THE BUSH HUT
Her friend said she could live in the hut for a while, for as long as she needed, over the winter. He had inherited the hut along with the bushland it was on from his father, and didn’t have time these days to visit it himself. He would need it back in spring, when he rented it out to city dwellers looking to experience what they thought of as the true Australian bush lifestyle. But for now, for the bitingly cold winter, she could have it. He made a mud map on the back of a supermarket receipt and she followed his directions up into the mountainous bush. The drive started in the white sheep-flflecked openness of hilly farming country, cleared more than a hundred years ago by colonial settlers. Quickly, however, the tame grass slopes gave way to the blue-tinted hues of towering gums and the raggedly, curiously bent grass trees, their long scapes sticking confifidently skyward. Her dog, old and frail, sat in the front passenger seat of her car, his rheumy eyes unfocused on the road ahead. There was a fifireplace in the hut and an outside dunny with a big drop and a perpetual stink, even in the dormancy of winter. There was no electricity, no running water, nothing of 21st-century life. She gathered fifirewood from the stack outside in the last of the afternoon light, watching the breath curl out of her mouth in frozen wisps. Long shadows cast across the clearing. A blanket of fog was already rolling down from the top of the mountain, eerily between the ghost gums and the thick, scrawling mess of undergrowth. It was warm inside the hut with the fifire lit and the two of them curled up under a blanket on the lonely threadbare armchair. At night, at around 7.30, with nothing else to do, she would climb into the single bed with the sagging middle. It was an old bed that creaked when she moved, piled high with oilskins and furs and thick, dusty doonas. The fifire would go out at around four in the morning. She would wake up to the cold air pressing on her face and a full, heavy bladder. For the few hours between waking and the dawn light, she would lie on her back using the power of her mind to overcome the most human of needs. “Why are you doing this?” a friend had asked her before she left. “I need a break.” “Are you going to take a weapon? A woman alone in the bush will need a weapon.” “No-one is going to bother coming up the bush to attack a middle-aged woman like me,” she retorted. She was difffferent in the city. She was always the divorcee, the one whose husband left her with a couple of young kids all those years ago. Her friends thought she needed them to look after her. “And then imagine,” she thought of the people around her saying, “imagine losing all that money on top of everything else. No-one has been that unlucky in their life.” People treated her difffferently in the city. She was always the pity invite, the third wheel, the lonely friend they needed to set up with someone so she could go on double dates with the happily married. They’d look at her with sympathetic faces, pat her shoulder and earnestly ask, “Are you okay?” The attention was suffffocating. In the brisk cold of the mornings in the bush, reinvigorated in her new environment, she would walk the dog along the creek that ran from the top of the mountain to the valley below. The air would be fifilled with the call of lyrebirds, of blue birds, of the rustling sigh of ferns against her ankles and knees. There was a mob of wallabies that froze when she approached, their eyes focused on her, wet noses twitching. Then they would bound gracefully away to be swallowed by the bush. Kookaburras started up a deafening symphony of cackling laughter from the ghost gums above. She watched her step as she navigated the slippery rocks beside the creek, the dog lagging slowly behind in old-age lethargy. The afternoons were warm enough for her to read outside in the dull, white glow of the winter sun. She revisited Chekhov and drank the red wine she brought with her. The dog dozed at her feet. “This is the life,” she thought. In the afternoon light, she could imagine digging a vegetable garden and planting an orchard along the far fence line of the hut’s little cleared yard. Perhaps she could buy some sheep or goats. And there would need to be a new toilet, preferably inside, and solar panels just for the basics like light and heat. With a little effffort, a self-sustaining lifestyle seemed momentarily within reach up there in her bushland haven.
For dinner that night, she cooked some toast on a rack on the open fire, burning the crusts a little in her camping clumsiness. She hadn’t yet mastered the art of fifire cooking. A tin of baked beans, heated in the black frypan, was enough to mask the flflavour of charcoal. By nightfall she was tucked in bed with the dog snoring loudly by her feet. She used to be very good at sleeping. But then one morning she awoke to fifind her husband’s things gone and with them her husband. No fairytale of his departure could stave offff her children’s questions for long. “Will Dad be coming home?” they would ask. “Yes,” she replied, knowing that it wouldn’t be their home he’d be coming home to. Sleep had been, since that morning, a flfleeting thing. In the bush hut, at an unknown time in the pitch back, crow black middle of the night, she awoke, acutely aware of the sounds around her. The dog whimpered by the door, its front paws scratching incessantly on the wood. He was determined to go outside. Perhaps there was something out there, she thought. Something dangerous. If she lay very still, and made her breath as shallow and quiet as possible, perhaps the thing outside would leave her alone. She could hear the blood rushing in her head, the furious pounding of her heart. The dog continued his struggle. Something, some sort of great, inner strength, possessed her to rise from the safety of her layers of bedding and click the torch on. The beam swept over the room like a lighthouse, overshadowing the glow of the fifire’s dying embers. Just a few paces across the room, the door, a handle, a step, and she was outside in the darkness. The dog pushed past her into the night. For a moment her heart stopped beating as she concocted some axe-wielding, movie maniac beyond her torch’s line of vision. The torch’s beam roamed, her single beacon of hope, along the tree line. It passed the senile dog relieving himself on a fence post. Moon shadows played in soft grey light on the treetops. There was nothing more out there. She slept, soundly, for the fifirst time in a long time. And then the sun began to rise, as she knew it always would, and the nightmares of the darkness seemed to dissipate with the rays sneaking past the curtains of the bush hut. And she knew, somehow, that everything would be fifine. To read previous entries in our Short Story Competition, visit homelife.com.au/country-style/short-stories
She could hear the blood rushing in her head, the furious pounding of her heart.