When I woke up this morning, I rolled onto my side and reached for my phone, pressing the power button to flash the date and time on the screen. September seventh immediately made me think of black and white footage, the last Thylacine dying on this day years and years ago, at Beaumaris Zoo. What secrets did that place hold, which had been buried with it? I got myself out of bed, dressed then ready. Nikki arrived to drive me in, so I bid farewell to Mrs Roberts and headed out the front, slipping into the passenger seat of the car.
The Thylacine stayed on my mind. Eventually, we arrived at Healesville Sanctuary. It seemed like a quiet morning. Nikki and I walked into the wildlife hospital, a quieter place now that quarantine had cleared out. She ensured that everything had been running smoothly overnight. Snapping a picture of an owl ready for release, I texted it to Uwak Andrew. I checked in with the tree kangaroos, at their exhibit across the path from the wildlife hospital. While I smiled with the sun on my face, I sipped my morning coffee, enjoying the quiet of the sanctuary, where I could only hear the chirp and song of the animals. Once I eventually returned to the hospital, I rinsed out my coffee cup, then checked my phone. I returned a call I’d missed from Joel. As I listened to the phone ring, I thought about the proposal I’d witnessed the day before. Ella said yes, but the secret lingered.
“Hello, Joel Donovan speaking.”
“Hey, Joel, how are you? It’s Jumilah, I’m just returning your call.”
“The wallabies have been settling in perfectly,” Joel reported.
“That’s great news,” I replied. “How are the cuscuses? Are they alright?”
Speaking of, I walked over the nocturnal house to reach their exhibit at Healesville.
“They’re absolutely fine.”
Gabi was foraging amidst the branches, while Medu was curled up, sleeping up the back. This seemed to be a relatively uninhabited place, even though the sanctuary would have been already opened for the morning.
“How is your colleague, the one who was injured?”
“She’ll find out today whether they can save her hand.”
“Oh, that’s awful,” I responded. “I didn’t realise it was that bad.”
“Well, I think Bill didn’t want us to know.”
I breathed out through my nose, concerned.
“Well, I wish Erin the absolute best.”
“Thank you,” Joel replied. “I think that we all do.”
We ended the call. I returned to the staffroom once again, dropped my phone back into my bag, then zipped it up and stashed it away. While I could have called Tallulah, she likely would have been at work, or uni. Therefore, I decided to make myself useful with Nikki, who was treating the burns of a kangaroo who had been injured in a farmyard mishap.
“What do you think of this sort of work?”
“I did some work experience at a vet clinic back in Tassie,” I noted. “My best friend is studying to be a vet.”
“What do you think?” Nikki wanted to know.
“I mean, it’s cool, I can’t say that it’s not cool,” I commented, “but it’s not my passion. It needs to be your passion if it’s what you’re going to do. I see you, I see Meredith at Melbourne, I see Tallulah, I’m not like any of you.”
“Ah, so the blood and guts have gotten to you after all,” Nikki quipped.
I hesitated, struggling to article.
“I’m only joking.”
At the end of the day, Nikki dropped me back to the Roberts’ farm and I trudged up to the front door. In possession of my own key, I let myself into the house, quiet with the others out on the property. I sat down at the kitchen table and sorted through my messages. Mum had sent through more photos from their progress with the construction. My heart ached for home. I love-reacted to the photos.
“Good afternoon, Jumilah.”
Mrs Roberts slipped through the back door and walked into the kitchen.
“I’m thinking of making a vegetarian lasagne, how does that sound?”
“That would be perfect.”
Mrs Roberts opened the fridge and fetched vegetables from the crisper.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
She placed eggplants and carrots atop a chopping board on the bench.
“Oh, I’m alright for the moment, thank you. If you want a shower, I’d say have one before Mark comes back from the top paddock.”
I rose from my table, leaving my phone.
“Thank you, I might just do that.”
