I needed to get away. Away from the constant threat of catching COVID, of being wrapped in PPE, of working 16-hour days. Away from the headaches, the mind fog, and the exhaustion. Away from the guilt of leaving my colleagues to deal with the influx of new patients that kept flooding our ward like a never-ending tsunami. I'd been in the Covid ward since the first case arrived, two years ago, and as I was the most experienced, was given the responsibility of organizing the rosters, teaching the special infection control protocols to staff, ordering stock, as well as caring for patients. After collapsing at work, I was diagnosed with PTSD. All the nurses working on the COVID ward were also exhausted from the long hours, frustrated with staff shortages and one by one becoming sick. When I objected to taking time off, I was told I was not indispensable and to just go home. However, home was not where I needed to be at that time, so I Googled 'isolated country cottages' and found one only eighty kilometres away.

I picked up the keys from the Real Estate's office and drove along a dirt road through bushland looking for my hideaway. I spied it hidden among the gum trees. A small cottage with, of all things, a rocking chair on the verandah, I wondered if there was a plum tree and a clothesline out the back? Delighted I pulled up to the front door, retrieved my overnight bag from the back seat and turned the key to my new little home of peace and quiet for four days. It was rustic, very rustic, just one big room, a bed with a patchwork quilt covering a large puffy doona and four feather pillows, one bedside table with an old lamp standing on a crocheted doily. Sitting on the small Laminex topped table was a large bowl of fruit and a cake tin with a note, saying "Welcome, to Possum Cottage. Milk in the fridge". I found the kettle, filled it with the bottle of water that said, 'Use me for tea and coffee' and while waiting for the kettle to boil went in search of the toilet. Hoping like hell it wasn't a dunny in the back yard with red back spiders. I was in luck, behind a green painted wooden door was an en-suite painted in sparking white with two large white fluffy towels hanging on the towel rail near the shower recess.

Sipping a mug of tea and munching the fruit cake from the tin I sat on the settee, just like the one my nanna had years ago. There was no lounge suite, but two comfy looking chairs facing the fireplace. I looked around with satisfaction. Yes, I thought this will do me for a few days, back to basics and surrounded by nature. I put a match to the little pile sticks so expertly arranged in the fireplace and a warm cosy glow filled the room. I was starting to feel better already.

Sinking into the ever so soft feather mattress I pulled the doona over my shoulders and settled in for a night of undisturbed sleep. I was drifting into slumberland when pit boots clomped across the roof. I took a sharp intake of breath and sat up, listening for it again, was I dreaming, or did I really hear footfall on the roof? Again, the thump thump above my head with more footsteps following, then a loud grunt. I took a deep breath and clenched my fists, nails biting into my palms. I tip toed out of bed moved the lace curtain aside, shined the torch to see two large eyes staring at me above a man-sized form. Panicked I hurried to the door and with shaking hands turned the key to lock myself in. Looking around for a weapon I spied the poker on the hearth, picked it up and stood near the door waiting for my assailant.

The fire was dying, and I was shivering. No noises for at least an hour, so I jumped back into bed. Just as I was relaxing, a rumbling in the distance shook the cottage and a strong white light flooded the room and at the same time a crack so loud, I thought my head would split, followed by an almighty thump that shook the house. I covered my head with the doona like I did when a child scared of the dark. Was I imagining this? Was my PTSD out of control? Noises on the roof started again, this time it sounded like a million stones being thrown. Then came a loud whooshing sound. Being brave I crept to window and looked out onto a torrent of water falling in front of me. It was raining. No, it was pouring. I was relieved, not even a seasoned criminal would risk this weather to break into a cottage to rape and pillage. Back to bed and I fell asleep to the comforting sound of rain on a tin roof.

Loud knocking woke me. Sunlight was streaming through the lace curtain. It was morning and I was still alive and safely tucked in bed. I pulled on jeans and jacket over my pyjamas and went to the window to peek outside at who was knocking on my door. An SES truck, a fire engine and a police car were parked outside, and a man was frantically knocking on my door and yelling my name. Ah ha I thought maybe they have caught the assailant who was threatening me last night. I opened the door, feeling smug that I was safe. I was greeted by a fallen gum tree behind which a man was leaning across to access my door.

'Good morning, hope you are OK. That was a bloody big storm last night, the lightning took down this tree and lucky for you just missed the cottage and your car', he waved towards the SES truck with four men dressed in yellow standing by, 'are going to cut it up so you can get out, so don't be alarmed by the noise.' I just nodded, dumfounded, when he added, 'Forgot to tell you possums climb on the roof at night, that's why it's called Possum Cottage, and keep your eyes out for owls, they perch in that tree over there. Lots of wildlife around here, enjoy the rest of your stay.'

Bleary eyed I put the kettle on and murmured, 'Well I did want to get back to nature.'

© Maureen Smith