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Condolences

I woke up this morning with something of a startle, taking an extra moment to adjust to the harsh Perth light, and the fact that I was no longer in Victoria. Getting out of bed, I showered, allowing the hot water slide over my skin. I dried myself and dressed in black, slipping out onto the carpet, barefoot. Jamila had already changed, so we were ready to leave the hotel in an Uber. Hunger clawed at my stomach, but I’d felt too queasy to eat breakfast. We passed the zoo on the way to the church. Outside the closed gates was a makeshift memorial. I continued to keep my eyes until the site was out of sight, transfixed by the flowers, soft toy tigers, and pictures of Joel. Once we were dropped off out the front of the ornate building, I walked inside with the others. Joel’s smiling face beamed at us from the framed photograph atop the coffin, embedded within the flowers. They were natives, I recognised – kangaroo paws and other red blooms which I’m sure were specially chosen. The group of us from Victoria found somewhere to sit down. Across the chapel, I noticed Hunter, hair blonde, head down. As the room flashed between the church and the Sumatran jungle, I wondered if his own demons were haunting him. My gaze panned around the mourners. Isobel was dressed in black, her mother beside her. I had stayed in her house, but never met her before. As I flashbacked to Lucy’s grandfather’s funeral, I thought of Patrick. I retrieved my phone from my bag. Whilst I could have sent Patrick a message, instead I ensured that it was silenced. I dropped my phone back, then breathed out. Charlotte stepped in behind the lectern. She would be provided part of the eulogy, somehow finding a way to say goodbye. The birds outside the chapel provided a sweet melody.


“I’ve been asked to speak, by Isobel, on behalf of those who worked with Joel.” Charlotte took a shaky breath. “My name is Charlotte. I’m an elephant keeper, Joel worked with his beloved carnies. We both called Perth Zoo our home.”


I couldn’t imagine what this must have been like for her. Charlotte swallowed.


“Joel cared deeply about the crisis of extinction. He loved animals, and he loved Isobel. Joel dreamed of building a life with her, based on love of one another and of precious wild places. As much as he loved the creatures of Perth Zoo, he would have left in a heartbeat to be with his love.”


Isobel’s mother held her closer. At the conclusion of her eulogy, Charlotte shakily returned to the pews.


“I’m sorry.” She sniffled. “I’m so sorry.”


The slideshow commenced on the projector screen, Joel’s childhood images beaming back at us, snaps taken on film cameras with the date stamped in the corner. From the very beginning I could tell that he loved animals. Jamila wordlessly passed me a handkerchief, rimmed with white crochet. I mumbled my thanks, then wiped my nose, rather than blowing it. As the slideshow came to an end, I focused on the flickering candles at the front of the chapel, and the beautiful wildflowers.


“Our final speaker will be Bill Nevill. Bill is the Director of Perth Zoo.”


In between each brain zap, I gripped the front of the pew all the tighter, varnished wood underneath rosy fingers. Bill stood and reached the lectern. He gave a heavy sigh as he rested his glasses atop his nose and produced a piece of paper from his pocket.


“Trees fall in the forest every single day,” Bill read. “We do not notice, but we know. To know we do not have to see, but to see, to bear witness, is to have your heart broken. Loving is grief, lasting for a moment. Grief lasting for a lifetime, of superb devotion. Every day a tree falls. It sucks out the air it breathes as it is extinguished, like it or not.”


I gasped softly, grasping a glimpse of the canopy in Sumatra.


“We are the trees, we are the forest, we are beholden to the lungs of the earth. Each one of us is but vapour, we are warming, we will not last.”


My heart beat faster.


“May the souls trapped inside our bodies be released. Carbon dioxide floats into the atmosphere, and each one of us floats away from our mother earth’s bosom. She is groaning, we are dying, this will not last.”


Bill stepped back from the lectern. Whitlam and Hamish rose to their feet, to be among the pallbearers. They were strong men, in more ways than one, to be taking this role in bidding Joel farewell. Pew by pew, the room started to empty out. Jamila placed her hand on my back, offering her support in this time of need. We walked out of the chapel, following Joel’s coffin. The gentle acoustic melody of ‘Africa’ played. Stepping out into the sun, the glare was stark and bright, as Joel’s coffin was loaded back into the black, shiny hearse. I watched his smiling face amidst the flowers, until it was no longer there. The others continued to spill out of the chapel, as Whitlam and Hamish returned. The wake was held in the function space beside the chapel. It would have been nice if we were at the zoo, but somehow that hadn’t been arranged. Perhaps for some, it would have been too triggering. I listened out for the scurrying of animals’ feet. As I knew I would be, I was only met by silence, given our location.


“I’ll get us a coffee,” I offered, for something to say.


Nobody objected, so I strutted over. The sign on the urn urged caution, as I fetched the cups and filled them with hot water, the instant coffee less than ideal. Most people would want it white, so I fetched the bottle which had been supplied – still in-date, thankfully. As I tipped a small amount of milk into each cup, I felt lips on my shoulder and hands on my back.


