They Had Their Chance

 

‘Daddy! Take a picture!’

‘I’m trying, honey! Gimme a chance here!’

Jesus, Tom thought; six hundred dollars’ worth of camera and I can’t get it to take a picture through a bloody pane of glass. Even with the lights so low you were squinting into the tank to try and see the stupid bloody platypus, surely the high-tech sensor for the camera’s autofocus could penetrate a bit of ordinary glass? He fumbled with the settings, trying to figure out how to use the manual focus. Why hadn’t he ever read the manual properly?

‘Daddy!’ Lily pleaded, tugging on his elbow.

‘Hush!’ he said, waving at her in exasperation.

He was frustrated that he couldn’t do this simple thing for her. She loved animals, and it had reached fever pitch since he’d promised he’d take her here, to the Healesville Sanctuary. She’d been to the zoo before, but she’d lately become obsessed with the platypus and he’d heard this was the best place to see it.

Eight years-old and she could already tell him more about this freaky little egg-laying oddball than he’d ever known in his life. And she had plastic models, carved wooden ones, Aboriginal-style paintings . . . Her room was plastered with pictures of the thing, as if it was the lead singer in some boy band. Jesus.

They could get a great view of it now, as it swam. Lily was running back and forth, eyes wide in wonder, following it as it meandered sinuously from one end of the long tank to the other. Healesville-SculptureIt stayed beneath the surface most of the time and Lily was at just the right height to comfortably dip her head and follow its progress underwater, her face spread with a smile so wide the top half of her head was at risk of falling off. He, the doting dad, kept trying to get a photo lined up of her with the creature, but it just wasn’t working.

She kept looking at him hopefully every time the creature came near her, hoping that he might get the shot this time, but the camera kept going dark or flashing that stupid question mark at him. He knew he wasn’t supposed to use the flash in here and it would just bounce off the glass anyway. Afraid he was going to blow the chance for this precious photo, he’d tried the flash a couple of times and Lily had expressed her shock in a voice loud enough to draw the attention of other people nearby.

He ground his teeth as he sidled back and forth. The lights were low because, in its natural environment, the thing normally only came out in early morning or late evening and the tank was littered with branches for it to weave around. And it could move pretty fast. For something that looked like an unholy union between a beaver and a duck, it was a nifty swimmer. Looking at its flat, furry body, you expected it to just kind of flop around – maybe it even did on land, but in the water, it swam like a seal.

It seemed to almost disappear in the water too, if it went still among the branches, its colour blending into the background. Though sometimes it rolled over to show its pale underside and Tom got the distinct impression this was a platypus’s equivalent of baring its arse at you. Bloody thing.

‘I’m sorry, honey,’ he said, after taking yet another photo that came out too blurred, too dark. ‘It’s just not working. We’ll get a photo or a card or something at the gift shop, okay?’

She pouted a bit, but was too excited to be upset. Still, he was disappointed to let her down. He fancied himself as a bit of a photographer and he’d wanted one of his pictures to take pride of place among the others in her room, but clearly it wasn’t to be. The sanctuary had a lot of other animals and you were allowed walk right through many of the enclosures, so he’d take some photos of her outside, where his camera wasn’t so blind.

Next time, he’d make sure he read the manual before coming out.

Considering all the space around the sanctuary, it wasn’t that big compared to other zoos he’d been to. But then, most of the animals were quite small. There were no elephants, giraffes, big cats or rhinos. The largest thing here looked to be the kangaroos. And the place was laid out to be as open as possible. In many cases, the sanctuary’s architects seemed to want to bring the creatures right up to you. That was fine by Tom. He didn’t particularly care about the animals, he just wanted to get some good shots for Lily, and she was lapping it up.

They came to the ‘Fighting Extinction Headquarters’, as it was called; a small wire-mesh birds’ enclosure attached to an even smaller building, not far from the main café and the gift shop, just in from the exit. Lily said she wanted to go in and he sighed, wanting to avoid all that hassle. He really could do without a lecture from some self-righteous animal rights type, ranting on about how all life was precious and how mankind was essentially evil, especially anyone who didn’t use organic products or wasn’t vegetarian.

‘Why don’t we go and get an ice cream?’ he suggested, pointing in the direction of the café.

Dad!’ she said in a tone that came straight from her mother. ‘You said this was my day.’

