This morning I took another walk, this time alone, surveying the silhouette of Sydney skyline. I desperately craved the opportunity to clear my head, which wouldn’t be afforded once I returned. Sure enough, the first person I happened upon once I got back to the wildlife retreat was Reuben.
“Hey,” I greeted him with a startled grin, although my expression soon faltered. “What’s the matter?”
Reuben folded his arms in front of his chest.
“Last night, someone entered the Seal Cove exhibit. They used the code that Sam provided, that Sam used when he accessed the exhibit during the conference.”
“Oh, God, Reuben, I’m so sorry.”
“So, it was you?”
“Yes.” Was I taking the fall? “I didn’t put the code in, though.”
Once I’d said that, I needed to come clean.
“Hunter knew it, he put it in.”
Reuben’s eyes bulged.
“Did you sleep with him?”
Reuben raised one palm.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”
“I didn’t, for what it’s worth. We kissed, when we were in the enclosure, we kissed, then we went back to our own rooms.”
He still looked at me with that disappointed face I detested.
“You know that I should be really, really mad with you about this, Jumilah,” Reuben noted. “Like, seething with rage, tell Sam, get you into massive trouble mad with you.”
I could feel my heart thumping. While I wanted to yell at him, I thought that might be a little bit counterproductive. Instead, I said nothing. Petulant, I knew. I doubted, though, that Reuben would bring all the king’s horses and all the king’s men down on me. Hunter’s fame would bring scandal if the news got out, which it would. That, and Reuben’s feminism and pseudo-parental bond, would shield me, not that I’d considered either factor when kissing a boy on an illicit ledge.
“Look, you’re a good kid, so’s Hunter. I’m the last person to tell you not to follow your heart.”
It felt like revisionist history, because Reuben didn’t have a choice in the matter. When I pondered it, neither did I, for neither Hunter or I could budge from our careers.
“Jumilah, don’t do it again.”
“What, kiss him or break into an exhibit?”
“You know what I mean. Let’s just leave things there.”
Reuben returned to his room, as did I to mine, then Mum called. This answered the question of whether we’d speak with each other this morning. I picked up my phone, sliding my finger across the screen.
“Hey,” I greeted Mum, running a hand through my hair, my voice a little breathy. “How are you going?”
“Yeah, good,” she replied, and I presumed that she was out walking somewhere. “How has Sydney been?”
“I’ve been thinking,” I divulged, sounding distressed although trying not to. “It’s eleven months today.”
There was a brief pause in the conversation. I could hear Mum’s breathing.
“And it’s one month until we open the zoo,” she reminded, which was changing the subject a little bit.
I respected her right to do that.
“Are you going alright?”
“Yeah,” she confirmed. “We’ve got some cleaning to do today.”
I didn’t tell Mum about Hunter. While I wanted her to know, I didn’t have the time to unpack. As we both had work to do, we bid our farewells and ended the call. I hoped and prayed this would be a peaceful day, as I exited my room. In the hallway I encountered Christine, greeting her with a pleasant smile. We moved into the function room, lollies once again in bowls on the tables. I could have done with a bit of a sugar hit. Gerard got up. He stepped into place behind the lectern, giving the impression that he would be leading the session.
“Usually, Doctor Andy Hope, one of Australia’s leading zoological reproductive biologists, would be joining us,” Gerard noted. “Very sadly, Andy’s wife, Pippa, passed away recently. We have sent flowers to the family on behalf of the ZAA.”
My heart felt heavy, for a woman I’ve never met. I caught Hunter’s eye, across the room. Finally, Gerard sat down, coming to our table. The noise picked up again, despite the sombre nature of his previous announcement, as the others started to discuss the questions on the slide, about opportunities and challenges in relation to artificial insemination, but our focus was yet to waver.
“It was cancer, it was very aggressive and it was very sudden and sad.” Gerard’s shoulders rose and fell as he took a laboured breath. “They have two children.”
Don asked a question which I didn’t properly hear.
“I’m not sure exactly how young the kids are. They’re living with Andy in Tasmania.”
I wondered where, but didn’t ask, because it would have felt like prying into a family’s grief.
“Of course, natural mating is always preferred.”
I snapped back into the present. Grounding exercises sealed the deal. Yet, my sense of the unfairness of Pippa’s death, prevented me from concentrating. The session ended. I tried to keep away from Hunter. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to see him, but that I didn’t want to see anyone. I needed a bit of peace and quiet, which meant that I left the function centre and headed through the busy zoo – not quite peace and quiet, but at least away from the conference. I sat on the wooden seat outside the chimpanzee exhibit and felt the warm spring breeze through my hair. I’d stolen some morning tea from the retreat. While I thought that I would be allowed to be alone, save for the zoo animals and the paying public, soon enough Hunter’s frame positioned onto the seat, beside me, not touching.
“We probably do need to talk about this at some stage.” I shrugged my shoulders. “On the other hand, we could not.”
Hunter didn’t say anything in response. The chimpanzees continued to squabble, chasing each other across the iconic park at the top of Taronga Zoo’s hill.
“We can still be friends, can’t we?”
“Of course, we can,” Hunter replied with a grin, like he didn’t even have to think about it.
“Good,” I said in response.
Feeling my heart thumping, I hadn’t realised just how concerned I was. I wrapped Hunter into a bear hug.
“Oh you big, blonde, gorgeous boy.” He chuckled. “This is a beautiful and cruel world.”
The late spring wind started to turn cool.
“We probably should head back.”
With that, Hunter and I returned to the retreat. We slunk in the back, just in time for the second session of the day to get underway, following morning tea.
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.