“Bet you’ve never been kissed by an old man before.”


The voice was unmistakably Bill’s. A shiver ripped through my body like a lightning strike.


“No, I haven’t,” I responded, because I didn’t know what else to say.


Bill let me go again just as quickly. He grabbed a biscuit from the tray and offered me a smile, then crunched a bite with his teeth. I turned around, hoping that someone had seen. Nobody, though, seemed to be paying attention. With a shiver through my body, I returned the coffees to the others. They had fallen into a polite conversation about ungulates. Amongst this company, that shouldn’t have been surprising. Werribee’s female hippo is named Primrose, their male was called Harry. They produced a female calf, Brindabella, two years ago, and now she’s pregnant again. I stood about a metre away from Whitlam, arms folded. Now that Harry has died, the breeding program is in a precarious situation. I wanted to say something, to scream. Yet, we were at a wake, and I didn’t have the chance, as I noticed Isobel calmly but firmly striding through the space, towards the door. I abandoned my coffee. Worried for her, my body still shook. I followed Isobel out of the building.


“There’s been a calf born,” she announced, not providing the species.


We rushed back to the grounds of Perth Zoo. Isobel seemed to know her way around, the grounds empty of visitors. We staggered towards the African savannah. Just on the other side of the fence, the dark eyes of a giraffe calf stared back at us, still a little shaky on her long, gangly legs. Her mother stood over her, blue tongue licking lovingly.


“She’s fine, she’s fine.”


“That’s good.”


I touched my hand between Isobel’s shoulder blades, gently rubbing circles. She breathed out.


“I’m sorry, you probably think I’m silly.”


“No, not at all.”


We hugged. I lingered with Isobel for a little while.


“What would you like to do now?”


“I just need fresh air.” Isobel breathed out. “Can you stay with me?”


“Of course.”


We moved through the African Savannah precinct. Marooned on the exterior was a relatively small exhibit, for Galapagos Tortoise, which were due to receive their afternoon feed. We fetched a bucket containing the enrichment items. Isobel and I crossed the barrier. We sat down, aware that these magnificent creatures were heavy, but could do little to hurt us. Isobel offered up some food by hand. The tortoise crunched the hibiscus flower. Once it was all gone, we made sure to make a note that the two of us had completed the feed, which was probably ill-advised, especially given the circumstances. Isobel and I stood and exited the enclosure. We walked back through the zoo. Arriving outside the islands on the Main Lake, Isobel paused, then glanced down at her feet before smiling a little. Her eyes seemed to light up in a way which I never would have expected, on this day in which we had laid her love to rest.


“This is the spot where we first kissed, actually, the very spot.”


Isobel let out a giggle, even as she wiped tears away from her eyes.


“Yeah, this is the right spot. It’s important that people remember him here.”


The male and female gibbons emerged from the foliage, breaking out into song.


“It was just one little kiss, at first. I think we both thought that we could resist, that we didn’t need this.” Isobel closed her eyes. “He just kept loving me. The whole time, he stayed patient, with being long distance, with the whole thing. I thought it was too good to be true.”


Her eyes burst open. My heart thumped.


“Come on,” Isobel urged. “I’m sure there are people who’d like to see us.”


We returned to the wake, where staff were starting to pack up. Sam greeted me with a small smile, and I made sure to avoid Bill. We found a pub to kick on, jackets coming off and ties loosening. An Aussie rules match was on the TV. One of the Fremantle players almost dribbled the ball between the posts for a goal. A cheer erupted amongst the pub, as Isobel tweaked her engagement ring back and forth, the diamond catching the light of the television. With the giraffe calf’s birth announced, all she needed was a name.


“Zuri is such a basic name, sorry,” Jamila quipped, then sipped her drink. “I don’t make the rules.”


She turned her eyes back to the television.


“We have a zebra named Zuri,” Whitlam pointed out. “She’s beautiful, just like her name.”


“Oh, she is,” Jamila agreed.


Charlotte turned to Isobel. A part of me was surprised that she’d come out with us, trying to cheer ourselves up through alcohol and watching Fremantle play Geelong, Whitlam’s team.


“I think that it would be perfect if you could name her,” Charlotte degreed.


“I’ll have a think.”


In the first half, Fremantle surged ahead.


“I was wondering whether, even, you’d like to name the calf after Joel,” Charlotte suggested. “Jolene, maybe, or Joelie, that’s kind of cute.”


Isobel smiled. They all agreed, that the calf would be named Joelie, in honour of Joel. Exhausted after the day at the funeral, we stared at the footy on the screen. I wondered whether or not Joel had a team, presuming that he probably did, although growing up in Broome, I couldn’t pinpoint which one he might have barracked for. Isobel ran a hand through her hair. I understood the rules of the game, at least more than other codes of football. My father’s interest in the round-ball game waxed and waned. Fremantle seemed set to win, which Charlotte, purple scarf around her neck, seemed quietly pleased by, as she sipped local beer from a can. Eventually, she departed with her fiancé. Geelong, though, weren’t out of it. Sure enough, goal by goal and behind by behind, their score bloomed. The mood within the pub grew in tenseness and intensity, most of the patrons supporting the local team, rather than their interstate rivals. I finished a glass of water, every bit the neutral Tasmanian.


