Iwas in the back of the back of beyond: a wilderness camp in a lonely north-eastern corner of the Australian continent known by the acronym FNQ: far north Queensland. To reach it, you had to leave a paved road, drive on to a barge, cross a river along which alligators loitered with malevolent intent, and then head north into the density of the rainforest foliage.
The camp was six huts on stilts with a general dining and bar area. Its owner was named Mal: an amiable, “good on you, mate” fellow in his late 50s. His wife, Alison, immediately struck me as shy and hyperstressed. Mal had been a builder in Brisbane. The camp was his retirement project. I was one of only three guests there. I sensed: trouble in paradise.
I settled in. I took a bush walk. I found myself face to face with a cassowary: a 1.8-metre-tall fowl with a pronounced beak and ferociously pronounced claws, known to kill when happened upon. I froze. I did an about-face. I moved with speed back to the camp.
Once there, I ran into the only other guests. They were both in their late 20s. Joan was English, a nurse from the Midlands; Tom was a podiatrist. When I learned that they were on their honeymoon, I turned to Mal and said: “A round on me, please.”
Mal went to the bar. He poured the drinks. Placing them on a tray, he walked towards us. Then, suddenly, his face turned beet red. He let out a sound akin to animalistic keening. The tray of drinks went crashing to the ground, followed by Mal himself. Joan was already on her feet, racing towards our now supine host. As soon as she was on top of him, she slammed her fist into his chest. That’s when I realised: Mal had just suffered a massive heart attack.
Joan was all frantic business. She ordered me to run and find his wife and get her to call the medics. And she yelled at her husband to give Mal mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while she methodically pumped her hands up and down on his chest.
I sprinted to the main door of the lodge, pounding on it repeatedly. Alison finally opened it, looking befuddled, like she had just woken from a nap. When I explained what was happening, she was distraught. I grabbed her two hands, steadying her, asking: “Where are your nearest doctors?”
“In Port Douglas … two hours from here.”
“Flying doctors?” I asked.
“It’s night. They can’t land here. There’s a nurse …”
She pointed to a landline inside her home, told me that the number was on the bulletin board above it. Then she ran outside, her screaming reaching new heights as she saw her husband on the ground, Joan and Tom frantically working to save him. I punched some numbers into the phone. The nurse answered. She knew the lodge and told me it would be a good 90 minutes before she could get to us.
“Keep working on him.”
I raced back to the bar. Joan was still pumping Mal’s chest, Tom still giving him mouth-to-mouth, Alison screaming: ‘Don’t stop!’” I told Joan about the medical situation. She was not pleased.
“Jesus fuck,” she yelled, then ordered me to take over from Tom. But when I began to give Mal mouth-to-mouth, he began to vomit white bile. I pulled away, spitting out the toxic substance. When I reached back for him, he went very still. Joan felt for a pulse in his neck. She shook her head, then closed his eyes. Alison began to howl: “Please no …”
I stood up, went over to the bar, grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and used it as a gargle to rid my mouth of Mal’s vomit. Then I spit it out and downed a long dram of the whiskey. I passed the bottle to Joan who passed it on to Tom. I went over and put my arm around Alison and told her I would call anyone who needed calling. She couldn’t stop crying. I later learned they had been together for more than 40 years.
Tom pulled a cloth off a table and draped it over Mal’s face. I sat down, put my head in my hands, still reeling from what I had just borne witness to: the way that your entire existence, the narrative that is your life, can be snuffed out in a second, without any warning or premonition whatsoever.
Whenever, in the future, I railed against life’s many inequities, I found myself back in the back of beyond, seeing that man alive one moment, dead the next. From then on, I have lived with the idea that mortality is not a future construct. It lurks just around the corner. And as such: the farce of life is a fragile, fleeting one … which is also what makes it so damn precious.