by Shikkoku no Suzu (漆黒のスズ)
In Simon Carroway’s view, there were three things that were particularly wrong with his current situation.
First, he was stuck up a gumtree and there was a protuberant piece of branch sticking into his arse; second, there were five dingoes sitting under the tree, muzzles upturned as if they expected him to just drop into their waiting jaws; and third, he had no mobile phone reception.
“Hungry, are you?” he called down at them. “Well, I’ve got news for you. Fuck the lot of you; I can sit up here all day.”
One of the dingoes stuck its tongue out of the side of its mouth and panted.
“Tits,” muttered Simon, sidling along the branch until he could lean against the smooth white trunk. He shook his mobile phone and held it out in front of him, but the notification bar maintained obstinately that there was no coverage to be found.
He wasn’t a complete idiot, he had a VHF radio in his bag, but it was in his tent, which was pitched about five metres away, and might as well have been in Madagascar for all the use it was.
Eventually the dingoes would go looking for food somewhere else, Simon assumed. How they could even be hungry when they had already ransacked the campsite and eaten everything that wasn’t sealed into a tin, he couldn’t fathom. Perhaps they suspected he was in possession of a concealed baby and thought it might make a nice dessert.
Wiping sweat from his brow, he turned the collar of his shirt up to protect the back of his neck from the sun he could feel glaring down at him. “At least it’s not cold,” he muttered to himself.
When Simon had convinced his editor to let him take a fortnight to tour Australia and write a piece about one of the only countries in the world to dodge the GFC he had thought it would be a great opportunity to escape the grey, dreary English winter and enjoy some sunshine.
Well, he was enjoying the bloody sunshine all right. He hunched his shoulders, trying to shelter the tips of his ears, which were beginning to feel distinctly pink. Sunscreen and insect repellent: two more things he had conscientiously packed and then neglected to take with him in his headlong flight up the nearest tree. He certainly deserved the fucking medal for preparedness.
How long had he been up here? He considered his phone. At least two hours. There was no-one else in the campsite, and he hadn’t seen anyone go past. How was it that in London you couldn’t throw a rock without hearing, “Oi, mate, watch out!”, but in their own country Aussies were apparently nocturnal, invisible, and rare?
When he had told his friend Melinda that he was going to Australia and asked for recommendations of things to see, she had come back to him with a list of cafes and galleries he should visit in Melbourne. “Oh, don’t buy into the cliché, Sy,” she said. “Red dirt and kangaroos: Australia isn’t like that. Most Aussies, including yours truly, grew up in cities, and there is a really interesting urban culture. Why don’t you write about that?”
He’d told her that there was no way he could write an article about Australia without at least some of the clichés, and she’d thrown up her hands and said, “Poms. Fuck the lot of you.” Then they’d drunk their way through a six pack of very nice beer from a boutique brewery outside Melbourne, which Melinda had presented as the closing statement in her case.
The search for the Australian cliché had brought him here, to a deserted campsite in a national park a few hours outside Sydney, which, according to the internet, contained some stunning granite formations of immense cultural significance.
His stomach rumbled. “You there,” he called to the friendliest looking dingo, which was flopped down on its side grinning up at him, “what say you bring me that tin of baked beans, I’ll open it, and we can share?”
“Blimey, what’re you doing up there?” drawled a male voice with vowels as wide as the Nullarbor Desert.
Simon sat up straight and looked around. Emerging from the direction of the road was a weathered man in khaki, heavy workmen’s boots, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. He was as tanned as a nut.
“Oh, thank goodness,” said Simon. “Be careful, they’re vicious.”
The stranger, revealing blinding white teeth framed by lips almost the same colour as his skin. “Those fellows? Nah.”
“They’re dingoes,” said Simon severely, channelling his Cambridge professor father. “They eat babies, and, one assumes, other-sized humans.”
“They’d like you to think they are. Watch this.” A piercing whistle emerged from the stranger, and the creatures pricked up their ears. The man reached down and picked up a long stick, then took two strides forward and bowled it into the undergrowth on the far side of Simon’s tree. In a flash, the dogs were gone, and Simon was staring, agog at his rescuer.
“You have got to be joking.”
“There’s some dingo in there somewhere, but I reckon they’re mutts putting on airs. Lots of bitzas in these parts—you know, dogs with bitza this and bitza that in their genes. They probably thought you were an oversized cockatoo with all that yellow hair. Now, let’s see about getting you down.”
Simon shimmied down the tree trunk and leaned his back against the it. He said in his best Queen’s English, “Might I know your—ouch!” There had been a sudden, sharp pain in his left index finger, which had been pressed against a loose piece of bark.
The man stepped up and pulled Simon’s hand over to examine it. “Looks like a red back to me.” He went over to look at the branch Simon had had his hand on. “Yup. Whatcha doin’ all the way up here, missy?”
“You just got chomped by a red back spider. Don’t worry, it won’t kill ya, just hurt like buggery for a day or so. You’re bloody lucky: this is funnel web territory. Now there’s a spider you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. You might be feeling a bit crook soon though, so you better come back to the station with me quick smart for an ice pack, then I’ll drive you to the hospital. Most people brush through all right, but occasionally those bites can go nasty, and I reckon out here it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
“Who… are you?” said Simon, retrieving his hand.
“Park Ranger. Bluey Carmichael. Nice to meet ya.”
“Is Bluey really your name?” Simon examined his finger. As that sudden, sharp pain faded, he could hardly even identify the bite mark. Perhaps it was just a splinter.
“Nah, they just call me that cos I got red hair,” said Bluey, taking off his hat to reveal a tangled russet mane escaping from a ponytail at the nape of his neck.