It is sweetheart,’ Tom admitted reluctantly. ‘Don’t you want some ice cream?’

Of course I do,’ she replied. ‘But first, I want to go in there. That’s where they keep the animals that are endangered. Then I want some ice cream, after that.’

Do you even know what “endangered” means?’ he asked.

It means there’s hardly any of them left,’ she chirped. ‘It’s like you keep saying to Mum about all those old bands you like, isn’t it? We should go and see them play before they’re all dead.’

It’s not the same thing,’ he said, avoiding her stare. ‘Besides, I don’t think it’s open, Lily.’

Sure it is. There’s some people going in there right now.’

And indeed there were, so he surrendered and took her hand, letting her lead him to the gate. One of the sanctuary’s staff was inside with a small group of visitors. There were two gates; you had to go through, close the first gate behind you and then open the second one. He presumed this was to keep these precious birds in. Healesville-Orange Bellied Parrot He was surprised to find that neither gate locked. Anyone could just walk in and out. He looked again to be sure. They had their most valuable birds in here, creatures that were in danger of going extinct and they just left the gates unlocked? He shook his head, baffled by the attitude.

There was a short path into a circular area, with the rest of the ground within the enclosure taken up with shrubs, bushes and rocks. One of the staff, a young woman, was talking to the other people who’d come in about two of the birds here – the Orange-bellied Parrot and the Helmeted Honeyeater. Tom didn’t pay a lot of attention to what she was saying. Two of the honeyeaters were flying around the enclosure in quick flashes of movement and he thought he might get a good shot, out here in the daylight where his camera might cooperate. Anytime one of them came near Lily, he clicked the button, even moving her round from time to time to get the bird in the background.

She was starting to giggle and he couldn’t help smiling himself. He even played up to it a bit, exaggerating his movements so that he resembled some cartoon character. He knew how he looked, rushing around like an idiot, but he was a father – he was used to doing embarrassing things to amuse his child. Sometimes he thought that, as a young man, he’d shed the innocent passion of childhood, but instead of discarding it, he had put it away in a safe place and passed it on to Lily, so that she could see the world as he’d once seen it. Having her had reminded him of the pleasure to be found in the world’s little details. And the satisfaction of being able to laugh at your dad.

And the embarrassment would be worth it if he could just get that one perfect shot. But the swooping little black and yellow birds wouldn’t stay still. He was starting to understand the appeal of being a wildlife photographer – those people who would sit for hours in a hide for the chance of a getting a photo. He could imagine doing that . . . if he had any interest in animals.

He spotted one of the Orange-bellied Parrots deep in the foliage, sitting very still and smug on its perch. Standing up on a large rock, he leaned into the bush with his zoom lens, nearly losing his balance as he snapped a picture.

Why are they so rare?’ he heard someone ask.

Their habitat has been destroyed,’ the woman replied. ‘That’s the biggest threat to endangered species. They’re wiped out as we take over their land and develop it for farming or building.’

That’s terrible,’ an old woman said, and there were mutters of agreement from others around her.

But isn’t that just natural selection?’ Tom countered, shrugging as he turned around.‘A more dominant species moves in on someone else’s territory and the original species adapts or dies out. Sure, it’s harsh, but that’s nature.’

He realized he was still standing on the rock like some preacher and quickly stepped down.

Destroying forests isn’t nature,’ the old woman replied.

Then what do you think the bush-fires have been doing since time began?’ he replied, conscious that Lily was staring at him now, but unable to stop until he’d made his point. ‘Isn’t it going against nature to try and keep these creatures alive if they can’t cope with a changing world? They had their chance and they failed to survive on their own. I mean, there’s no harm keeping them alive for . . . this.’ He waved his hand around the enclosure and the sanctuary beyond. ‘But it’s more for our sake, isn’t it? The natural world doesn’t care about them. Do you really think all the other animals will miss them when they’re gone?’

He glanced over at the woman who’d brought them in. She had picked up a small, thin branch; little more than a twig. Here it comes, he thought. She’s going to give us a lecture about how this bird feeds on such-and-such a berry, and helps propagate the tree, which is home to this bat which eats mosquitoes, and it’s all a delicately balanced ecosystem, so without the bird, we don’t get the trees, or the bats, so there’ll be loads more mosquitoes, so killing off the birds means we’re all going to get bitten and catch malaria. Or something like that.

