Last thing I wanted to do was work on a Monday. That’s the day of the primate TAG meeting, but we were short-staffed because Maryam is practically bedridden. Therefore, I joined from the staffroom.
“Are you at work, Jumilah?” Reuben got it in one.
“Yeah. We’re so short-staffed at the moment it’s not even funny. That’s why I’m working on a Monday.”
“Right. Won’t have to worry about that soon. Soon you’ll be working every day.”
I pulled a face, just as Christine joined the meeting and became the host.
“You make it sound so appealing,” I couldn’t help but snap back.
“I’d still like you to come to Melbourne for your prac hours.”
“Alright, I’d love that,” I accepted. “We can talk about this after the meeting.”
“Sure, of course.”
I noticed that both Don and Isobel were in the meeting, rather than just him, like usual. The meeting got underway before we had the opportunity to talk.
“I’m honoured to introduce Isobel Carey, our senior primate keeper. She has worked with Merah since her arrival at Adelaide Zoo. Isobel will be presenting about the recent infant loss, as well as the other reproductive challenges which we have faced with our pair.”
“Thank you, Don. I’ve worked at Adelaide Zoo for six years. Merah arrived shortly after I started.”
They started sharing their screen. I couldn’t help but smile at the photograph of a slightly younger Isobel, beaming, on the other side of the mesh to an engaged orang-utan, all coarse red hair.
“We already housed a male, Kluet. They were introduced and quickly bonded. What didn’t result was observed mating.”
The screen changed to Kluet and Merah.
“As you’d recall, we considered AI in order to breed them, but it wasn’t necessary. We suspected earlier this year that Merah was pregnant. When we performed a pregnancy test, we got a positive result. We were quietly optimistic, weren’t we, Don?”
“Absolutely,” he agreed.
“After this, we have reviewed CCTV footage, to determine when the pair might have mated. This wasn’t essential information, although it helped us date the pregnancy, and also helped with knowing whether the mating was forced.”
“Which it wasn’t a forced mating,” Don chimed in.
“Considering that your pair has mated, and mated naturally, and that’s resulted in a pregnancy, what would you think of retaining that studbook recommendation for their breeding, in the hope of achieving another pregnancy?” Reuben asked.
“I’m not sure if we can do that,” Isobel admitted. “I don’t know what we’d do if we lost her.”
She started to tear up.
“I’m sorry,” Isobel apologised, wiping her eyes. “Orangutans are different from other species.”
“They’re not,” Bill interjected. “I’m sorry you’re upset, but they’re not different.”
“Alright, I see where you’re coming from. At the same time, Bill, you house orangs. You know that we must respect the intelligence and the emotional sensitivity of great apes.”
“Personally, I think you’re letting your feelings get in the way, Isobel,” Bill assessed. “Really, it’s neither of our decision. Reuben is the studbook keeper. It’s his call.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose the decision,” Reuben assured. “Let’s take some time to consider it. We can revisit this decision at a later date. I trust that Isobel and Don are best aware of the psychological state of the orangutan they care for.”
Thankfully, the meeting was able to settle upon that.
“While we’re on the topic of orangutans, I have another point to raise,” Bill mentioned. “We’ve upgraded and now has Auckland--.”
“Mate, if you’re going to ask about our exhibit, it’s not that old,” Reuben pointed out defensively.
“No, I wasn’t, but there are discussions to be had more broadly. I’m not blaming you--.”
“And Sir Edward Hallstrom preferred concrete flooring. We all come as sinners and saints, mate.”
“Let’s move onto the member reports. Auckland Zoo?”
“Nothing to report this week.”
“Gilead Wildlife Sanctuary?”
“I wasn’t around last week, but our orangutan baby was born healthy.”
“That’s wonderful news,” Don affirmed.
“Nothing new from me this week.”
“We’ve identified with the European studbook keeper the silverback gorilla to import to Melbourne.”
“A silverback, not a blackback?” Bill checked.
“Yes,” Reuben confirmed. “Kwabema is his name.”
He clicked at his computer, sipping his coffee to buy time.
“I’ll find the studbook identifier eventually, I promise.”
“Monarto Safari Park?”
“Nothing to report,” Blessing responded.
“Orana Wildlife Park?”
“We’ve been considering moving our siamangs and potentially building a new exhibit for them.”
“Where would the new exhibit be?” Don wanted to know.
