This morning, my alarm woke me up, then I got out of bed, showered and dressed. I thought of Werribee and the male giraffe which they would have been receiving. While I missed them, all I need to do was walk out from my bedroom and glance out the loungeroom window. Our zoo may have been absent of animals, but the presence of its buildings was still something new to me.
“Good morning,” I greeted Mum, happening upon her in the kitchen.
I couldn’t help but smile, so glad to be back with her, close enough to touch.
“Good morning,” she replied. “You’re back at work today, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” I confirmed.
Mum smiled, taking a sip from her tea.
“Of course, your uniform.”
“Yeah, I am looking forward to being back and seeing everyone, for the most part.”
I found myself fiddling with the end of my plait.
“You can have Patrick over for dinner anytime if you would like.”
“Yeah, alright,” I agreed. “See ya.”
I raced out the door before we could finish the conversation. A low level of cloud hung overhead, reducing the light. I fetched my bike from underneath the house. Slowly I was getting back into this rhythm of working at Woolworths. I rode down the hill and arrived at work. Locking up my bike, I walked through and clocked in, then entered the store and got to work. First business of the day was brought to my attention by Patrick – a dripping light fitting in the confectionary aisle.
“Well, we can’t just stand here and watch it,” I remarked. “I’ll get a bucket and some wet floor signs.”
I walked down the aisle, careful to go around the drips and the puddle remaining. Dealing with that issue prevented me from attending the bird TAG meeting. Therefore, I kept working until after 1pm, eventually arriving fashionably late to the primate TAG meeting.
“We were just talking about an orangutan import.”
“Oh, fantastic,” I replied, not sure what part of the meeting we were up to.
Melbourne had already imported, so I gathered that it didn’t apply to them.
“Mum’s been in touch with her contacts in Indonesia,” Hunter explained.
“Let’s move onto the member reports now, if that’s alright,” Christine requested. “Adelaide Zoo?”
“I thought that I would give you an update on our baboon infant.”
My heart started to beat faster within my chest, worrying something was wrong. Don started sharing his screen. From the look on his face, I presumed that all was well, a suspicion confirmed by a gorgeous photo of the baby. Just mother and infant were in focus.
“He’s adorable,” Christine gushed with a grin, “and healthy?”
“Yes, yes, absolutely thriving.”
“Darling Downs Zoo?”
Raffa looked a little flustered, his complexion redder than usual.
“It’s been pretty warm here, I’ve been busy. We’ve had to do some last-minute repairs in one of our tamarin exhibits.”
“Unfortunately, one of the cotton-top tamarins died. She was the young female who came from Adelaide earlier this year.”
I felt a little shocked at that news. She wasn’t that old; I wouldn’t have expected her to die.
“Do you know the cause of death?” Don asked.
“Ah, septicemia, she had an infection which we unfortunately weren’t able to control.”
It seemed like a cruel twist of fate.
“In more positive news, we’ve moved our two female Sumatran Orangutans into the orangutan complex. Currently, they’ve been introduced to the others through the mesh.”
“And it’s all going well?”
“Yes, so far,” Reuben nodded. “The females have a bit of spunk to them, but nothing we can’t handle.”
“Do you have anything else to add, Reuben?” Christine enquired.
“Yes, this isn’t specifically a primate matter, but it’s worth mentioning. Many of you will know that we had a minor fire in our Treetop Monkeys and Apes precinct earlier this year.”
“I heard that Jumilah Fioray was quite the hero, then,” Tessa remarked.
“Yes, she was,” Reuben confirmed. “Fortunately, there was only superficial damage. No animals were harmed and we were able to fix things up. Over the past week, we’ve completed fire safety upgrades. This will be an ongoing process across the whole zoo. Today we moved the colobus back into their exhibit and, from tomorrow, we’ll be able to reopen that part of the trail.”
“Isn’t Treetop Monkeys and Apes a little ancient?” Gerard remarked.
“Yes, it’s an old facility,” Reuben conceded, “but it does the job. It’ll hopefully do the job for years to come. These upgrades only enhance the facility, both for guests and animals.”
Gerard nodded his head, accepting the point.
“How are your pregnant orang-utans going?” Reuben wanted to know.
“They’re going really well,” Jimmy answered.
He’s a breath of fresh air, after Bill’s gruffness and sleaze.
“We’re hopeful for two healthy babies.”
