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What’s this thing called sex?

I GOT TO know Bunty because of Dad. Reacting in shock, my father had put the house on the market the day after Mum died. To his great surprise – and stirring up a further depth of grief when he realised he couldn't share the good news with the woman who'd helped him build it – their home sold for the asking price a day later. That same weekend we helped him move from the Hills down to Perth – into a rather boring ground floor flat one street back from the river with the convenience of shops and cafés across the street. Although we didn't know it then, upstairs in the penthouse of that block of units was Bunty, whose husband George had recently died, a circumstance that had occasioned a move similar to Dad's some months before.

I was away from Perth for the next six years, living in Hong Kong, with trips back home once or twice a year. Through letters I heard of Bunty and on one trip back Dad introduced us. She was a friendly, uncomplicated woman – a pragmatist, as she often stated – and at that time, because numbers play tricks, she was twice my age. She was always beautifully dressed with heels, elegant fitted skirts and a brooch. And she always wore a wig. Bunty could make me feel very young and very naive, although I was neither; other times she made me feel her age and her equal. She was, I realise now, more than friend – sometimes a mother, sometimes an elder sister.

Dad was the cementing factor in our friendship in those early days, and he spent a lot of time up in her penthouse. Largely the way it went, I think, was that Bunty talked while Dad dozed. But she also cooked regularly for him, they played golf together, he partnered her at bridge a couple of times a week and they expanded their circle of mutual friends. In a letter every so often she would bring me up to date, ending the letter with a little bulletin: Your father's looking very well, or your father's deteriorating. Theirs was a solid friendship over a number of years but there was no doubt she had designs on him that went beyond golf and bridge.

On my next trip back to Perth, I can't say I found Dad fading. Not in the least. His hair had always been thick, but now it was long and it suited him, silvery and curling on his collar. He had long fine fingers and his nails were neatly trimmed. He seemed a little taller, too, with a healthy colour to his skin. Certainly not frail – and, indeed, much younger-looking than his seventy-six years suggested.

That night I found a little note pinned to my pillow: Have a lovely holiday darling. Lots of love, Thekla. I went back into the lounge holding out the piece of paper.

'Dad? Who's this from? Who's Thekla?'

He glanced up briefly, flapping the pages of his newspaper.

'Thekla? Oh yes, Thekla. She's the lady...hmm...she comes to clean the flat. Every fortnight, you see. Your sister arranged it for me.'

'But this? This seems sort of...well, very nice...from someone I haven't met yet.' It wasn't quite what I wanted to say, but my words fell into a sort of void due to the not-for-discussion manner with which my father was rattling the paper and shuffling his feet.

When I next flew down from Hong Kong, Bunty was in the local hospital undergoing a series of tests for cancer. She was sitting outside in the sun when my father and I pulled up chairs to sit beside her. Never very good at picking the right moment for such things, it was then that Dad chose to tell her he was moving in with Thekla. It wasn't so much that the look on Bunty's face changed, it was more the way her hand shot up to check her hair that expressed her dismay. In the uncertainty of that moment, as her searching fingers knocked off her wig, she swung swiftly sideways to retrieve it and the chair toppled over.

Dad moved in with Thekla shortly after that and a year or two later they were married. She didn't play golf or bridge or love dogs but she was pretty and thirty years younger than he. Although Dad had always been a sucker for pretty women, his instinct was right and she proved a caring and constant companion over the next quarter-century. But it was not until Dad was out of the picture that my relationship with Bunty became a friendship in its own right.

 

BY THIS TIME I had moved back to Perth and we fell quickly into the habit of meeting every fortnight at the lovely old University of Western Australia House, a place that mixed solemnity and grace with a friendship and sincerity that reminded me of the Ghurka Club in Hong Kong, and which couldn't have been more different from the pretentious and soulless multi-million-dollar building that replaced it. I remember asking her during one of those lunches how she came to be called Bunty; – it's only now I realise she didn't actually answer my question. Instead she told me she'd been christened Anna Elisabeth. What a pretty name, I'd said. She rounded on me, her brows knitted. Anna? It's perfectly horrible. Just imagine being called Anna.Anna! She shuddered and had she been low-brow (which she wasn't) she might have spat.