“Closer to the Asian species, opposite the tigers.”
“We’ve been thinking about our future planning, and which species we may add to the collection.”
“You’ve only got one ape species,” Reuben pointed out.
“Mate, we’ve only got a small campus.”
“Is it time to finally revisit the idea of the WA open range zoo?”
“Oh, mate, I’d love that,” Bill replied, “but unfortunately, no, that’s not on the cards at present. We still just don’t have enough room, though. Sadly, we know that we’re going to be phasing out eles and we’ve got the Indian rhinos, but we’d love to be able to breed whites again.”
“We’ve received council funding for the gibbon exhibit.”
“My turn,” Christine spoke up. “We’ve had a busy week, although not too much for primates, I must say.”
She took a small sip of water.
“Werribee Open Range Zoo?”
“We’ve recruited a new primate keeper, to accommodate the new exhibit of the male gorillas. He’ll hopefully start by the end of this month, once he finishes up his current employment.”
After the meeting, I needed to pull myself together. As I closed my computer, Patrick swooped in and kissed me. It ended up landing on my ear.
“So, would you like to go out for dinner tonight?”
“If we go out for dinner and I ask you about Sloane, will you actually talk to me?”
“Yeah, of course,” he agreed, as he sat down. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I act cool like it doesn’t bother me,” I told him. “Sometimes it does.”
“Oh, Jumilah, I’m so sorry,” Patrick gushed. “Sloane’s been through a lot. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
My phone started to ring.
“That’s Reuben, do you mind if I take it?”
“Of course, take it, that’s fine.”
Patrick kissed me on the top of my head.
“Hey, Reuben,” I answered the call.
“I wanted to talk about your prac.”
“Yeah, of course, thank you, I’m very open to coming, as I said before.”
“Good, when would you like to start?”
“Well, I will have to give notice to work.”
“And how quickly would you be able to do that?”
“I’m not sure, exactly,” I admitted.
“I mean, I’d love for you to start as soon as you possibly can,” Reuben admitted. “That would be good for us, but it would be best for you as well, to not waste any time.”
“I’ll see what I can do, absolutely.”
“You will have to stay for at least four weeks.”
“Entirely self-funded, I presume.”
Maryam entered the staffroom. I caught her eye. She looked like she was about to say something, but she noticed that I was on the phone.
“Well, yes, but we can make that work.”
“Is it still alright for me to stay with you?”
“Of course,” Reuben agreed. “I have a second bedroom here in the cottage, and it’s on the zoo grounds. They think I’m crazy to live here--.”
“It’ll be good practice for me.”
“Yes, it will be,” Reuben confirmed. “Listen, I’m sorry, I’m getting another call. I’ll call you back later.”
We ended the call.
“Sorry,” I apologised to Maryam. “That was Reuben from Melbourne Zoo. We’re sorting out my work experience.”
“How did you score that one?”
“He’s old mates with my parents; he helped my grandmother out a lot with her animals. This is a fantastic opportunity for me, Maryam.”
“Sure, it is.”
I sighed heavily.
“Look, sorry, I’m a horrible person. I’ll get back to work.”
“You’re not horrible,” Maryam insisted. “I will do everything I can for you. Look, get back to work for now, if you can, but don’t worry if you’ve been rostered on into the future. Just tell me when you’re leaving, and we’ll cover you for when you’re away.”
“Thank you. I’m going to get back to work now.”
I returned to a closed checkout, opening it for customers. The first woman came through and I scanned her groceries, making simple conversation.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she apologised. “I forgot self-raising flour. Could I please run off and pick some up?”
I stammered, but she was off before I had the chance to answer. So, there I found myself, unable to move onto the next customer. Of course, other shoppers started to queue up behind the half-filled conveyer belt.
“I’m sorry, maybe try another register.”
Finally, she returned, rushing back over. The customer dumped a large bag of self-raising flour onto the conveyor belt, by which time I’d been able to put a fair bit of her shop through. While I felt on edge during the pause, sensing the tension of the other shoppers around me, the brief break was a saving grace.
“Sorry, it’s been a nightmare.” I gave a sympathy smile while I continued scanning the rest of the groceries, including the self-raising flour. “Tomorrow’s my son’s birthday and I’ve got twenty-five people coming to my house after school and--.”
She took a moment to breathe.
“How old’s your son turning?”
