I first met her in my eleventh hour. I know it was my eleventh hour because I had completed two shifts already and I had just started my third when she first appeared. That meant I had two hundred and eighty nine more hours to sign off of my sentence, or fifty-eight shifts, over twenty-nine weeks, stretching ahead of me. Not that I was complaining. I knew I was lucky not to have got a lag. I already had a diversion, and an ounce could go either way with a prior, so I was happy to plead guilty to possession. To be honest, I was lucky they only tipped out my car. It could have been much worse. Thinking about my closet at home, and what hopefully would never come out of it, made me especially glad to be standing in the mobile soup kitchen. Which is how I can be sure it was in my eleventh hour. It was 10 pm, it was a Tuesday, and it was just starting to get cold.
At first glance she was just a scrap of a girl, dressed in tramp-like clothing, head to foot in black. Just another of the disenfranchised, as my probation worker referred to them. Or the needy, as my supervisor Sally the Sallie called them. To me, she was just a girl, wanting soup.When she looked up at me, I was surprised to see that under the mop of Beyonce-coloured caramel ringlets, was a small delicate face, with large exotic eyes and flawless skin that could have graced any glossy with no need of photo-shop.
“What’s the soup d jour?” she asked, smiling broadly and revealing small even teeth, with not a single gap.
I passed her a cup of thin looking orange soup and a somewhat stale looking hotdog bun, thickly slathered with marg.
“Possibly pumpkin,” I replied, and without thinking, I added, “Beyonce.” She giggled. “Thanks Nigella. More bread?’ I handed over another roll that disappeared with the first into one of her oversized black winter coat pockets, which encased what was obviously a tiny frame. She can’t have been more than five foot two.
“You a new convert to the God squad, Nigella? I haven’t seen you here before.”
“Call me Martha Stewart,” I replied. “Your God squad waitress for the next 289 hours, Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“Ha!” she snorted, “so you’re not gonna pray on me, Martha?”
No. I would not ‘pray’ on her. Praying was not what I was about, and if I believed she had to swap prayers for the food, she was being ripped off, and should pray for fresher buns. I was anxious though, and asked quietly, so Super Sally couldn’t hear, if they did enforce praying.
“No,” she answered, “not with an “a” anyway”.
I laughed and told her my name, but she continued to call me Martha. She asked what I had been done for and then hit me up for a smoke when I told her. I invited her to join me around the corner at midnight, when I had my break. She shrugged and said if she didn’t have a job she would meet me then. As she turned to leave, blowing on her soup, I called out, “Hey Beyonce what’s your name?”
She stopped and turned back to look at me.
“Georgie,” she said, “it’s Georgie Girl”.
I couldn’t help but say, “as in Hey there, Georgie Girl?”
“No” she said, “as in I’m Georgie Girl, not to be confused with Georgie Boy.”
She met me that night for a smoke. It became a habit. Super Sally warned me about her, and her type, but of all the punters that came to the soup caravan, she is the one I became friends with. Sometimes she would come late, if she had scored a client, and sometimes she would try and sell me stuff she had found, like cell phones, wallets, and once, an expensive men’s watch. I always declined. She never pushed. She asked me once if she could score some pot off me, but I lied and said I didn’t deal. She didn’t ask again.
Some nights I would meet up with her at the end of the night, after we had packed up, and we would go for a walk, have a smoke, chat, and laugh. Gradually, I met many of the others. The disenfranchised it turned out were not as disenfranchised as people thought. The “Streeties,” as Georgie Girl referred to them, were segregated into distinct groups, in distinct streets. There were the rough sleepers, the alkies and the addicts, the fafafini, the queens, the working girls, the working boys, and the mad. Some fitted into more than one group.
Georgie Girl was a worker, not an addict, and not homeless. She had a room on top of one of the pubs that she rented weekly. She had a boyfriend who worked as a labourer on the city building sites. He would appear from time to time, but disappear again as he got bored with our girl talk.
Sometimes when we were walking, cars would slow beside us. Georgie would approach the window and sometimes she would jump in and ride off. I didn’t wait for her. One night we were walking along the street, and about half a block up, a tall man ran from the doorway of one of the sex shops, to his Beemer that was parked on the kerb.
“I know him. I went out with him for about a month,” I said.
“Yeah? I know him,” said Georgie. “He’s a car dealer aye? He’s a regular.”
I was surprised, but then I looked at Georgie and wondered why I was surprised.
