'Contributory Negligence' a new story by Stevi-Lee Alver

[after the painting of the same name by Daniela Bradley, 2012]

 

Contributory Negligence n. 1 occurring in circumstances of negligent conduct on the plaintiff’s behalf that has contributed to the harm they’ve suffered.

 

1. My solicitor grows the best weed this side of the Queensland border. She cares for injured bats and recently started writing a book titled The Process of Bat Rehabilitation. She’s one of those down-to-earth, old school, hippy types. Her long mousy-blonde hair has never been dyed and she has the same approach to make-up as I have to clothing: less is more. A smudge of eye shadow, a scratch of mascara, and presto, done!

Each week, in exchange for a quarter, I spend a few hours helping out with her Draculaesque critters: chopping fruit, preparing banana smoothies, cleaning out and maintaining the maze of cages that constitute what we call ‘the sanctuary’.

Sudden influxes of injured, or homeless, bats have dictated the haphazard design of the sanctuary. Each section of cages caters for a specific species of bat and for a specific recovery phase. We’ve utilised hard rubbish and scrap metal during times of rapid construction. Internally, the sanctuary resembles the mutilated guts of some sort of monstrous machine. The outward asymmetry transforms perceptions of space. People often stop to stare, as if looking at some abstract industrial art installation.

Although it is sometimes considered an eyesore, I don’t mind the place. The wet guano has a fermenting fruit scent that reminds me of some prescription ganja I once smoked in North California.

 

2. I remember the bony outlines of the flying fox’s wings – like long slender fingers reaching into a thin-cloudy membrane – wrapped around my brother’s head. I remember how the furry little body covered his face and muffled his screams.

‘I was out whacking cane toads with cricket bats,’ my brother told the nurse as she cleaned dry blood from his face. ‘When out of nowhere the bloodsucker swooped down and latched onto me face.’

‘Fruit bats are fruitarians,’ said the nurse turning away with a look of disgust, as if she’d just opened a wheelie bin full of maggots. My brother’s breath had that distinctive sour, alcoholic, ammoniacal reek. ‘They don’t eat meat or suck blood,’ she added.

He uttered something about rabies and then said, ‘pig’s arse bats don’t attack people.’ Looking directly at me he bawled, ‘I’m living fucking proof of it, ain’t I?’

I wasn’t sure whether it was a question or a statement.

The collective noun for a group of flying foxes is a bayonet.

 

3. I required a solicitor after being arrested for indecent exposure. Before my solicitor became my solicitor she was my lover, and before she became my lover she was my friend.

I enjoy imagining my solicitor as an encyclopedia with lips and legs, legitimising verbosity.

‘You told him, “I’m not a fan of tan lines,”’ my solicitor said, reading directly from my arresting officer’s report. ‘You told him, “I’m a closet naturist coming out in support of New Zealand’s Go Natural Week.” You asked him, “How am I supposed to enjoy my holiday if I have to wear clothes?” You asked him that? Jesus Christ! You’re unbelievable, un-fucking-believable.’

I’d expected more support. It’s not like she’s opposed to getting her kit off. A nudist colony in Far North Queensland is precisely where we first met, but that was before she became a solicitor.

 

4. Last year, after hearing of plans to clear the subtropical scrubland fringing our town, in order to bypass the township, my solicitor became a protesting cyclone: arranging town meetings; starting petitions; organising marches; painting placards and banners; coordinating blockades; inviting public figures (such as Bob Brown and Peter Garrett) to speak at rallies; writing articles; contacting media; flying into a Facebook/Twitter frenzy; and gaining enough publicity to appear several times on local TV and radio.

Despite all her efforts, the scrub was cleared and the mountain split in two. Colonies of bats were forced to relocate. The bat release-cage was dismantled, and now sits in a twisted heap out the back of the sanctuary.

The surrounding scrub could no longer be relied upon to conceal my solicitor’s outdoor crops. She was forced to harvest early. That weed had a particularly colourful and pleasant headhigh.

 

5. After the clear-felling, one disenfranchised mob of microbats (the insect-eating kind) took up residency in the rafters and air conditioning vents of the butcher’s house. He was absolutely ropeable. ‘The hairy little fuckers,’ he said over the counter. ‘Yesterday I went arse over tit, slipped on bat shit in me own living room.’

