I’m at my desk, the sun's not yet up, and I should be working on the novel I’m writing, but I’m distracted by the brushtail possum freeway outside my window. It runs along the gutter of the neighbour’s roof, down to the power line and across into the big jacaranda in our front yard. Most of the possums are on their way to bed at this time, like little lorries filled to the brim with our back garden, but a couple are living dangerously, going back for one last pull on our lillypillies before the sun finds them. There are so many today that those going back have to stop and hang upside down on the wire using their claws and tails to hold on while the others pass over them. Soon they’ll need signs, congestion ahead, road narrows.
In my last novel In Falling Snow the central character Iris, an old woman at novel’s opening, finds on the footpath an ailing baby ringtail possum. This was based on something that really happened to me. I was walking home from school drop-off and there on the footpath was a tiny ringtail possum. I wrapped it in my jumper and took it home and then to our local vet, who cares for wildlife. Iris takes the possum home and cares for it. It was such a lovely thing to write about. But when the novel was being translated into American, the editor, who had a great eye for story, told me I had to get rid of the possum. Possums are like rats in the US, a pest, she said. I tried to explain the difference between brushtails and ringtails. Unlike Thor, the brushtail who lives in our ceiling - who woke me at 3 this morning when he got in a fight, who eats every new tree we plant down to its stalk - ringtails eat virtually nothing and make little round nests called dreys from whence they pop their little red heads out to say hello. It didn’t work. A possum’s a possum, the editor said. I struggled with what to do. “Make it a sugar glider,” my husband suggested. Sugar gliders, those sweet little fairy-faced creatures, did live in Brisbane in the 70s. I emailed my editor a picture and she said yes, perfect. And the fact a sugar glider is a possum, well, that didn’t matter once you’d seen the picture.
Brushtail possums are also pests in New Zealand, where they kill them and make cardigans out of them. Here in Queensland, they’re native animals and you’re not allowed to harm them, although given the things they do at our place, it’s hard to tell the difference between them and pests. I’ve considered doing something about the god of thunder that lives in our ceiling but it’s not straightforward. Sure, he shreds the insulation and throws it down onto the deck, and he can be heard all day burping up the herbs he’s decimated the night before. But in the wild, he’d curl up in the hollow of a tree, and all the trees with hollows in our street were chopped down a long time ago to make way for houses and coffee shops. I’ve always thought the least we could do is offer a ceiling. On the other hand, maybe brushtails have adapted too well. As I watch the freeway procession, I think surely there were never this many tree hollows. And enough is enough. I’m only awake because Thor picked that fight and thundered across the roof with his brushtail hammer. It’s time for him to go.
We’ll do it ourselves, I decide, stuff newspaper in the ceiling gaps this morning to find out where he comes out and seal it tonight while he’s gone. Surely even Thor knows he can’t wee down our walls and keep the room. Frankly, I don’t care if he dies homeless. He’s insulted the insulation, pulled up the parsley and decimated the deck plants for the last time.
At six, the writing long forgotten, I climb the ladder to look for the gap. Instead I come face to face with himself. He shifts and I get a flash of dark fur. I see a little hand hanging down through the eaves. I could almost take it and hold it, I think, like a child’s hand, except for those claws. And then I see a little pink nose. Oh God, and there’s a second little nose, even smaller, and a miniature hand. It’s not one possum, it’s two, a mother and baby. There will be no eviction. I’ll just pretend they’re sugar gliders.