My favourite cafe was the Mali, in Crown Street in Sydney. I went there regularly for more than a decade. When it first opened, they only had three tables and six chairs. When they got new ones, I bought the original chairs, white wrought iron with green seats, for my kitchen. Many years later, I still have one of them them.
The story, or legend, of the Mali goes like this: a young man called Xerxes started it up after a trip to West Africa - so the name. It was rumoured that he reached Djenne, and Timbuktu. He ran the cafe with two young women, one of whom was said to be his sister, the other his girlfriend, and the three seemed to constitute a small arcane tribe of some sort. Xerxes was lithe, dark, very serious. He always wore white canvas baggy pants, and a somewhat ragged white cotton shirt with long sleeves. There was a red bandanna knotted at his neck, and a leather belt around his waist, from which his various chisels, pliers and screwdrivers hung. He was always engrossed in a very important task of renovation. Yet the miraculous and wonderful thing was that despite all his constant doings, the cafe never seemed to change. For years it was in a state of coming into being. Walls were painted, painted over, painted again. Sand sat in drifts in corners. Some patrons believed the cafe itself was an art installation.
The walls ended up a lime and lemon wash, and outside, a very pale green, giving the place a feeling at once deserty and marine, like sands at the bottom of the sea. The sinks and basins were hand-moulded and encrusted with seashells. The counter upon which the San Marco espresso machine sat like a throne, was hand-made too. The curtains were rough white cotton with cockle shells hand-sewn in.
Over the years came the decorations - a line of pastel starfish above the entrance, a curving strip of timber over the counter swum along by hand-cut wooden turtles. Weird felucca-like craft sailed high over the tables, and there were also hand-painted wooden animals scattered about, giraffes and gazelles, and plaster of paris tiles painted with watercolours of African kraals, rhino in savannah, a lion in wait for prey. At one stage these were offered for sale. I bought two, though I suspect trading was a bit thin otherwise.
The cafe was tiny - ten people and it was crowded. There was a scattering of more seating on the pavement outside, big sandstone blocks and milk crates for the most part, where the overspill could sit in the sun and watch the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Crown Street shunt by. Although relaxed enough, the place had its own kind of intensity: a hollow-cheeked desperado scratching out a haiku in sugar, a art student moodily deconstructing a pastry. The coffee itself was rich, with a creamy texture, never bitter. It was - and is - hard to imagine better. And the menu, though minimal, was unique. Lunch was lemon juice sweetened with rosewater, Spanish coffee, and a Turkish bread sandwich of salad, green olives, chillies and haloumi cheese.
But the truly magnetic attraction of the Mali came not from its menu, nor its coffee, but its mystery. Battered sepia postcards of the Pyramids might appear on the walls one day - the next day all gone. Then a sign in tiny hand-printed letters would appear: "No Photographs In The Cafe Please." This proved problematic for me when I was asked to write a magazine article about my favourite cafe, and needless to say, it was the Mali. I was unsure that the management would find the publicity desirable, and it seemed unlikely they would allow photographs to be taken. So I was in the absurd position of writing a piece which could gain the cafe business, yet I had to do it surreptitiously. And if it worked too well, and too many people came in, I might ruin my favourite cafe through the very act of writing about it. In the end no-one knew the story was being written, and the photographs were taken out from out in the street. I didn't return for weeks, and when I finally did I ordered a very circumspect flat white. I found their trade a little more brisk, but not uncomfortably so.
An elegant Frenchwoman named Sylvie took over when the Xerxes clan moved on. She ran the place a little differently. French fashion magazines appeared on shelves, and soon the cafe was frequented by a new crowd, size eight models with navel rings, boys with nascent dreadlocks and faraway eyes. I didn't feel I fitted in so well any more. Was the original spirit of the place dissipating? Now it was all so, well, "cool". Or had the cafe grown younger, and myself older? Was I merely experiencing slippage from the demographic?
A winter's day, chilly but sunny. Inside, a few people were huddled near the single kerosene heater traditionally put out in the middle of the cafe, the only recognition of the cold months. Boys in pre-loved army coats and beads, girls in recycled fluffy bath-mats. I was just finishing my sandwich when there was a sudden commotion: a pigeon had strayed into the cafe. The girls looked up from their Marie Claire magazines, the boys from their angst.
Startled to find itself indoors, the bird flew hard for the street beyond - only now there was an invisible barrier blocking its escape, and with an awful thud it smashed its head against the glass. All of us, eight in number, stared as the big grey pigeon picked itself up, fluttered randomly around the cafe, just overhead, panicking. We all knew it would do it again, and surely enough it did, flying straight and hard at the barrier that blocked its escape, smashing itself against it, so that it slid down half-stunned onto the magazine counter, wings flapping about helplessly.
No-one moved. The bird would keep doing it until it rendered itself unconscious or smashed its brains out. Someone had to do something, but everyone seemed unwilling, or incapable. Besides, it was just a pigeon, the lumpenproles of city birds, "rats with wings". They didn't command a fraction of the respect of native urban birds, cockatoos or currawongs. Yet up close one could see the terror frozen in its eyes, and sense the intelligence behind them.
Again the bird flew at the glass, again the horrible thud of head on glass, the scrape of beak, the panicked flutter. But then I found myself on my feet, stretching towards it. I had never handled a bird: patting cats and dogs was about as far as my contacts went with fauna. But my hands joined around the bird's body. It was surprisingly soft. It did not resist. If this were to be its moment of death, it felt ready. It relaxed, and I lifted it gently and carried it to the open doorway. The winter sun on Crown Street beckoned. I raised the it high and released it. It hesitated a half-second, then flapped off.
Just a simple street pigeon, but I felt for that moment as if I had released a wallaby from a rabbit trap. When I turned back, the others in the cafe, those of the frozen cool, discreetly applauded, even smiled. It was a strange feeling, a sense of belonging renewed, in that pale cafe of the unexplained.
An edited version of the story from my travel collection "The Blue Man", published by Lonely Planet Journeys.