Tilly wakes to the soft splatter of fruit against her window: the slip of peach, the slap of plum, the squelch of half-eaten guava. She hears the chatter and the shrieks, the complicated battle for territory. She wonders who will win tonight – Old Tom with his torn ear? Ben, a little bigger than the others and by far the loudest? Sweet Rosie with her cunning eyes and her sharp white teeth?
She doesn’t really know their names. She doesn’t even know what they look like. It’s dark, after all, and she can barely make out their furry bodies, their thin bony wings. But she can imagine all their little personalities, all their different quirks. She likes to do that. It makes them seem like friends.
She pulls the pillow back over her head and tries to sleep. It’s only 3am and she has school in the morning. School is the last thing she wants to do: they’re studying Roman history and it’s a whole world away from the trees outside her window.
At sunrise she finds her mother in the kitchen, hollow-eyed, clutching a cup of black coffee. ‘I’m calling the wildlife people today,’ her mother says. ‘No, don’t look at me like that. It’s been over a month. I can’t live like this.’
Tilly watches as she shuffles out to the veranda, her dressing gown flapping round her ankles. Poor Mum. She always wanted to live in the country. She thought it would be all fresh air and green grass, and pretty gumboots covered with daisies.
Tilly takes a bowl from the cupboard and fills it with cornflakes. She pours on the milk, sneaks a spoonful of sugar while her mother isn’t looking. She’s not supposed to have sugar, it’s bad for you – but her mother is too upset to notice.
‘No.’ Her mother stands frozen on the veranda. ‘Oh no.’
Tilly walks slowly outside. She’s used to this. There’s always some great drama, some terrible calamity. She thinks her mother may be slightly mad.
‘This is the last straw.’ Her mother wrings her hands. ‘I can’t live like this, I just can’t!’
Tilly stands beside her, peering out among the trees. In the corner of the orchard, in the plum tree closest to the house, a small creature flaps helplessly. Tilly and her mother put the net up only yesterday. Her mother wanted to do all the trees – she has 10 metres of the stuff in the shed – but it took so long to wrap around the plum tree that they gave up after one.
‘Don’t touch it,’ says her mother. ‘You might get rabies. I’m going inside to call Bob Taylor.’
Tilly looks at the animal trapped in the net. Liquid-brown eyes gaze at her, begging her to do something. The soft grey head twists and wriggles, trying to break free. Long, fine-boned arms flap awkwardly against the ropes, tearing the leathery wings.
She knows what it is. A grey-headed flying fox. They’re a protected species in NSW. You can’t shoot them without a permit. She knows this because her mother has been talking to Bob Taylor next door and he’s outraged by the whole situation. He says he doesn’t care what those idiots in Sydney have decided – a man has a right to protect his fruit.
By the time Bob Taylor arrives, it’s too late. The flying fox has stopped flapping. Its eyes have glazed over and it hangs limp and lifeless in the tree. ‘It’s a good thing you called me,’ he says. ‘These things can be dangerous.’
Tilly’s mother says something about rabies and Bob Taylor smiles at her. ‘Yeah, that’s right. You don’t want to handle them. A single bite could kill you.’
Tilly frowns. She has already looked this up on the computer. She has already told her mother. ‘It’s not rabies,’ she says, for the umpteenth time. ‘It’s Australian Bat Lyssavirus, and only 2 people have ever died from it.’
‘Well, I’m sure you don’t want to be the third,’ says Bob Taylor. He winks at Tilly’s mother, who blushes and looks at the floor.
But Tilly isn’t giving up that easily. ‘It also says that flying foxes can be a nuisance, but you just have to get used to them. They carry pollen and seeds for the gum trees – the bush would die without them.’
Bob Taylor puts the body into a bag and throws it in the back of his ute. ‘You should see what some people do,’ he says. ‘Shoot them, electrocute them, drown them. Problem is, now you have to get a bloody permit to do it.’
He climbs into the driver’s seat, gives Tilly and her mother a cheery wave. ‘See you next time,’ he calls as he drives away.