a night in mcnamara's hut

By Iain McLean

He knew it wouldn't come out right, so he said it anyway, just to get it out. "I just wished I'd fucked more women." The words filled the silence as Bill poked the fire with his stick. When he had first sat on the stone floor it had been so cold it sucked him down but now the fire had heated the hut he felt he could move if he wanted but something primal in the fire kept him spellbound. He watched embers flicker from the fire to spiral up through the air and disappear in the chimney.

McNamara’s Hut had looked out across the valley for over one hundred years and its corrugated tin wall panels were still fixed to the timber frame by the original hand-wrought iron nails. Rust had long since camouflaged it into the surrounding bushland. The only giveaway that it was being used was the vein of smoke rising from the chimney.

"Aren't you meant to say you would have liked to spend more time with your family?" Theo was standing in the doorway of the hut, looking out across the valley at the high country. Hills rolled into bigger hills, becoming mountains. Nobody called them mountains though. Theo's arms were crossed, he held his can of beer in the fold of one arm with his shoulder wedged into the door jamb.

"The kids’ll be fine. They'll be upset. Who wouldn't? But they'll be fine. Mary will be angry." Bill took a swig of his beer and let the can dangle in his fingers. "Nice touch, these beers. Shouldn't really drink though. These bloody pills they've got me on are going to kill me before anything else." Bill pulled a blister pack of pills from a pocket. "But I never go anywhere without a ton of the bloody things. Just not worth it. Mary put a whole box of them in my pack."

"Opioids?"

"I think so. I've got no idea. Make me feel like shit."

“They’re strong then?”

“One all but knocks me out. The oncologist said if I accidentally take two I’ve to get to the hospital quickly. Three, I reckon you could take down an elephant. I wonder sometimes who thought it a good idea to let people get their hands on that stuff.”

Theo nodded acknowledgement to no one in particular. “What was all that down with the Ranger on the phone?”

“You’re supposed to check in. I told them we’d only be here for one night. In and out.”

“So? What do they care?”

“They’ve got your registration. If the car’s still there in a couple of days they’ll come looking.”

Each man, captivated by their own vision, floated in their silence. It was a silence they had grown accustomed to over the years.

"Can I ask you a question?" said Bill, still poking the fire. Theo looked back into the tin hut. He took a couple of steps to the wooden bench that flanked the doorway and sat down facing the fire, looking at Bill's back silhouetted by the dancing fire, their shorthand well-developed. Bill continued, "Do you ever think of what will happen after?"

"You mean like heaven and stuff?"

"That, or what people will say about you."

"Never felt the need to. It's not like there's a wife at home pining for me."

Bill turned to look at Theo, to take him in, this man who for years had held all the answers, and saw clearly for the first time that he was just as lost. "You know what I mean."

Theo hesitated. "No, I've never really cared." He leant forward, his elbows on his thighs and sipped his beer as he stared out at the view through the hut's door. Snow covered hills folded into mountain peaks. Trees dappled with snow covered the opposite slopes like a festive greeting card from the last century.

Bill rose from the floor, walked one of the bunks and pulled his sleeping bag from his pack. The hut had two bunks made of rough hewn wood, no doubt built by whoever McNamara was. Bill ran his hand over the uneven slats that made his bunk. Time, and countless weary travellers had worn the slats to a smooth finish that would rival any varnish. "You think they meant this place to last this long?"

Theo still stared into the fire. He seemed not to have registered that Bill had moved. "Nothing lasts. Isn't that what they say?"

“You see, I don’t think they meant this place to last, but look at it, still here,going strong.”

“I’d hardly call some wiggly tin and a dirt floor going strong.”

“You know what I mean.”

Theo took a sip, watching Bill he replied, “Yeah mate, I know exactly what you mean.”

Bill paused. It was the conversation they had been having on the hike up the valley. “I’m not scared of dying.”

“Bill, to be in the presence of death is okay.”

He had to think. “What does that even mean?”

Theo didn’t respond.

Bill rolled his sleeping bag flat, sat on the bunk, removed his boots and swung his legs up into the sleeping bag. The light from the fire didn't quite make it to the bunks. The effort it had taken to get there, even with Theo's help, had wiped him out. When they got back down he'd sleep for days. Mary would be angry initially, and his oncologist would be furious. But they'd get over it. What choice would they have? "Thanks for driving me up here. Probably wouldn't have thought about it myself. Not now. And there's no way on God's earth I could make that trek on my own."

"Well you spoke about it enough over the years."

Bill looked from Theo's silhouette to his legs, still in his trousers. A year before he would have stripped down to his underwear even on snowy nights like this. But his body had been ravaged by the drugs they had pumped him with in the hope of drawing out his time for a few more months. It hadn't worked. And now with each new day he felt the cold hands of death dig deeper.

"It really means a lot," said Bill.

"No problem. It sounded like somewhere you'd want to go. A peaceful place. No phone signal. No roads. Somewhere you could die knowing you're one with everything." Theo's voice was flat and detached. He was still captivated by the fire, oblivious to the world around him.

"I'm not planning on dying just yet. They reckon I've got a few months left."

Theo didn't respond.