He had an electric ultrasonic bat repellent sent over from the States.

The butcher reckoned it was as useless as a cock-flavoured lollipop. I thought he could easily resell it on Gumtree, maybe even make a profit.

After failing to evict the bats, the butcher tented his house with tacked-together tarps, sliced-open garbage bags, and duct tape. His house became a ‘do-it-yourself fumigation’ and resembled something out of E.T.

 

6. I once spent a tropical summer bedridden with simultaneous dengue fever and giardia infections. I was seventeen. I have three vivid memories from that time. The first is of not being able to get up to switch off the ceiling fan. The sound of the blades revolving slowly above me felt like a jackhammer chiselling just behind my eyes, into my skull.

The second memory is of not being able to get up to blow out a patchouli-scented candle that my mum had put on the dressing table. The smell came in waves. Actually, the smell came in something more like patchouli tsunamis. The scent would crash down on me, wind me, pull me under, and pound me against some imaginary pink and white seabed. Each patchouli wipe-out left me breathless. I remember wanting to call out to my mum (or even my brother, I really was that desperate) to switch off the fan, to blow out the candle, but every time I went to speak nothing but an insufferable little sound of wind escaped.

The third is of the ambo driver, standing over me, saying, ‘Your blood pressure’s in your boots kid’. And, ‘Don’t worry mate, we’ll get you over to Mossman hospital. You need a drip, it will fix you up quick and good.’

To acquire dengue a second time is a death sentence.

According to WebMD and emedicinehealth, death on second dengue infection results from viral haemorrhagic fever. The bleeding occurs just beneath the skin, in internal organs, and leaks out from orifices such as the eyes, ears, and mouth. The corpse is left, quite literally, a bloody mess.

My solicitor tells me that my dengue-prevention behaviour is ritualistic and borderline psychotic. I disagree. For me being naked is not a choice, it’s a need. And so, I must take extra precautions when it comes to mosquitos.

Daily preventions include: bathing in citronella oil; having repelling incense burning and electric bug-zappers (even though I hate them) running non-stop; lathering DEET vigorously into my entire body; sleeping inside mozzie nets and living in a low-dengue-prevalent area.

Prevention is better than cure, as my mum always said.

 

7. The butcher sourced the formaldehyde from an old farmer who had previously used it to treat footrot in his sheep.

With the house completely tarped up, the dog at the neighbours’, and the fumigant in place, the butcher and his wife headed off down the coast for the weekend.

 

8. After the flying fox bite and scratches had been cleaned and dressed, my brother was sent home.

‘Be sure to bring him back at the first sign of paralysis, delirium, respiratory arrest, or convulsions,’ the doctor told my mother.

‘I find my son in at least three of those four states on any given night,’ my mother said, with more authority than the doctor.

 

9. I once found a flying fox hanging lifelessly from a barbed wire fence, its wings all chomped and mangled. When entangled in barbed wire, flying foxes will often attempt to chew their way to freedom. Like when Aron Ralston was trapped under a boulder for five days and then used a cheap multi-tool to amputate his right arm.

‘Survivors of barbed wire encounters are rendered crippled and un-releasable,’ my solicitor proclaims in her book. ‘They serve out the remainder of their natural lives in manmade enclosures.’

If I were a bat there’s no way I’d want to survive barbed-wire entanglement. There’d be no chewing on my part. I’d just hang there awaiting my prairie crucifixion.

 

10. ‘E.T. phone home!’ I couldn’t help saying it each time I passed the orange, blue, and silver tarped-up fumigation site.

 

11. It was late Sunday afternoon when we found the dog. Her breathing was shallow, and she coughed quietly when I picked her up.

‘It’s too late,’ the vet told us.

For once my solicitor had nothing to say. She just sat there with her face resting in her hands. I couldn’t think of anything to say either so I just stood there, watching tears appear between her fingers and roll down the back of her hands.