She was born in the first years of the twentieth century, the daughter of an English dentist, brought up by her grandparents, and the youngest of five or six sisters. She worked in a bank and started stepping out with George when she was sixteen or seventeen years old. It was between the wars by then; they married and George was transferred to India where he was in charge of a paint factory. It was on the ship out that she met Peggy who was travelling out to meet her own husband Keith, and it was on this fateful trip that a friendship was formed that would last both couples all their lives.

Peggy was not only remarkably forthright for the era but also a rather determined woman. They stood at the ship's railing as the Malabar Coast began to materialise, and as the deck became crowded, Peggy bent her head towards Bunty.

'I am concerned, and I wonder whether you would explain something to me,' she whispered under cover of her hand. 'What's this thing called sex?'

It was not the question itself that surprised her, Bunty told me decades later, but the fact that Peggy was married and yet still a virgin. She explained the sex act as well as an Englishwoman in the 1920s might, towards somebody who had been little more than an acquaintance seconds earlier.

Peggy shook her head vigorously. 'How absolutely ghastly. I certainly won't be doing that.' But she could, and did, dance; there were many Saturday nights during their respective tours in Bombay that the couples met up at the Taj Hotel to dance until the early hours of the morning. Partition came to India in 1948 and, along with many others, the foursome dispersed: Peggy and Keith to return to England, Bunty and George went to Australia. The friends corresponded from time to time and always exchanged Christmas cards.

 

IN PERTH, BUNTY and George had tried their hand at most things. They started by buying a tobacconist's shop on the corner of what is now the Hay Street Mall; they had a fast-food bar; they bought an orchard, getting up before dawn to pick and pack and take the fruit to market. For a while they lived along the Darling Scarp, east of Perth, where Bunty 'swapped gossip' as the local postmistress; when they moved down to the city she made money buying and selling property. When she was in her seventies, she bought two nursing homes which she managed with the help of an administrator. Although she had adored India and the lifestyle of the era, she was pragmatic enough to know that it was a phase she had been lucky enough to experience and her realism saved her from spoiling the present by dwelling on the past. By the time George died they had been married for over sixty years and had only had one serious argument in all that time. That was the time George put on his hat, left home and came back two days later. Bunty wasn't one to stir the pot with questions or recriminations and life continued just as happily as it had before.

They didn't have children: 'Somehow there was never time. We were enough for each other and quite happy as we were. But we always talked, you see, dear. That's the secret. To make a good marriage, you musttalk.'

One day – she was nearly ninety by this time – Bunty arrived at University House with something on her mind. As soon as we were seated with our plates of roast and two veg, she took a slow glance around at the other tables to make sure, as she always did, that no one was listening in on the 'goss' and then leaned towards me. She wasn't exactly agitated but the carefully blended colour on her cheekbones was augmented by something more.

'I've just had a letter from Keith,' she said. 'Peggy's died.' She looked away, took a sip of water. 'He's devastated, poor man. And he sounds exhausted, too. She was blind for the last ten years and he did everything for her. I wonder...I was wondering whether you think it would be a good idea to invite him out for a break, for a holiday?'

We debated the point. Having lost my own husband some years before, I was aware of the strangeness of death, of its ruthless finality. But I also knew that my own experience was not universal and that everyone was different. Perhaps, we convinced ourselves, he would be very grateful for a change of scene. Perhaps it was just what he needed.

'You don't think he might feel it's a bit forward of me, do you?'

I tried to put myself into the place of a man old enough to be my great-grandfather, whom I had never met. Impossible to know his circumstances, to guess what state of depression he might or might not be in, to substitute the blue of the sky under which we sat for the pewter of English skies, to imagine the grim inevitability of tidying up the fragments of life his wife had left behind.

'I don't think so. It's friendly, after all, isn't it? A friendly gesture with no strings. It's not as though there was anything between you besides friendship, was there?'

She hesitated. 'Once only,' she said. 'Only once – the four of us in a taxi. Peggy and George in front and Keith and me in the back. He put a hand on my knee. I wondered after that whether he would say something, would follow up on it at all. But do you know, he never did.'

It was several months before she received a rather agitated reply to her letter of condolence. She handed me the airmail envelope. No, he was unable to come out. In fact, that was the last thing on his mind. He missed Peggy. Badly. Maybe later. Meanwhile he was sure Bunty would understand. Bunty did understand on the one hand; on the other, she was rather quiet that lunch day. That Christmas they exchanged cards and everything was back to normal.