Bill pulled on his beanie, zipped up the sleeping bag and found a position to get enough comfort to sleep. He tried to relax his body but the choice was no longer his to make. The constant dull pain in his legs had spread to his hips on the hike to McNamara's hut. He closed his eyes and lay in the darkness avoiding thoughts of Mary when she retired and the kids leaving school, getting married and then perhaps starting their own families. He calmed his mind by reminding himself that he couldn't miss what he'd never known. But the images in his mind were as real as any memory. Sometimes, after the treatments, he struggled to tell them apart. To take his mind off the future he would never see he traced the grain of the wooden bunk frame. There was a rebated notch carved in it with two old bolt holes. He ran a hand down the piece of timber. At some stage it had been something else other than a bunk in a mountain hut. From the age of the hut, and the iron staining in the bolt holes, Bill knew the plank had been hewn by one of the first settlers. Aborigines didn't make such things. For a moment he felt proud to be connected to the land via the tree that the plank had once been part of, and he knew there would be many more people that it would protect as they slept.

"Did I tell you about the first time I came here?"

"Can't remember. Probably."

"My dad brought me when I was a nipper."

"Yeah mate. It's another one of your stories. You hiked up here with your old man, went fishing in the creek and built fires out the front there."

Bill lay quiet in his bunk. Theo was usually easy going.

"How old were you?"

"Probably seven. Or eight. On one trip these three aborigine fellahs rocked up."

"Yeah, I know," said Theo. "They just sat down by the fire."

Bill continued with the recollection in a lower voice. "My dad tried to speak to one of them but I can't really remember what they said. One of them pulled out this leg covered with fur. He ripped off the skin and put the leg in the ash. It was like it wasn't real, you know? I'd never seen a black fellah in real life before."

"Look, I'm not cooking a wallaby, if that's what you're getting at."

Bill stopped talking. He thought about the stories the plank had heard. After a while, he tried again.

"Thanks mate," he said. Theo didn't reply. "Night," said Bill.

"Night."

Bill's face tingled with cold when he awoke in the morning. The lack of windows in the hut meant he had no idea of the time. He had slept in fits and starts through the night, finally succumbing to exhaustion some time in the early hours. He unzipped his sleeping bag and rolled over to face Theo. Theo was laying on his shoulder with his back to Bill and wasn't moving. Even though the pain in his hips was still present and his shoulders had begun to ache he slid himself out of his sleeping bag making as little sound as possible. Standing on the icy stone floor in bare feet he went through his morning stretching. He had considered making the fire and putting on some water to make coffee but a second voice in his head suggested that it was healthier to embrace the cold.

An hour later he had dressed, packed his gear and relit the fire. Theo had left a few things on the table where they had dumped their backpacks. Bill's hiking poles lay across the far end, used once. Bill felt awkward unpacking Theo's bag but that's where they had put the coffee. He had to take out Theo's wash kit to get to the coffee.

With the coffee grounds in the espresso kettle Bill put it on the edge of the fire to boil. He hung a larger dixie pot over the fire to heat a litre of water. The hut was getting warm again. He went out into the snow and urinated a metre from the front door while the water boiled. There was nobody for miles. The earth lay still. He felt the icy air hit his lungs and made a mental note that it was probably the last time he would have the sensation. The phut-phut of the espresso kettle snapped him from his trance. He didn't want to go back inside. Out here everything was waking up. Life was unfolding another day.

In McNamara's hut everything felt cold and dark as Bill plunged his arm deep into his backpack time and again searching for his medication. He pulled out his collection of small pill jars and blister packs. One by one he took the dosage required. The last one was always his Endone, his pain killer. He hated it but he needed it. Without it he couldn’t function but it made him feel like his mind was running on half-power. The blister pack was a new one he’d brought on the trip to make sure he had enough to get by, just in case of unforeseen accidents. He knew it was overkill but it eased his mind knowing he’d covered all the bases. The blister pack should have held enough to last him over a week. All that remained was a single pill. Bill’s heart thudded in his chest. His breathing shuddered. He looked at Theo, then automatically poured two double espressos, topping them up with hot water from the dixie pot. A coffee in each hand he went and sat on the edge of his bunk, took a sip, then looked at Theo. He was in the same position.

"Hey, Theo. Mate. Coffee." He made his voice loud enough it would wake him but not loud enough to be aggressive. Theo didn't respond. Bill put down Theo's coffee, took another sip from his own then put it beside Theo's. He put his hand on Theo's shoulder to try to rouse him. A feeling filled his chest like his heart turning to ice and dropping to his stomach. Bill checked Theo’s pulse. The skin on Theo's neck felt like chicken skin, cold and clammy. There was no pulse to be found. He knew he wouldn't find one.

Bill climbed back onto his bunk. He unpacked his sleeping bag and draped it over his legs as he sat up against the cold tin wall, his coffee cup on the wooden slat beside him.

He took a sip of the coffee, but put it down. He didn’t want his senses sharpened, he wanted the haze of sleep to return. He knew he had a long wait ahead of him. A tear welled in his eye as he thought about Mary and the kids. After a few minutes had passed he began his last conversation with his oldest friend, "Mate. What have you done? Why didn’t you talk to me?” The words clawed at his throat. He had to force them into the air. “You should have said something."