Libby Tulip.

Papa don’t preach, I’m in trouble deep

Papa don’t preach, I’ve been losing sleep.

It was the second time Julie had heard the song that day. Humming tunelessly, she dumped the last kilo of frozen calamari onto the board and wiped the knife on her apron, her left hand almost numb.

The one you warned me all about

The one you said I could do without…

It had been the same every day since she’d started last November: same songs, same prep. Sometimes she tried to race the playlist, thinking, ‘If I can just get the calamari crumbed before Madonna comes on…then…what?’ She couldn’t think of a prize.

Once Julie asked the cook if she could change the radio station but he just turned it off and whistled instead “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” “When the Saints Come Marching In,” “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The bulk of Charlie’s knowledge of western culture came from old videos in the refugee hostel, where he had waited two years for a visa after escaping Sierra Leone.  It was easier to leave the radio on.

Julie didn’t really mind working in the kitchen, or even the long train ride from the outlying suburb where she lived.  She liked watching the customers come in after their morning round, all lemon and pink shirts, funny caps and loud tartan trousers.

“So much money and look what they spend it on!” she said to Charlie, but he just nodded admiringly and said that one day he too would wear fine clothes. First, he told her, he must save to buy a car, something like the Alpha Romeo driven by a particularly fussy Tuesday lunch customer.

“You will see,” he liked to tell Julie, “One day it will be Charlie who will be ordering the blue steak!”

The golf club was different at night, with various functions held in its grand old rooms. On Thursdays after work, Julie changed out of her uniform and sat with Charlie in the Salon so she could watch people arrive for the Tango Soirees, women swirling past in their lipstick and high heels, men looking sharp in their suits. Julie liked the Salon, with its potted palms, deep leather chairs and Persian carpets. It was luxurious, colonial, like a gentleman’s club in India, she imagined, a world away from the boxy fibro house at the end of the train line.

One night, Charlie told her how he had smuggled blood diamonds to the Niger Delta to pay for his passage to Australia. Drunker than usual, his eyes glazed over as he told the story of his escape from a corrupt war-lord and his cronies. Suddenly he stood up, knocking over his glass and spilling whisky all over her.

“They could not catch me! I am like a Zulu warrior! No one will defeat Charlie!”

A dapper man, on his way to the ballroom, heard the ruckus and stopped to ask if everything was alright.

“Oh yes,” Julie stammered, helping Charlie back to his chair, “We’re fine, thank you.”

“Would Mademoiselle care to join us for the dance?” the man asked in a charming accent. Julie glanced across at Charlie, mumbling and hissing under his breath, before an image of ripped vinyl train seats and sad, little backyards full of washing flashed before her eyes.

“I…I can only do the foxtrot,” she stammered, “My Grandma taught me…um…before she died…”

“Then you shall learn the tango very quickly, Mademoiselle!” He smiled and, with a little bow, offered his elbow before leading her out the door.

“I am Oscar and I shall lead the band this beautiful evening. Please pardon my English – I bring my music all the way from Quebec where we dance the tango all of the nights. And you?”

“I… I’m Julie. I just work in the kitchen…”

“Ah! Juliette! A pretty name for a pretty girl! Have no fear Juliette! When the music begins, we are all movie stars!”

They rounded a corner into the ballroom where coloured light wheeled from a mirror ball onto the dancing crowd.

“One word of advice, my dear Juliette,” Oscar said, turning to take her hand. “Please, if I may be so bold, beware with whom you dance the tango. It is, as they say, a dance of passion and love!”

As Oscar left to join the band onstage, Julie searched for somewhere to sit, her gaze accidentally meeting that of a youngish man across the room. He wore a red shirt and high-waisted black trousers, his dark hair slicked back above glittering eyes. Julie’s stomach lurched as he wove his way toward her through the crowd. There was something vaguely sleazy about him and she shut her eyes, hoping that somehow this would make her invisible. She felt him approach, felt his eyes burn her skin like an x-ray and sure enough, there he was, next to her.

“I Victor,” he said leaning in close, “I Lima.”

As he waited for a response, Julie glanced up to where Oscar was shaking his head behind the mike, an echo of his warning ringing in her ears as he announced the next song. She looked quickly to the floor and then, images of barren backyards and endless paling fences whirling in her head, at the face of the man before her.

“I dance you.”

His hand felt clammy on the small of her back as he lead her to the middle of the floor. She winced slightly at the sharp smell of his cologne as he folded her against his chest and slid his thigh between hers. And then she was dancing, one, two, three, four, forwards, backwards, legs flicking and kicking, the stubble on Victor’s chin grazing her cheek as he flung her away from his body only to twist her back under his arm, winding her in and out like the spring of a clock.

Finally the music stopped.

“Bravo,” he said into her ear, “Now. I. You. Hotel.”

It was enough.

Bio ~ Libby Tulip.

Libby Tulip is a Sydney-based artist, writer and occasional blacksmith. Her work is an exploration of the narrative impulse and stories embodied through objects, images and installation. She has exhibited for over twenty years, worked to public and private commission, and taught both sculpture and traditional ironworking technique. She was recently awarded an MFA from Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney where her research revolved around the transposition of hermeneutic literary theory to the visual arts. She is currently working on a novel.