Gretel – prologue to a graphic novel I’m working on


She couldn’t help it. It was part of her. It wasn’t something that she one day decided to do or something that she could turn on or off. All her life, people had told her to just ignore it. You couldn’t just ignore it. It was distracting. People were distracting. It wasn’t a simple thing to walk down to the shops for a newspaper. She liked to wear smudged sunglasses and an old cap low on her head to avoid any unwanted attention from people. She mostly wore drab grey loose clothing. Her eyes looked only a few steps ahead so she didn’t actively walk into someone. That would be the worst. Catching someone’s eye or having to engage in conversation was bad enough. Physical touch was too much.

She read somewhere that it had something to do with extra links in the brain. Doctors had wanted to study her brain but she had no interest in submitting herself to endless rounds of tests and scans. Letting her body go into one of those huge expensive machines wasn’t part of her plan. Not that she really had a plan. Her plans usually went as far as what work and other obligations she had that week. Family birthdays, sure, were kind of hard to get out of but she avoided appointments where possible. She hadn’t been to the dentist in five years and had started to worry if that sensitivity in her top right teeth was actually a problem. The thought of someone’s hands in her mouth was more than she could bare.

Who knows what the dentist or their assistant would taste like? Thirty year old carpet, skin that has spent too many hours in the sun all sweaty and salty or over-heated milk sickly sweet and sour. They never tasted like warm cherry pie or straight from the oven chocolate cookies. With all of the possible tastes in this world, why was it that she encountered more unpleasant than pleasant ones. Did other taste synesthetics experience the same thing? She didn’t know anyone else with her gift so couldn’t answer the question.

She’d never met another taste synesthetic. She first learned the term when she was a teenager. Wikipedia and internet chat rooms were her salvation. A doctor had declared his diagnosis one day after years of visits. Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia to be precise. As a baby, the notes on her Maternal Child record book noted that she had been ‘failing to thrive’. Her mother had always fussed over her poor eating habits as a child and hoped that things would improve when she started school. Surely her peer group would provide a positive influence. They didn’t.

 She was petit and found it easy to fade into the corners. At recess and lunch time she managed to appear occupied with packing up classroom activities, tidying her desk or taking a trip to the bathroom. Her teachers never seemed to notice that she spent more time unpacking her individually wrapped lunch items than she did consuming them.

The crackers and the carrot sticks had to be in separate containers. Cheese slices had to be a particular brand and kept cool. Cross contamination and possible food spoilage were easy excuses for food to be put in the large round file in the corner of the classroom. Other kids turfed their dry crusts and browned apple cores amongst the scrunched waxed paper and plastic scraps. Gretel became adept at hiding her mother’s homemade treats in between the foil and brown paper bags of the class’ detritus.

After school she would retire to her room and sit with her favourite blanket under the desk that her mother had kept from her own childhood. Her mother envisioned the little girl at the desk reading her beloved books saved from her own childhood, cutting and gluing artistic creations or drawing grand designs on endless supplies of paper. Instead, Gretel would sit leaning against the wooden desk, with the afternoon sun streaming through dusty net curtains onto her legs until she succumbed to snooze-land.

Her mother was grateful that Gretel didn’t come home from school and plop in front of the TV like other children she knew. She assumed that the school day exhausted her sweet little girl. Gretel lacked energy partly due to her lack of food consumption but also because she found interaction with other people so energy zapping. They were too stimulating, too distracting, too much. She couldn’t watch TV or go to the movies. All those people, all those words and sounds each with their own taste. Everything got too much. One would be lid ice-cream, another would be defrosted bread, synthetic maple syrup, damp grass, raw potato, and ear-wax or week old kitty litter.

She could understand the appeal of texture and temperature when it came to food but flavour as embodied in food was a foreign concept to Gretel. She would taste flavours thousands of times a day and so didn’t experience hunger as others did. Flavour went beyond sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. She had tried and failed to describe the taste of vinyl car upholstery after hours in the sun. Oily, sweaty and flaccid went only part way there. It was also earthy and sweet with a lingering hint of musty leaves. It was only the recurrent grumble of her stomach and weakness in her limbs that defined hunger for Gretel.

Her sixth grade teacher had tasted of vanilla ice cream. Mr Whitehall gave her a brain freeze. She found it difficult to concentrate as she held her head back, pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth and covered her mouth and nose with her hands. WikiHow users voted these the most effective methods for dealing with brain freeze. She wasn’t so sure.