“Oh, I see,” said Simon. He paused. “My name is Simon Carroway. I’m a journalist.”
“And here I thought you were with animal control,” said Bluey. “Pommy?”
“I’m from London,” Simon replied stiffly.
“Don’t get on your high horse, mate,” said Bluey. “Hop along, my ute’s just down the road. No point whistling an ambo all the way up here, so I’ll just drive you to the hospital.”
“How far is that?”
“Not far; coupla hours.”
Simon hesitated. “What about my possessions?”
“She’ll be right, just grab anything you need, lock the rest in your car, and I’ll get it this arvo and keep it safe and sound for ya.”
Grumbling but overborne by this powerful personality, Simon was swept into the passenger seat of a battered, mud-covered pickup truck with the Forests New South Wales logo on the side.
By the time they had completed the ten minute drive to the ranger station, Simon was studying his hand in fascination. There was a raised white lump surrounded by a circle of blanched skin and outside that a red rash was spreading down his finger. His hand was starting to swell, and a thin line of pain was being drawn up his arm.
Bluey sat Simon down on a wooden chair, took his hand and examined it. Simon studied his face. Dark coppery hair fell in front of his eyes, bleached lighter at the ends, just below his shoulders. His face was a uniform tan, except for a light patch around his eyes made by sunglasses that made him look like some strange Australian species of panda. Through the tan of his forearms, a haze of freckles were visible, and the vee of his shirt revealed wiry chest hair. Simon wondered whether Bluey’s tan extended under all that practical khaki.
Making a clicking noise, Bluey went and got an ice pack from the freezer. He paused and studied Simon, then got a bucket out of the cupboard.
“What’s that for?” said Simon, his voice sounding thready even to him.
“You’ll see, mate,” said Bluey. He picked up a couple of towels, then helped Simon up. “You just keep that arm still as you can, all right? And keep the ice on it; it’ll help.”
Simon leaned against Bluey’s warm side, closed his eyes, and nodded. They made their way out to the truck and Bluey helped Simon buckle in.
“Now, don’t be shy about using that bucket,” said Bluey as he climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine. Simon nodded pathetically, all his previous irritation with his ridiculous rescuer replaced by heartfelt gratitude.
Every bump hurt as they rattled down the dirt road to the highway. Bluey cast Simon several worried looks, and once reached over to pat him on the shoulder. “Buck up, kiddo,” he said, “smoother sailing from here on.”
“I sincerely hope so,” said Simon in a strained voice, pressing his un-bitten fist to his abdomen, which was cramping around itself.
After half an hour of increasingly strained silence, Simon said, “Stop the car, please.”
Giving him a startled glance, Bluey pulled onto the shoulder and Simon stumbled out into the undergrowth. When he returned, Bluey said, “That’s what the bucket was for, yanno.”
“No, it wasn’t,” said Simon calmly. Bluey made that clicking noise, somehow imbuing it with sympathy, and started the truck again.
By the time they reached the little regional hospital, Simon was propped up against the door, unable to decide which part of him hurt more. He tumbled out of the cabin into Bluey’s arms, and had to be carried, head lolling, into the little emergency room. The triage nurse said, “Hello Bluey, What’s this?”
“Pommy tourist. Reddy bite, I’d say; I eyeballed the culprit. Up in the park.”
This was apparently enough for the nurse, who whistled and gestured Bluey towards an empty bed. Simon took her hand and said, “I’m a journalist, madam, not a tourist.”
“‘Course you are, dearie,” she said.
Simon half-listened as the doctor and nurse conferred, then the doctor came over and said, “Mr Carroway, you’ve been bitten by a red back spider. It isn’t life threatening, but as you are having quite a bad reaction, we are going to give you the antivenin and keep you in overnight. Mr Carmichael has gone, but he said he would pick you up in the morning and take you back to your car.”
“Thank you, doctor,” mumbled Simon.
The antivenin brought about a blessed remission from his suffering, and apart from some rather lurid dreams, he awoke feeling sore and sunburnt, but not much else.
* * *
Bluey arrived, resplendent in khaki, covered in dirt, with his sunglasses pushed into his hair and his hat, which Simon now understood was called an akubra, in one hand.
“G’day, how ya feeling?” he asked, swinging Simon’s bag onto his shoulder as they walked back to the ute.
“Much better, thank you,” said Simon. “And thank you for looking after me yesterday.”
“No worries,” said Bluey. “Let’s get you back to your car, then.” They drove in silence for a while, then Bluey said, “So, journo, hey? Whatcha doing in the arse end of the world?”
“Researching an article; I’m writing about how Australia survived the GFC. The Global Financial Crisis.”
“Fair dinkum?” Bluey sounded only mildly interested. “So what the bloody hell you doing out here?”
Simon winced. “I, uh. Research. How long have you been a ranger?”
“Oh, since the bunyip left the billabong, at least,” said Bluey, tipping his hat back with one hand and scratching his forehead.
“And might I ask how long that it?” inquired Simon politely.
Bluey tilted his head. “Ten years or so, I reckon.” He took his sunglasses off and flicked Simon a quick glance. “So, dingoes and red backs. Have you met any of our other native fauna?”
“As in… a crocodile? No, not yet. I saw some kangaroos. They didn’t try to kill me; at the time I don’t think I appreciated how unusual that is among Australian wildlife.”
“Seen a drop bear?” Before Simon could reply, Bluey shook his head and answered himself: “No, ‘course not. No-one living’s seen a drop bear. Deadliest animals in the southern hemisphere.”
“Are you pulling my leg?”
“First documented drop bear sighting was near here, actually. Bloke came with one of those old cameras in the 1850s. They never found him, but they found the camera sure enough, and when they developed it all they could see was a creature like a giant koala, but with claws as long as your finger, and fangs dripping with blood.”