“Hello, hello.” Hamish, eyes fixated on the television, spoke with a deep-throated voice. “We could be on for something here.”


Whitlam downed the rest of his beer. I shuffled my stool closer to Isobel, the wooden legs and seat rickety underneath me. Studying her expression, I tried to work out what she thought of the football. All of a sudden, Geelong seemed to get a wriggle on. This silenced those in the pub a little. I was almost forgetting that the rest of the people here, presumably, hadn’t come from a funeral earlier in the day, much less a funeral of a young guy killed doing what he loved. Isobel yawned, covering her mouth with her hand.


“I might go to bed now, if that’s OK.”


“I’ll walk you back, if you like.”


“Oh, it’s alright, Mum’s coming to get me, she’ll just be outside.”


I escorted Isobel outside, to where her mother and Joel’s father picked her up. We farewelled each other with a hug. Re-entering the pub, I could hear the chatter responding to the game.


“He’s just plain missed it.”


I walked back through and resumed my seat. The goal was awarded. As play resumed, bodies surged down the field. All eyes were on the ball, on the field, in the crowd, and in this pub, thousands of kilometres away. Players launched into the air, into one another. The swashbuckling commentary, initially in awe of the hit, was swiftly silenced. My heart galloped along, concerned. I swore I could hear the crunch all the way from Perth. Bodies piled off the Cat on the ground. I found myself holding my breath, until he finally roused and was helped off the field. My arms felt a little shaky, because my body was running purely on coffee and alcohol, an unholy combination which I needed to remedy with food. As play resumed, I ordered some nibbles for the table. I sensed that I would end up eating most of them, so I didn’t mind paying. Certain occasions made me less unwilling to spend money, and the exhaustion of the day contributed to that. I turned my attention back to the football on the television, just as one of the Geelong players made a mighty kick. The ball sailed through the posts.


“Oh my goodness, that was good.”


Gleeful grin on his face, Whitlam nibbled on his fingernails, then sat back in his chair. Jamila looked sideways at him, less than impressed. I don’t think Whitlam even noticed her. I’d suspected a possibility of sexual tension within the house, but wasn’t sure in which directions it travelled. The glance was only fleeting. We all turned our eyes back to the screen. I, too, was tempted to nibble on my fingernails. My food arrived at the table, though, giving me something else to chew on.


“You’re welcome to have some.”


The others needed little invitation, stuffing their faces with chips and vegetarian pastries. They finally stopped eating when a controversy erupted in the match, over a goal-that-wasn’t.


“I don’t think that’s right. Yeah, I just don’t think that’s right.”


Replays teetered back and forth. Just as it appeared that the decision would stand, the television umpire reviewed. I could feel the tension in the room, a woman at another table placing together her palms as if she was praying. While I enjoyed the game, I didn’t understand the minutiae of the rules sufficiently to make my own judgment call.


“Yeah, that’s a goal, that’s a goal for sure,” Jamila insisted.


All this focus on the television made me feel even more drained. Sure enough, though, the goal was confirmed as such. Maybe I could summon the energy to watch through to the end, to find out what the outcome would be, and who would become a Grand Finalist. The next few minutes of the match were a frenzy, with the ball punted around the field for seemingly little return. Players ran into one another. Finally, though, the extra time commenced, with the scores level – you know, that little bit which keeps going at the end of the quarter. A Fremantle player kicked. The ball, somehow, ended up between the posts – and the pub erupted with joy.


“Well, that’s that.”


Collectively, we stood up. Waving with thanks and farewells to the bar staff, those remaining departed the pub. Football was just a game, that reality made even more pertinent by the day that we’d just had, although I knew Joel would have treasured the contest. Returning to the hotel, I showered and washed off the day, feeling a little queasy. My fingers splayed across my belly, then I switched off the water and stepped out. I dried myself off and changed into my pyjamas.


“The shower’s all yours.”


“Thanks.”


Jamila took her pyjamas into the bathroom. I sat on the edge of the bed in a daze. By the time that she emerged, hair a little scraggly and damp, but changed, I was still rooted in the same position. Vaguely knew that I’d heard the water running, so I had to shake myself out of feeling frozen.


“The zoo’s reopening again tomorrow. For all the Perth people, it’s just a regular day at work. Most people are flying home tomorrow, if they haven’t already. Everyone’s going back to NZ tomorrow.”


“Right,” I replied. “Do you know what we should do with Isobel?”


“I don’t know,” Jamila answered. “Whatever she wants to do. We just follow her lead.”


After a little while, Whitlam went to answer the door. He returned with room service, our dinner, even though I didn’t really feel like eating.


“Thank you,” I said anyway.


Jamila had chosen nachos. Whitlam popped open a beer. I figured that we’d all already drunk too much, but I wasn’t going to argue.


 

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.


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