The photographer

English is not his first or even his second language. Born in Poland in 1946, he considers himself a miracle baby. His father had spent time in a Warsaw ghetto. After transportation to one of the Nazi concentration camps, 100 people staged a brave escape. He was one of only 2 survivors of the attempt. Not long after, his father met a Russian aviatrix. Nicknamed “Night Witches” this group of daring pilots flew multiple bombing missions every evening without parachutes. Living in various parts of Europe for most of his seventy years, he only recently arrived in Australia.

Listening to him speak as he holds his cooling latte in his wrinkled hand, I watch the foam on his coffee break up. His eyes seem to get stuck in the grain of the wooden table top.

It’s one of those cafes with reclaimed tables with matching faux-industrial chairs under Edison bulb lights hanging in bundles from too long black cables. The cafe used to be a slightly grubby, converted milk bar with mismatched chairs and tables that a designer would call eclectic. Cakes were ugly but tasty piled high with just the right amount of too much frosting. Coffee was spot on -always. Never bitter or weak and always the right drinkable temperature. The new owners are young and enthusiastic and unfortunately the juices now come in mason jars with handles. He is the most authentic thing in the place.

We connected through Facebook after I commented on one of the images of his work that he posted to a local artists’ group. The photo he had taken of himself first thing in the morning.

“I am working on a new collection” EXPOSURE OF HUMAN FACE” the idea is to capture the face as the dominant part of the art surrounded with elements to complement the shot or focus on the face only. To capture the beauty, elegance or venerability of expression and movement.
The first experiment was this self portrait this morning – expressing venerability
Yes I am brave but if you love me you will except this.
I am looking for BRAVE Facebook friends to be willing to be tested and submit to my lens and creative spirit to capture you.”

I responded” I don’t necessarily believe I am brave to make myself vulnerable in front of your lens but offer my services anyway. As an artist, I’m usually the one painting or drawing a model, not being a model myself. “

He’s very free with his compliments and I blush when he talks about my eyes and my smile. His directness is refreshing but also disarming.

“I will have to touch you as I move you into position. My camera will be right up in your face. You must be okay with this.” he explains as his large hands reach out towards my chin and turn it towards my right. I don’t stop him or even draw back. I can tell this is part of the test.

“We will need to meet and discuss this book again. I want you to think about clothing and locations. My neighbour has a wrecker’s yard and we can use that. On the outside life is a breeze and on inside is destruction. That is the concept”.

“Okay” I agree with him as no doubt do most people. He has a charm that puts people around him at ease.

“This project will take maybe a year” he states matter-of-factly. “I’m also shooting a book about farmers in Gippsland.”
I didn’t ask any of this but he expounds anyway.

As we walk away from the cafe I start to comprehend that I will be more of a collaborator than a mannequin. At my front door, we smile and hug, his tall frame overwhelming mine. He turns and walks towards his car. I retreat inside.

“Everything good, my love?” Steve calls down from the lounge.

“Yeah, I reckon so”

no latte for Lily

Short Fiction 

Lily was wiping down the tables, her regulation green cleaning cloth was the standard Starbucks green to match her shirt and peaked cap. The wide arc of her reach she was sure was only spreading the germs across the table rather than actually removing them. Who really knew what was in the label-less spray bottle they were issued with.
Her manager, Howie, may have been outwardly enthusiastic for all procedures Starbuckian but surely no person was actually like that. Perhaps he was an automaton, she daydreamed, installed by the Head Office hierarchy to brainwash the employees. She wondered if his bed linen at home was also Starbuck green. Did he dream of matcha green tea lattes or mocha frappes with a caramel twist?
Lily…LILY!
She roused herself from her mental tangent to see Howie tapping his watch in her direction. She glanced up at the omnipresent clock behind the till and was grateful to see that her time was up. It was a job she had to keep reminding herself to be grateful for. It wasnt glamorous and it wasnt even engaging most of the time but it did mean that she could pay the rent to do the things that she wanted to do.
At high school when the careers counsellor was doing the rounds with her class, Lily had foolishly said that she didnt actually want a career. Such talk wasnt acceptable at the private girls’ school that her father worked 6 days and 1 night in order to send her to. Lily had only wanted to practice her art. She never bothered to think about the fact that this world required an income in order to navigate it successfully.
Apron swiftly removed as she ducked behind the counter and into the staff room, she clocked out, hat thrown in her locker and well-loved denim jacket thrown over her shirt to disguise her uniform. She had a date. A coffee date of all things. Lily didnt even drink coffee. She wasnt exactly thrilled that Mr. Potential had chosen this Starbucks as their meeting point but she always let her dates choose the meeting place and she would privately judge them as they did so. Perhaps they could grab a quick takeaway and go for a walk. The sunshine of an autumn afternoon was always her favourite time to walk. The quality of light was so crisp that it made colours seem richer and more distinct than any other time of year. The sky never looked as blue as it did on an autumn afternoon.
She took a couch near the front door, sinking down into the soft pleather cushions and dug out her phone to send Mr. Potential a text letting him know she was there. No response. Okay, she waited a minute. Who these days doesnt have the phone glued to their hand? she thought.
She wondered about a follow up text to let him know she was on the first couch in on the right but thought better of it. Dont want to appear too eager she decided. A bit of Facebook browsing to take her mind of it. Seven minutes later, she glanced up at the clock behind the till just in case her phone clock was wrong. It wasnt. It never was.
She checked Messenger, her emails and all the other apps she used but there was no message from whom she was now beginning to call Mr. Not -so –potential.

