I accepted Nikki’s offer to tag along to Healesville today, eager to check in on the wallabies and cuscus group in quarantine. She picked me up a little later than usual, so I’d had time to finish my breakfast. When we arrived at the sanctuary, our first stop was the quarantine area, also for biosecurity reasons. Nikki and I swapped our shoes for gumboots on the way through. The first spotted cuscus pair were sleeping high in one corner of their cage.
“I can’t wait to get them into the exhibits,” Nikki mentioned. “It’ll be much better than here.”
The two animals were snuggled up together, which brought a smile onto my lips. Hopefully they will breed successfully. This would be the pair staying at Healesville. We left the quarantine area, swapping our shoes again. I surveyed the landscape around me, underneath a beautiful blue sky and cold winter sun. With my phone in my pocket, I whipped it out to snap a photo. I could then tuck it back away, allowing us to get on our way.
“Do you reckon you’d ever get seals here?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Nikki answered. “They have them in Melbourne. Zoos Victoria has a non-breeding policy because we got so many rescue animals.”
“That’s fair enough.”
“Did you work with the seals at Melbourne Zoo?”
“Yes, I did, a little bit. My grandparents worked with primates, primarily, but I tried to get a good range of experience.”
We arrived at the koala breeding complex. My heart thumped as Nikki checked Allegra’s pouch.
“We’ve got a joey.”
I beamed. With the success of the mating confirmed, we gave Allegra her peace and quiet. From the koala complex, we cut down the fast track. Across the creek, Nikki and I climbed the slight incline. Just over from there was the accommodation for the critically endangered mountain pygmy possum.
“Our breeding male died last year. It was devastating, but we have a new young male who’s come of age, and we’ve had him in with the females for mating during this breeding season.”
Nikki flashed me a grin.
“Come and have a look at this.”
I followed her towards a back-of-house enclosure. For a moment, I searched, before I finally gazed into two tiny faces, my heart thumping with joy. We said nothing; Nikki and I just beamed at each other, then closed back up the nest box. Once we were out of earshot of the possums, we jumped with glee into each other’s arms. Any animal birth is a great joy, but this one seemed to offer particular meaning and an immense cause for celebration.
“Would you like to come to the ball tonight? I can’t promise that it’ll be very exciting, but--.”
“I’d love to come, that’d be great. I’m sure it’ll be exciting enough.”
“Well, we’ve got to get you into a nice frock.”
Ordinarily I would have protested, but I wanted to make sure I fitted in. So, once we were finished for the day, Nikki drove me back to her place.
“Thanks so much for having me over,” I gushed as she unlocked and let me through the front door.
The house was a woodland cottage, although over two levels to accommodate the slope. Nikki led me through into her bedroom. She opened the wardrobe and fetched a dress from one end, holding it out for me to view.
“How about this one?”
“That’s beautiful, it looks like it would fit.”
“It’s fantastic, babe.”
I looked over my shoulder. A man with curly hair had poked his head into the bedroom, a grin on his lips.
“Thank you,” Nikki replied, “although it’s not for me, it’s for Jumilah.”
He ambled into the room.
“Jumilah, this is my husband, Josh,” Nikki introduced. “Josh is a doctor for humans.”
“Hence the night shift.”
He kissed Nikki on the lips.
“Did you get some sleep today?” she asked him.
“Yeah, a little bit.”
Josh turned to face me.
“Thanks for having me,” I told him. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Yeah, likewise,” he responded. “I’ll let you get changed. Oh, I’ll drop you on the way to work.”
Nikki and Josh departed the bedroom. She closed the door behind me with a click. I stripped off my Healesville uniform and folded it. A shower would have been nice, but I didn’t want to ask. Consulting my watch, I concluded we wouldn’t have had time. I changed into the dress I was borrowing. Once I departed the bedroom, Nikki was already dressed – she must have left her outfit in another part of the house. We walked out to the car. Josh drove back to the sanctuary.
“I was just thinking,” Nikki mused, “it’s our wedding anniversary next week.”