 

12. ‘E.T. phone home!’ The butcher’s dog escaped the neighbours’ yard and found her way home. It seems as though she pulled at the corner of the tarp, made her way through a hole in the garage and into the fumigant-seething house.

The butcher is suing the neighbours for vet charges, claiming they ‘neglected to secure their yard’.

 That’s how my solicitor became his solicitor.

The collective noun for a group of neighbours is a nerve.

 

13.My solicitor’s furious. ‘If I’d known the cases I’d be assigned as a solicitor, I would have attached a hose to my exhaust pipe and gassed myself,’ she called out indignantly as she pounded herbs in the mortar and pestle.

‘Well, strike me pink! What’s going on?’ I asked, draping my trenchcoat over the chair. Although, nowadays, a clothes dweller, my solicitor still accommodates my nakedness. And I never knock back an opportunity to get nuddy.

‘Your bloody butcher mate,’ she said, appearing in the dining room. ‘He’s as mad as a cut snake.’

‘By God woman, I wouldn’t call him my mate,’ I declared. ‘Anyhoo, he’s not that bad. In context he makes sense.’

‘If the context you are referring to is prison. Then, yes. He makes perfect sense in context.’ She sparked up, took a few puffs, passed me the joint and, uttering something under her breath, disappeared back into the kitchen.

 

14. Although a vaccination does exist (primarily for vets and bat handlers), there is no treatment or prophylactic shot for post potential-exposure to the Australian Bat Lyssavirus. After being possibly exposed to ABL, it simply becomes a case of preparing for the worst while hoping for the best.
My brother’s escalating chiroptophobia (fear of bats) forced him to move to Tasmania, where it’s too cold for flying foxes. Obviously no rational human, or bat for that matter, would relocate to Tasmania. Needless to say, we wait for him to visit us.

 

15. My solicitor is one of the vaccinated. She moves through the sanctuary like the conductor of a clapping-wing orchestra: high-pitched voices chatter while little black bodies frantically flap their wings and fly off. The sound is thunderous. The non-flyers, timid, and frightened curl their wings and cover their faces in silence.

 

16. The first section of The Process of Bat Rehabilitation is as compelling as a skinned rabbit or, more to the point, as boring as bat shit. Fifty pages of compiled bat facts. She bangs on and on, making claims like: ‘in the past 200 years, approximately half of the planet’s mammalian extinctions have occurred in Australia’, and, ‘worldwide there are over 1,200 bat species’, and, ‘one in four mammals is a bat’, and, ‘bats can survive in the wild for up to thirty years’, and, ‘of all the world’s mammals, bats are the only group specifically adapted for flight’, and, ‘the bumble bee bat (found in Thailand) is smaller than your thumbnail and weighs less than two grams’, and, ‘bats are insect terminators’, and ‘it’s been shown that microbats can effectively reduce the spread of insect borne diseases’, and, ‘bats use sunset to calibrate their magnetic compasses’.

I pushed the bulldog-clipped manuscript away. Honestly, sometimes she’s like a babbling bat at sunrise herself: all twitter and shit.

I dread the looming dullness of part two and the insincere encouragement I’ll have to muster when I insist she continues writing. I mean, I guess she makes a couple of good points. I liked the estimation that some species of microbats can consume up to 1,200 mosquito-sized insects per hour.

 

17. I remember watching a kaleidoscope of wings silhouetted against the final moments of a Savannah Gulf sunset. My solicitor and I were camping in the Undara Volcanic National Park. Each evening 250,000 microbats would rush from lava tubes as we sat on a high rock – sipping champagne and smoking spliffs – waiting for the sun to touch the horizon and for the bats to turn the sky into an Escher illustration. That was before she became a solicitor.

 The collective noun for a group of bats is a cloud.

 

18. I was installing the sixth and final microbat nesthouse when I was arrested for indecent exposure.

After Googling the fuck out of microbats, and reading extensively about their insect consuming capabilities, I learnt that microbats could devour up to fifty per cent of their body weight in insects each night. Cha-Ching! Jackpot! All my Christmases arrived at once! I read about attracting microbats with nesthouses, took annual leave, and dedicated my entire holiday to constructing and installing six boxes in my yard. After all, homeless bats need somewhere to go too.