Who chooses Starbucks as a place for a first date anyway she thought.
Almost half an hour had passed and she was sick of the inquiring looks from her co-workers she decided to step outside. They knew she was single and dating but she didnt anyone else judging her dates. Her mother was bad enough, asking too many questions, expecting each new suitor to be the white knight to save Lily from this eternal hell of low paid work. Lily wasnt looking for a white knight. She fancied a co-conspirator. Someone to join her own adventures, someone to nourish her, someone to tend to her wounds, someone who would turn up to a coffee date on time for starters.

One more text to Mr. Not-so-potential so, hi. Just checking that it was today we were going to meet?

Nothing. No response. She wasn’t just being stood up physically but she was also being stood up digitally. She checked his profile on the dating website. She typed in his moniker – nothing. No profile appeared. That was odd.

She walked up to the corner and back down again. The sun had started to drift down pushing its rays through the leaves of the trees. Shafts of yellow, orange and red danced in the gentle breeze. She pulled her jacket tighter around her, doing up the buttons to keep in her warmth. Melbourne autumn days definitely provided a taste of all four seasons in the one day. Layers were her sartorial friend.

One more trip to the corner and then Im out of here she thought.

The day was cooling quickly as she walked the dozen or so paces to the corner. She loitered. She turned and looked down both footpaths but Mr. Not-so-potential was nowhere to be seen. She dug her phone out of her back pocket, its blank screen giving her nothing.

Forty minutes. An eternity. she decided. She threw her phone in her bag disgusted at its lack of help and walked off towards her flat. Stuff him she thought. Mr. Absolutely-no-potential just lost his chance!

Ubud

It’s beyond lush. It’s fecund. When my back is turned, I’m sure the plants are growing taller and winding their tendrils around whatever outcrop they can find in their fervent search to conquer all. I feel that if I sit still enough for long enough I might be able to even hear them grow. I didn’t know there were this many greens in the world. Each leaf is slick with the fine rain. If I didn’t know better I’d think the plants were artificial. They’ve been allowed to grow just wild enough to complete the illusion that I’ve just walked onto a movie set.

Veritable rainbows of cheap plastic ponchos are what the locals use to cover up during now, the wet season. We visitors let the rain cool and dampen us knowing it’ll dry quickly. There’s a sense of smug satisfaction in not caring about getting wet. We’re on holiday – who cares? There are deep and wide gutters to catch the downpours of the wet season  and large storm water grates which no doubt catch a drunken reveller or three on their way home from the numerous bars on the main strip advertising 2 for 1 cocktails at happy hour. The bars are squeezed between the market stalls all selling the same items and the touts attempting to convince you that you need a taxi. Occasionally there is a gate left ajar and I side-step out of the stream of tourists to peer into someone’s life for a few moments. Scrawny chickens dart out of the corners and there’s always a panting dog laying on the ground somewhere. It’s dark back there and the relative quiet is inviting but I don’t dare step across the threshold. Better to discretely peek into the world than to step inside and break the spell. I’ve read enough stories to know which side to stay on.

Inside our resort compound I sit on the wide tiled veranda of our bungalow. A chilled wine in my glass of the one bottle that I bought from Melbourne airport duty free. I couldn’t resist pink wine from the Yarra Valley where we have family connections. Our bungalows are built on the grounds of the old Lotus palace. The Lotus temple next door is thankfully free of rabid monkeys that exist elsewhere. Those grey freaky fuckers climbing all over stuff can stay away from me thank you very much. The resort staff calmly wanders the paths meandering around the pavilions and many statues that sit amongst the foliage. Their bare feet barely make a noise on the stone paths. Folded, gilt-embroidered fabric headscarves, white linen shirts and sarongs, they carry themselves with a grace foreign to me.

