Letters Home #15 'Birthday'

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The water at Ellery Creek, Alice Springs.

The water at Ellery Creek, Alice Springs.

#15 Birthday

Last week, on the day after birthday, I was floating on my back in water cold and deep between rock-ribbed walls in an ancient gorge. Once more round the sun, my brother likes to say. Once more round the sun.

I celebrated with a few friends to the tune of Paul Kelly. We played a game with four-inch needles and pot of ink. When it was my turn I told a story about something I’d seen and wanted to keep. A snake. I drew it on the back of an envelope. Then again on my skin. Then with one hand she held my arm and with the other she dipped a needle in the pot of ink and poked at my skin.
Deeper water is calling him on
"Does it hurt?" she asked. 
“Yes,” I said, “in a good way though, not like a stubbed toe." 
A stubbed toe is loud and clumsy, annoying and difficult to accept, impossible to understand. Whereas from the very start the pain of a tattoo is forgiven, endured with grace and understood to be necessary. When it was over she smeared my skin with cool salve and asked what I thought. I said I liked it very much and I wanted more.

This week I'm back in Gapuwiyak. On the first day of school I took a group of kids to the lake. R— was there too - my adopted mum. We gathered nuts and seeds and feathers and leaves and put them in a basket. She showed me a tree whose bark makes a poison that catches fish, and another with ironwood suitable for clapsticks. Pointing to a third she said, “This tree is the tree of my tribe. The tree of your tribe. When someone in our tribe passes away we sing a song about this tree falling down. One day, waku, when you hear that song, you will know if all this is meaningful for you.” 

The next day it rained for the first time in months. The air outside was cold and perfumed. A butcherbird landed on a branch in my yard with a worm in its beak. The rain brought worms to the surface, I thought, and I suppose the butcherbird too. In the yard next door a pair of lorikeets hung from the branch of a mango tree and took turns with one of the first ripe fruits of the season. Meanwhile an old story was coming to an end. The story of a petrified infant with its eyes tight shut and no one around. 

“Where was the last place you saw it?” Tallulah asked, seated again on her moroccan pouf.
“In a softly lit room with some friends,” I said, “then again the next day in a gorge, after that in my mother's arms. And I smelled it one day in the rain.”
“What did it smell like?”
“Complicated, but also clear, sort of floral, with an earthiness and a wetness too. It was beautiful and I remember thinking I should take time to enjoy it, how soon it would end. Somehow that made it smell better.”
Tallulah smiled. She picked up one of the cloth bags on the glass table to her right and loosened the drawstring. Inside was a book, which she held in one hand and whose cover she opened with the other. “Take this,” she said, “its a book of poems by a man I think you’d like. Its called, Deeper Still.”
Tallulah turned to a page and took a deep breath, she paused, and slowly closed it again. Her fingers brushed its cover the way one brushes the hair from a child’s face to better take them in. She put the book back in the cloth bag and handed it to me. “Good luck,” she said.
“Thanks.” 
I stood up and locked eyes with her. Suddenly I had the feeling that I was dreaming. “Who are you?” I asked her eyes.
“What do you mean?” she replied.
“Never mind.”
I put the cloth bag in my shoulder bag and slung it over my shoulder. After a final exchange of grateful smiles I walked out through the beaded curtain, through the kitchen and onto the street.

Letters Home #14 'House of Tallulah (Part 2)'