Would you like me to feed the honeyeaters, so you can get a picture?’ the young woman asked.

Eh . . . yes, please,’ he said.

With the branch in one hand, she held out a syringe in the other. Some kind of liquid oozed from its tip and the two black and yellow birds immediately swooped in to perch on the twig, lapping at the liquid with tiny, pointed tongues that darted from their beaks.

He took a few shots and, finding that Lily was hugging onto his side, nudged her forwards. She ran up to the woman with the twig and the birds flew off in fright.

Ah careful, Lil honey,’ he said. ‘Don’t scare them!’

The birds came back and Lily was able to stand beside them as he took his pictures. But it wasn’t satisfying. It looked false, seeing these birds fed from syringes like this. Wildlife photographers didn’t go feeding tame animals to get their shots. Even with Lily standing next to them, it all felt a bit artificial. She looked stiff and posed, too conscious of the camera.

If there are only a few thousand of these birds left, why don’t you keep the gates locked?’ he asked the young woman. ‘Aren’t you afraid of them getting out?’

There are only a few hundred left,’ she replied. She handed the twig to a man beside her to let him take a turn at feeding the birds. Healesville-Feeding Honeyeater‘And these ones are here so folks can connect with them, to raise awareness of them. We want to make access as easy as possible for people, so they can get up nice and close.’

Not sure I’d have that kind of trust in people,’ Tom sniffed.

She shrugged, giving Lily a little smile as the birds took the last of the feed from the syringes and flew off again.

I think we might be able to get a look at the Mountain Pygmy-possums, if you’d like,’ she said to Lily.

We were going to get some ice cream,’ Tom reminded his daughter.

Daddy!’ she protested. ‘Stop being a killjoy!’

One of her mother’s favourite phrases.

And so they were led out of the enclosure and round to the back, to a building that looked as if it had been made out of a shipping container. Inside, in small pens, the tiny, furry opossums were sleeping in boxes of straw. Healesville-ContainerThe woman picked up a sleeping one and held it up for Lily who sighed in rapture at the cuteness of it. Sure, Tom thought. Small and furry is always cute. Mice are cute, until you find one in your kitchen, burrowing into your box of breakfast cereal. Then your reaction was to either run from the room or stamp on the thing.

It’s cooler in here because they go into hibernation at this time of year,’ the woman said. ‘I can’t hold it for too long or the warmth of my hands could cause it to wake up.’

The woman took out one that was awake. She found another syringe and began feeding the little creature, so they could all take a good look. The dutiful dad that he was, Tom took a photo of Lily with the animal, but again he was struck by the falseness of the scene. This wasn’t how things were meant to be. It wasn’t where this animal belonged.

Awwww!’ Lily said, gazing at the possum in the woman’s hand. ‘Daddy can-?’

No, you can’t have one. They’re not pets, sweetheart.’

‘Aw!’

Turning to the woman, he asked. ‘Isn’t this a problem? Handling them like this? How can they ever learn to survive on their own if they’re not scared of humans?’

We keep a few up the front that we handle regularly,’ she told him. ‘But most of them get minimal contact. And you’re right, it’s dangerous for them to get comfortable around humans. We’re their biggest threat. They have to be trained to be afraid. Even with the birds, we have to teach them to fear predators, so they can survive.’

Training them to fear natural predators, Tom thought. Trying to force animals to behave in a way that should be instinctive. Surely that was proof that their time was over? They had their chance. Healesville-Mountain Pygmy PossumThese people should just let them go. And yet he saw the way Lily was looking at them and reminded himself that she had what he had lost. There was a fascination with these things that he could no longer muster. And she could laugh with an uninhibited pleasure in a way that he had lost a long time ago. He had grown out of it, but was he any better for the lack of it?

This was something he had discovered as a father. Watching his daughter’s unfiltered experience of life allowed him to share in it once more, to remember what he had been like at her age. Yes, this was a small, cute furry animal and kids always liked cute furry animals, but there was no denying that seeing this living thing in front of him had an effect on him, though whether it was because Lily was here too or not, he wasn’t sure.

Staring at this creature that could . . . should have been able to survive out in the wild – if humans could leave a wild to survive in – he wondered at what he had long considered his rather jaded ‘wisdom’ and if it might just be detachment, disconnection. Healesville-Helmetted HoneyeaterDid he care so little for these insignificant species because they were not important, or because it was just easier to live without considering their significance? Perhaps caring about them meant caring about the world they were a part of and he didn’t need that extra responsibility on top of all the others he had.