“Five,” the customer answered, as she fetched her credit card from her purse.
“Oh, that’s lovely,” I praised, while she started to pack the bags into her trolley.
“It would be if my husband would bother to help out with this party.”
I bore a sympathetic expression while I prepared the EFTPOS machine.
“That will be two-hundred-and-forty-five dollars and fifty-eight cents.”
The customer tapped her card against the reader. Thankfully, the transaction was approved – neither of us needed any more drama.
“I hope your party goes well.”
“Thank you, so do I.”
The customer marched off with her full trolley. After that, my shift passed by without further incident. I was able to pass over to the crew for the close. When I returned home from work, I set off onto our property, as if I was trying to commit every inch to memory. Bypassing the construction site, I slithered down the middle and climbed the slope. Clouds hovered overhead, threatening rain. My eyes scanned the tree line, noticing a quoll scurry down one of the branches and into the hollow. I imagined a path winding down the hill, with giraffe on the left and hippos on the right. While I also imagined eye-level viewing for treetop monkeys, I wasn’t sure how that would fit, practically. The hippo exhibits would be built into the hill, to allow for underwater viewing. At whichever end would work, flamingo waterholes would sit side by side, linking Africa to South America. I could dream, at least for a little while. This grand plan assumed that hippos would be able to be imported, as would be exotic birds – neither of which seems that viable. At the moment that doesn’t bother me, personally. I buried my hands into my pockets and wandered back home, feeling the winter sun against my face. When I walked inside, Mum and Dad were sitting in the lounge with Patrick, a cup of tea rested against his leg.
“I was thinking that we could go out for dinner tonight,” he suggested, “and your mum’s cool with that.”
“Alright,” I agreed.
Patrick drove me into the city, the Derwent dark and glistening beneath us as we travailed over the bridge. He found somewhere to park near Salamanca, and I knew exactly what I wanted to eat before we were even there. Hand in hand, Patrick followed me into a little Italian place, in one of those old sandstone buildings. We sat down at the restaurant table, the waitress pouring us glasses of water.
I looked across the table at Patrick and studied every inch of his skin.
“Do you know what you’d like to have?”
“Yes,” I answered. “Pasta.”
I took a menu, just in case. Handing the other to Patrick, I flipped mine open and scanned the font. Before too long, the waitress returned to the table and we ordered – pesto fettucine for me, and spaghetti carbonara for Patrick, then she departed for the kitchen once again.
“She’s so adorable,” Patrick gushed.
He brought up a photo of baby Joanna on his phone.
“Yeah, she is,” I agreed, gazing upon the image of baby Joanna.
Patrick put his phone back away. I was actually pleased that he was talking about the baby, not checking out the waitress.
“Where would you most like to go on holidays?”
I tilted my head to the side, pondering the good question.
“Well, I’d like to go back to Sumatra, for a happier occasion.”
Our food arrived.
“Thank you,” I said to the waitress, then I plunged the shiny tines of my fork into pesto and pasta, undaunted by the steam rising into my face.
While I shovelled food into my mouth, Patrick was more circumspect.
“I feel like my life’s been moving at an incredible speed over the last six months,” I commented, twirling pasta around my fork. “Really, ever since Kakek died.”
“And now, I’m going to be taking some pretty substantial time off work.”
“Because of your work experience?”
“Yeah,” I confirmed, taking a sip from my water. “I spoke to Maryam today and she was great about things, she said that she’d cover me as long as I let her know when I was going to leave. That’s good.”
These dangerous thoughts were forming in my mind. Once I finished eating, my mouth felt a little sore. Patrick bore a cheeky grin.
“Should we pay and then go for ice cream for dessert?”
“That would be great,” I agreed.
He seemed to know what I wanted. We got up from the table and headed towards the counter. I paid for both of our meals, then we departed the restaurant, into the night air. Patrick reached for my hand, holding onto it while we crossed the road.
“How are you getting on with Sloane and the baby?” I asked, to show interest.
“I try to help out wherever I can. Mary is being absolutely fantastic to Sloane and she really seemed to trust her. If it was up to me, then they would both come and live with us, but Mum’s not that keen on that idea anymore, anyway. She thinks that Joey is better off with her half-siblings.”
We arrived at Mures, where I’d had ice cream with Tallulah before. I smoothed my hands over my clothes.
“I’ll go in and get it,” Patrick offered. “You paid for dinner.”
