Bed on Fire

Sleeping rough

It had started well. We were quick moving through, first the farmland before the track, sheep watching with suspicion as we kicked up sprays of dew, and then through the gloomy, sweet smelling beech forest that meant our tramp had officially begun. Before all this too, Sam’s old Land Rover made it over the hills and into the valley without any problems even if the engine growled so loudly we could barely hear Talking Heads on the tape deck.

Now we were walking higher, out of that forest. There were banks of snow in the shade cast by trees and rocks, and the temperature had suddenly dropped. We moved up higher again, and were at the start of a wide saddle, covered completely by snow. It was beautiful, gleaming and unmarked. We were the first sketches on a canvas. Somewhere beyond this was the hut we were aiming for.

The three of us had been tramping maybe half-a-dozen times. Always together, a couple of trips a year. We began when we started university. None of us came from families that did anything in the bush except take the odd photograph, but we had decided we wanted different experiences, ones that might test us a little. Gareth suggested it first and Sam and I agreed. It seemed right away like something we would do, and we began to assemble sets of gear from hand-me-downs and borrowed things: A pack that once belonged to my brother’s friend’s father, Warehouse raincoats, opshop jerseys. Only our boots were bought specially. We started out with summer weekend trips but soon pushed into winter. When the weather threatened to confine us to the flat, library and lecture theatre, tramping gave us a way to get out, a reason to spend whole days outside. And so here we were again, with our ragtag gear, walking somewhere remote during a cold month.

We were chatting and joking as we came up onto the saddle. We had been doing this the whole way. I don’t remember now what we talked about, but it was hilarious. Fresh air and hours walking were like alcohol; they loosened our tongues and made everything a joke. When Gareth fell on his arse, his boots sliding on a slick of mud, he quickly jumped up. ‘Just my pride,’ he said in a mock stoic voice, before anyone could ask if he was ok. We laughed, said something about it being in bad shape from the start and carried on.

The cold began to quieten us. The wind whipped up the sleeves of my bushshirt, through the slits that led to the cuffs. I moved them around, wishing there was an extra button to hide the blue and goose bumped skin there. Sam said something about his hands. He had forgotten gloves, and he held one up, a horrifyingly red blue like a lump of recently bruised flesh. He quickly tucked it under his armpit.

We sank into the snow now. It was deep, covering the track. That didn’t matter, we were aiming for the top of the ridge, the hut was another hour from that, and we didn’t need a track to find it. But it was going to be hard work and we could move only very slowly. I slipped and pitched head first into in the snow and, lying there, I flailed a little tor the amusement of the others. They laughed, although not as loudly as before. The joke was our hopelessness.

At one edge of the saddle there was a high point, exposed to the weak sun we had that day. We gathered there, took off our packs and passed around a bag of potato chips. ‘I don’t know if we can get there,’ I admitted. The others rushed to agree. The snow had made progress so slow as to seem impossible and it had been exhausting. Maybe we’d get to the top of that ridge, but then what? We’d still have to find our way to the hut, and we feared it might be further than we thought. Earlier in the day we had passed a sign pointing in an opposite direction, to another hut. It was further but the track led through the bush, it stayed out of the snow. We’d go back and find that. We still had time, it was only early afternoon. ‘And next weekend,’ I said. ‘I’m not going tramping.’

The others laughed and grasped at chips.

‘I’m going to the movies instead. I’m going to wear nice clean clothes and white sneakers. I’m going to get a jumbo coke and popcorn and I’ll go to the movies.’

‘Dodgeball,’ Sam said, and between mouthfuls of chips we listed the names of the blockbusters on that month, dumb movies, movies that were big and glossy, mildly funny and nothing like where we were.

We retreated back down into the bush. My gloves were sodden and peeling them off I found that my hands were blue too, although more a mauve than Sam’s purple. I tried everything to warm them, shaking them about and breathing at them. The blood came with a dense ache which lasted until the blue came back and I needed to start shaking them again. We found the track in the trees and followed it in a new direction, one that would take us further but towards this other hut. We hurried along anxious to get there and get a fire started. We didn’t talk as much as we did before.

Hours went by and with each one the hut remained just a little bit further away. But this ‘just a little bit’ started to sound too far. It was getting dark. We still had to go uphill in places and even a slight incline now felt much harder than anything we’d done before. We stopped and again agreed that we couldn’t do this for much longer. All we’d done was push further into the bush. Had we missed a turn off? We turned back, this time to walk towards the way we had come in, and to find somewhere flat where we could sleep for the night.