Over the following weeks, we talked about all sorts. She told me she had moved to Auckland from down the East Coast. I told her I was from down that way too – Napier. She was from a small town outside Gisborne. She had been to Napier though. I said that she looked like Pania, the statue on the Marine Parade.
“Doubt it, I don’t look anything like Pania,” she said, “and anyway, I can’t fucking swim.”
“Neither could Pania,” I reminded her. “She drowned.”
“She didn’t drown,” Georgie corrected me, “she swam away from a possessive fuckwit boyfriend who was trying to control her. Her ancestors took her down into the ocean and wouldn’t let her come back. Her ancestors took her home.”
I remember the night she gave me the scarf. She was embarrassed. She thrust a shopping bag at me and said, “here.”
“What’s this?” I asked.
“A present,” she replied, glancing away. Without looking in the bag I looked at her with my head to the side, and a raised eyebrow.
“Its not nicked,” she sighed. “I even have a receipt,” and she pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket and thrust it at me.
I looked in the bag and pulled out a beautiful, multi-coloured silk scarf. She quickly informed me it was nothing, had only cost two dollars from a second hand shop. She saw it, and as I was always bleating about how cold it was, thought I might like it. She worried about me, out here on the streets, she said. She was worried about me. I looked down at her and laughed.
It was beautiful.
The worst of the cold weather had past. It was spring. She told me about her family.
“What about the whanau?” I asked. “You must still see some of them.”
She saw some of the cousins, but her mother was dead, and she didn’t get on with her father. Her last name was Roberts and I thought I might have met one of her brothers. He was in a gang. I told her I didn’t get on so well with my own parents. She asked me why, and I thought about it before I told her.
“I guess I’m just not the kind of daughter they wanted.”
“Me too,” she replied. “I’m the wrong kind of daughter.”
Georgie Girl loved hearing about what I did on the weekend. My boyfriend and I seldom spent the weekend in Auckland. We were always off on little trips to visit friends: Waihi, Paihia, Waiheke, Taupo or Coromandel. She was fascinated and always wanted to know what we did, and what we saw. The concept of weekends away was foreign to her. Most weekends she just worked and so did her boyfriend.
My time at the caravan was nearly over, and although I was looking forward to getting my nights back, I knew I was going to miss Georgie Girl. Neither of us was naïve enough to believe that we would really call each other, or catch up, after I left. I had planned a surprise for her though. It was nearly summer, and I was going to ask her if she wanted to come on a weekend road trip with me. Leave the boys behind and take off on a road trip up north, to see a mate of mine who lived in the hills behind Taipa, “farming natives,” as he put it.
When I arrived at the caravan, Sally tried to be kind. She spoke to me in the slow and childlike tone she normally reserved for the “needy,” and said I should sit down, as she had some bad news. Georgie was dead. It was to be expected of course, she said. She had tried to warn me, but I wouldn’t listen and had got involved.
“Never mind, it’s your last shift anyway. That’s all your hours done and hopefully your time here has taught you a valuable lesson. We don’t want you getting in any more trouble and ending up like Georgie Girl.”
I wanted to know what had happened. I wanted to know what was to be expected.
“She drowned,” said Sally.
“Drowned? How the fuck was that to be expected?” I shouted as I slammed the caravan door behind me.
I found out later that Georgie had gone to Waiheke Island on the Saturday with her boyfriend, on a day trip. They had missed the last ferry, broken into a holiday home, consumed a well stocked liquor cabinet, and then proceeded to steal a dinghy and row back to Auckland. The dinghy capsized.
One of the other Streeties told me that her boyfriend was still in hospital, in intensive care. He had held onto her, but she had been knocked unconscious and drowned. Her body was at a funeral home and her father was coming to take the body home for the tangi. Some of the girls had tried to visit, but Georgie’s father had told the first few that they weren’t welcome, and word quickly spread. They stayed away, out of respect for the whanau.
I looked for the details of the tangi in the obituaries, thinking that I might go. Out of respect for my little friend, bugger the father, but I couldn’t find anything. There was nothing for George Roberts.
Then I saw it. Aripeta Roberts. I laughed, even as the tears streamed down my face. She wasn’t even Georgie Boy. She was Albert. Albert Roberts. Georgie’s father’s name was Hōri Tāne Roberts. The obituary had been placed by her loving father, for his son, who was finally coming home.
Three hundred hours completed. Enough time to find a friend and lose her. I had lost Georgie Girl, never again to be confused with Georgie Boy, her father.
Published in Landfall 224.