Several weeks ago I was doing some research in the State Library on a rather chilly afternoon and when I stepped outside for a coffee, I discovered a young Japanese woman sitting out on the asphalt steps in front of the library with a portable hotplate, brewing up chai tea. Five tiny paper cups were lined up on the wall behind her and her sign offered chai for a dollar fifty.

In broken English, while she stirred the herbs in the pot, she asked me where I was from, and informed me she’d been in Australia two weeks, that I was her “first brown person ever speaking to”, but that she “hoped I am speaking to more brown peoples”. She couldn’t understand why I chuckled at this, and looked slightly offended.

The tea was a godsend: sweet, hot, milky and spicy, and while I sipped I asked her how she’d been faring. She said the library staff gave her no trouble and bought from her, but that she was terrified of the police, and then our conversation was cut short by another customer.

I didn’t see my chai tea brewer for another few weeks, but working just around the corner, found myself looking out for her. She sold me the best tea I’ve tasted in Melbourne or anywhere. I began to wonder whether she had, indeed, been troubled by the police as she feared. I kicked myself for not giving her my contact number in case of trouble, given that on weekdays I’m often just around the corner.

Then on Friday, I saw her, set to the side of the sunny State Library lawn, which was filled with picnicking people. She was in a good mood, and doing a roaring trade – I even saw her fulfil her wish of speaking to more “brown people”. She’d added five glasses to the little paper cups in case of ‘eat-ins’, of which there seemed to be many, and on the box in front of her sat three small jars of home-baked goodies: cakes and biscuits selling for between fifty cents and a dollar fifty a scoff. Next stop, franchises.

She’d said she’d been around the place, selling almost every day for a few hours, but said the very cold or very hot weather put her off. She told me she really liked running her ‘stall’ – that she could work when she felt like it and meet people. Just as I was romanticising her lifestyle, musing about the fact that her stall was a win-win situation for all involved and wondering whether the current economic climate might deregulate many such markets, I noticed she was sporting what looked like a nasty blistering third degree burn on her ankle where she’d had an accident with the chai.

I left with my chai, and a slice of the best banana bread ever, and she was left with my card – for help in case of police trouble. If you see her around the place, please chai down. You won’t regret it.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

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