A BETTER LIFE

Le cose migliori sono fatte col cuore.

A short story by Don Gazzard

The circular table was crowded with books and papers, as well as coffee cups and the remains of breakfast. Kate complains about the way the table gets covered by my stuff, but I like sitting there first thing in the morning, the sun on my back, revising what I'd written the day before. The phone rang and the caller started in talking without identifying herself. My hearing isn't too good these days but I guessed correctly from the confident tone of voice that it was Kate's daughter Muriel ringing from Hong Kong. I bantered with her for a minute before passing the phone to Kate, and kept on working while I listened to the one sided conversation.

Such an old fashioned name for such an aggressively modern woman. Kate had explained that she had been named after a movie star of her youth but it just doesn't suit a stylish young stock-broker dealing in money and shares operating in the fast developing world of the New Territories. If I were writing a novel, I'd name her something short and sharp like .......what? Becky was the only name that came to mind, and I chided myself that my imagination was so bloody literary, although there are some similarities with the spirit of Thackeray's fast moving heroine even if the name isn't right.

Once again I noticed the way Kate's tone of voice changes when she speaks to Muriel. Her voice expressed pleasure at hearing from her busy daughter, but at the same time she is a bit, what's the right word, careful and a bit accommodating. Muriel gave her mother a hard time for a while before she found a nice English journalist called Hugh for a husband, and as a consequence Kate is a bit careful about how she expresses herself. Muriel apparently blamed her mother for aspects of her teenage years after her father had left them, when, from all accounts, Kate had done a sterling job, bringing three kids up by herself couldn't have been easy.

'Ralphie, she wants us to visit in a few weeks time,' Kate said, 'and offered to fix up our tickets, she has some frequent flyer deal going with Qantas. She also offered to arrange for your book to be printed in Shenzen while we're there, she says it's where most publishers are getting their books printed these days, and it would save time, she said, if you sent over the photographs and colour transparencies so all the scans will be ready by the time we arrive.'

I wondered if Kate should go by herself as I knew there would be a great deal of shopping involved, and we had already been to Hong Kong several times in the last couple of years, but in the end Muriel's offer was too tempting, the deadline would force me to get my history of the great shearer's strike under way immediately instead of revising it for another six months as I'd planned. I know I'm obsessive, and in my heart of hearts know that six more months would make little difference.

So I agreed, found the right photographs and got everything ready for the printer in the two weeks before we checked-in at the airport with time to spare. After that great approach into Kai Tak airport where you can almost touch the washing on the surrounding flats, we were met by Hugh. Murie as he calls her, will be back from Shanghai tonight, he explained, as he drove us through the harbour tunnel and up to their apartment on the Peak. Hong Kong looked splendid spread out below in the evening light. As I nursed a beer, I was pleased that I'd come and was full of anticipation about my book.

Muriel swept in a few hours later with a draft contract to print the book and an appointment with a graphic designer for the following morning at nine. The designer is a young woman who has won a number of awards, Muriel told me, but she didn't want to railroad me, it wasn't something she knew much about; I would have to decide if she was the right person. You could see why Muriel was so successful, she'd thought of everything and was full of drive. She already had an indicative price and her lawyer had vetted the contract, so as soon as the book was designed we could close the deal with the printer. With a bit of luck I'd be able to take review copies back with me.

The designer, Lucy Liu, was smart, efficient and charming. I handed over discs of the text and photographs, and by mid morning we had decided on the shape of the book and the design matrix for the layout. She knew the printers and by midday had e-mailed them the specification for the book; print run, book size, number of photographs and pages, type of paper, cover and binding, and by evening had e-mailed to the Peak an all-up, fixed price for two thousand copies.

'No mucking around in China,' Muriel said, 'and it's less than the indicative price. Let's ring them in the morning and tell them we intend to proceed, and that Lucy will send them pdf files of the laid out pages by the weekend.' By the end of the week I'd approved both the layout and the proofs of the pages. Everything could proceed, and I could relax until a planned visit to the printers in five days time.

While they were shopping, I took the Star ferry over to Kowloon and pottered around fascinated by the street life, the vitality of all that bargaining and haggling and arguing gave me faith that the human spirit was still alive and well. I was stimulated by the change of environment and started to write a short story on my laptop while they were out. Kate and Muriel came back loaded with purchases, particularly shoes; what is it about women and shoes, I wondered for the nth time. When the day came to fly down to the printers, Muriel came because she spoke a little Cantonese, but help wasn't needed, they all spoke good English. I liked the factory, I've always liked workshops and building sites, they give off a satisfying feeling of real things happening. They had proofs of all the pages ready and a sample of the cover and the binding, and it all looked great. I said OK, they asked me to press the button, the presses started to roll and the books would be ready in a week.