 

IT WAS NOT until spring of the following year that Bunty's good friends Anne and Stewart decided to visit England. They were going via Bombay and had asked Bunty if she'd like to join them for the trip.

'We'll have dinner at the Taj – it's still standing apparently. I wonder whether they've done it up, how it's changed. And how India's changed! And then onto England for nearly three weeks.' She began to plan. All her sisters but one had passed on, and her circle of friends had long been restricted to Perth. But she had nieces and nephews, including one particular niece of George's of whom she was fond. 'Do you know it's getting on seventy years since I've been back. Seventy years!' Her aquamarine eyes sparkled through the thick lenses. She might, she said, even drop Keith a line.

She went to England, my ninety-year-old friend, and when she returned she called.

'Quick, Tangie. Come round. I have to tell you.'

I arrived at the apartment, the gramophone tunes from the war years reaching down to the carpark. She greeted me at the door, grasped me firmly and led me into the difficulties of a quickstep across her thick-pile carpet. Breathless, finally, she made us a pot of tea. She didn't just glow, she was ablaze.

'Listen,' she said. 'Let me tell you...'

When he heard she was coming, she said, Keith had invited her and her friends around for afternoon tea.

'I thought it might be awkward,' she said. 'But it wasn't. We just talked and talked.'

Talked so much, in fact, that Anne and Stewart – either from diplomacy or boredom – decided to go for a drive. But by the time they returned a couple of hours later the discussion hadn't abated in the least. In fact, by that time, Keith had invited Bunty to stay the night. Her friends left for their hotel; Keith opened a bottle of wine, cooked and served a meal and eventually they retired.

'It was a little while later and I was reading,' she said to me. 'There was a tap at the door. "Just about to turn in and wondered whether you've got everything you need," he said. And I must say he looked rather smart in his paisley dressing gown. "Would you like more water? A different book perhaps?"

"Oh, no. I've everything I need. You've been most kind and I'm doing very well," she'd answered, putting down her book. "Very comfortable. Lovely evening altogether."

"Yes, it was lovely," he said, advancing into the room. "Are you sure I can't get you something?"

'He sat on the edge of the bed and took my hand,' she said, her eyes very round. 'And then, well, you can guess the rest.'

She stayed with Keith for the next two weeks. Each night they had sex. Each morning he bustled her into the sun room, gave her the paper and brought her breakfast. Once he had taken care of the housekeeping and prepared the evening meal, they went for drives. A different set of sites, a different pub or tavern for lunch each day.

Her eyes glowed as she described their outings. Bunty was in love, as swept away as any sixteen-year-old. It was ferocious, consuming and romantic.

 

OVER THE NEXT couple of years she went back to England several times and each time she would return more radiantly beautiful than when she left. She would have herself wheeled onto the plane at Perth Airport and wheeled off at Heathrow where Keith would be waiting. Although each trip followed the format of the first, the sex that Peggy had shunned during her lifetime only grew wilder and more abandoned.

It didn't matter that Bunty had only one breast, the other removed forty years before due to an unfounded suspicion of cancer. It didn't matter that her hair was sparse and white, or that there were only two single beds available – narrow ones at that – or that her lover was younger than herself. They moved the two beds into one room and lashed the legs together to stop her falling through the gap. Keith had dispensed with both her nightie and her wig early on. She grinned. 'He literally ripped them off me and threw them across the room saying "You have absolutely no need of this nonsense".' She started to talk of moving to England.

And then one day the flimsy blue aerogrammes from Keith ceased. She tried to call but the phone rang out. She made other enquiries to no avail. Anne is a librarian and a sleuth researcher, but she too drew a blank. Unbeknownst to Bunty, we also called Births, Deaths and Marriages. But Keith's name didn't show up. He had disappeared.

'Perhaps he's sold up and gone down to Devon to live with his brother. Perhaps the house got too much for him. He was talking along those lines. Or perhaps he's had a heart attack and he's in hospital. Or perhaps...'

In the end I did the only thing a friend can do, and listened. I discovered that the sound and the shape and intensity of a heartbreak when you are ninety-three years of age doesn't vary at all from a similar event any time in life. It always hurts. A lot.

And I learned that being young or being old is more than just a date on a birth certificate.

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