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Tallulah sat in half lotus on a cherry red moroccan pouf in a modest room at the back of the cafe. Odd stools and chairs, covered with candles, crowded the walls. There was a window to her left, a bookshelf to her right, behind her a large wooden chest and beside her a small glass table. Her pouf was in one hemisphere of a round mat, woven with threads of dyed pandanus, in earthy tones of green and orange. I sat in the mat’s other hemisphere - also on a pouf. 
"So, what are you looking for?” 
Her eyes were soft but offered no place to hide. They followed mine to the bookshelf, where I’d turned for time and inspiration. I read a few spines. Sacred Geometry and the Body, 24 Recipes for Grounding, Love Matters.
I paused, lost in a moment of contemplation. She noticed.
“Are you looking for love?” she asked.
“Um,” I replied, remembering something. “Actually I’m looking for the sound of my own voice.”
“I see,” she said. So, you’re not looking for love?”
“Well —” I paused and gave it some thought. “I mean I’m not not looking for love."
“When was the last time you had it?”
“Love?” I said casually, as if surprised.
“Yes,” she said, “When looking for something, it helps to know the last place you had it. Like a clue.”
“Um.” I hadn't prepared to think about love. Suddenly my stomach dropped and filled with dizzy butterflies. They were slightly nauseous. I winced and moved my hands to hold them.
“Something the matter?” Tallulah asked.
“There’s a pain in my stomach,” I said. The nausea crept to my back and shoulders then into my cheeks. Tallulah didn’t seem concerned. She paused and said softly, “Stay with it.”
I must have looked confused because she offered an explanation, “Sometimes,” she said, “when the voice is hidden, the body does the talking. Listen. What’s it saying?”
“Its saying its in pain.” I said through tight eyes.
“What kind of pain?”
“Like a puncture,” I said, “like my stomach's been punched and a sickness is oozing from the wound.”
“Mm,” Tallulah fell silent. Meanwhile the ooze dribbled into my hips. I tightened my grip and winced again.
“Its like I’m sick,” I said.
“What do you mean by ‘sick’?” she asked.
“I mean something isn’t right, like an illness. Or a disease.”
“A disease,” she echoed.
“Yeah, like I’ve caught something in my stomach. Its making me sick. Ruining my life.”
“Ruining your life?” She asked. 
I was a little surprised by my admission but took it as permission to confess. “Yes. It makes doing things hard. I can’t be totally happy or friendly when there’s this feeling making me want to do nothing but curl into a ball and go to sleep and not wake up till its gone.”
“It makes you want to curl into a ball?”
“Yeah.” I looked at my stomach.
“Would you like to try?” she asked.
“Try what?” 
“Curling into a ball.”
“Now?”
“Well from what you’re saying it sounds like there’s a pain in your stomach thats ruining your life and it wants you to curl into a ball. I wonder what would happen if you did what it wants.”
“Um.”
Tallulah smiled, “Only if you want to,” she said.
“Okay.” I agreed.
She unfolded her legs slowly, stood up and moved her stool outside the mat. She opened the chest behind her and pulled out a white crocheted blanket. “If you like,” she said, "I’ll put this blanket over you when you’re in a ball. If you feel as though you need to speak, that’s okay. If not, that’s okay too.”
“Okay,” I stood, awkwardly. I moved my stool and lowered to my knees. She seemed assured and that was encouraging. I lay on my side and wrapped my arms around my legs. The pain in my stomach pressed against my thighs. It turned over and oozed up my sternum, behind my tongue. “Ready,” I said.
Tallulah moved towards me and draped the blanket over my body so that I was completely cocooned. “I’m going to light some candles,” she said.
“Okay.” 
The lights went out. I could hear Tallulah lighting candles. Eventually she stopped and one of the stools creaked under her weight. I closed my eyes. The pain was most acute a few inches above my bellybutton. It sucked at my skin and spread out towards my sides. Then it rolled over and tugged at my jaw. It tucked itself behind my bellybutton, rising and falling with my every breath. Suddenly it sharpened and my stomach gurgled. An image flashed into the speckled blackness behind my eyes. It was a crying baby, covered in purple and white blotches, with clenched eyes. Its umbilical chord was intact and flailing. The baby was floating in a room, faintly red, but no one was holding it. No mother or father. Only a few shadows moving about in preparation. The baby was silent. Its eyes clenched tight.
“I see a baby,” I said.
“A baby?” she echoed.
“A newborn. Its afraid — its frozen with fear. Its eyes are clenched tight.”
“What does it need?”
“Um,” I started to shake. Tears welled in my eyes. They were clenched. 
“What does it need?” she repeated.
“Love,” I cried. “It needs love.”
Tallulah was silent. So was I. I sat up and put the blanket to one side. Her eyes were soft, but offered no place to hide. “I’m looking for love,” I said to her eyes. They blinked and smiled.

(not) the end.

Letters Home #13 'House of Tallulah (Part 1)'

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House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs. Two streets from the main drag. Two streets from foot traffic in a town of thirty thousand, it relies entirely on patronage by people who know where it is and what they’re looking for. Most are looking for the same thing. Along with the usual caffeinated beverages and baked artisanal treats, House of Tallulah is the only cafe in Alice Springs, possibly the only cafe in the northern territory of this great southern land, that also serves directions

I’d arrived in Alice a few days earlier. Fourteen hours by bus from Arnhem. I was hungry for professionally prepared food and thirsty for a varied blend of civil refreshments. My friend Reuben picked me up. He's a cowboy - but he doesn’t ride horses. He plays chess. Which isn’t to say he lacks any of the rugged qualities for which cowboys are known. Reuben combines practical knowledge of the task at hand with an eye for craftsmanship, sense for adventure, stylish garb and a cracking wit. We grew up either side of the same leafy street in suburban Perth. Reuben introduced me to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Fifteen years later he sent me to visit House of Tallulah. “Ask for directions,” he said.

