Standing on the footpath in front of the beautiful old Launceston manor, Sarah Probert couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. A new coat of paint and some fresh landscaping were the only external signs that the elegant building had recently changed hands.
Wild stories of a mysterious new owner, a bizarre renovation and overpaid staff had swirled around the office after the untimely death of the previous proprietor, Vivienne James. A wealthy Melbourne socialite who had traded Toorak for the Tarkine after travelling to Tasmania to protest the construction of the Franklin Dam back in the Eighties.
Unkind tongues had whispered that ‘the greenie had been hoist with her own petard’ when she was killed by a falling tree while bushwalking.
The truth was that the late philanthropist had been a good citizen and a generous benefactor to local charities. She had especially favoured wilderness causes.
James had also been an excellent client of the local firm of accountants; Jenkinson, Storm and Kinder, which was how Sarah Probert CPA, found herself standing on the quiet leafy street.
The senior partners hoped to continue acting for Ms James’s heir, a certain E.J. Harris, but repeated emails requesting his tax file number and other personal details had gone unanswered.
Sarah Probert, a recent arrival to the island state and the firm’s most junior accountant, had been tasked with the job of extracting the information from the reclusive Mr Harris.
The secret to success, Sarah believed, to snaring this client was to win his confidence through a home visit. She could show Harris the human face of accountancy in a safe environment.
Sarah pushed open the garden gate. “Ah, this is why I moved to Tasmania,” she whispered, inhaling the warm floral fragrance wafting from the beds of lavender and rose drowsing in the late summer sun.
Twin passions for cool climate gardening and boutique whiskies had prompted the accountant to trade a big Melbourne firm and a tiny flat for a small practice and a house with land across the Strait.
Feeling happy and vindicated with her tree-‐change choice, Sarah climbed the stone steps and rapped the unusual doorknocker; a brass Tasmanian devil head with a large ring clamped in its mouth.
After a pause, she heard the sound of claws scrabbling on the other side of the wooden door. “A dog.” Sarah thought to herself and flexed a foot, ready to parry an inquisitive nose with a high heel.
A key turned in the lock and swung open to reveal not a dog but what exactly it was⎯it was very dark inside⎯she wasn’t sure. It looked like a little old man in a dressing gown with a halo of wispy hair.
“Good afternoon.” Sarah chirped in her best professional manner, “I’m Sarah Probert of Jenkinson, Storm and Kinder, we have an appointment.” and offered her business card.
“Good afternoon, Ms Probert.” rumbled the tiny man in a throaty growl, “I’m E.J. Harris.”
The card fluttered from Sarah’s fingers. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, the surprised accountant could now see that the little old man was in fact a Tasmanian devil. He was standing on his hind legs, propped on his fat spikey tail like a tripod.
“You’re a Tasmanian devil.” she squeaked with surprise. “Yes, I am.”
“A t-‐t-‐talking Tasmanian devil.” she stammered.
“Very good,” retorted Harris with a bite of impatience in his voice, “you have a talent for stating the obvious.”
Probert stared at Harris with amazement. He was wearing a quilted black satin smoking jacket trimmed with red piping and a pair of half-moon spectacles perched on his snout. Two large fangs and a wild mass of wiry whiskers offset the creature’s couture giving him an air of savage sagacity.
Suddenly, he raised his shiny black nose and sniffed the air. “That neurotic poodle from next door is out for its walk. We won’t be able to hear ourselves think once it starts yapping. I suggest we continue our conversation inside, please follow me,” and with a graceful tail pivot, Harris spun around and scampered on all fours into the darkness.
Sarah stood rooted to the spot in stunned disbelief, then the frantic barking of a dog broke her reverie; the poodle had got wind of its strange neighbour. Shaking her head, she picked up the dropped business card, strode inside and shut the door.
It was pitch black inside and the cool earthy smell of the house reminded Sarah of the forest. Groping forward, her outstretched hand touched a heavy curtain; she drew the fabric aside, and stepped through the veil into an amazing room.
It was a transformation, not a renovation. The internal walls and floors of the two-‐storey home had been removed to form a single space into which a slice of Tasmanian rainforest had been transplanted.
Hanging baskets of ferns drifted overhead like shaggy green clouds. In the middle of the room, a mighty tree fern raised its leafy limbs to the daylight pouring through a magnificent glass dome. In the dappled light of the forest canopy, a profusion of shrubs, ferns and orchids sprouted from an earth floor.
