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Off the Cuff: Journeys of learning

The first night she heard it in 1984 — distinctly on the roof — she ran from the bedroom in a state of panic

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The first night she heard it in 1984 — distinctly on the roof — she ran from the bedroom in a state of panic. They'd been talking about poltergeists at dinner after Jerry had gone looking for the salt and found it had relocated from its place on the kitchen shelf to a spot behind the stove.

"Things just up and move. One moment they're here the next a hunt is on and I end up finding the item miles from where I'd left it," Jerry had been saying with a poker face, although they were aware he was poking fun at his partner Sandra's penchant for displacing objects.

"You'll find, Mala, there are eventually two types of people in life: putters and leavers. I, unfortunately, am the former. However, I reckon it takes the two to make a relationship work."

They'd all laughed, welcomed Mala once again on her visit to Sydney from Delhi, and said goodnight.

And now, at 20 minutes after one in the morning, the sound of something running on the floor of the ceiling.

"It's funny how when you awake with a start and think you've heard something you lie for a minute waiting for the sound to repeat. Sure enough it came again, the pat pat of steps running swiftly followed by a dull thud, followed in turn by total silence," said Mala.

Jerry and Sandra found her the next morning curled up on the sitting room couch. It was their laughter — bordering on evil cackling — that brought her awake with a second fright.

Time, after all, plays out differently in dreams and nightmares — events and occurrences are compressed and what in the retrospective safety of the day may appear epic was actually ‘enacted' within a few short minutes in the dreamscape.

"Jerry forgot to warn you about the real resident poltergeists, Mala," confessed Sandra, cracking eggs for omelettes and breaking into peals of laughter. "Jerry will take you on a tour after breakfast and show you where they live."

When Mala stuck her head through the trapdoor to the roof she didn't know what to expect but her mind at least was grounded once more in reality. Plus Jerry was leading the way with a torch. It was astonishing to discover how spacious the roof was, like a large attic.

"There! Look!" commanded Jerry in hushed tones.

There they were, indeed. Once her eyes adjusted Mala could discern shape and form. Little silvery bodies, the size of a cat, the large ears and the dark bushy tail. Curled up, sound asleep.

"It's a possum," whispered Jerry. "And I don't think it's playing dead. This is autumn, the mating season and it's probably sleeping off the exertions of the night before. Come, look here."

More possums. All asleep.

Later Sandra took Mala around the garden pointing out the larger trees and, barely visible, the possum nests, known as drays.

"Male and female work together to build them," informed Sandra. "You might spot them with their tails curled up carrying material to build several nests. Sometimes these overlap with another possum family's territory but they appear to get on. Their enemies are dogs, cats and the odd muscular owl. They eat leaves, love rose buds [so gardens are never safe], the young ones are suckled in pouches and only leave home at a year and a half, and they've lived close to man for ages. Our possums are amazingly adapted to urban life."

Thereafter, Mala said, she enjoyed staying up and listening for the possums although, at times, it did seem like eavesdropping on their privacy.

As she said on departing, a journey is always a success if in some way it leaves you better informed.


Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.