“Now I’m sure you’re pulling my leg,” said Simon, leaning back against the seat.
“Nah, mate, dead set, you should use that in your article.”
“Mmhmm,” said Simon.
“So what’re your plans after this?”
What were his plans? Simon cast his eyes up, mentally rifling through his itinerary. “Well, I have to be back in Sydney on Sunday, then I’m flying to Melbourne for a few days, then up to Cairns, then I fly back to London Monday next week.”
“Crikey, you know how to take it slow and enjoy the sights.” Bluey flexed his fingers on the steering wheel. “So what’re you going to do until Sunday?”
“Well, I was going to get a hotel room in town and start working on my article.” Simon hesitated. “I thought, with your consent, I might take a photo of you to include in it. Would that be all right?”
Bluey clicked his tongue against his cheek. “What, so you can stick it up alongside some porkies about how wild and dangerous Oz is? Have you been up to the rocks yet?”
“No…” Simon tilted his head and considered Bluey’s profile. Simon guessed he was in his mid-thirties, although he had a Puckish quality, and it would not have been entirely surprising if he turned out to be three hundred. Simon felt his heart thump a little harder.
“Well you can’t go back to the big smoke without seeing the rocks.”
Simon winced. “I think I’ve probably seen enough Australian nature for my article.”
“I’ll make ya a deal. Stick around for two more days, I’ll show you around the gap, and then I’ll let you take a pic of me for your story.” Bluey pushed his sunglasses down his nose, and pinned Simon with his light blue eyes.
Simon looked down at his lap, stifling a ridiculous smile. Melinda was going to murder him when she saw the story. Half-unbelieving at himself, he said, “It’s a deal, thank you.”
* * *
Very much against his will, Simon had reluctantly agreed to continue the camping experience. He sat around the ranger station, and in the midafternoon Bluey announced that he was off the clock and they could get going.
“What about the park?”
“There’s a ranger station in town,” said Bluey, “and my mate Jack is on duty up here tomorrow. We’ve only got some hikers registered in the park this week. Not all that many come out this far cos there’s a coupla bigger parks closer to Sydney. You were in the least popular campground too,” he added. “Dunno how the bloody hell you found it.”
“I Googled it,” mumbled Simon.
They left Simon’s car behind the station and struck off up the hill in the ute, driving until the sun was brushing the horizon and they reached a cleared site. “We’ll pitch here,” said Bluey. “Perks of being with a ranger; ordinary fellas have to stick to the campgrounds.”
Simon thought without fondness of the deserted campground he had stayed in two nights earlier. “Are there any dingoes around here?”
“‘Course there are,” said Bluey, more Puckish than ever, “but they’ll leave us alone.”
They pitched the tents and Bluey got a campfire going. “Tea?” he said.
“Oh, yes please.” They sat opposite each other while the water boiled, and then Bluey served hot water into two plastic camping mugs and plopped in teabags. He reached behind him and produced a hip flask, liberally fortifying his mug while Simon watched him in astonishment.
“Bundy?” said Bluey, holding it out.
“Er,” said Simon.
“Don’t like rum? More of a whiskey man?”
“No, rum is fine,” said Simon, and accepted the mug. He blew over the lip, disturbing the steam rising from the drink.
“So, what’s your story?” said Bluey.
“Not much to tell: grew up in England, father a professor, mother a doctor. Studied at City University London. You?”
“Oh, I grew up around here.” Bluey sipped his tea and smacked his lips. In the firelight, the pale skin around his eyes seemed to glow. Simon sighed. “I went to Sydney for uni, but it didn’t stick, so I came back here, took over my grandpa’s property, and been here ever since.”
“Why didn’t you finish your degree?”
“Coupla reasons.” Bluey looked into the fire, cradling his mug loosely in both hands. “I really only went cos my boyfriend and I wanted to try living together and not sneaking around under our parents’ noses. Then we broke up and my grandpa died, and I wasn’t all that keen on uni anyway, so I dropped out and came back here.” He shrugged. “Finished my degree by correspondence a coupla years ago though.”
Simon had only processed the beginning of this speech. “So you’re…”
Bluey looked at him across the fire. “Gay, yeah. What, you thought a rugged, manly bloke like me should be chasin’ the sheilas?”
“No, it’s just. Well. I, er.” Simon struggled to force the words out around his heart, which seemed to be trying to force its way into his windpipe. “I’m gay too.”
A smile broke across Bluey’s face. “Well stone the crows,” he said.
Feeling heat climb up his neck, Simon rolled his shoulders and asked, “Does it ever cool down?” The air around them was still, warm and damp.
“Nah, not in the summer.” Bluey shrugged, still eyeing Simon with a mixture of appraisal and amusement. “You look like you got a bit burnt the other day.”
“Yes, I think so,” said Simon. “This English skin of mine burns if the sun so much as peeps at it.”
“Shows a blush too, doesn’t it?”
Simon tucked his chin into his chest and stared, mortified, at the firelight reflected in his tea.
“Cheer up, only teasing.” Bluey stood up from the fire and went to the truck, rummaging in his pack until he pulled out a packet of pasta and some tinned spaghetti sauce. “Dinner?”
* * *
It was some time before Simon got to sleep. He lay in his sleeping bag with his head towards the tent flap, trying to catch whatever cool air might make its way through the fly screen. He was slightly befuzzed from the spiked tea, and the knowledge that Bluey was gay awoke in him the feelings he had been determinedly ignoring since he had been carried into the hospital. Although all he could really recall was the awful pain of the spider bite, he imagined Bluey’s muscled chest and strong arms encircling him, resting his head against Bluey’s khaki-clad shoulder.