He watched the animation of his daughter’s face and was struck with a profound sadness that one day she might not be like this – that she would end up like him and lose this infectious astonishment at life’s little things.

He shook his head, gazing down at the photos on his screen, flicking through them to find the best ones. The woman led them outside again and he said goodbye, thanking her, before taking Lily to the cafe for her long-awaited ice cream. They sat together on the same side of the table and she tucked into a huge dessert, leaning in towards him as he looked through the photos.

And there it was; that perfect shot. The photo he knew he’d print out and frame. The one he’d show friends and family. The one he’d treasure for the rest of his life.

It was a picture he’d taken while jumping around in the birds’ enclosure, trying to snap the Helmeted Honeyeater. There was the delicate, graceful and quick little yellow and black bird, caught in mid-flight, the tips of its wings and tail-feathers blurred with motion as it swept across the frame in the foreground. Right behind it was Lily, her eyes on the honeyeater, her face ever so slightly out of focus as her head turned, her expression lit up as she watched her daft daddy chasing after the bird. An instant of pure, giddy uninhibited joy. Stroking the screen with his thumb, he felt his breath catch in his throat.

Daddy,’ Lily scolded. ‘Eat your ice cream before it melts!’

Colouring Judgement

 

The man gulped air like a fish thrown onto the deck of a boat. Which was ironic, given that he felt as if he was breathing water. A humid summer day in Melbourne. The air was so thick he wished for gills. He had been here less than a week and this was the second time the weather had caught him off guard.

His face, arms and the back of his neck were salmon pink with sunburn after wandering around the city the day before. The straps of his small backpack made his t-shirt feel like sand-paper on his shoulders. The damp air had deceived him. The clear heat of the summers in his own country did less damage than the radiation that scorched your skin here. In the soupy atmosphere, he had burned before the heat had offered any warning.

Today was worse. Walking around with the backpack, sweat clung to his back and armpits as the oppressive humidity filled the air like a fog. Walking down Swanston Street, he listened to snatches of conversation from the people he passed, trying to pick up English phrases, but the language was as difficult to understand as the air was to breathe. The man felt he was wading sluggishly through both. It seemed Australians did not speak the kind of English he had learned in his classes back home. They used phrases he had never heard: ‘As full as a boot’; ‘A face like a dropped pie’; ‘I’ve got to hit the frog and toad’; ‘As useful as an arsehole on your elbow’. He did not understand these phrases.

Also, his teacher had spoken with an American accent, teaching her students to speak in the same way which, combined with the man’s own accent, was apparently making it hard for anyone here to understand him. Even though he and the Australians were speaking the same language, they were each making very different sounds. And then there were so many other nationalities here, with different accents of their own, some of whom had English only marginally better than his. And Australians spoke too quickly for him. He had to keep asking people to repeat themselves, which made conversation a strain.

Without fluency, his language was crude and mechanical and now, unaccustomed as he was to this smothering weather, he knew he looked out of place, as well as sounding it. A sunburnt, sweating, awkward, clumsy-tongued foreigner. To those who didn’t know him, he seemed a very different person to the man he actually was. It was exhausting, trying to be himself in this other place. This environment made him someone else.

Strewth!’ he exclaimed, wiping his forehead as he gazed up at the unrelenting blue of the sky.

His sister, who watched a lot of Australian soap operas, had told him that if he wanted to speak like an Australian, he had to learn to swear like one. He wasn’t sure the list of swear words she had given him was that accurate . . . or up to date. But they were easy to pronounce and he was fond of swearing, and he thought they were improving his Australian accent, so he had made a conscious effort to use them whenever he could.

Bugger!’ he muttered, shifting the straps on his shoulders before he started walking again.

He had forgotten how sore sunburn could be. And it was starting to itch like crazy. He had not put sun-cream on yesterday – he hated the stuff and hardly ever used it at home. His sister had told him Australian sun was different. Something about the hole in the ozone layer. The UV rays were stronger. She had warned him not to be macho and stubborn and to wear the bloody sun-cream. Well, now he was burnt. ‘Dumb as a box of rocks’, as the Australians said . . . according to the soaps. He could imagine the self-righteous cow folding her arms and jutting her chin out in satisfaction. He rubbed the back of his neck and winced at the warm sting of it. He’d put the bloody stuff on today, all right. Pain was a great persuader.

