Coming back is not the same as coming home.
Too much has happened for home to feel the same as it did. Which is probably just as well.
My time at Oxford had taught me several things, not the least of which was true friendship. Who else would sail halfway around the world just to save me? Harriet would not phrase it that way, but that is exactly what she did — she saved me.
I also learned that there are going to be times when I don’t have all the answers — this realisation did not sit well with me at first. I like to think that I have the strength and drive to solve any problem — meet any challenge.
Harriet was never as lucky, never as smart and certainly never as strong as me, and yet there she was, scooping up what was left of me and bringing me home. So calm, so sure of what to do.
Picking up my studies again here at home was relatively easy. Having spent a year and a half at Oxford tends to open doors. Melbourne University has always considered itself to be the most prestigious Australian hall of learning, so from snobbery alone, I was assured of a place.
Harriet found us a little flat near the Flagstaff Gardens. She obtained employment at a cafe on Flinders Lane, and I meet her every night after work. Lectures during the day and study in the library until it was time to jump on a tram and travel into the City.
Harriet is always tired after her long day, but apart from her first sentence after I ask her how her day went, “My feet are killing me” there is no further mention of how difficult her working life is. Instead, I am regaled with stories of strange and unusual characters who visit her cafe.
There are the regulars like Mr Johnston who always orders half a fried chicken and a coke. Harriett believes that he thinks he is a character in The Blues Brothers. Mrs Wilkins, who orders porridge no matter what time she comes in, “the cook never complains.” Harriett gets along with them all — you could almost say that she loves them — she has that ability. She can make herself larger. She seems to be able to find more love and deliver it wherever it is needed.
The cafe staff feed her during the day, but at night we usually eat at home. Our budget is tight. Her wages pays the rent on our flat, but there is only a little bit left over after we pay for the utilities. My parents give me what they can afford, but it barely covers my studies and expenses. Despite all this, there are days when customers at Harriett’s cafe are particularly generous, and her share of the tips sends us off on a wild night of dancing and boys. The boys always gallantly offer to buy us drinks which is just as well because fancy, dizzy, fizzy drinks are not within our budget. It’s true that when we are out and about, we are difficult to separate, but we see this as a necessary degree of difficulty for our enthusiastic suitors. “It makes them work a little harder and that way we separate the lions from the cubs.” Harriett’s comments reflect her practical streak.
Having said that, we always leave the dance hall together, never with a man. There is often a deal of pleading and cajoling, but on this point, we stand firm. That is not to say that a man is forbidden from calling one of us and arranging to meet at a later date. We don’t have a phone of our own. “Not going to happen Georgina. Forget it. I like eating, and it is a choice between a phone and food.” I quickly weighed up the options. “We could get boys to bring us food?” I knew it was a long shot.
The little old lady who lives in the flat closest to the stairs used to be young once. “You can give the boys my phone number, and I’ll vet them for you. Failing that, you give me a list of the ones I’m supposed to say yes to, and I’ll take down the details.”
Mrs Cuthbert has been a widow for a long time, and she always smiled at us when we ran into her on the stairs or when she popped around to deliver the good news about a man who had rung. “I liked this one. Said his name was Matthew. Had a sweet voice. I gave him the third degree, and he stood up well under questioning.” Then we got her patented smile, which meant that she was kidding. She loved this game. She loved being needed. “I don’t work anymore, and apart from my dog and you girls, no one needs me. It’s nice to be needed.” I nodded in agreement. Harriett needs me, and I need her.
Sunday is our favourite day.
If we are particularly low on funds, we take a blanket and picnic basket, and we picnic in the park, which is about a dozen steps from our front door. It isn’t one of the more popular parks in Melbourne, so there is always lots of space. We live in an upmarket part of Melbourne where the parks are well maintained. We lie on the blanket and stare up at the huge old trees, and we dream as all young girls have dreamed since the beginning of time. These are patient dreams, not the frantic send a Prince charming to save me sort of dream, but gentle hoping dreams. We love our life together. We love the gentle rhythm and the unexpected twists and turns, and throughout it all, there is a bond that ties us together. Georgina and Harriett — many mistake us for sisters, and in a real way we are.
The men who will inevitably catch our eye will have to live with the fact that we will want to live close to each other bringing up our families together and sharing our lives until the lights grow dim. They will understand that it has to be this way — we will not be separated.
The Chinese believe that if you save a person’s life, you are responsible for that person for the remainder of their existence. Harriett saved me and in a real sense, I saved her right back.
Neither of us has any Chinese blood in our veins, but we know that we are responsible for each other, and it will always be so.