A Friend for Mrs Bun
Set in the 1980s. A racist, elderly widow objects to a Cambodian refugee family moving next door to her, but, when the widow has a heart attack, she is cared for by her Cambodian neighbour and has a profound change of heart.
“What do you intend to do about this disgraceful situation?” Alison Carrington seethed.
Mayor Harper stared at the outraged, elderly woman, like a man about to smother a grenade blast with his body. Whatever he did, someone would get hurt.
“Don’t you think you’re over-reacting, Mrs Carrington? You haven’t even given your new neighbours a chance.”
“You sidestepped my question, Mr Harper. What are you going to do about them?”
“I can’t help you. There’s no law against Asians buying the house next to yours.”
“Well, there ought to be,” Alison Carrington said, scornfully.
Mayor Harper recalled part of his horoscope he had read at breakfast. “Others will not see your point of view today so exercise diplomacy.” He inhaled deeply.
“Asian immigration is a fact of life in Australia today, Mrs Carrington, regardless of how we feel about it personally.”
“It won’t become a fact of life in Walnut Grove if I can help it.”
“I hope you won’t do anything foolish that might get you in trouble with the law.”
“Foolish! Foolish!” Mrs Carrington rose from her chair like an angry crow. “Who do you think you’re speaking to? I’ve been a ratepayer for longer than you’ve been alive. My husband . . .”
Suddenly, she gasped and bent forward. Her left hand clutched at her chest while her right hand flailed about, searching for support. Mayor Harper grabbed it. To his surprise, her skin was cold and clammy. He guided her to the chair.
“Shall I get a doctor?’ he asked, alarmed at her pallor.
“No,” she panted, “just look in my bag for my angina pills.”
He rummaged through her handbag. “There are no pills here.”
“I must have left them at home. Don’t worry, I’ll be alright in a few minutes.”
Mayor Harper hurriedly organised two cups of tea. They sat in strained silence, punctuated only by polite sipping.
When Mrs Carrington had finished, she stood and said, “Thank you for the tea, Mayor Harper, but don’t think you’ve heard the last of me. When you see the number of signatures on the petition I’m going to organise, perhaps you’ll come to your senses.”
Back home, she pondered her next move. She had never organised a petition. The idea had come to her in the Mayor’s office. Still, her late husband, Bob, reckoned that she had a facility for words and politicians could be swayed by numbers.
With renewed vigour, she rolled a sheet of foolscap into her old, portable typewriter. She typed her petition at the top of the page then took it out and ruled a grid for signatures.
She would photocopy several pages and take them to Miller’s Mini-Market. That way, the petition would get maximum exposure without the arduous traipsing from house to house.
As she was going out, she noticed her pills on the window ledge above the kitchen sink. I’ll take one when I get home, she thought, I must get to the library before it closes.
Ray Miller watched with trepidation as Mrs Carrington approached his store. She was an irascible old girl and their exchanges were not always pleasant.
As the shop bell tinkled, he feigned activity.
“Good afternoon, Mrs Carrington. What can I do for you?”
“I have a petition I’d like to put in your shop.”
“May I see it?”
Mr Miller scanned the top page and handed back the petition. He cleared his throat and his eyes darted nervously around the shop before meeting Mrs Carrington’s stare.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Carrington, but I’d be breaching anti-discrimination laws if I had that in my shop. Besides, Dr Bun came in this morning and he seemed like a very nice man.”
“Oh, doctor is it? I suppose you won’t mind his little, yellow fingers examining your wife and daughter.”
Ray Miller winced as though she had touched a nerve. “We already have a family doctor.”
“Where are the men with guts?” Alison Carrington shouted. “I hope you choke on their money, Judas, because you’ll never see mine again.”
She slammed the door behind her. The shop fell silent like the aftermath of a hurricane.
With head bowed, Alison Carrington plodded up the path to her house. She was contemplating her options when a voice cut into her thoughts.
She turned to see a smartly dressed, Asian woman standing opposite her on the other side of the fence.
“I am your new neighbour. My name is Bun Sitha. I’m very pleased to meet you,” the woman said.
Alison Carrington’s eyes popped with indignation. Her muscles tightened like stretched elastic. The frustrations of her day focused in the pit of her stomach and boiled out of her mouth as hot acid.
“I’m not pleased to meet you. Go back where you belong! My husband never got over being a prisoner of the Japs. It killed him before his time. Your lot are making a mockery of everything he fought for.”
The woman looked like she had been stung by a whiplash. “But I’m Cambodian,” she said, her eyes a mirror of her confusion.
“You’re all the same. You’re not to be trusted. Buying up Australia with your blood money. Don’t think . . .”
Mrs Carrington’s words were crushed in the vice that squeezed her chest. Violent electricity coursed through her left arm and up her neck, jolting the world out of focus. A wave of nausea swept her into darkness .
When she came to, she was in hospital. A nurse hurried off and returned with a doctor.