“It’s beautiful,” murmured the awestruck accountant.
“Why thank you,” replied the house-‐proud owner, his hairless ears flushing pink with pleasure, “let’s take tea by the fire.”
Ducking beneath a low-‐hanging frond, Sarah followed her host along a paved path skirting an ornamental pond. A fountain in the shape of a Tasmanian devil sprayed water through its gaping jaws into a rippling pool.
Next, they navigated around what Sarah guessed to be the devil’s lair; a large mound of mossy logs, rocks and dirt with a curtain of cut fern fronds discretely covering the entrance hole. The music of Bach drifted from a speaker buried deep in the den.
At the rear of the house, tea for two sat on a low table between a pair of armchairs. A barrel heater burned nearby, keeping at bay the damp breath of the forest.
“Please take a seat,” said the devil scrambling into a chair, “and would you kindly pour the tea?” he enquired, raising his thickly padded paws with their long claws by way of explanation, “Royal Doulton and I have an unfortunate history. Black, no sugar.”
Sarah filled a cup and placed it before him. He lowered his large head to the teacup and lapped the brew noisily. While they drank, she reflected on this strange creature called Harris. Then it came to her.
“Your surname,” she exclaimed, “it comes from the scientific name for Tasmanian devil, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does.” he confirmed, looking over the rim of his teacup.
“The Latin term, Sarcophilus Harrisii means ‘Harris’s meat lover’ in English,” recited Sarah, recalling a story she had read about the carnivore marsupial in Tasmania for Mainland Dummies.
“I don’t care for that description.” Harris sniffed, his ears reddening with irritation. “It makes me sound like a pizza, although,” he added with a fiendish chuckle, “I would probably be quite partial to a meat-‐lovers’ pizza.”
And the “E.J?” asked Sarah.
“Oh, that’s a reference to another Tasmanian, Errol Flynn,” replied Harris with an impish grin. “Those close to me call me ‘Errol Junior’ or ‘E.J.’ for short.”
“Now, Ms Probert,” he said, sitting up on his haunches and wiping tea from his whiskers with his paws, “you have some questions for me.”
She certainly did, and not one of them had anything to do with his financial affairs. Casting around for a tactful way to ask him, “What are you?” she noticed a gold band set with a jet-‐black stone glittering on one of his hairy fingers. “What a beautiful ring.” she observed.
“It was a gift from Mother,” he replied, “that is, my adoptive, human mother.” he clarified, catching her arched eyebrows and wide-‐eyed expression.
Sarah’s face remained a perfect picture of confusion, so taking a deep breath, he continued, “My stepmother, the former owner of this house, was a woman of substantial means. When the Devil Facial Tumour Disease began to devastate the wild population of Tasmanian devils, Mother had the idea to single-‐handedly save the species by breeding a healthy population through artificial insemination.
“She gave the job to a private IVF clinic, however, the lab also dealt with human reproduction and there was an unfortunate mix-‐up with the samples; my biological mother was a Tasmanian devil but I have a human father.
“I was adopted when my…um…unique abilities were recognised but that mistake ended the amateur IVF experiment.” Harris concluded with a shrug.
“Good grief,” gasped Sarah, more alarmed by the possibility that a stray vial of devil sperm was lurking in a laboratory freezer than by the mutant marsupial sitting before her. “So how do you manage without your mother?”
“My housekeeper manages my affairs. She prepared our tea earlier,” he said, gesturing to the china set, “and when Mother died, it was she who supervised the renovation of the house to suit my needs. I have no need for human architecture.”
“Don’t you worry that your housekeeper will go to the media and sell your story for a fortune?”
“She is very well paid for her services and, providing she keeps my secret, she will inherit the estate.”
“And what makes you think that I will keep quiet about what I have seen here today?” asked Sarah, leaning forward in her seat.
“Think about it for a moment, Ms Probert.”
Sarah opened her mouth to reply, then stopped. He was right. What would her colleagues say if she returned to the office raving about a talking Tasmanian devil? Worse, what would her superiors do if she lost Harris’s important account? Her island career would be over before it had even begun.
The devil smiled as a look of comprehension spread across her face.
“Right, Mr Harris,” she said briskly, “let’s organise a tax file number for you.”
“Please, call me E.J.”
“And I’m Sarah.” she chuckled.
“Yes,” thought the accountant, “protecting this devilish confidence would surely be the secret to success.”
By Anne Gilles from Australia