I scampered through the house. Ducking into my bedroom, I grabbed some clean, casual clothes. I walked through into the bathroom, shutting the door with a click. Turning on the shower, I washed off the day. Afterwards, I changed and returned to the kitchen. At Mrs Robert’s request, I started showing her pictures from home, those Mum had texted me. Mr Roberts let himself in through the back door. I glanced up, greeting him with a small smile as he waved in our direction.
“This is our exhibit for dhole,” I noted, “which is a carnivore from Sumatra.”
Mrs Roberts nodded her head with interest as she stirred the vegetables in the saucepan.
“That sounds lovely.”
I flicked onto the next set of images, of the islands for gibbon and siamang.
“It almost looks like a place for orangutans.”
“Oh, that would be lovely, I’m sure, but it’s not the plan at the moment. We would have the space on our property, but we’re starting small, with my grandparents’ animals and some other birds and the Tasmanian devils.”
Mr Roberts slipped into the kitchen.
“What about koalas, love?”
“No, not at the moment.” I smiled modestly. “Maybe in the future.”
The six of us sat down around the table for dinner. For a moment, the conversation stopped, to mark our first mouthfuls. Before long sauce started getting passed around and the chatter resumed about each of our days. I’d missed out on this beautiful chaos, growing up as an only child.
“What animals were you working with today?”
“We were treating a kangaroo which had been burned,” I explained. “It was awful, really, but he’s going to be OK.”
Mrs Roberts refilled my glass.
“That’s good news.”
“You’ve mentioned you’re getting Tassie devils at your zoo,” Mr Roberts raised.
“Well, we’ll start with the females. Hopefully a male will arrive not too long after.”
I took a sip of water.
“We should come and see you.”
“That would be lovely.”
I finished off the rest of my dinner.
“That was delicious, thank you.”
Mrs Roberts beamed.
“You’re welcome, love. There’s still dessert to come.”
She got up from the table, clearing the plates. I followed her, trying to quiet my mind with the monotony of chores. While Mrs Roberts and I busied ourselves in the kitchen, the home phone rang.
“I’ll get it.”
He rose and walked over to the handset.
“Hello, Mark Roberts speaking.”
For Mrs Roberts, I chopped fruit to top the pavlova. I could half-hear one side of the conversation taking place on the landline. Finally, Mr Roberts ended the call. I felt a little awkward.
“Can I have a word, please, James?”
The boy nodded timidly as he walked over to his father. While they conversed tersely, I tried to occupy my mind with thoughts of the accounts.
“I told a lie, Dad, because I hadn’t done it. Please, please don’t be mad with me.”
“Look, I’m disappointed, that’s for sure.” Mr Roberts sighed, running one weathered hand over his face in thought.
James was sent to bed without dessert. The rest of us returned to the table for pavlova. Whilst tucking into cream, meringue and fruit, I felt a little guilty, that James had been punished and couldn’t partake, even if he did lie about leaving his homework at home, rather than not doing it at all. The conversation was muted and I didn’t participate until called upon.
“Jumilah, once your parents finish building, will you receive the animals?”
“That’s the plan, but not straight away.”
I thought I could hear a bird outside, most likely one of the chickens.
“We have to have an inspection to see whether or not we’re going to be granted a zoo licence.”
Mr Roberts finished his mouthful and furrowed his brow, bemused.
“So, you could build the whole thing, and then they still say no?”
“Yeah, I think that’s the point. Otherwise, they would just be looking at plans, and animals don’t live in plans.”
“Yeah, that makes sense, I suppose.” He finished his last spoonful of pavlova, then turned to his wife. “Darl, that was lovely.”
As we finished off dessert, Mrs Roberts collected the dishes.
“You’ve got plans for particular animals, don’t you?”
“Yes, provided we get the licence,” I qualified. “I mean, I have a connection to Sumatra because that’s where my mother grew up, that’s where my grandfather was killed, that’s where half my family lives. I’ll always care about animals from Sumatra, but that doesn’t just refer to those in zoos, of course. I care about the wild even more.”
“Of course you would, Jumilah.”