I found myself smiling, as if I was convincing myself through my own joy, that nothing would go wrong, that everything would be just fine. There was only a few weeks to go in both of their pregnancies, if my memory served me correctly.
“I know I’ve mentioned before that we’re going to develop a South American area. Nine exhibits will be developed in a forested area at the bottom of the zoo. These will supplement our existing exhibit for cotton-top tamarin, and developments around the former Elephant Temple building.”
I tried to remember what Taronga currently houses there. It’s not elephants anymore, I’m pretty sure.
“What species are you looking for?”
“Frogs, coati and mara, but also emperor tamarins at least.”
“Any ungulates?” Raffa wanted to know.
“Yeah, we’d like to house Brazilian Tapir.”
“You and me both, mate,” Raffa quipped.
Sam furrowed his brow, although he continued to smile.
“You already have tapirs.”
“Taronga Western Plains Zoo?”
“We’ve had a death of one of our older female lar gibbons. She fell ill and it was decided that the best course of action was to end her suffering.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” I spoke up, remembering the loss of Ratu earlier in the year.
“Thank you, Jumilah. Our collection now stands at three animals, the young pair from Sumatra and our existing older female.”
This placed another sombre mood over the meeting.
“We’re not exactly sure of the cause of the illness.”
“Do you think--?” I spoke up, without realising. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright, Jumilah, what were you going to ask?”
“I was going to ask if there’s any possibility that this illness would be contagious to the other gibbons.”
“No, we don’t believe so. The other gibbons are fine.”
Finally, the TAG meeting came to an end. I put my laptop away and got back to work for another couple of hours, like I was supposed to. It was pouring down rain when Patrick and I finished our shift, so we decided to head to the bakery and indulge ourselves with hot drinks and cake. They’ve put a few little tables out the front, under an awning.
“This was a great idea, thanks.”
“No worries,” Patrick assured, with a smile which made me feel at ease.
“I will tell you something that I found out when I was in Melbourne,” I admitted.
“Oh yeah,” Patrick responded, while brushing cake crumbs from the corners of his mouth.
“Reuben had the hots for Mum back at uni.”
Patrick sat forward in his chair, almost spilling his coffee.
“Oh my goodness,” he exclaimed. “So were they, like, ever a thing?”
“No, no, they weren’t,” I clarified. “Dad was on the scene.”
“Does your mother know about this?” Patrick asked.
“Well, we haven’t talked about it. What do you reckon, do you think that she just would have been able to tell, back then?”
“Yeah, I do,” Patrick agreed. “I mean, I actually have no idea, but generally you pick up on these things.”
I sat back in my chair, sipping coffee.
“When did you realise that I had feelings for you?” I wanted to know.
Patrick rolled his lips in thought.
“That’s a good question.”
I could feel the pit of my stomach, fearing he didn’t have an answer.
“It would have been after you came back from Sumatra.”
“Well, that makes sense. I don’t reckon I had feelings until after then.”
I finished the rest of my coffee. Patrick dropped me back home.
“Thanks for the lift.” I undid my seatbelt. “You know, I’m still not used to having this fence.”
“I wouldn’t get used to living like this, either. It’s like a castle, or a prison.”
I shot Patrick a glare.
“Look, I didn’t mean it like that.”
I glanced back to the fence, through the dribbles of rain down the window.
“You’re right, though. It is certainly imposing.”
I slipped out of the car, retrieving my bike from the back seat and storing it under the house. I headed into the house, giving Patrick a wave once I was safely underneath the cover of the front porch. As I unlocked the door, he reversed out of the driveway. I stepped inside, while I felt my phone buzz within my bag. Once I closed the door again behind me, I answered the call, from Reuben.
“How are you?”
“It’s been good to have my feet back on Tasmanian soil again.”
“I’ll bet,” Reuben responded. “How close is the zoo to being open?”
“Well, we still have to get the licence finalised. We’ll need to have an inspection. I’ll sort it.”
“Jumilah, I went to Ireland after I finished uni,” Reuben explained. “I worked at Dublin Zoo for a few years before coming back to Melbourne.”
This wasn’t new information to me, as he’d mentioned it before from time to time.
“There’s an eighteen-year-old young woman who has requested to come for work experience at Melbourne Zoo.”
“You wouldn’t have known her, she would be too young.”
