As the life of a writer is frequently very dull and lonely (hence my addiction to Facebook, where I can have contact, however virtual, with other people), I am often grateful to have company during the day, even if comes in the form of surreptitious scratchings in the roof.
I speak of possums, of which I think there are about three resident. They used to move about more freely and make much more noise, but now they have to do battle with the newly-installed insulation which hopefully will not swoop them into a conflagration and leave us with a residue of burnt possum fur, or worse.
Most of my stories about possums revolve around my sister, as she is the one who hears them in the night and relates their activities to me in the morning. Her affinity with possums began at an early age. When she a girl and we were living on the farm, she woke up one night to find a possum sitting at the end of her bed, looking at her. I don’t know how it got in, unless it found a hole in the gauze windows. She went and woke Mum up, who woke Dad up, who chased it outside.
More recently, Sister has been doing battle with a persistent and insistent fellow who jumps from the tree outside the kitchen window onto the ledge and rattles the blinds in an attempt to get in.
One day his ingress was successful, and he made so much noise he woke her up. She found him on the kitchen bench and hissed at him, and then the dog barked, and the children got up. I must have rolled in my sleep because I heard the noise, but I thought it was someone across the road having an argument and went back to sleep.
When I got up the next morning, she insisted on giving me an account of what had happened, even though it takes me a good hour to wake up and I hadn’t at that point reached a level of functioning consciousness. However one doesn’t need to lipread Sister in the morning; she makes herself heard.
‘I learned that possum!’ she cried. ‘I showed him who’s boss around here.’
‘I don’t doubt that,’ I mumbled, concentrating on assembling my breakfast and on not encouraging any further penetrating narratives.
At other times, a year ago, she would be woken a whomp at 3am precisely, presumably when the possum had finished its night time activities and dropped back inside the roof for a sleep.
And sometimes, while eating dinner, we would drop our cutlery when there was an almighty screech, which again would set the dogs off.
‘What the hell was that?’ I asked, unable to tell what or where the sound had come from.
‘Having a scrag fight?’
‘Yes. Above the fridge. They always fight above the fridge.’
‘There must be special possum territory above the fridge.’
Possums were introduced to New Zealand in the 1800s in an attempt to create a fur trade, but its numbers have escalated to the point where it is now a pest and culled for its fur (so the fur trade part definitely worked). While I was living in London, my NZ grandmother sent me some gloves made from a blend of possum fur and merino wool and they were brilliantly warm in the winter cold. To stir, I used to tell the Poms I was wearing dead possum, to which they invariably replied, ‘What’s a possum?’
Other things that I like about possums are their allegorical qualities. ‘I’m so tired the bags under my eyes could sleep possums,’ a worn-out doctor friend once told me. And one of my favourite phrases, ‘bright-eyed and bushy tailed’, seems to pertain more accurately to possums than to the cats or squirrels to which it originally refers.
Finally, they are very Australian creatures. Who can forget Dame Edna Everage cooing, ‘Hello possums!’ as s/he glided onstage, or Mem Fox’s wonderful Possum Magic which, with its beautifully illustrated accounts of possums, pavlovas and Australian capital cities, is utterly charming. Yes, possums might wake other people up and chew all the fruit and decimate the basil in the pots outside, but I like having them around.