“I feel a problem is that people launch into things, often because they have money. Some people will say that, if you have money, you should just donate it to conservation projects. Those people are, respectfully, not wrong.”
With a giggle, I grasped my water and took a sip.
“I would like to think that, one day, the offspring of the animals my grandparents rescued, will return to the wild. For some of the species, like the dhole, as long as there’s habitat for them to go into, that would be for the best.”
Once the kitchen had been cleaned up, we migrated through to the loungeroom, sitting down in front of the TV. Mr Roberts cracked open a beer. Reuben would have offered me one, but I didn’t mind. This was a different, family environment, after all, and Mr and Mrs Roberts probably saw me as one of the kids. I half expected them to tell me that I needed to brush my teeth and go to bed. Indeed, the others were kissed goodnight. I waved them farewell as they headed to bed. Perhaps due to my adulthood, I wasn’t told I needed to follow them. I remained sitting on the couch with Mr and Mrs Roberts, catching the end of a reality show. Truth be told, I didn’t want to be alone, especially not whenever I thought about Erin, the primate keeper in Perth. An action movie started, commencing with a war scene justifying the warning that the program contained some violence. Soldiers shot at one another with machine guns bursting fire and bullets. I closed my eyes, but the bangs continued to ricochet, followed by raucous laughter. My gut churned. The television changed to a commercial break. I tried to distract myself from the triggers. What would I be doing at Healesville Sanctuary tomorrow? Mostly, shadowing Nikki, and helping her with whatever she needed, so that I could gain experience. That’s the sort of thing I’d do with a vet. I wondered what Nikki was doing, if she was watching the same film, which finally broke for a loud ad break.
“I’m going to go to bed.”
I burst from the lounge. Mrs Roberts followed me into my bedroom. I noticed redness in her cheeks, as I dropped onto the bed.
“It’s just the gunfire, it--.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Jumilah, it was thoughtless of us.”
I went to shake my head, as Mrs Roberts glanced towards the bedside chest of drawers.
“You know, I don’t expect everyone to remember, but--.”
I didn’t finish the argument. Mrs Roberts nodded, like she understood, while I took my hair out from its ponytail. I wasn’t entirely sure where my phone was, but a hairbrush was resting on the chest of drawers. Mrs Roberts moved further into the room. I could still faintly hear the television. Mrs Roberts sat down next to me, while I grasped the hairbrush.
“Would you like me to brush your hair?”
“I’d love that, thank you.”
Carefully, she stroked the bristles through my hair.
“You have beautiful hair, if you don’t mind me saying.”
Mrs Roberts stifled a yawn.
“I think I might head off to bed now, if you don’t mind.”
“That’s fair enough.”
She placed the hairbrush into my hands. I set it back atop the bedside chest of drawers.
“Sweet dreams, Jumilah.”
Mrs Roberts stood and withdrew.
“Would you like the light off?”
“Yes, please,” I agreed, lying down as she flicked off the light.
My phone tolled, startling me. I took a breath as I reached across in the dark and squinted a little, bringing the screen into my field of vision. The text, from Ella, was accompanied by a photo of her and Alex. They both beamed at the camera, cheeks pressed together, Ella flashing her hand in the middle of the shot.
Turns out he was planning all along xx
I’d tell Ella one day, that I’d witnessed the proposal, but in the meantime, I congratulated her deeply. I held onto my phone for dear life, resisting the urge to text Patrick. It wouldn’t have helped either of us. To distract myself, I opened Instagram with a sigh. Patrick’s curls were the first sight to greet me, flopping down his forehead, a guitar in his lap.
Beautiful sky, beautiful eyes
His voice splayed crossed my heart.
This beautiful life is mine
I crossed myself, begging for mercy. Nonetheless, I double-tapped the post, giving into temptation, inadvertently making the video full-screen. Patrick likely recorded himself singing before his operation.
Bushmint Lovechild should make a comeback; I messaged.
I rubbed my tired eyes with both hands, like a fur seal washing their face, then put down my phone. Closing my eyes again and lying down, I could have been anywhere.
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.