Friendship found in house of ill repute

Last updated 05:00 17/01/2013

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"Pat, do you think those girls might really be men?"

I turn my eyes away from the stage, where tall, rather muscular looking ladies are striking poses and shedding clothes for our enjoyment.

"I think you could be right, Hazel."

We are both staring in bemusement. It's the summer of 1964-65 and we're at the Purple Onion nightclub in Vivian Street.

I'm with Brian, who I haven't known long, and have just met Hazel – she works as secretary to Brian's lawyer friend Hector. The two men seem to be taking it in their stride. Maybe they've been here before.

Hazel seems old to me, but she's probably in her 40s. I learn that she's widowed and lives in upper Ghuznee Street in the central city. She has a kind, cheery face that I warm to immediately. We are both out of our depth in this scene.

In the crazy world into which Brian leads me, Hazel becomes a refuge when it gets too much. She invites me to stay in her spare room from time to time. I get a good night's sleep and leave feeling refreshed and comforted.

Brian and I are sharing an ex-Army hut, and as I write to a friend: "I got rather tired last week as Brian has either had someone to visit or brought home visitors – the culmination was about 6.30pm on Saturday when he arrived with six people to visit me! They had a bottle of sherry between them, and I was rather glad to partake of it – like brandy when one is lost in the snow."

"Hazel, you are one of my sanest friends," I tell her one day, being so grateful to have at least one friend who's neither a misunderstood writer or hopeless alcoholic or both.

A few days later I hear that she is in Porirua Hospital.

I visit her often and such is my regard for her that I willingly buy her cigarettes. Me, who detests being around smokers!

I never learn why Hazel was in a psychiatric hospital but she doesn't stay long. My baby is born and Hazel introduces me to her friend Mrs Waite, who looks wisely into the baby's eyes and tells me: "He's been here before."

Brian's not a person one can live with and I have to move on. Nor can he cope with any real or imagined demand, but Hazel, who asks nothing from him, remains his friend.

Over the years she makes several attempts on my behalf to persuade him to see his young son. She doesn't succeed, but she stays his friend, and that's no small feat.

I meet a nice stable man, get married, move to Palmerston North and have two more children. I lose touch with Hazel. And - silly me - I'm restless. The children and I move to the Kapiti Coast.

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By this time, Hazel has had to shift from 145 Ghuznee Street – her house was taken for the new motorway in the early 1970s.

When I see her again she's moved to Kipling Street in Johnsonville where she lives with her much loved Bertie Wooster books and Biggles, her Cavalier King Charles spaniel. We visit her there.

Hazel spends the Christmas of 1983 with us at Pukerua Bay, stays to look after the children while I'm away on short trips. We all enjoy her company.

One of her granddaughters spends time in Arohata women's prison. I own a car now, and take her there a few times – laden with gifts she can probably ill afford.

Not long afterwards, Hazel moves to Napier. I think a daughter is there. We seem to have lost touch, the children are growing up, there's another man in my life and we're running a secondhand bookshop together.

We go to Napier on a buying trip, and I see Hazel for what turns out to be the last time. She's living in another suburban street, a far cry from her city life in Ghuznee Street long ago.

I don't know what we talk about, but it's not the Purple Onion – that faded into the past years earlier.

By 1992 I've got my own secondhand bookshop in Pukerua Bay. Between customers I browse through the paper, and one day in October I see Hazel's death notice. It tells me little I don't already know.

I'd hardly given her a thought over recent years, and much of her life remains a mystery, probably because I was too self-centred to ask. But she was a rare true friend.

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- Stuff


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