Today’s soundtrack features the melodic beats of small drums in the distance, mixed in with calls of birds I do not know. Driving up from Denpasar to Ubud, we witnessed processions of young boys decked out in their Sunday best walking along the streets. Smiles from ear to ear as children and mothers alike squat on their front steps to watch these boys perform. Yesterday was the start of a holy festival lasting two weeks and the street poles are festooned with elaborate bamboo structures that rise three meters and more into the air. I can imagine them dancing in the breeze should there be any.
Dinner and the obligatory Bintang beer has been ordered, so it’s adieu from me for now – or whatever the appropriate Indonesian phrase should be.
Overnight the dying leaves have fallen and white delicate flowers, which once I discovered are called plumeria in Hawaii, but here and in Australia are known as frangipani. The paths are littered most prettily. I’m sure it’s not just my artistic eye that sees the beauty in the everyday things here. Each corner of life here is adorned. Every few meters along the street, statues are enrobed in patterned sarongs and offerings placed at their feet. Structural posts on the each of the pavilions are carved just so. The doors to our bungalow have not a single square inch plain. Gold and red and black with borders and leaves with smiling or laughing or threatening gods stare at me when I go to close or open the doors. Two narrow doors, both must be opened to enter or exit.

 It was after 5 am when we woke and all was still and dark. Knowing that this was my chance, I got hastily dressed and ventured into world. Only a few cars and scooters on the road moving much quicker now the rest of the town is still in bed. Shops are shuttered, their advertising muted in the blanket of night. It’s still cool and the air smells fresh as I breathe it deeply in.

I’ve taken up the same position on my veranda at the small round marble table and I sit back and watch the day dawn. It’s only the three hour time difference that allows me to this. My body thinks it’s already 8.30am. I’m not sure that in the short time frame we have here in Bali my internal body clock will adjust but I’m not complaining as it will gift new experiences and perspectives of an otherwise hidden part to this Balinese world. There’s a rooster crowing in the distance and other faceless nameless birds in the trees closer commence their morning song. Through the thick foliage I can start to discern the sky growing lighter and lighter. I am the only person I can see. I know I’m not alone as I can hear gentle movements of sandals on stone.

 The morning chorus is slowly getting louder as more birds join in the song. Someone is turning off the lights which have illuminated the paths and pavilions during the night. In the bungalow next door, two men, who are possibly Scandinavian from overheard snippets of conversation, leave their bungalow to join the early morning walk to the rice paddies just outside town. The sky is pale in the early light and the low insect hum is being drowned out by howling dogs.
My sister went for a morning run before both the air and the streets heated up. Down almost empty streets she ran, passing a small food market, avoiding the barking dogs and circling back to our bungalows. Meanwhile I sit on the veranda and wait. We’ve tried to order tea from room service but it’s either slow in coming or the message got lost somewhere along the way. I’m not much bothered as I’ve nowhere pressing to be and no immediate plans for the day.

The tea arrives in a utilitarian stainless teapot; the cups are standard hotel issue which means multiple refills are needed before I feel that I’ve had my much anticipated morning tea. The milk is made up from powdered milk so it’s overly sweet and there’s no cooling effect on the hot brew. I’ve come to like tea in other countries. You never quite know what to expect. In Japan it was strong and almost fruity with lots of milk – most fortifying in the afternoon when I stepped out of the cold, driving rain into the tea shop haven. I couldn’t resist the dainty sandwiches of crust-less fluffy white bread with whipped cream alternating with thinly slices strawberries or kiwi fruit. Here in Bali, the tea appears strong by colour but not by taste, though it is quite tannic as afterwards my mouth feels tight and puckered. I’m grateful for the large pot to slack my thirst.

The sun is making an appearance this morning pushing its way through the trees. Shafts of golden light puncture the thick foliage. The flying insects stop bothering me as they retire for the day. A young girl in a bright blue and green saronged outfit carries a tray laden with flowers and food in banana leaf trays to deposit on the steps of each bungalow and pavilion as an offering to whatever gods oversee us here. My shocking lack of knowledge about local Balinese culture rears its head so many times during the day as questions spring into my head with no one to ask.

I think I will seek out the local art museum today and try to fill some of the gaps in my head. If this trip hadn’t been sprung upon me so suddenly then I may have looked in Bali and its people a bit before we left. As things turned out, my niece discovered at the check in counter that her passport didn’t have the necessary 6 month validity in order to travel to Indonesia. Tears flowed from both my niece and my sister at the shock of the mistake. A mother and daughter yoga retreat in Bali had just evaporated in front of them. Flights were delayed by the helpful customer service assistant, a phone call from my sister to me securing that my passport was valid for enough time and I discovered that I was travelling to Bali the following morning.

