4: Possums Moving In
When younger I lived in a share house, and between housemates we took-in two backpackers as interim tenants. Nice enough lads they were and paid the rent on time but within two weeks another backpacker moved in, then another, and before we kicked them out six weeks later, eight backpackers were crowded into the one bedroom.
A similar thing was happening with possums in the roof of our weatherboard house, except unlike the big-boozing backpackers, the possums’ wildness in this case was distilled from desperate undertakings. Across the road the demolition was done and construction had begun; several big gum trees were felled and all the recently evicted possums were seeking out new homes. It would come as no surprise that the arguments and fighting in our heavily populated roof started to impinge on our sleep.
Most afternoons I was first home. I would open the door to the stench of musk and organic matter so powerful I’d have to open every window and the back door to get some fresh air in. Brushtails are coprophores – they eat their own faeces – so you can imagine how it reeked.
I took on a habit of conducting a daily possum roll-call. I’d walk along my front landing and place my palm on the fibro underside of the porch roof, where cavities formed between the rafters. Based on the warmth or coolness of the panels I could tell if a sleeping possum was in residence. I counted as many as six at any one time. The possums surely must have been struggling with their new compartmentalised and overpopulated living arrangements, like refugees in detention.
Things were getting ridiculous. So one evening after the possums had woken up and evacuated my roof space I joined them and all the tomcats and other night-dwellers and went out on the prowl. I wandered across the road to the construction site and obtained the disused building material I required to construct some possum hutches.
I built two boxes, filled them with tempting possum morsels, climbed up a tree in my front yard and secured them steadfastly to the boughs. Over the weeks following, I set a light up to illuminate the roof-space and hopefully deter the possums from returning to sleep in their dark nooks during the day. I hoped they’d take up residence in the nice new cosy boxes; I hoped Tab and I might have some uninterrupted sleep.
I was in and out of the tiny manhole in the kitchen several times a day. Our house had quite high ceilings; and the manhole was smaller diagonally than the breadth of my shoulders. My entry technique involved standing on a bench-top, tilting first my left shoulder through the hole then my right, before launching upwards to my chest. My flailing feet then sought out a nearby overhead cupboard from which I’d push further upwards and wiggle my hips through to be born into the mysterious pungent world of my possum housemates. I am still bemused about how the cupboard remained on its precarious fixings until the day we moved out.
In truth I’d become a possum tragic. Sometimes I’d spend long periods in the roof in an attempt to gain a sense of the living space where the possums fought and quarreled, where they groomed and courted, where they slept and suckled. Without any roof insulation the cavity’s ambient temperature remained surprisingly comfortable in all weather. The dust clung to every surface – a sooty layer of wood smoke and goods-trains from bygone years. Along with the warm-blooded respiration of the mammalian inhabitants, the atmosphere was dank, humid and almost homely. There was a sharp overtone of the glandular, rusty scent of the possums – a mixture of smells I found repugnant yet also strangely pleasant. In changeable weather, outside temperature variations encouraged sharp noises from the terracotta tiles as they rubbed and popped against one another. I could also detect softer noises I knew were the warm bodies of the possums rolling around in their sleeping nooks.
The roof space was dirty and I’d return rather soiled to my part of the house, so I set aside a change of old clothes specifically for ‘Blair’s roof-time’. I loved being in the roof. I had to. The possums weren’t taking to the boxes I’d built and illuminating the roof in day time hadn’t deterred them in the slightest; the nightly fights, spats and squabbling continued. Reluctantly, I had to enact Plan B and issue eviction orders. The time had come to block up all the access holes in the roof.