He caught a few people smiling at his glowing pink skin and scowled to himself. Yes, yes, he had been caught out. What of it? Let them try living through one of the winters at home and see how they fared. He remembered a time when an Aussie immigrant he knew was out in sub-zero temperatures, working on his car. Library-1The idiot had put a bolt between his lips to hold it while he went to undo a second one. And then was shocked to find the bolt had frozen to his lips. He had quickly stopped the Aussie from trying to pull it free, telling him to take a drink from his mug of coffee instead, to warm the freezing metal. Pulling the bolt free would have torn the skin off his lips.

The man shook his head at the memory as he came to another cross-roads of wide streets – they were all wide streets around here; if there was one thing this country wasn’t lacking, it was space. Looking across the junction, he saw the state library on the opposite corner. People in brightly-coloured clothes sat out on the grass at the front and skateboarders practised their moves along benches and kerbs on the wide pavement. To his left, he saw a building that look like it had a roof built out of plastic frogs.

Bloody hell!’ he muttered.

That was another thing here; the colours. People seemed to be able tolerate the most garish colours in the most prominent places. The television in the mornings was filled with images coloured like children’s toys. Was that an effect of the sun too? Did it dazzle their eyes so much, they could only see in primary hues? Or was his own judgement ‘coloured’ by the light back home?  Could an entire nation’s taste be influenced by its weather? He supposed it could. Compared to the muted tones he was used to at home, this place looked like a crèche, but then there were some who might find his home town a depressing place. He often did. It was one of the reasons he had accepted the job with the mining company here.

Walking into the library, up the steps and past the pillars that towered over its entrance, he was awestruck by its scale. This was not a palace or a corporation headquarters but a place for holding books and information, a place people could just wander into and use. And yet it was a majestic place. Instead of one great hall to impress visitors and then, as you might expect, a collection of smaller, more utilitarian rooms, the place seemed to consist of one spacious, individually designed room after another. An architect’s showcase.

Crikey!’ he gasped in his thick accent.

The air was cooler and clearer here and the man breathed easier, strolling slowly, his head turning from one side to the other constantly as he took it all in. And the books, of course. This was not a borrowing library, but still, there was plenty of space to sit and read, there were plenty of computers to use. Library-2This place seemed created to remind him that reading was a chance to share in the thoughts of others, but at his own speed. He did not have to be hurried by the pace of someone else’s speech.

He walked through a gallery space that looked like it had been transported from one of the great old galleries of Europe and transplanted here. In a smaller chamber off to one side, he was surprised to find an exhibition of illustrations from children’s books. Moving from one to the next, he was more touched by them than the grander oil paintings in the room beyond. Simple, but nuanced; bold, but delicate, they were so like the pictures in the books he had grown up with. Sitting here, surrounded by these images from Australian children’s books, he felt strangely at home. A tension dissolved out of him and, without thinking, he sat down on a bench to let the moment take effect.

Why had he never learned how to draw? Why was it not taught as a language in schools? Everyone understood pictures. Library-3He had enjoyed it when he was a child, but he had not kept it up as he got older. Looking at these pictures, he regretted that decision, if it had been a decision at all.

You little rippers!’ he murmured, with a faint smile.

After nearly fifteen minutes of just sitting there, enjoying the lightness of the room, he moved on and found the yawning space at the centre of the library, beneath the giant dome. Walking in, he tilted his head back, his neck straining to let him take in the full view above. The sky was an aching, intense blue framed within the panes of glass. My God, that blue! How had he not noticed it before? Was this what it took to for him to truly see it? Did it have to be framed like this, like a piece of artwork? At this moment, at home, the winter sky would most likely be overcast or a pale blue at best, but this colour was like a force of nature, holding onto his eyes. What a blue!

After leaving the library, he found a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Sitting down, he took his notebook and pen from his bag. When the waitress came over, he ordered some noodles, pointing to the menu when the waitress failed to understand the words spoken in his strong accent. When he was about to ask her another question and realized he didn’t know the right words, he opened his notebook and drew a very rough paintbrush and pallet.

Oh, art supplies!’ she exclaimed with a smile, nodding and taking the pen from his hand. ‘Yes, there’s a shop nearby. Here, I’ll draw you some directions . . .’