We walked to Preston Market together. Grandmother’s fingertips were scarlet from dying Easter eggs but it just added to her mystique. I spent my school holidays with her while my parents worked. Most other kids got to go and loiter around the shopping centre, but I spent my days chained to Baba. Our days together followed the same routine. We’d wake early, clean, go to the market, cook and finish the day mesmerised by the television – watching grainy Elvis movies. She would laugh every time Elvis gyrated his hips.
‘We must fast before Easter, sacrifice,’ she pressed my hand to get my attention.
She pulled a cigarette out of her apron pockets and sparked up. A silver swirl of smoke formed a crown above her.
‘Mum says you shouldn’t smoke,’ I warned. ‘It’s not good for your lungs.’
‘What does she know? Your mum puts milk in her tea and doesn’t cook her meat right through. It’s still bleeding on the plate. Disgusting!’
‘Baba, why don’t you sacrifice your cigarettes for Easter?’
‘I’m giving up meat and dairy, that’s enough, I’m not a martyr.’
‘Should I give up meat and dairy too?’
‘Yes, but I’ll make sure you’re still well-fed. I’ll make you something nice.’
She inspected the market cabbages with a merciless eye. Although she was preoccupied, she still had the inane ability to attract people, as if she were The Pope, or The Godfather. The desperate flocked to her like stray cats. She listened to their woes and always told them the same thing.
‘Come see me, we’ll see what the coffee grounds say.’
Today, it was a woman wearing sandals and socks. Her hair was tightly curled and she had a bleached moustache which wasn’t fooling anyone. She kissed Baba’s cheeks and promised to visit her. I hated it when people fawned over Baba, as if she was some saint. I was the one who saw her drink rakija, smoke and fart in her sleep.
Baba’s home was filled with the unlucky and desperate; lost souls looking for answers. The woman from the market made an appearance after she packed up her stall. The two of them disappeared in the kitchen. They talked in Macedonian, their murmurs were loud enough to disturb me while I read. The woman started sobbing, they all bloody sobbed, so I left the house, slamming the door in protest. I waited in the yard until the visitor left.
‘Why must you bring so many people here?’
‘People have problems. They come and see me. I read their fortune.’
When I was younger I used to sit on Baba’s lap and suck my thumb. I watched her as she twirled the coffee cup in her hand and observed the wet patterns forming from the dregs. She’d squint and sigh, deep in thought. If Baba saw a pig in the coffee grounds, an illness was imminent. Snakes signified an enemy; the thicker the snake, the bigger the enemy. A shoe meant a trip was coming. I liked it when she saw high-heels. I’d look in the coffee cup too, disappointed my eyes couldn’t see what Baba was seeing.
‘You are not a psychic, you are just lying to them. If you are psychic, what am I thinking of right now?’ I challenged her but a part of me hoped she’d read my cynical thoughts.
‘People are easy to read. I tell them what they want to hear, what they are not prepared to admit to themselves. I already know most of their problems.’
‘So, what was this woman’s problem?’ I cocked my head towards the front gate.
‘She wants to know whether Australia is for her. She misses her family back home.’
‘What did you tell her?’
‘I told her to stay and build a life here. Only poverty waits back home, nothing good.’
‘Will you read my coffee cup?’
‘You are too young for coffee, you’ll grow a tail if you drink it,’ she laughed, revealing a mouthful of gold crowns. When I was younger she’d pour a bit of her coffee in a saucer and I’d lick it up like a kitten.
‘You shouldn’t be playing God with people’s lives, it’s not nice.’
‘Don’t be a prude. I can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do. People are not sheep. They have a brain, nothing I say to them is gospel.’
As she cooked dinner, the house smelt of paprika and fried onions. In boredom, I rummaged through her belongings. I knew I wasn’t allowed to look through her cupboards, but that’s where I started exploring. In the mothball-scented cavity, I found aged papers written in the Cyrillic letters she once taught me. Underneath the papers were sepia portraits. I recognised her instantly, the same pillowy face and wicked eyes. The man in the wedding suit next to her was a stranger.
‘Who’s this, Baba?’ I asked as she cooked.
‘Why have you dug through my things? It is rude to pry,’ she sighed and snatched the photos from me. She looked at them, squinting.
‘I was a stupid kid. If you must know, that was my first husband, not your dedo.’
‘You were married before you met Dedo? How progressive,’ I laughed, but she didn’t say a word, she turned back to the stove and stirred the peppers.
‘I didn’t know that man well, but we married quickly and he brought me here. Everyone said I was lucky, but I didn’t feel very lucky at the time. I was alone and locked up in our little home. He was a shit, he only wanted a slave to feed and clean him.’
‘What did you do?’ I asked her. She moved away from the stove and fetched a tin coffee canister from her kitchen shelf. She opened the lid and showed me the contents. The canister was full to the brim with crumpled up money. It was a treasure trove.
‘I did what I do now. I read people’s coffee cups while he was at work. I started with my neighbours in the flats, they were as bored and jaded as me. Then they brought their friends to me. I didn’t do my readings for free, never do anything you are good at for free.’ She wagged her finger.
‘The saved-up money helped you leave him?’
‘Yes, and if I didn’t leave him, you wouldn’t exist. Imagine that!’
‘Wow, that’s deep.’ I didn’t know her shady coffee readings had such a big role to play in my life and my parents’ life. It was like some old-world magic.
‘So, is this how you pay your bills and buy food, through coffee readings?’
‘How else?’ she winked and handed me a five-dollar note she earned from trickery.