Bloody hell. When had he developed a damsel-in-distress complex? He generally went for men in their late twenties, like him, who had artistically mussed hair and wore skinny jeans, not sweaty bushmen with ridiculous tan lines and vowels you could drive a lorry through.
He rolled over in his sleeping bag and put his arm over his head. He could hear Bluey rustling around in his own tent. Why did they bring two tents anyway? What a daft idea. Simon’s tent was easily big enough for two.
Just because he’s gay doesn’t mean he likes you, Simon told himself.
He had drifted off to sleep, lying on his stomach, when he was woken by a hissing noise. He tried to turn over and felt something on the sleeping bag, near his leg, which hissed again. He lay very still.
There was a snake in his tent. Breathe slowly, he told himself. Stay calm. Oh Jesus fucking Christ. The snake was a coiled lump near his feet, which meant it had already slithered past his head to get into the tent.
His breathing sped up until he knew he was hyperventilating. He was going to die.
The next time the snake stopped hissing at him, he reached forward and undid the zip on the fly screen. The hissing started again, and he froze. Could he get bitten through a sleeping bag? When it stopped, and he unzipped enough of the screen that he could slide out of the sleeping bag, out of the tent, and onto the dirt. Almost sobbing with relief, he turned and zipped the flyscreen, although it left the telltale gap at the bottom which was where the snake must have got in. Which meant it had passed within a handspan of his eyes.
His breathing peaked and merged with the strangled sobbing noise. He pulled himself up onto shaking legs and staggered over to Bluey’s tent.
“Bluey,” he said. “I’m dreadfully sorry to wake you, but there is a snake in my tent.”
He heard a rustle and then a torch flicked on and shone into his face. “That right?” said Bluey. “Give us a squiz.”
He climbed out of the tent and stood, hair askew, in his boxer shorts. Simon was in no state to appreciate the view. “It was sitting on my feet,” he said. “There was a fucking snake sitting on my feet hissing at me. Jesus bloody arse buggery Christ. I almost died.”
“Steady on, mate, you’ll make the cockatiels blush,” said Bluey. “Not all snakes’ll kill ya.” He shone the torch into Simon’s tent and said, “Ah, now that’s your common death adder.”
Simon’s voice climbed to new heights. “Common death adder? There is a common death adder in my tent? Which was this—” he held up his index fingers about ten inches apart “—close to my face?”
“Yeah, I was worried it was a tiger snake.”
Taking a couple of deep breaths, Simon said, “So the common death adder is not, in fact, deathly?”
“Oh yeah.” Bluey scratched his stomach. “It’ll give you a nasty bite, all right. But the tiger snake is worse, and we’re pretty close to a creek, which is their habitat.”
Bluey smiled at him and said fondly, “Calm down, you galah. You can kip in my tent tonight. Hold this.” He gave Simon the torch and went over to the snake-infested tent. “Shine it this way.” Opening the screen, he reached in and snagged the edge of the sleeping bag, tugging it out, ignoring the snake’s outraged hissing.
Once the sleeping bag was free, Bluey still leaning into the tent, said, “There you go, tent’s all yours, but I’ll leave the door open so you can pop out when you’re finished with it.”
He handed the sleeping bag to Simon, who held it gingerly away from himself. “What if it just follows us into your tent?” he said.
“What, you think it’s got a crush on you?” said Bluey with a cackle. “No worries, we’ll zip it up good, and I’ll sleep nearest the flap it to protect your virtue.”
They climbed into Bluey’s tent. It wasn’t as big as Simon’s, and as Simon wiggled into his sleeping bag he realised that they would be sleeping practically pressed up against each other. Bluey zipped both the fly screen and waterproof outer flap, then settled into his sleeping bag. “All right and tight?”
Lying on his side, his back to Bluey’s, which seemed to be radiating heat, Simon nodded.
* * *
When Simon awoke, he was alone in the tent. Rubbing his scalp, he climbed out and discovered Bluey standing next to the ute, still in his boxers, but wearing his boots, unlaced, without socks. Simon’s first thought was that, yes, there were more ridiculous tan lines to be discovered; Bluey’s torso was several shades lighter than his arms.
Shortly after this came a growing appreciation of Bluey’s well-muscled back and slender hips. His hair had evidently been finger-combed and was tied back at the nape of his neck. He turned around, and Simon’s gaze slid along collarbone and well-defined pectoral muscle before he dragged it up to Bluey’s face. “Good morning.”
“Morning,” said Bluey. “The good news is, your roommate has moved out, so you should be right to grab your stuff.”
“Oh, good,” said Simon.
“Just make sure you check your shoes before you put them on.” At Simon’s inquiring look, Bluey added, “Funnelwebs.”
Simon shuddered and held up his hand. “I don’t want to know.”
After breakfast, they packed up and climbed into the ute. Bluey turned the key in the ignition and it sputtered and seemed to catch, then went silent. “Hm,” said Bluey, and tried again. This time an even more half-hearted sputter was the response. “That might present a problem.”
“It looks like the battery’s gone flat. Shoulda replaced it a month ago.”
“Can you fix it?” said Simon, leaning forward in his seat.
“Nah, not without a spare or another car and jumper cables.” Bluey climbed out of the cabin, and after a moment Simon followed suit and met him at the back of the ute, fiddling with a hand-held radio.
“So what do we do?”
“Well, I can’t raise the station from here; the mountain’s in the way. So I say we hitch our packs and hike up to the gap from here.”
“How long will that take?”
“Oh, coupla days.”
“And what’s the alternative?”
Bluey looked at him over his sunglasses. “Find a spot where the radio works and someone will be here within a few hours.”
