I thought Li Soy-Lin was quite the loveliest thing I had ever seen. Tiny, delicate, absolutely exquisite. She moved like she was walking a couple of inches above the ground, and she had this little delighted laugh that made it impossible not to join in.
She came to school late in a term. It was odd, having someone arrive at just months before final exams, but Lin was so far ahead of most of us that she could have sat them without any work and passed. For some reason Mrs Anderson, the Principal, nominated me to look after her - kindness, probably, since my closest friend had moved out of the area at the end of the previous year. Lin was retiring, at first, but soon she was chatting merrily, telling me all about herself and her family. Her father was a surgeon she said, working at The Wakefield, and her mother, being bi-lingual, was a translator doing work for the Chinese Embassy.
A couple of weeks later, she invited me for tea. They lived in a huge house in Karori, furnished with incredible silks and brocades. It seemed the perfect setting for Lin, a palatial home for a little princess. I felt awkward and clumsy at first, especially since I stood a good six inches taller than anyone in the house, but Mrs Li was so smiling and welcoming that I soon felt at home. I played with the children, girl a big-eyed little doll, and the boy a roly-poly toddler who laughed all the time. Later, they fed me on with exotic foods and served me hot, green Chinese tea, and everything was wonderful. As I left, Mrs Li told me how glad she was that Lin had found such a charming friend so quickly, and how she hoped I would come again, often.
But, when I took her to my home, my mother looked Lin over with scorn in her eyes. She waved me at the freezer and told me to "find something to feed you and your little friend" in a reluctant voice, because Mum would never have done anything openly rude, but no sooner had Mr Li collected her in his big dark-blue car than Mum turned to me, grinding her cigarette out zealously in the ashtray, and declaring flatly, "I don't want you mixing with Asians, Fiona."
Her mouth was tight and thin, a scarlet slash of disapproval in her pale, powdered face. "I mean it. I hate the way those Hong Kong Chinese lord it over everyone, the way they are buying their way into this country and pushing house-prices up so decent New Zealanders can't afford them."
I tried to explain that the Li family had come over years ago, long before all the fuss with Hong Kong and China, though Lin's true-blue kiwi accent should have given that away, but Mum wasn't having any of it.
"You are not to invite that girl here again, and you are not to go to her home more often than politeness demands. Now, clean up. I have to write a report for work in the morning."
Tears prickled behind my eyelids as I scraped the remains of uneaten pizza into the dustbin and loaded the dishwasher. I wasn't popular at school, and Lin was the first friend I'd brought home in months - now Mum wanted to cut me off from her.
I wondered fleetingly if she would have been so hard if Dad had still been around, and thought not. Mum had become more and more embittered since he left. I supposed I couldn't blame her, she had to struggle to make ends meet, and she'd had to forget any dreams of a big house in Khandallah, being stuck instead in this pokey place in the Hutt, while Dad breezed in every other weekend in the sports car which screamed "mid life crisis", and whipped me away to the flashy apartment on Oriental Bay that he shared with Chloe, the woman he left us for.
Seeing him live the life of Riley, reaping the benefits of a business that she'd spent years struggling to help him build and that had only just started pay when he bolted, chafed her, I knew. As far as Dad was concerned, in paying my fees at my expensive girls school, and providing me with uniform and occasional other clothes, he was doing as much as could be expected. I had thought about suggesting going to a state school and using the money for something else, but I knew that both parents would consider that idea total lunacy, so kept my mouth shut.
So I understood Mum's hardness, and her bitterness, but it didn't make any difference to the fact that right now, I hated her.
"I don't think your Mum liked me much." Lin said to me, the next day at school.
"Oh, she, um…"
"A New Zealand First voter is she?"
I blushed, wanting to deny any association with the racism implied, but Lin smiled at me. "Not your fault, sweetie." She said and shrugged. "We'll just have to make sure you come to me as often as possible."
Seeing the look on my face, she grimaced.
"That out, too?"
"Never mind, we'll think of something."
It wasn't until that weekend I came up with anything. I was staying at Dad's, and he'd gone out somewhere, to pick up wine for dinner, I think, and I was sitting with Chloe. She and I got on alright, overall. If she hadn't been Dad's mistress we might have been friends, but loyalty to Mum stopped me getting close to her. Or it had, until now.
She asked me politely about school, and somehow the whole thing came pouring out. I guess I was still feeling pissed off, so I told her about Lin, and Mum's decree. She looked at me, gave a sly, complicitous smile and said, "Well, why don't you meet up with her here?" I should have said no, knowing that all Chloe wanted was to put one over on my mother, but it was the perfect answer.
So, on alternate weekends, Lin came to my Dad's place - which was much more impressive than home anyway -- and the four of us, Lin, me, Chloe and Dad went out to restaurants, theatres, or just stayed in and had dinner. It was great, everyone got along beautifully, and Mum was blissfully unaware. The ideal situation.
Exams, and all the stress that went with them came and went, and then it was the summer vacation. Obviously, having whole days free, with Mum at work, gave me chance to spend more time with Lin. We'd hang around the beach, and suddenly I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of male attention. Of course, it was something of a backhanded compliment since most of the guys were just talking with me to get closer to Lin, but I enjoyed it anyway. We both flirted a lot, but I noticed that she didn't seem to take any real interest in anyone.
When I asked her why, she shrugged.
"Too young, too callow," she grinned, "too poor."
I laughed and called her mercenary, and thought no more of it.
On Christmas Eve, Dad took us out, for dinner. Chloe wasn't there, because she always spent the day before Christmas with her family - alone. They were strict Catholics, and didn't approve of her relationship with Dad one bit, and I'd always liked it, because it meant that I got Dad to myself. I didn't mind sharing him with Lin, though - we were close enough to be sisters, and that's how he seemed to treat us.
In a fit of unaccustomed generosity, he booked a table at the newest, trendiest, most expensive restaurant in town: "Le Souvenir", and treated us to the full works - Bluff oysters, French champagne, everything. He gave me my gift, and that too was much more extravagant than usual - a string of pearls, glossy and expensive. He even gave Lin a little brooch with a fire-opal in.
Then, the following morning, I got a call from Chloe. "You little bitch!" she screamed down the phone, "You set this up, didn't you?"
I was completely lost.
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"You, that fucking Chinese whore and your mother. You set it up! Don't bother to deny it!"
"What are you talking about?"
"Your father, and that… that… creature you brought here. He's dumped me, left me high and dry, and gone off with her. On Christmas fucking Day!"
"Dad and Soy-Lin? Are you serious?" She didn't answer, just slammed down the phone.
Behind me, Mum began to laugh. She'd heard it all of course - the volume Chloe was yelling, I expect they heard it in Sydney. She laughed, and laughed, until she was forced to sit down, and then she just sat in a chair giggling. When she finally calmed down, she grinned wickedly at me and said, "Well, it seems Santa brought her what she deserved this year."
For a moment, I stood gulping air like a stunned guppy. My father and my best friend? It was inconceivable. It was ridiculous. I looked at my mother, her face flushed from laughing, too struck by the whole farcical nature of the situation to be angry at my deception. I grinned.
It was inconceivable and ridiculous and … if you were bitch enough … very funny.
Like mother, like daughter, I guess. I started to laugh.