“I’m surprised you remembered,” Josh remarked, albeit without disdain.
“I’ve never been much of a wedding person,” Nikki supplied.
“But that’s just another reason why I love you.”
“I didn’t take his last name. My father didn’t walk me down the aisle, either.”
Nikki’s dark eyes glinted as they caught the moonlight. When her husband pulled up out the front of Healesville Sanctuary, we launched out either side of the car.
“Thank you, darling,” Nikki farewelled. “I’ll text when we’re coming home.”
We waved our chauffeur goodbye as he drove away. Nikki and I approached the doors, where our names were located on the list.
We walked through into the ballroom, where volunteers strolled around with buckets. I spotted Derek across the room, looking dashing in a tan vest over a white shirt. Nikki fetched a five-dollar note from her purse. She placed it into one of the buckets, prompting thanks from the Healesville volunteer. We ambled over to find our table.
“You don’t have to donate. You’re here on work experience. I’m sure that you’ll need to put your money into your zoo. Don’t feel pressured.”
As Nikki and I sat down, a waiter swished into place. He handed drinks to both of us.
“I mean, I don’t have to tell you--.”
“It’s alright, I won’t get messy.”
I set my glass down on the table.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be telling you what to do.”
The conversation amongst the Zoos Victoria people, turned to Emmie and Vel’s upcoming wedding.
“I didn’t actually have any bridesmaids at my wedding. Neither Josh nor I have any sisters. I was never the best friend type.”
Dinner was served. I had the vegetarian option of mushrooms and tomatoes stuffed with quinoa. The man seated beside me picked up his wineglass.
“I feel like I recognise your face. Are you from Tasmania?”
“Yes, I’m Jumilah Fioray.”
“Oh, you’re the vet.”
“No, I’m the vet,” Nikki corrected.
A series of cakes were wheeled out for dessert. While waiting for my slice to be handed out, I texted Joel a photo of the cuscuses destined for Perth, which I’d taken earlier in the day.
“You know, it feels weird to be eating a bilby.”
I glanced up, a little startled, then clocked the dessert. Indeed, there were a number of cakes – shaped and iced to resemble a bilby, quoll and Tasmanian devil respectively. They were there, until they were gone. Next I knew, slices were in front of us, coloured buttercream the only indication of what they’d previously resembled. At least the cake was delicious, sponge on the inside and the icing just the right level of sweet.
“Would you like to get out of here?”
“Not really. I’d like to stay. I was having a good time.”
“OK, we can stay a little bit longer.”
“Look,” I spoke up, but Nikki reassured me with a smile, so I didn’t say anything else.
For a little while, I got up to have a dance. The evening’s soundtrack seemed to have been 1980s-inspired. At the conclusion of I Wanna Dance with Something, I finally sat back down. I smoothed my hands over the black dress. Nikki had picked well, for my fundraising ball attire. The director of Healesville Sanctuary swung by our table.
“How has your evening been so far?” Margie wanted to know.
“Good, thank you.”
Faintly, I thought I heard a dingo. It wouldn’t have been out of the question. I stifled a yawn. Nikki checked her phone, while Margie excused herself.
“Josh said he’ll only have to work for another hour. He’ll be able to come and pick us up when we’re ready.”
I nodded, looking through the party. When my gaze returned to Nikki, a shadow of panic had crossed her face.
“We’ve got to get back into the sanctuary, there’s something wrong with Salsa.”
Nikki and I rushed from the ball, along the darkened pathways between the exhibits. She let us through, into the back-of-house area behind the tree kangaroo exhibits. Inside, Nikki flicked on the light. Salsa bounced around the night dens, gleefully with Taro. I pulled a quizzical expression.
“Are you sure there was something wrong?”
“That’s good news.”
“Alright, we can go home now.”
Nikki nodded her head. I followed her back out the front, where her husband’s car was waiting – I suspected that she’d called him long ago.
Abbey Sim is a candidate for Honours in Communications at the University of Technology Sydney. She lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Having started Huldah Media in 2021, Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.