My Name Is Ula

Sweeping The Beach

Ula laughs so loud, her jaw splits like halves of a milky coconut. Her eyes sparkle and her laughter lines crinkle. She is bent on mischief. The newcomers amuse her, the way they gabble in English and leap like droplets of hot fat from their car. They are palagi, she reminds herself, not her grandchildren, though they act the same. Asking for food she cannot possibly give them – chocolate bars, eggs benedict, iced coffee – and then gobbling their breakfasts so fast, they finish before they have started. She is cook, waitress and housekeeper all combined, but not a miracle-worker. Just as they are not weavers, their lives unwoven. They are sprinters, racers, flyers, taking everything so fast, their needles leave their threads behind.

Drink from a coconut.

Ula fetches coconuts for them to drink, then sweeps their fale. She knows it will not stay clean for long because the palagi love sand. They tread the beach with wet feet and leave sand on their floors and beds. Then they scrape and bluster and wonder why their sleep is so gritty. Sand is the great leveller, she decides, the thing that more than any other separates the palagi nomads from stay-at-home islanders like herself. She’s always lived here – on this tiny beach – and never seen the need to go anywhere else. Maybe that’s how she knows so much about sand. Every morning she sweeps the beach into tidy furrows, collecting rubbish and hiding crab holes. Preparing for the tide to wash it smooth, then for the palagi to litter their necklaces of footprints. How they love to traipse sand after themselves, just as they love to take a tiny part of everything they see away with them: shells, photographs, souvenirs. Their lives must be amalgams of everywhere they’ve ever been. And they travel so much, they forget who they are.

Ula peels vegetables, boils chicken, and prepares their dinner. One half of the red and white timber house is devoted to cooking, while the other half to dining, a place for the palagi to eat, drink and watch the sunset. She knows she’s an exceptional cook, like the sand, she’s had plenty of practice. She sticks to the recipes she knows best: chicken with pumpkin, and tuna poached in coconut milk. Dishes she’s cooked a thousand times, and always too much, stretching their stomachs until they can eat no more.

Ula washes their plates, locks the kitchen, then takes her grandson home. Tomorrow will bring a new set of palangi to her beach fales, though they’ll be no different from the ones here today. Blonde, brown, bald, grey, they never stay for long, one or two days, then they move on. Off somewhere else like the sweeps of her broom, forever seeking themselves, but never finding.


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