“What flavour would you like?”
Patrick spun around and entered the restaurant. I watched his back through the glass, while he surveyed the flavours of ice cream. Feeling a little cold, I crossed my legs, then uncrossed them again. I glanced around, soaking in my surroundings. The river softly lapped up against the concrete separating the land from the shore. Patrick emerged, carrying a cone in each hand.
“Watermelon sorbet,” he explained of the red-pink, glossy ice cream atop the cone he handed me. “I hope you like it.”
We started to wander, and I licked the sorbet. A gust of wind picked up and I felt safe for a second, walking around in circles around the Waterfront with my love, ice cream and a winter night. I knew that this peace could be buffeted, and that troubled me, more than it ought to have. Frustration bubbled in my gut, even though I couldn’t quite name it. This felt like a goodbye, rather than a see-you-later. We continued to eat our ice creams.
“Thank you for us doing this.”
“It’s alright,” I assured. “We’re not going to have much longer.”
A shiver went over my body. I don’t think that Patrick noticed. I crunched the last of my cone, then wiped both sides of my mouth with the back of my hand. When I turned to look at Patrick, I laughed, his face covered in chocolate ice cream. He smushed the cuff of his jacket, thankfully black, to clean himself off.
“Have I got it all?”
I brushed off the last smudge with my thumb.
“All done?” he checked.
“Let’s go home.”
We got back into the car, Patrick driving towards Sorell.
“I’ve had such a good night,” he mentioned in something of a monotone voice, really not making it any better.
My chest tightened. My breaths became audible, compelling Patrick to look sideways at me.
“Are you alright?”
I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.
“Alright, I’m going to stop the car now.”
Patrick pulled over the car.
“Is everything alright?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, then sighed. “Actually, no.”
“Is something wrong with my driving?”
Patrick turned off the ignition.
“Then what’s the matter?”
With the headlights off, my heart thumped.
“I don’t know if I can keep doing this. This isn’t just about Sloane and the baby. My opinion is that it’s best that we just call things now, don’t get our hopes up that things are going to be any different in the future, because it’s just going to get harder, when I’m away, and when I’m working at the zoo. Even I don’t really realise how big that’s going to be.”
“It’s difficult. I really don’t know what to do.”
“I’m sorry, Patrick, I don’t think you get what I’m saying. This is the end of the road for us.”
Patrick switched back on the headlights and checked over his shoulder, then pulled back onto the highway. As we drove through the dark, I knew that I would be able to see the other side. We would get through this, as friends, and also as individual people. I would go to Melbourne and Patrick would continue to study and work and care for Sloane and baby Joey. We would emerge from the chrysalis, the colours of the butterfly unknown but beautiful. Patrick dropped me back home.
“I’m sorry, Patrick,” I apologised. “What are you thinking?”
“Well, I don’t love this.”
My body felt frozen, unsure.
“Look, I don’t love it either,” I finally admitted. “I’m not even sure if this is what I want to do.”
Patrick sighed heavily.
“We need a clean break, though. Do you agree with that?”
I leaned against Patrick’s body and he kissed my temple, then I bounced back and got out of the car, closing the door gently behind me. I didn’t really want to tell Mum. It felt like a shameful thing to have happened, to break up with someone, even in the circumstances. When I entered the house, as Patrick reversed out of the driveway, Mum was sitting on the lounge in front of the television, alone.
“Hello. How was your evening?”
I walked through and sat down next to Mum.
“I broke up with Patrick,” I confessed. “With probably going to Melbourne soon, I just don’t think we can survive that, and I don’t want to try.”
Mum threaded her fingers through my hair, then kissed the top of my head.
“I love you,” she promised. “I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you, Mum,” I replied. “I think that I might go to bed now.”
I got up from the lounge. Walking into my bedroom, I changed into my pyjamas, dumping my clothes from going out on the floor, then got into bed, slipping underneath my doona. I am worried about Maryam. Tonight, snuggled up, I said a prayer for her and the baby, that they’ll both be alright.
Jumilah Fioray is a recent high school graduate from lutruwita, Tasmania. Her parents, Catherine and Adriano Fioray, met at the University of Melbourne in the 1990s and returned to Hobart after finishing their degrees, where they raised their daughter and worked in agriculture. Jumilah's passion for conservation reflects her grandparents' work running a sanctuary in Sumatra.
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.