Attempting to keep his tone politely inquiring, Simon said, “And why can’t we do that?”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“I have a plane to catch in a coupla days as you put it.”
“I forgot,” said Bluey, tipping his akubra back and scratching his forehead, “you gotta go review cafes in Melbourne, right?”
“Well, yes,” said Simon.
“No worries.” Wordlessly, Bluey began pulling things out of his pack, leaving them in the tray of the ute.
Simon shifted from leg to leg, went around to his pack, and pulled out his mobile phone. Still no coverage. “Is anywhere around here going to get a phone signal?”
Bluey didn’t look up. “Depends on the provider. Maybe up on high ground,” he said. “The mountain is buggering around with that too. I can get coverage up on the rocks, usually.”
Simon squeezed his eyes shut. “All right,” he said. “Let’s hike up to there. If I can get phone coverage, I can change my flight anyway.”
Bluey favoured him with a grin that made his heart skitter. “You beauty,” he said, and emptied his pack with added gusto.
He seemed to be removing rather a lot of their food supplies, which prompted Simon to say, “Are you sure it’s a good idea to leave all this behind?”
“She’ll be right,” said Bluey, patting a container of flour as he put it in the pack. “We’ll have damper.”
They set off. There wasn’t much conversation; Simon was distracted by a long mental tirade at himself. Bluey walked behind him for a while, then circled around to adjust Simon’s pack straps. His boots were new, and they pinched, and he could feel sweat gathering on the band of his cap. Why the fuck had he agreed to this?
He focused for a moment on the bunch and stretch of Bluey’s arse in his tight khaki shorts, and then recommenced his mental lecture where it had left off.
Around midday, they reached a small watering hole created by a shelf of rock in a swift-flowing creek. Bluey gave Simon a speculative look and said, “Care for a swim?”
“Is it safe?”
“Yeah, ‘course. Been here heaps of times.”
A swim did sound rather good. He was sweating more than he had actually thought possible, and for the last hour he had been becoming increasingly concerned by how long it had been since he showered.
Bluey was already toeing off his boots and leaning down to take off his socks, his pack discarded next to him. He threw down his hat and pulled his shirt over his shoulders, muscles rippling under lightly freckled flesh. A complication of swimming occurred to Simon, and he turned his back to get undressed, willing his blood to keep circulating to his brain instead of heading quite so swiftly south.
He heard a splash and turned around to discover Bluey was already in up to his waist. Simon could just see the hem of his boxer shorts vanishing into the water, and he had put his akubra back on. “It’s bloody lovely,” he said to Simon and leaned back against a rock. He watched with an enigmatic half-smile as Simon tiptoed over to the pool and stuck a foot in. The water was cool and pleasant, and Simon stepped in, placing his feet carefully until he reached the deepest point, where the water came up to his mid-chest.
Bluey pulled his hair out of its elastic and ducked under the water, emerging dripping wet and grinning ear to ear.
“Watch out,” he said, pointing behind Simon, “there’s a box jellyfish over there.”
“What? Jesus Christ.” Simon fled the alleged stinger, and plastered himself flat against Bluey’s chest.
Bluey’s arms came up around him, and his entire frame shook with laughter. “That time I was definitely pulling your leg,” he said.
Simon forced his heart rate to slow and smacked the flat of his palm against Bluey’s chest. “You bastard,” he said.
“You gullible pom,” Bluey retorted.
Simon tried to pull away, but discovered he was being held fast. He looked up at Bluey, and found that handsome face tilted down to his. The water sluicing between their bodies turned warm.
“Hello,” said Bluey softly.
Simon’s mouth opened on a little sigh. He could feel Bluey’s prick against his hip. He closed his eyes and reached his hands around Bluey’s waist, and then he felt a puff of warm air on his lips. He froze, and then the soft brush of Bluey’s mouth on his released him. He tilted his head and leaned in, wrapping his arms around Bluey’s waist, locking his fingers together to keep his hands from sliding on the wet skin.
Bluey’s teeth tugged on his bottom lip, and then their mouths met and opened, tongues brushing against each other, breathing the same air.
Then Bluey shuffled them both backwards and Simon found his back pressed up against one of the granite boulders forming the wall of the pool. Bluey’s knee was between his legs, pulling him almost off his feet. Bluey’s tongue dove deep into his mouth; his big hands were on Simon’s hips, tilting them forward.
Bluey groaned and released Simon, stepping back. Simon made an interrogative noise.
“We’ve got two days, right? No hurry.” Bluey gave him a dazed smile and brushed his hand across his mouth. He turned around and located his hat floating brim-down nearby and threw it onto the bank near the packs. “C’mere.”
Simon paddled over to him, and Bluey scooped up water in his hand and sluiced it down Simon’s chest, following the path of the water between Simon’s pectorals with the pads of his fingers. Simon ducked under the water and ran his hands across his torso, under his arms, around the back of his neck. He surfaced and pushed his hair back with both hands.
“This place is gorgeous,” he said, looking up at the dappled light through the Eucalypts, shining off the glossy granite boulders, the splash of water into the pool and then the gurgle as it overflowed the rock shelf and continued on its way down the mountain.
Bluey waded across and sat on a rock just out of the water, his feet dangling into the pool. “You’re definitely sunburnt.”
“Not just blushing, then?”
“Whatcha got to blush about?”
“Nothing at all.” Simon climbed onto the rock beside him and lay back, the midday warmth sinking into his wet skin.
* * *
Eventually, with an air of Herculean effort, Bluey climbed up from the rock and went over to his pack, extracting two muesli bars and holding one up. Rousing from his doze, Simon discovered he was ravenous and padded over to take the snack.