“Well, yeah, but I did know her mother.”
“I even slept with her.”
That part, I didn’t need to know. Reuben stayed quiet. I felt ill.
“Oh, God, she’s your daughter, isn’t she?”
Reuben didn’t say anything. He didn’t really have to; I’d already figured out what he needed to convey.
“Anyway, I should probably let you go.”
All I could think was that he could stop pretending with me. I glimpsed my watch. Really, I needed to be in class. I knew that Sam wouldn’t mind if I was late.
“Good to talk to you, Reuben. Take care.”
I always felt that sounded trite, but I didn’t know what else I could say. We ended the call. Mum placed dinner down in front of my while I finally joined class, late after Reuben’s phone call. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one. Alice and Piper weren’t there, either.
“Sorry,” I apologised to Sam, a little breathlessly.
Reuben’s secret felt like it could have burst out of me at any moment.
“No worries. We’re only just getting started.”
I sat back in my chair and placed myself on mute for a little while, as the lesson went on. Mum was doing plenty at the other table and I wanted to talk to her, but then I would have had to turn my camera off, too.
“You know, a bit of creativity never goes astray when it comes to naming animals.”
I thought about the conversation we’d had after Joel’s funeral.
“Is that part of the curriculum?” Zach quipped.
“No, it’s not,” Sam confirmed, “but perhaps it should be.”
“What principles would you include?”
“Well, I’m of the view that an animal’s name should reflect the origins of their species, but it’s also important to be culturally sensitive. We need to avoid cultural appropriation.”
I definitely agreed with Sam, although I was distracted. So much for being present for our final class. I couldn’t help but think of Reuben. How would he be feeling? I’d been a witness to Tallulah meeting her biological father, but that was a different situation. As a sperm donor baby, she always knew that he existed. Reuben, on the other hand, had been plunged suddenly into fatherhood.
“Sorry we’re late.”
Piper tucked some hair behind her ear, and I noticed a bandage on her middle finger.
“When I was cooking dinner, I accidentally sliced open my finger.”
She flashed her hand.
“That’s no good.”
“We also haven’t actually eaten the dinner, so we might be a little otherwise engaged during the class.”
Alice and Piper placed themselves on mute. They tucked into their meals. My attention was briefly drawn away from the class, as my phone vibrated.
“As you’d be well aware by now, different species have different housing needs. Gorillas, as you know, are one species with a particular ‘male problem’.”
Kenneth snickered. I picked up my phone. A part of me wanted to message Reuben and check in with him. I really hadn’t expected this, and I was confident that he wouldn’t have either. A part of me blamed the woman, that she hadn’t told him in eighteen years that he was a father. How would have their lives been different if she had?
“For us, with chimpanzees and gorillas, we name each baby with the first initial of their mother’s name.”
“That was information I was aware of,” I admitted. “I know that the name thing is all a bit much. It means something to me, though, I suppose. It’s a way of honouring the animals who have gone before, as well as tracing the family lines.”
“Jumilah, what’s happening in Sorell, what’s happening in Hobart at Acarda Zoo?”
“Yeah, we’re going pretty well, thank you,” I answered with a smile. “I just got back on Saturday. It’s incredible what’s happened while I’ve been away in Victoria. Would you like me to show you some photos?”
“Yeah, that would be great.”
Sam gave me screen-sharing capabilities. I could feel my heart beating faster than usual, although I was keen to settle back into familiar rhythms. Finally, the photos popped up on the screen, allowing me to flick through them as I spoke.
“This is the finch aviary. It’s the first structure we worked on.”
“Can I ask, Jumilah, what direction is that facing?”
“It’s actually south-facing, but there are three sides of mesh. The sun comes in through the opposite side to the path.”
“Right, that sounds smart.”
The class ended, leaving just Sam and I around to chat.
“Have you got anything else you’d like to talk about, Jumilah?”
“Oh, no, not really.”
Sam ended the call. I stood up from the computer and walked into the kitchen.
“How was class?” Mum wanted to know.
“Good,” I replied, still feeling a little queasy. “It was really good.”
“How many more weeks have you got?”
“Ah, there’s actually only one more class, next week,” I answered. “Would you like a cup of tea before bed?”
Really, I didn’t want to. I’d blab.
Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey has long had a passion for the weird and the wonderful of stories, sport and zoo animals. 'From the Wild' is her first anthology.