So that is how I come to find myself sitting in this movie set perfect location, in a country I know so little about watching the world go about its business . I’d be perfectly content to sit on this shady veranda, calling room service to bring me food and refreshments when I want them and occasionally launch myself into the pool to cool down. If I never left this spot, I’d already know more about Bali than if I was still at home in Melbourne. My version of this Bali is calming, ritual filled and eye-pleasingly colourful. The constantly changing noises, the warm moist air and the rich quality of light – I can feel them soaking into my skin as here in my chair.

 If I stayed here long enough, would I develop tough feet walking barefoot as the locals do? Would I adopt the brightly coloured sarong which allows air to flow whilst remaining modest?  I do know that the things that seem so insignificant and quaint whilst visiting might start to grate and annoy with time. The shower where only half the water seems to make it into the tub doesn’t bother one bit right now. Crumbling footpaths are easily stepped around for now would no doubt represent a greater significance later. The animated sounds of the Indonesian language are very entertaining to listen to but my complete ignorance of even the smallest and simplest of phrases would soon alienate me.

Lunch-time

No wifi so I can’t check in which is fine as the disconnection helps me anchor myself here in Ubud. I pour another cold frothy Bintang beer in the frosted glass. Set back from the main road this multi level restaurant clings to the sharp rills of one of Ubud’s side streets.  Many water courses flow along and under the roads. We landed in the middle of the wet season and I can’t imagine this place any other way. It’s fertile and damp with wildly scented air – spicy sate, meats grilling, incense burning on the offering plates and sweet, sticky fruit. There’s also an underlying smell that took me days to pin down. It’s the rich smell of decay. The heat and the humidity take its toll on everything from the fallen leaves and flowers, the street-side offerings of the previous day and the rubbish that accumulates in gutters and more.

Staff lounge in their chairs idle checking their mobile phones. There’s no reason I should expect Balinese connectivity to be any different to Australian. The constant rain pours off the thatched roof conveniently providing a curtain to the raised seating platform upon which we chose to eat our midday meal. The sound is at once comforting in its familiarity and isolating as it softens the noise from the road up the moss covered steps.

It was down those same steps we ventured taking them slowly with two paces, their rise being higher than what we are used to. Taking the chance we walked away from the main road drawn by the darker unknown gully beyond. Beneath the trees and their parasitic vines, the lay of the land cannot be known.
Tiny white ants scurry along the low squat table as I write. They don’t seem interested in my local beer or the simple yet tasty food we ate. Gado gado, a salad with tofu in  a smooth peanut and coconut milk dressing and Ikan Pepes, sliced fish in a strong spicy tomato sauce were stand out dishes from the locally influenced menu. No pizza or burgers for us whilst in Bali. In fact, we made a plan to avoid any restaurant that had these on the menu. The food was m much more tempting to us than the local insects thankfully.

We were attracted to the elevated pavilion which over hangs the river slightly with foliage covering enough for me not to have to thin k about and question its foundations. Construction is fascinating here in Bali. Bamboo is often used as scaffolding and the vast majority of the work is done by hand with men lugging baskets of rubble and supplies on their heads. Branches are fashioned into a low railing perfect for leaning against. Cushions are covered in the ubiquitous black and white check I see adorning statues at the gates of each temple or compound. Personally I wanted to push the sarongs aside to pay witness to what was underneath. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

At the fabric gallery we visited earlier in the day down a narrow side road, I learnt that white symbolises righteousness, truth and purity. Black is part of the Lord Vishnu, part of the holy trinity worshipped at every Hindu temple.
Whilst my sister takes advantage of the AUS $7 massages next door, I sit and soak in the early afternoon. One chilled Bintang beer at hand and the minutes into one another. I can see how days pass into weeks and then into months too easily here. I’ve already chosen my balcony and room further up the ravine where I want to while away a whole chunk of time. I just know that I’d lose track of days and even start to eye the incomers badly. Bloody noisy Australian waltzing in like they own the place showing no respect! I don’t like this future self too much.

Instead I’ll pack up my journal, pay my bill in multiple hundred thousand of rupiah and stroll back to our resort so we can meet our shuttle to Seminyak. The bill was summoned and I discovered only cash was acceptable here so I’ll wait for my sister to return from her massage before we stride into the un-named masses. For now, I’ll sit cross legged and watch the stumpy tailed feral cats scamper along the tilled roof tops in search of any forgotten food. Thin and small they are no patch on my two fat cats lazing about at home.