After lunch, they refilled spare canteens with water to carry until it could be boiled that evening because Bluey didn’t think they’d encounter another creek. Then they kept walking, up through the Eucalyptus forest.
Bluey maintained a steady stream of information, including pointing out the differences among bluegums, ironbark, and scribblybark trees, and educating Simon on the various bird calls of the kookaburra, the rosella, and the cockatoo. At one point he stopped and held up his hand. “I reckon that’s a lyrebird,” he whispered. Then he slowly pointed his finger to the right of where they were standing. Simon followed his gaze and saw a brownish bird around the size of a pheasant standing in a cleared patch of woodland. It produced a series high-pitched, swooping birdcalls, and then paused and they heard the distinctive laughing call of the kookaburra.
“I could swear…” whispered Simon.
“Yup. Sneaky little fellow. Lyrebirds are excellent mimics. It’s how they attract a mate. Don’t hear so much of it in summer, though.”
They moved on and up. Every now and then, Bluey would stop and examine a tree or shrub. Sometimes he’d pull some leaves or fruit off it and put it in the breast pocket of his shirt.
About midafternoon they were walking along, Simon thought, minding their own business, when it felt as if someone threw a ball at the back of his head. He ducked and put his hand to his skull. “Ouch, what the fuck just happened?”
Bluey turned around and ducked. This time, something skidded across the top of his scalp. His hand came away bloody.
“Magpie,” said Bluey, “we must be near a nest. Once we get out of range it’ll—duck!”
Simon bent at the knees just in time to avoid a talon to the eye. “Walk faster,” he said, waving his hands above his head in the hope that would deter the homicidal bird. Instead, he got a scratched hand. He broke into a jog, pack jiggling behind him
They heard a curious warbling call. “That’s the magpie,” said Bluey.
“Interesting,” said Simon. “Is it apologising?”
“More likely telling us to get out and stay out,” said Bluey. “Magpies are very protective of their nests.” He paused then added, Simon assumed, to the bird, “Sorry mate, we’ll get outta your way now.”
“Admirable.” Simon checked his head for damage. There were a few points of pain, but they all seemed to have stopped bleeding.
Eventually, Bluey paused in a clearing and said, “We’ll camp here.”
“But there’s still hours of daylight.”
“Yep, but I need to get a fire going before it starts raining.” He pointed at a bank of heavy grey clouds on the horizon.
“Oh, fucking perfect,” muttered Simon.
Bluey winked at him and said, “Why don’t you set up the tent, hey?” They’d only brought Simon’s tent, which was the larger of the two.
Once the fire was going, Bluey boiled all the water they’d carried, then produced the flour and a mixing bowl. By the time Simon had pitched the tent, the fire had burned through its tinder and a lump of aluminium foil sat in the coals. Bluey patted the ground beside him and held out a mug of tea, which Simon accepted; it was generously spiked with rum again. They sat in companionable silence until Simon’s stomach rumbled.
Bluey laughed and produced a handful of yellow berries the size of olives and offered them to Simon. “Appleberries. Try one.”
Simon took the fruit and popped it in his mouth. It tasted like stewed apples. “That’s delicious. What’s in the foil?”
“Damper,” said Bluey happily, “flavoured with native thyme and saltbush.” He tipped a couple more appleberries into Simon’s hand and leaned back on his hands, looking up at the sky in the fading light.
The damper turned out to be heavy bread made of only water and flour, which was extremely filling and surprisingly tasty. The first drops of rain began to fall, so they took everything including the damper into the tent and lounged in their sleeping bags listening to the splatter of rain on the side. Bluey held the torch pointed at the ground between them, and at some point he leaned over and pressed his lips to Simon’s and then they were lying side by side, Bluey’s arm over Simon’s shoulder, lazily kissing and nuzzling in the darkness.
Simon kicked out of his sleeping bag and pressed himself against Bluey, who hooked his thumbs in Simon’s boxer shorts and pushed them down, freeing his hardening prick. He wrapped his broad fist around the shaft and began to pump it. Simon wrapped his arm around Bluey’s shoulder and pressed his nose against Bluey’s neck, eyes squeezed shut, trying to stifle the groaning noises.
“Ah, Jesus, Simon,” muttered Bluey. He kicked his way out of his sleeping bag and rolled atop Simon, supporting his weight with his elbows on either side of Simon’s head, resting his hips on Simon’s so that their cocks were only separated by Bluey’s boxer shorts. Simon pushed against him and Bluey responded by moving his hips, making them both gasp.
Simon raised his knee and rolled Bluey, then crawled down his body, finishing curled with his knees near Bluey’s shoulders. He rested his head on his hands on Bluey’s hip, considering his prick silhouetted by the light of the torch, still trapped in his boxer shorts.
Well, that was easily solved. Sliding his fingers between fabric and flesh, he pulled the shorts off and left them around Bluey’s knees before returning his attention to the swelling appendage before him. Bluey’s hand was resting possessively on his hip, and when Simon looked up, he saw Bluey had lifted his shoulders off the ground so he could watch what Simon was doing. Simon smiled to himself and put his hand around Bluey’s prick, raising it and giving it a few preliminary strokes.
He paused. “Do you have a condom?”
Wordlessly, Bluey nodded. Moving with visible discomfort, he half-twisted and rummaged in his pack until he found the first aid kit. There, tucked behind band-aids and sachets of saline were a couple of little square packets. Simon took one with a snort. “What kind of emergencies are these for?” he said as he took the serrated edge in his teeth and pulled the packed open.
“Always good to be prepared,” said Bluey as Simon rolled the condom onto his cock.
That done, Simon leaned over and wrap his mouth around the head. When he was sure he had Bluey’s attention, he hummed. The reaction was instantaneous. “Bloody oath,” Bluey swore, and his hips bucked off the tent floor. “That’s some birdsong you got there, mate.”