“You’ve had a heart attack, Mrs Carrington, but, luckily, you had it in the company of a former nurse.”
“What do you mean?” she whispered hoarsely.
“Mrs Bun gave you CPR and kept you alive until the ambulance got there.”
She looked away. Thank God I was unconscious when she touched me, she thought.
She tried to speak, but the doctor said, “Don’t exert yourself. We’ll discuss your case when you’re feeling stronger.”
Alison Carrington hated hospitals. Her late husband, Bob, had said, “Once they get you in hospital, you might as well have one foot in the grave.”
Each time she saw the doctor, she asked the same question: “When can I go home?”
Finally, in response to her question, he asked, “Do you live alone?”
“I thought so, since you’ve had no visitors. What about relatives?”
“I have only one son and he’s married and lives in America. My other relatives are too old or they don’t care.”
“Your condition has stabilised enough for you to convalesce at home, but we can’t let you go home if there is no one there to care for you.”
Mrs Carrington was crestfallen. “So I’m stuck here then?”
“There is another option. Your neighbour has kindly offered to care for you in your own home.”
“No . Mrs Bun.”
Mrs Carrington’s brows knitted and her lips tightened.
The doctor said, “She made us aware of your feelings about her, but I don’t see that you have much choice, Mrs Carrington.”
Mrs Carrington gave the matter serious thought. Once she was home, she could get rid of Mrs Bun and the hospital staff would be none the wiser .
“I don’t want her hanging around all the time,” she said.
“She’ll respect your wishes and be as unobtrusive as possible.”
“Alright. I’m not happy about it, but I agree.”
Mrs Carrington came home to a sparkling clean house, redolent with the perfume of freshly cut flowers.
“Sickly as a toffee factory in here,” she sniffed disparagingly as Mrs Bun helped her to her bedroom.
Mrs Bun made Mrs Carrington comfortable in bed.
“I must go now. My children will be home from school soon. I will bring your meal at five o’clock,” Mrs Bun said.
“Don’t be late.”
A gentle hand shook her shoulder and a soft voice said, “Mrs Carrington, wake up. I’ve brought you some food.”
When Mrs Bun had arranged the pillows so that Mrs Carrington could sit up to eat, she placed a tray in front of her. Mrs Carrington lifted the stainless steel cover and regarded the food with suspicion.
“What’s this?” she asked, testily.
“Chicken, rice and vegetables. It’s very tasty.”
Mrs Carrington replaced the cover and waved her hand, dismissively, over the tray. “Take it away. I want real Australian food.”
Mrs Bun took the tray and left the room.
Mrs Carrington felt a stab of anxiety when she heard the front door close. How would she cope if Mrs Bun didn’t come back?
Time dragged. She had always been too busy to notice the silence, but now it seemed oppressive.
Then she heard a door open and a smile flickered across her face. She had quelled her cheerfulness by the time Mrs Bun entered the bedroom.
Mrs Bun placed a tray on Mrs Carrington’s lap.
Puzzled, Mrs Carrington asked, “What’s this?”
“Real Australian food,” Mrs Bun replied.
Mrs Carrington lifted the cover. In the centre of a dinner plate was a meat pie smothered with tomato sauce.
She looked at Mrs Bun. No trace of emotion showed on Mrs Bun’s face.
She looked back at the pie and started to laugh. She tried to suppress it, but it was like trying to contain a flood. Then she heard a sound like wind chimes and she looked up. Mrs Bun was laughing too.
The next day, Mrs Carrington’s gruffness had returned.
After breakfast, Mrs Bun had brought her into the living room for a cup of tea and a change of scene. But Mrs Bun could do no right. When she dusted, Mrs Carrington complained that it made her sneeze. When she opened a window, it was too draughty. When she drew the curtains, the sunlight would fade the furniture. Exasperated, she decided that some gentle exercise might improve Mrs Carrington’s mood.
“It’s a beautiful morning. Would you like a walk in the garden?”
“I’m still very weak.”
“I’ll help you.”
The garden was a tonic for Mrs Carrington. The sun was warm and the birds sang as though competing for her attention. She saw signs that Mrs Bun had been attending to the garden.
The sound of children playing caught her attention. Over the fence, she saw them running around, their hair like black satin, reflecting the sunlight.
“Are those your children?”
Mrs Bun smiled. “Yes, they are.”
“Why aren’t they at school?”
“But, Mrs Carrington, it’s Saturday.”
“Goodness, I’ve lost all track of time.”
She thought of her grandchildren that she had seen only in photographs. “Could I meet your children?” she asked, feeling slightly foolish.
Mrs Bun’s eyes sparkled. “They would be very happy to meet you.”
She called in Khmer and, a few minutes later, three children came shyly up the path. They stood in a line, looking up at Mrs Carrington with dark, liquid, almond
Touching each child’s shoulder in turn, Mrs Bun said, “This is Phouteng, he is twelve. This is Samrin, he is ten. And this is Botha and she is eight. She shares her name with my very best friend.”