Muriel was justifiably pleased that her efforts to help me had been successful.
I think she's grateful that I'd married her mum, that in a sense it absolves her from worrying. Not that she ever needed to worry about Kate, but after her father left them all, she had assumed a responsible role looking after her two younger siblings, and since she has done so well has almost become the de facto head of the family, giving generous help to her younger sister in particular.

I walked to the door of the machine room to watch the presses thundering away, and a young man, who'd been friendly and helpful, followed and beckoned me into a side room. 'Sir,' he said, 'please help me. I want to live in Australia. My father was a teacher and my family had problems during the Cultural Revolution. I have a wife and two small children and we are Falun Gong and are being persecuted. I'm a skilled printer and don't think I'd have any trouble in finding employment in your country. But I've heard that your Government only takes immigrants who are rich, and I am poor, can you help us?'

I'd been impressed by the likeable young man and my heart went out to him. I suspected there was little I could do but offered to speak to the Consulate in Hong Kong, how could I contact him? The young man thought he was under some sort of surveillance, but as he had to visit Hong Kong in a few days on business he could bring some proofs of the book as an excuse. I gave him Muriel's mobile number and agreed to make enquiries and see him in two days time. The Consulate wasn't much help. I picked up the forms and all the bumph anyhow, and it was true, our policy does favour migrants with enough money to start businesses, but like most things it depended on the particular case and there were exceptions; skilled workers, for instance,were given priority. I was advised to get an immigration lawyer in Melbourne, it's too hard for an individual I was told, you need contacts at both ends who understand the ropes.

The young man, whose name was Lu Zhiqing, was pleased to get all the information, and although it wasn't that encouraging, it was a beginning. He was excessively grateful and gave me neatly typed information about himself and his family, with photographs of them all. Despite the one child rule and the universal Chinese wish for a son and heir, he had two adorable little girls whose names were Xiau Lin and Xiau Mei. The first part of their given names was pronounced shiow, he said, and the names meant Little Forest and Little Maiden

I tried to put myself in his position, and reminded myself yet again how fortunate we are, and wondered how many people there must be all over the world whose only hope is for a better life for their kids. I decided to consult an immigration person when we got back, it was the least I could do, and would send letters via Muriel. She wasn't too happy about it at all, 'I suppose it will be all right,' she said sulkily. She was into making money and shut her eyes to the excesses of the Chinese government, she didn't want to attract any untoward attention.

But I've been suspicious of the Chinese ever since Tianmen Square and the take over of Tibet. As an old Leftie and member of PEN, I felt duty bound to help, and Kate supported me wholeheartedly. Both of us are irritated that our Foreign Minister, the one who looks like a grown up Billy Bunter, isn't concerned about human rights abuses in China, we sell them too much coal and iron ore to rock the boat. At the same time our government hypocritically echoes the US about the need to bring democracy to Iraq!

I put the case into the hands of a lawyer who specialises in immigration matters and for what it's worth saw our local Member to enlist his help. None of us knew how to pronounce his name so we called him Lu, and we all agreed he was the sort of person who would get a job easily and wouldn't be a burden on the State; his children would grow up as good Australians. It went on for almost a year with not much apparent action until the lawyer rang out of the blue one day and said the application had been successful as long as we agreed to go surety for them.

I talked it over with Kate , but there was nothing to discuss really. As Kate said, there's so little opportunity for an individual to help other individuals in a world where there were millions of displaced and persecuted people, and rang Muriel to pass on the good news. I think she was a bit embarrassed at her earlier grudging stance and professed to be pleased at our action.

We welcomed this family we didn't know at Tullamarine and Kate found them a place to live and got them settled. I didn't have any contacts in the printing world, so I asked a publisher mate of mine, and he thought Lu might do better in a firm like his handling communications with Chinese printing firms, and gave him a job to see how it worked out. We don't see them often but Kate keeps in touch, and every year on the anniversary of their arrival they come with the two girls and a big bunch of chrysanthemums for Kate, and take us to a yum-cha lunch in Little Bourke Street. They're nice people and it's always an enjoyable occasion.

The Leader of the Opposition promised the other day 'to turn back all the boats, and that simplistic argument still resonates with a lot of Australians. He would no doubt say the Lu's are an OK special case, but there's no difference really, they're all just poor people who want a better life for their kids.

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