Simon slid his mouth onto Bluey’s cock as far as it would go, and brought his hand up to meet it. He had set up a rhythm that was wringing a series of bucks, moans and colourful exclamations from Bluey, when he felt a bolt of pressure through his crotch and froze. Bluey’s hand had found its way back to his prick and closed around it. Bluey gave him a glittering smile and tilted his head, a clear invitation.
As Simon slid his mouth down Bluey’s shaft, he felt an answering tug on his prick. Bluey was mirroring his timing, the bastard.
He sped up, unable to stop the twisting of his own hips, even as he tried to concentrate. “Watching you squirm is like having a goanna by the tail,” Bluey gasped out, and Simon stopped, pulled his mouth away with a slick pop. He raised his eyebrows. “I’m sorry, Jesus, keep going, Jesus, please,” said Bluey, and Simon obliged him.
Simon had his free hand pressed against Bluey’s abdomen, and he felt the moment when Bluey’s muscles began to coil and spasm towards orgasm. He pulled away, leaving the Australian staring dazedly up at him.
“Don’t suppose you have any lube in that incredibly comprehensive first aid kit?”
It took a visible effort for Bluey to process that question. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s in there somewhere.”
Simon blinked. “You do come prepared.”
Bluey put his hands on his belly and looked over at Simon. “I really like you,” he said. “So I was hoping…”
“How’d you know I was gay?”
He got a blithe smile in return. “We Aussies are an optimistic bunch.”
Simon, having found the lube, was willing to let that one go. He opened the tube and squeezed some onto his hand, then gave Bluey’s prick a couple of pumps.
“Here,” said Bluey, taking the tube. As Simon settled astride his crotch, Bluey reached behind him and pushed first one finger, then another, into Simon’s arse. Simon threw back his head and sighed, tilting his hips for easier access.
That being done, Simon reached under himself to take Bluey’s prick, and sank onto it. As always, there was the feeling of his body’s being stretched, testing the juncture of pleasure and pain. Then his buttocks met Bluey’s hips and he rested for a moment, testing, squeezing his muscles around the intrusion. Bluey groaned, and Simon looked down at him. He had his hands splayed over Bluey’s chest, a nipple between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. He pinched it.
“Crikey,” Bluey said, grinding out the syllables.
“You really are Australian to your core, aren’t you?” said Simon.
“True blue,” replied Bluey, putting his hands on Simon’s hips and coaxing him to rise up.
Simon’s body seemed as reluctant to release Bluey’s cock as it had been to accept it; they both groaned at the friction. The second fall was easier, and after a while it was comfortable, then pleasurable, to bounce up and down on Bluey’s cock. Bluey’s hands stayed on Simon’s hips, dragging him up and pulling him down. Simon’s head fell back, and he struggled to breathe through the sensations drowning him.
He kicked the torch with his knee and sent the dim light lancing around the tent, lighting up raindrops in silhouette. He heard the rain, but distantly, like a soundtrack to their fucking.
Bluey’s hands on his hips held him still and he looked down. “Lemme flip you,” said Bluey, “so I can jack you off.”
Simon nodded, and found himself on his back, legs up in the air. Bluey smiled down at him, his white teeth the only thing visible. He braced himself low, elbow next to Simon’s head, and reached between them with his other hand to wrap around Simon’s cock.
Simon arched back and hit his head against the ground. His legs spasmed, tendons pulling tight, toes curling. Bluey thrust into him and tugged on his cock, once, twice, three times.
There was sweat slicking the skin between them, rolling off Bluey’s forehead. His hair was plastered tight to his temples. Simon put his hands up and tangled his fingers in those tangled copper strands and pulled Bluey’s head down to him.
Their lips met, and it was barely a kiss; it was another manifestation of the violence of Bluey’s thrusts into Simon’s body, the insistent pressure around his cock. He pushed his tongue between Bluey’s teeth and arched his hips to meet Bluey’s thrusts. He felt his belly tighten and he gasped, then groaned, then there was spunk all over his stomach.
Bluey let out a long sigh like a deflating air mattress, and collapsed forward, his head hanging on his shoulders, elbows either side of Simon’s head.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he muttered.
“Seconded,” said Simon, hearing the threadiness in his own voice.
* * *
In the morning, the rain had passed, leaving damp wood, soggy leaf litter, and mud. They were delayed moving on when Bluey pushed Simon down and sucked him off, and then again when Simon gave Bluey a hand job against a tree.
When they eventually began walking, Bluey said, “Watch out for leeches.”
“Leeches,” said Simon direfully.
“Had a mate once who ended up with six leeches on his shin. His leg was bleeding so much it was like the self-serve coke machine at Hungry Jacks.” He made a clicking noise. “Well, it’s only a few k’s to the ridge, where we’ll have phone signal and radio coverage then a few hours more until we’re reunited with the outside world.”
Simon pressed his lips together. “All right,” he echoed with even less conviction than Bluey.
They reached the ridge an hour later, identifiable by a rocky outcrop. “C’mon,” said Bluey, dropping his pack. “Follow me.” Without waiting for a reply, he vanished between two massive granite boulders, each the size of a one-storey house. A short scramble over a series of rocks later, they were standing on a long, sloping piece of granite, above the treeline, looking down. “These’re the famous rocks, and that’s the gap,” said Bluey. “Ain’t she something?”