Coming over a knoll, just a slight mound lifting the track two or three metres higher, I heard Gareth say something about carrying on and walking out altogether. My reaction to this was something I felt in my core, a recoil. But I was too tired to speak it. We had been walking for well over 8 hours, maybe it was 9, and aside from those chips and that first snack we hadn’t eaten. The huts had always been too close to bother and then when they weren’t, we were in too much of a hurry to stop. I let the suggestion disappear, Sam not taking it up either. And anyway, as we came down the other side of that knoll, I needed all my concentration just to walk, my legs were shaking with each step by then.

A patch of mud the size of a golf green. It was on the edge of the track, bordered with lumps of grey snow. ‘Here?’ someone said. Without conversation, we emptied our packs, pulling out food and extra clothes and letting the rest scatter on the ground, tomorrow’s problem. We took off wet boots, and swapped our sodden socks for dry ones. By the time I was finished I was wearing everything I had: socks, a thermal top, long johns, shorts, a bush shirt, gloves, a woollen hat and a heavy PVC jacket, the hood of which I pulled and tied. With my pack empty, I pulled out its plastic liner and fitted it over my sleeping bag. Gareth and Sam did the same, although Gareth’s liner was a council rubbish bag. We crawled into our sleeping bags, lying in the mud, and wriggling about, worm-like, we opened up two cans of spaghetti, cooked them on our tiny gas stove and ate it all, scraping at our aluminium bowls. We weren’t hungry, just chilled and exhausted, craving anything warm. When finished we dropped our bowls on the ground.

We huddled together and lay there, cold despite all those clothes. My sleeping bag was only thin, a Kmart ‘Snuggler.’ I tried pulling my head down into it. I pulled my knees up, crossed my arms. Every so often, I unfolded them to look at my watch, holding my wrist out of the bag to catch the moonlight. And at one point I jerked awake to find it had only been two hours since I had last checked. Morning was a long way off. An awful, choking cry came out of the bush – a horrific yodel. My imagination did its worst conjuring some fanged thing, violence, terror. Thankfully, it had another attempt and I realised what the sound actually was. Gareth too. ‘A pig,’ he said. Both he and Sam were still awake. I dug down deeper into my sleeping bag, fearful, cold still and unable to sleep. And throughout all of this, for almost all of that night, the lyrics from Sam’s tape bounced over and over in my head: ‘Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire. Can’t sleep cause my beds on fire.’

Light made its way into the bush. It was feeble and without much warmth but it was enough for us. We got up, awkward and creaky, finding that everything, our bags, clothes and cooking things, were all filthy with mud and pasted with strands of spaghetti. My boots were stiff, cold. Actually frozen. It really had been freezing cold. I got the gas cooker going and began to thaw them out, singeing the leather a little in the process. As I did this and as I packed my things away, I wondered why my neck, and my jaw ached the way they did. I asked the others, but they didn’t have this problem. And then as we began to walk out, the sun rising over dripping trees, I remembered I had been clenching my teeth against the cold all night, pulling those muscles sore.

Our night in the bush was over. Our closest call and still there was a way out - it was just discomfort. Yet we’d had a chance to peer into the things we wandered on the edges of on all our trips: fear and the cold, and being lost. We got enough of a view to realise just how much worse they could be, how sickening it might feel to not know if there was a way home. People say the bush doesn’t owe you anything, that it doesn’t care that you mean it no harm, traipsing about admiring the view. I never disagreed, but I understood now.

My girlfriend and Sam’s had already seen Dodgeball. Someone suggested another movie. I’d never heard of it, but it was at a multiplex. There would be air-conditioning and carpet. No snow, not a tree in sight. At the snack bar I asked for a large popcorn and Coca-Cola. I never bought this stuff there before - everyone knows prices at the movies are set in some other, gilt plated world. But when the young lady at the counter asked if I’d like to upgrade my order to ‘jumbo,’ I said, ‘Yes. I would,’ with such intensity that she started. Cradling these snack buckets, I settled in to watch the film. Gareth, Sam and I and our friends and girlfriends all in the one row. And something terrible happened. On the screen, a blind girl wandered out of the old timey village the movie had been in so far, and was soon lost in a dark forest. A horrible creature, something with feathers and claws was after her. She was hopeless, she couldn’t see to move fast, she couldn’t get away. It was awful, and I held tightly to my popcorn. I took a long noisy suck from the Coke.