“Hello, Mrs Carrington,” they chorused.
“Go home and play quietly, children. Mrs Carrington needs peace so that she can get well.”
“I’m sure they’d like a glass of lemonade before they go.” She turned to Mrs Bun. “If that’s alright with you.”
“You are very kind.”
“Come inside, children,” said Mrs Carrington.
When they had gone, Mrs Carrington reflected on her pleasure at hearing children’s voices in the house again. How polite they were, she thought as she drifted into peaceful sleep.
Next morning, Mrs Bun said, “The children asked if you would like to come for a drive to the lake.”
Concealing her pleasure, Mrs Carrington answered offhandedly, “I suppose I feel up to it.”
Mrs Carrington put on her best dress for outings and let Mrs Bun brush her hair.
“It’s years since anyone brushed my hair.”
“When I was a little girl, I used to brush my mother’s hair,” Mrs Bun said, wistfully.
“Is your mother in Australia?”
Mrs Bun’s voice quavered as she replied, “No, my parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge.”
“I’m sorry. What about brothers and sisters?”
“Still in Cambodia, I think . We could not contact them because the Khmer Rouge often killed people who received communications from outside Cambodia . “
“It’s terribly sad to be separated from your family. My only child lives in America and he only writes at Christmas.”
At first, Alison Carrington felt exceedingly uncomfortable to be seen with Asians, but she enjoyed being with the Bun family because they made her feel wanted. Dr Bun was courteous and had an engaging sense of humour while the children seemed to regard her as a surrogate grandmother.
That evening, as she lay in bed reliving the day’s events, she caught sight of her husband’s photo on the dresser. He seemed to be staring accusingly at her. She went to the dresser and pressed the photo to her bosom. “Please understand, Bob. They’re Cambodians. There’s a difference.”
Mrs Carrington ate a hearty lunch on Monday. Although her appetite and strength were returning, she was careful not to show too many signs of improvement.
She was about to call Mrs Bun when she heard loud sobbing coming from the living room.
She went to investigate. Mrs Bun sat hunched on the sofa, her face buried in her left hand. Gripped in her right hand was a piece of paper.
Instinctively, Mrs Carrington put her hand on Mrs Bun’s shoulder. “Goodness, what’s upset you, dear?”
Mrs Bun looked up through puffy eyes. “I’m sorry that I disturbed you.”
“Disturb me! You’re the one I’m worried about.”
Mrs Bun held up the piece of paper. “This is a letter from Mrs Cok Botha, my best friend. She lives with her family in a refugee camp in Thailand. They want very much to come to Australia. Botha and I grew up together like sisters. I miss her very much.”
“Why can’t they come to Australia?”
“Because many people are waiting to come here. We were told that unless we can provide accommodation for them it will take a long time. They have four children and we do not have enough room.”
Mrs Carrington said, “You’ll feel better after a nice cup of tea.”
Mrs Bun started to rise. “Please don’t tire yourself, Mrs Carrington.”
“Sit down, dear. It won’t kill me. And please, call me Alison. You can’t pronounce my surname anyway.”
Mrs Bun blushed. “If you wish, Alison. I’m sorry for crying, but it makes me very sad that I cannot share my good fortune with Botha.”
“It does you good to cry now and then. Don’t worry, I’m sure things will work out for your friend.”
After Mrs Bun had gone, Alison Carrington phoned the Immigration Department.
That night, Mrs Carrington was returning to bed from the toilet when severe chest pains hammered her to the floor. She crawled to her bed and fumbled desperately with her medication, struggling to wash the pills down.
When her breathing became less ragged, she phoned Peter Dunstead, her lawyer.
“Peter, this is Alison Carrington. Can you come over right away?”
“It’s nine o’clock, Alison. Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”
“I may not be here tomorrow.”
Satisfied that Peter Dunstead was on his way, she phoned Mrs Bun.
“Are you alright, Alison?”
“I’m fine. I just wanted you to know that you have a lovely family. I won’t forget the kindness you’ve all shown me. Goodbye, Sitha.”
“Goodbye, Alison.” The phone clicked and Mrs Bun stared at the handpiece in bewilderment.
It saddened Mrs Bun to see how few people had come to mourn Alison Carrington.
A tall, impeccably dressed man in his fifties approached the Bun family as they left the cemetery. Mrs Bun had noticed him at the church.
“Excuse me, are you Dr and Mrs Bun?”
“Yes,” answered Dr Bun.
“I’m Peter Dunstead, Mrs Carrington’s lawyer,” the man said, shaking Dr Bun’s hand. “Here is my card. Could you come to my office at your earliest possible convenience?”
“What is this about, Mr Dunstead?” Mrs Bun asked.
Mr Dunstead held Mrs Bun’s gaze with unwavering, blue eyes. “Before she died, Alison Carrington changed her will. She willed her house to the family of Mrs Cok Botha on the grounds that you acted as co-sponsor with her estate to bring the family to Australia.”