“Breathtaking,” said Simon, looking down at the rolling green-blue forest, punctuated by granite outcrops like the one they stood on. In the far distance, he could see where the forest ended, and cleared farmland began. The sun had come out and the heat of the morning was swiftly drying the rock. Simon sat down and stuck his feet out in front of him. He pulled out his phone and discovered it was reluctantly conceding him one bar of coverage. He dialled the airline and made his way through the auto-responder until a man picked up. Since he hadn’t yet technically missed his flight, he changed it without trouble to the next day. He really did need to get to Melbourne at some point.
When he hung up, Bluey was standing behind him gazing out at the view. “My mate Jack’s on his way up. He’ll be here in a few hours.”
“That’s great, ” said Simon. “Shall we explore?”
“Sure thing, just let me sit here for a while.”
Simon nodded, and they sat down side by side, looking out over the forest. Simon leaned his shoulder against Bluey’s.
“This is my place,” said Bluey in a rather mystical tone. Simon thought he had never seemed so much like a hundred-year-old bush creature as he did sitting there in his khaki, knees drawn up to his chest, copper hair peeping out from underneath his akubra, looking out over the landscape.
“Your place is stunning,” said Simon.
“Thank you.” There was simple pride in Bluey’s voice. He turned and pushed Simon flat onto the rock, climbing atop him and sliding his hand into Simon’s pants. “It’s your place now, too,” he said.
Simon put his hands around Bluey’s neck and dropped one knee out to the side so Bluey could get to his prick. “Does that mean it’s going to stop trying to kill me?” he asked.
* * *
The heat of the day was fading away, and the sky was sliding from blue to indigo. They were sitting beside a creek cut deep into the rock, and dangling their feet in the water. Simon couldn’t help yawning; he was tired in every bone and every muscle of his body. There was a sated feeling coiled in his belly, and a niggling pain in the vicinity of his heart.
Watching the water of the creek, he saw a splash and then a sleek brown head, barely visible. “Look,” he said, “is that a platypus?”
Bluey blinked and narrowed his eyes, leaning forward. “Yep,” he said. He drew his feet out of the water.
Simon sat very still, hoping the creature would come closer. “Isn’t it adorable?”
“You should probably get your feet away,” said Bluey, more serious than Simon had seen him.
“Whyever for? Is it going to try and eat me?” The platypus swam closer, oblivious to his audience.
“Seriously.” Bluey tugged on Simon’s arm. “You do not want to get stung by one of those.”
“Stung? Are you telling me that adorable creature has a stinger?”
“Spurs on its hind legs. Nasty venom, trust me. Rips through your nervous system and doesn’t clear out for days.”
Simon threw up his hands and got up. “Well, that’s just fucking typical. Everything in this entire fucking country is deadly.” He stomped back to his shoes. “You can’t take a step without getting bitten by a spider or chased by dingoes.”
“Well, you came into their habitat,” said Bluey.
“I don’t care. In every civilised country, the wildlife has given up and capitulated to its human conquerors, but not here. Oh no–you Aussies are locked in a battle for this country with every animal that lives here. The snakes want to fuck you up; the spiders want you dead. The birds will peck out your eyes, and even the adorable small furry creatures stand ready at any moment to take up their positions as the foot soldiers of Satan. Fuck Australia; I’m going home before the animals rise up and kill you all.”
“Oi, steady on,” said Bluey.
“That’s all you have to say? Oi, steady on? How can you be so blasé? Does your life mean nothing to you?”
Bluey shrugged. “Worst thing I’ve ever been bitten by was a mosquito, and I’m pretty sure you got them in London.”
Simon ran his hand across his eyes. “You’re right, I’m sorry. You’ve been jolly decent to me, Bluey, and it’s hardly your fault that this entire continent apparently has it in for me.”
“Well, you are a pom, and it is cricket season.” Bluey hid a smile behind his hand. “Let’s go wait on the road. Jack should be here soon.”
A little while later, a four-wheel drive rattled up the patch and stopped by them. “Well, well, well,” said the driver, another tanned, white-toothed Aussie.
“Thanks Jacko, I owe ya one.”
“You sure do. Hop in.”
* * *
Jack had presumably gone to his own home, so it was just Bluey and Simon in the ranger station. There was an air of endings that night, as if they had already started the process of saying goodbye to this strange weekend and to each other. The little camp bed was narrow and uncomfortable, but it held them both, Bluey’s stomach to Simon’s back, Bluey’s arm clamped to Simon’s stomach keeping their bodies close as he pressed his cock into Simon’s body.
In the morning, they stood like two boys introduced by their mothers and told to play together. Simon said, “Would you mind if I got that photo now?”
“Oh, yeah, no worries,” said Bluey. “Outside?”
“Definitely.” Bluey stood next to a scribblybark tree and smiled, showing twenty or so of his white teeth to the camera.
“I haven’t got any release forms with me, so I’ll post you one along with a copy of the picture. And the article, when it’s done.”
“Email’s fine too,” said Bluey.
“Er, right.” Simon ducked his head and accepted a piece of paper with an email address written on it. “So, I had better get going.”
Bluey leaned against the wall of the station. “Those cafés won’t review themselves.”
“No, they certainly won’t. Listen, if you’re ever in the UK, look me up, all right?”
Smiling, Bluey said, “I will. And hey, Simon.”
Simon turned around from loading his pack into the car. “Yes?”
“Watch out for yowies. They’re nasty critters with long white hair and feet on backwards. There’s a lot of them around Melbourne.”
Giving Bluey a narrow look, Simon said, “Yowies.”
“Do they have razor sharp claws?”
“And fangs dripping blood?”
Simon nodded as he got into the car. “I’ll be careful,” he said.
* * *
Author’s note: I apologise equally and unreservedly to any Australians or British people who were offended by the wild stereotyping satirising in this story. This story can optionally be read with this song playing on repeat as the soundtrack.
Finally: you probably shouldn’t try to play fetch with dingoes.