I did the math: with fully-grown microbats weighing as little as two grams, each box can house fifty bats. With six boxes that’s 300 bats. With 300 bats eating 1,200 insects per hour. I figured I’d never have to bathe in citronella again. I figured I could lose those heinous electric bug-zappers. I figured I wouldn’t be seeing my brother for quite some time.

To prevent pups falling from nesthouses and being eaten by birds, or snakes, or other predators, I attached nets to the bottom of each box. I couldn’t help imagining the miniature critters with their bony little arms and claw-like hands clinging to the net, like tiny fallen abseilers scrambling their way back to safety.

 

19. I received a summons for indecent exposure. ‘I’m not having it,’ I told my solicitor.

‘Deadset, how indecent can it be? I was in my own yard. Not streaking or flashing. If people don’t want to see then don’t look. Take a leaf from my book, when I see people strutting the streets in onesies as if life’s just one big pyjama party, I just look the other way. No skin off my nose.’

She rolled her eyes and looked away.

‘They’ve got Buckley’s!’ I added confidently.

‘For Christ’s sake, we’re not twenty anymore.’

‘Well, what’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It means...’ She looked up at me and said, ‘it means that we’re not in Far North Queensland anymore. This isn’t the rainforest. You’re pushing fifty. Act your age. Grow up.’

‘What? I can’t believe you, of all people, are saying this. It’s the ultimate freedom. The ultimate escape from stereotypical society.’

I was shocked, dismayed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Without meaning to, I lost it.

‘What’s happened to you? Who have you become?’ I shouted and banged my fist on the table, making the silverware tremble and clatter.

She pushed her chair back and stood up.

Control yourself I told myself. I lowered my voice, ‘I thought we understood each other. I’ve always cherished you and our friendship, for the pure fact that there are no restrictions. Since when did you start imposing limitations on freedom?’

‘You’re right,’ she said, glancing down at the half-rolled joint between her fingers.

‘You’re right, look I’m sorry... Of course you should be free to be who you are in your own home. I’m just worried,’ she said with a long sigh. ‘I’d hate for you to lose your job over this.’

After a minute of silence and the lighting of a doobie, I had calmed down.

‘She’ll be right, I won’t lose my job.’ I said, exhaling and handing her the joint. ‘I’m just the postie. Plus, the boss’s missus is a naturist, he gets it.’

 

20. ‘E.T. phone home!’ They made a real dog’s breakfast of the do-it-yourself formaldehyde fumigation. Distressed bats made their way into the living room and kitchen where some died while others became disorientated and just flew around and around trying to escape.

The butcher’s wife told me that there were dead babies on the kitchen bench.

‘Flying mice, fucking diseases-with-wings,’ the butcher bellowed while hefting his cleaver into a hooked beast.

 

21. My solicitor had the indecent exposure charge dropped.

 

22. Recently, my solicitor was telling me that bats hang upside down while giving birth to a single pup each year. Without nests the newborn must immediately cling to its mother.

I didn’t tell her about the dead pups in the butcher’s kitchen. The infants must’ve been the first to die during the fumigation, falling from their mother’s breast and landing on the kitchen bench.

My solicitor is still working on the first section of her book. Last week she was adding things like: ‘bat fur has dynamic carrying capacity. The fur’s function alters frequently. One minute it’s a pollen-freight vehicle, the next a carafe, absorbing and collecting water when skimming the surface of streams with their bodies, and drinking it later by licking their fur. They’re very clean mammals. And they’re not all promiscuous little skanks either. Some species are monogamous.’

I had never thought of bats as promiscuous before. I imagined a bat striptease, slow seductive wing movements, revealing an eye here, a bit of fur there.

‘You know,’ she said, going over the butcher’s affidavit. ‘There are microbat fossils dating back fifty million years. We need laws, laws to protect the bats not the humans, not the humans killing the bats.’ Her hands moved, dismissively, in time with her words. ‘Anyway, don’t worry. He won’t win. The death of the dog is a simple case of contributory negligence.’

I didn’t tell her that I never was worried.

 

‘Contributory Negligence’ was commended in the 2017 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.

Published in ABR Fiction

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