Mum, Dad and I all headed off to work. The glass would have to wait until another day. During the ride I hummed along to a Bushmint Lovechild tune. Arriving at the mall, I chained my bike up out the front like usual, then clocked the security camera on my way in, almost bumping into a woman with a stroller in my distraction. Surely it had been there the whole time. I strode through Woolworths and up to the staffroom, where I encountered Patrick amongst my workmates. The impending lights filled the conservation, an occurrence every few months in these parts. I stashed my bag, which contained my laptop, in case I got time for the Australian mammals TAG meeting.
“I think it’s pretty cool that you can see Aurora Australis.”
Patrick threw back his can of Coke and flashed a cheeky smile.
“Can’t get that on the mainland.”
“Lucky I came back just in time.”
I departed the staffroom and got to work. Patrick and I ended up two checkouts apart from each other. The lane in between was closed, apparently because the register had inexplicably stopped working. At least it was something I wouldn’t have to deal with anymore once I left Woolworths to work full-time at the zoo. A woman came through the checkouts.
“Hello, how are you?”
I started scanning her groceries – almond milk, silken tofu, baby spinach in a crocheted bag rather than one of the plastic receptacles supplied. Her commitment was admirable. I figured that our customer might have been vegan.
“Never better, never better.”
She smelled sweet, like strawberries and jasmine. I suspected it was perfume, just as much as her shopping. Eventually, I finished the load.
“Have a lovely day.”
“Thank you. I sure will.”
Once the woman departed with her shopping, I had a brief moment of respite. With nobody on Patrick’s checkout, either, naturally the conversation started to flow again.
“I mean, I know that you think that I’ve got all sorts of ideas,” he mentioned, “but I would love to work at your zoo.”
We would need to employ keepers at some stage down the track.
“Look, I’ll talk to Mum and Dad.”
“You should, absolutely.”
“Oh, you jest--.”
“No, I’m not.” Patrick raised his palms. “I think your work is very interesting.”
“Thank you,” I responded with a smile.
“You’ll also need some help with promotions.”
I didn’t think that Patrick was being condescending, although I found myself not responding. Those matters seemed less than practical, even though they were still important.
“Well, I mean, you’re going to be calling the zoo Acarda, aren’t you?”
I must have told him that at some stage, perhaps when we were still dating.
“Well, yeah, we are, it’s an acronym of--.”
A customer stepped forward, preventing me from explaining further. Even though it hadn’t been my intention, I sensed that I would be providing the story over and over again. It troubled me more than it should have. I hoped that we just become known as the zoo and nobody would be bothered by the specifics of the name. It would just fall into the fabric of our history, but to our family, it would be special. When the checkout cleared again, I allowed myself a drink of water. I seldom kept my phone with me on the checkouts because the customers didn’t like it when you seemed distracted, rather than paying attention to them. Perhaps it was an old-fashioned viewpoint? I wasn’t sure, but I also believed that good customer service was timeless. Therefore, when the work got boring, I needed to come up with my own topics of thought, to keep me occupied. Patrick was serving a woman whom I presumed had a big family, given the size and diversity of the items she was preparing, meaning that he wasn’t badgering me for a conversation. We’d always had that sort of relationship. I pondered the aviaries in zoos overseas, which I’d read about during my studies. That diversity of birdlife was something which Australian zoos could only dream of, even in regard to species like birds of paradise from Papua New Guinea. Their native habitat really wasn’t that far away, geographically. Of course, pesky little things like the ocean and an international border got in the way.
“Have a lovely day.”
“You too, love,” the customer farewelled, then got on with her day.
My next one decided that she wanted to talk about star signs, as she was purchasing a magazine.
“Oh, I’m a Pisces.”
“I think I’m a Cancer.” Patrick smiled towards his new customer. “Which, honestly, is the worst one.”
I giggled. He was not going to get an argument from me. I stifled a yawn. Having these easygoing conversations with Patrick warmed my heart. I wouldn’t have mentioned that to him, though. Coming back from the mainland didn’t mean my mind had changed.
“I’m sure you learned plenty on the mainland.”
“Oh, yeah, I did, I’d be a bit worried if I didn’t.”
“Things have changed. Always, things are changing.”
He cleared his throat.
“What’s in Aisle 1?” Patrick wanted to know.
“Health foods, pre-packaged sandwiches,” I supplied.
A customer approached the checkout, bringing our impromptu lesson on the layout of the supermarket to an end. Inevitably we’d get the chance to pick back up again, at some stage. At the end of the day, I returned to the staffroom. Patrick stood around, like he’d already clocked off for the shift.
“What’s troubling you?” I enquired, still able to read the lines across his forehead.
Patrick rolled his lips.
“I’m just thinking about Joey.” This time, he smiled. “She’s grown so much but she’s still so tiny. I just want to protect her from everything and I’m not sure I can do that.”
“Of course you want her to be safe. Frank can’t hurt her.”
“I don’t think Frank would ever have custody. Being in prison doesn’t exactly look good in front of the judge when you’re asking for your every second weekend. Besides, Joey will have lived the first years of her life without him. They’re not going to have a relationship to salvage.”
Patrick crushed his can in his hand, and I didn’t say anything about his dependence on Coke.
“Do you know when you’re going to open?”
“Not officially,” I responded. “None of the animals have arrived yet. We have to have an inspection of the property first.”
I heard footsteps behind me and checked over my shoulder.
“I think that someone wants to see you,” I remarked, smiling knowingly.
Stepping to the side, I revealed Sloane, who grinned at Patrick. Baby Joey was strapped to her chest, in the pouch.
“Hello, Joey,” Patrick gushed, approaching them. “You’re such a beautiful little visitor.”
Once I arrived home, I headed straight to my bedroom. I needed sleep. My chest and belly felt tight, head throbbing at the thought of any conversation. In the doorway I dropped my bag, then heaved my body onto the bed, frame a little twisted which produced a pain in my neck. I breathed out, then tried to shift. While I could still hear the radio, I knew I wasn’t far away from sleep.
The younger sister of missing Sydney man Mitchell del Reyan, Nina del Reyan lives on Dharug land in western Sydney. She has recently commenced a teaching degree at Macquarie University. Nina loves her family and friends and is deeply committed to finding answers and justice for the families of missing people.
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 desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.