos was standing over me, spade in hand.

‘We gonna do this or wot?’ I wouldn’t have admitted it, of course but the idea of digging through the world all the way to Australia had got me intrigued. Obviously, it was impossible but who knows how deep we’d actually get if we just kept at it and I couldn’t help wondering if we’d stumble across anything interesting, a message in a bottle maybe or a lost necklace. There was a group of old guys that combed the beach regularly with metal detectors and only the other week, one of them had dug up a spoon dating back to Roman times.

Amos went first. He was slow to start but then started giving it welly. There was sand flying everywhere and we were beginning to attract some attention. But no one actually came near us and after a while, the beach gradually emptied. I joined him on the dig. We worked in silence until suddenly and without warning, Amos lost his footing and fell into the hole we’d dug.

‘Stop messin about, man,’ I said but he didn’t answer. ‘Shit! You alright? Amos!’ There was nothing for it but to go down there myself and see if he was OK. I reckoned the hole was about ten feet deep and between us, assuming he wasn’t unconscious, we should be able to climb back out.

It was quite dark at the bottom and much colder than I expected. There was a strong smell of seaweed, which was odd, as we were underground. Amos was lying face down, with one leg twisted real bad under his body and his left arm jutting out to the side. I tried to turn him over but he was heavier than I thought and the wet sand was sucking him in close.

It was on my third attempt to turn him that it happened. The hole we’d dug collapsed in on us. We were buried in heavy wet sand, trapped and facing a slow death by suffocation. I can’t tell you the feelings of terror and helplessness at the moment I realised that this was it, we were going to die. At least Amos wouldn’t feel a thing, he was unconscious. Panic struck. I began to push and wriggle with every bit of strength I had in me. Just when I was about done in and ready to accept my fate, I felt the wet sand shift around me. Had someone come to rescue us? It struck me that I was breathing easily, even though I was still surrounded by sand. How could I be breathing sand? Blue sand. I could see clearly, the darkness had lifted and I was in an ocean of diamond clear turquoise, moving freely, swimming almost, a feeling of warmth and euphoria washing over me. It felt right, peaceful, safer than I’d ever felt in my life. I stretched out my arms. Was this what unborn babies felt like as they floated in their watery sac? With hardly any effort, I was able to tumble freely in the warm blue liquid. It was sheer bliss, like you wouldn’t believe. Every part of my body was relaxed, it felt like what I’d always imagined Heaven to be like, if it even existed.

A faint sound was reaching my ears and as it got louder, I recognised it as an old Stranglers song. I was cradled in strong but gentle arms, drifting free as the world around me melted from turquoise to pink to gold then orange, shimmering around me like a bubble bath, easy, warm and – wait! Where had Amos gone?

A sharp tug on my hair made me cry out. The sudden switch shocked me. The light dimmed and the mellow voice of Hugh Cornwell was morphing into something twisted and ugly with heavy drumbeats, warped voices I couldn’t make out and a loud metallic clanging that made my head feel like it would split open any second. I was falling now and with every inch I dropped, I felt my skin split and rip like I was being shredded alive. In the deep red glow of my new surroundings, I heard a voice I knew and spun round to see my dad staring straight at me. He looked much older and his skin was charred and blistered as though he’d been roasted on a spit. His eyes dripped crimson wax. He was holding a spade in both hands, jabbing its sharp blade towards me, advancing in the gloom.

‘Fuck you, Ryan,’ he said, ‘you never amounted to anything, you’re just a useless piece of shit.’ My lips were forming words but no sound came out of my mouth. I struggled to escape but was paralysed, unable to move in any direction. And all the while the deafening clang of metal on metal grew louder and louder…

Blackness. A high-pitched whistling like wind through a tunnel. Icy cold, shivering uncontrollably. The stench of stale urine and vomit. And the voice, always that voice. Worthless scum. Shitbag. Waste of space. Better off dead. Fucking junkie.

Diana Devlin is a Scottish-Italian poet, novelist and short story writer. A former translator, lexicographer and teacher, she has enjoyed many publication successes in magazines such as The Poets’ Republic, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Lake, The Blue Nib and many others, including anthologies. Her collaboration with a fellow writer produced a poetry conversation published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press in 2019 and her first full collection is due to be published in 2023.