Afternoon tea with a snake dancer


Down the gravelly back roads of Coconut Grove, just before you hit the mangroves, there used to be a fantastic commune of a group house. My friend Eve lived there for a while. It was owned by one of Darwin’s better known Madams; a beautiful but rundown property with a pool under palm trees and a garden populated with heliconias, caravans and dongas in various states of repair.

I enjoyed going over there. Eve had some great housemates—Bryn, Anna and Sarah—who all became friends of mine, plus an ever changing parade of oddballs, transients and German backpackers. It was always fun to sit around and talk rubbish, eat a big curry under the stars and watch possums paw through the leftovers in the open-air kitchen.

One Saturday, Eve decided to have friends over for afternoon tea in the garden. She put together curlicue metal tables with embroidered tablecloths and cushions, and laid out generous piles of home made scones and vegan cakes. Candlesticks covered in cobwebs, doilies and streamers finished off the decorations. Everyone was handed a hat from the Anglicare Op Shop. The overall aesthetic was a little like Miss Havisham gone troppo.

I made my garden party greetings and slid in beside the newest housemate, Tamsin. She smiled vaguely and fluttered her hands in welcome. I leaned back in my chair, stretched my feet out and felt my toes scrape against something firm in a soft cotton bag underneath the table. I planted them back under my seat and grabbed a scone.

We all chatted away. Eve enthusiastically described their latest house project – screening films against one of the caravans under the stars. There were also plans afoot for a camouflage jungle party, inspired by the Coconut Grove surrounds. Eve wrapped herself in a vigorously sprouting vine to demonstrate how easy it would be to create party haute cotoure.

After a few more cups of tea, Tamsin retrieved the soft cotton bag from under the table near my feet. The top was tied with string, which she gently untied.

And then a two-metre long snake uncoiled into her arms.

“This is Medusa,” Tamsin cooed. “I couldn’t leave Sydney without her”.

She described hitch-hiking up to Darwin with Medusa in a wicker basket.

“Not everyone wanted to give us a ride,” she giggled.

Tamsin was your classic Darwin hippie pixie dream girl. The kind you’d see with dredlocked boys and battered vans along the Esplanade. They would arrive in the Dry to dance unselfconsciously with the fire dancers and the band that played didgeridoo to bring in the sunset at Mindil Beach. They shopped at Greenies, or worked there part-time, and made milk out of mung bean sprouts. They were the first on the dance floor at bush doofs out at East Point. They wore backless Balinese dresses, swapped crystals and talked about chakras.  Sometimes they’d sleep under the stars at Lameroo Beach with the long-grassers for a cultural experience.

They usually drove back to Byron Bay in the build up.

Texta battle between hippies, rednecks and humourists. Old Woolworths Building, Knuckey St.

Texta battle between hippies, rednecks and humourists. Old Woolworths Building, Knuckey St.

True to form, Tamsin had arrived in Darwin that June and immediately landed a job working in a health food store. In her spare time, she was a snake dancer.

Medusa was the latest in a long line of pet snakes, Tamsin explained, and pointed to the giant glass aquarium I’d only just noticed jutting out of the kitchen.

“I used to let my last snake sleep in my bed,” she told me.

“But then she started to behave strangely. She stopped eating, for one thing. And then I’d wake up and she’d be stretched out beside me like an exclamation mark.”

What was that about?

“Well”, said Tamsin. “It was really strange. I went to the vet, and she said I needed to get rid of the snake immediately. The vet said that when snakes lay out flat next to you like that, they’re preparing their stomachs. They’re starving themselves to eat you whole.”

Let me get this straight, I said. You were sleeping with a pet snake that wanted to eat you?

Tamsin giggled again and stood up. Clearly imagining a group of tribal drummers accompanying her, she started dancing around the table, with Medusa winding around her torso, her arms and her neck. Then the imaginary tribal drumming stopped and she took a bow. The garden party dutifully applauded.*

One of the more macho of the German backpackers who lived in the rustic dongas out back asked to have a hold, and Tamsin passed Medusa over.

Medusa did the same trick again, winding around his arms, then his neck and face. And then she began to tighten.

Everyone went silent. All eyes were on Macho German backpacker. His face went red and you could see him trying to stay cool.

The silence got louder as Medusa wrapped round and around his neck, palpably tightening again, and eventually he cried out.

“Fuck! Fuck! Get her off me!”

Tamsin put out her hands and Medusa slithered over, with the smugness of a Siamese cat. She stroked those lithe, diamond shaped scales and Medusa poked out her tongue.

Tamsin turned back to me.

“I’m working at the health food shop for now,” she said.

“But the snake dancing is really my passion. Let me know if you hear of any work going.”

*I’m sorry that I don’t have a photo of this. But it all happened in the days before IPhones. You know, the olden days, where we sometimes just watched things with our eyes.

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