The cafe operates from a powder blue weatherboard bungalow set back thirty paces from the street. Framed portraits clad the bungalow in Christian iconography and idilic scenes from turn of the century rural dreams. A concrete footpath leads to a single front door. To the right of the path is a tall whitewood. To the left is a patch of verdant lawn large enough for two cars. The eight alfresco settings are composed of odd vintage chairs and makeshift coffee tables. Cutlery stands in salvaged tins of diced tomatoes next to short stacks of recycled paper napkins. Everything, the portraits and weatherboards, the lawn and tree, the handfuls of creamy white blossoms cast across the path by gusts of spring wind, everything is stonewashed in desert glare.

House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs.

House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs.

I walked inside, into a long rectangular room with a bench down one side. On the bench was a coffee machine and cash register. Also a glass cake stand full of blueberry muffins and ready-to-toast breakfast sandwiches. A doorframe at the back of the room led to a stainless steel kitchen and at the back of that another doorframe with a beaded curtain. Behind the bench stood three women. On the right was Liza, five-five and forty something with curly black hair, full eyebrows and leathery skin made soft by beauty cream. She wore an assortment of chains around her neck and a red silk singlet. From one of the chains hung a kookaburra’s tail feather. Her wrists were stacked with bangles and beaded bracelets and she wore a single pendant earring, a three dimensional plastic moon. On the left was Charlie, cropped grey hair and a four inch mohawk. She wore a silver ring on her right thumb and her square frame was dressed in ripped Levi’s and a tight grey t-shirt printed in bold texan typeface with the words ’NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’.

Between Liza and Charlie, taller by a whole two feet, stood Tallulah. Everything about her was exaggerated. Her saucer-sized eyes were wide set and filled to the brim with coffee brown. She had high cheek bones and ears like conch shells. They poked through shards of maple hair that fell beside her neck and grazed her clavicles. The neckline of her camel blouse stretched shoulder to shoulder and sat low enough to reveal the creases in her underarms and a few curly maple hairs. It was embroidered with small candlesticks in threads of red and purple. They spread over her bust and cascaded to her midriff where her blouse was cut short and showed the olive skin of her belly. An oversized ruby pendant dangled from her bellybutton. Beneath that was a forest green chiffon skirt and a pair of cradled hands. Her wrists were tattooed with black and grey bands ranging from one to four centimetres. They ran all the way to the middle of her upper arms. Each a patterned mix of cross-hatch, swirls and strange letters in alien script. She wore pendant earrings, one of which was a three dimensional plastic moon. The other was a birthday candle. 

“What can we get you?” said Liza, with a smoker’s voice, rasped by inflammation at the back of her throat. I blinked - lost for words. Liza cocked her head. The thick mascara around her eyes crumpled with hints of scepticism. I turned to Tallulah. She was smiling impossibly wide, when she blinked back I swear I heard her lids collide. “Um,” was all I could manage. 
“Coffee?” asked Tellulah. Her voice was high pitched and playfully sarcastic.
I blinked again.
“Food?” she toyed with me. A chortle fled through Charlie’s nose. I shook my head. “Hmm,” she paused for effect, “How about directions?”
“Um,” I mumbled. The game was finished. Tellulah glanced at a clock on the wall behind my head. It had a porcelain face and black enamel roman numerals pointed to by plastic candlesticks. Ten o’clock.
“Perfect,” she said and stepped back, moving towards the end of the room and out from behind the bench so that she stood facing me. I looked at her bare feet. Each finger-length toe wore a gold band set with a different coloured crystal. I stared long enough to consider the shape and colour of each one. Tallulah watched me. She lifted her toes and gave them a wiggle then set them again on the floor. I looked at her face. I though she was about to laugh. But instead she blinked and said, “Come on, sweetheart.” Then she turned and disappeared into the kitchen.

I started after her but was cut short by a tap on my shoulder. It was Charlie. “Works best if we get this out of the way,” she said, calmly handing me a laminated piece of A5 recycled paper. At the top, in bold purple print was handwritten the word ‘Directions’. Under that, in the middle of the page, was written ‘$120’.
“Um,” I managed.
“No pressure,” said Charlie.
“Um,” I felt in my bag for my wallet and pulled it out. Charlie was holding a wireless EFTPOS machine.
“Cheque, savings or credit?”
“Uh, cheque, thanks.”
I typed my four-digit PIN and pressed ‘Okay’. Transaction approved. I walked in.

(not) the end.

Notes

All of the characters and events in this story are fictional.

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