I It was at the back of the back of the afterlife: a wild camp in a lonely corner of the northeast of the Australian continent known by the acronym FNQ: Far North Queensland. To get there, he had to leave a paved road, drive to a barge, cross a river where alligators prowled with malevolent intentions, and then head north into the dense foliage of the rainforest.
The camp consisted of six cabins on stilts with a general dining and bar area. Its owner was called Mal: a kind, “good to you, friend” guy in his 50s. His wife, Alison, immediately struck me as shy and overstressed. Mal had been a builder in Brisbane. The camp was his retirement project. I was one of only three guests there. I felt: trouble in paradise.
I made myself comfortable. I took a walk in the woods. I came face to face with a cassowary – a 6 foot tall bird with a pronounced beak and fiercely pronounced claws, known to kill when encountered. I froze. I did a 180 degree turn. I quickly returned to camp.
Once there, I met the only other guests. They were both in their twenties. Joan was English, a nurse from the Midlands; Tom was a podiatrist. When I found out they were on their honeymoon, I turned to Mal and said, “One round with me, please.”
Mal went to the bar. He served the drinks. Placing them on a tray, he walked over to us. Then all of a sudden his face turned beet red. He let out a sound like an animal wail. The tray of drinks fell to the floor, followed by Mal himself. Joan was already on her feet, running towards our host now supine. As soon as she was on top of him, she punched him in the chest. It was then that I realized: Mal had just suffered a massive heart attack.
Joan was a hectic business. He ordered me to run for his wife and call the doctors. And she yelled at her husband to give Mal mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as she methodically pumped her hands up and down over his chest.
I ran to the front door of the hostel, banging on it repeatedly. Alison finally opened it, looking dazed, like she just woke up from a nap. When I explained what was happening, she was distraught. I grabbed her by both hands, steadying her and asking her: “Where are the closest doctors?”
“In Port Douglas … two hours from here.”
“Flying doctors?” I asked.
“It’s night. They can’t land here. There’s a nurse …”
He pointed to a landline phone inside his house, told me the number was on the bulletin board above it. Then she ran off, her screams reaching new heights when she saw her husband on the ground, Joan and Tom working frantically to save him. I dialed some numbers on the phone. The nurse replied. She knew the hostel and told me it would be a good 90 minutes before she could get to us.
“Keep working on it.”
I ran back to the bar. Joan kept pumping Mal’s chest, Tom kept giving him mouth to mouth, Alison yelling, ‘Don’t stop!’ ”. I told Joan about the medical situation. She was not happy.
“God fuck,” he yelled, then ordered me to stand in for Tom. But when I started giving Mal mouth-to-mouth, he started vomiting white bile. I pulled away, spitting out the toxic substance. When I reached out my hand to him, he was very still. Joan felt for the pulse in his neck. She shook her head and then closed her eyes. Alison started howling, “Please don’t …”
I got up, walked over to the bar, grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and used it as a gargle to remove Mal’s vomit from his mouth. Then I spit it out and took a long drink of whiskey. I passed the bottle to Joan, who passed it to Tom. I walked over, put my arm around Alison, and told her I’d call anyone who needed to call. She couldn’t stop crying. I later learned that they had been together for more than 40 years.
Tom pulled a cloth from a table and placed it over Mal’s face. I sat up, put my head in my hands, still reeling from what I had just witnessed: the way your entire existence, the narrative that is your life, it can be turned off in a second, without any warning or premonition of any kind. .
Whenever, in the future, I lashed out at the many inequalities of life, I found myself in the back of the afterlife, seeing that man alive one moment, dead the next. Since then, I have lived with the idea that mortality is not a future construction. Lurks around the corner. And as such: the farce of life is fragile, fleeting … which is also what makes it so damn precious.
Afraid of the Light by Douglas Kennedy (Hutchinson, £ 13.99) is out now. To support the Guardian and Observer, request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism