The jacaranda trees were blooming with their purple flowers, and the University of Queensland campus was bustling with students. Lea had just moved into a multicultural college, known as International House, and there was already a knock on the door of her room, which was on the second floor of G-Tower. She turned around but continued getting out jeans and personal belongings from her 20-kilogram brown suitcase that still had a Qantas etiquette. There was another knock, followed by another one.
"Hi, I'm Chen. Would you like to join us at tonight's youth fellowship?"
Six hours later, Chen came to pick her up. At 11 minutes before seven o'clock in the evening, they entered a room full of humans looking like they came from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. There was a handful of fair-skinned women. Everyone had sat down on scattered chairs when there was a soft pounding emanating from a plastified metallic floor. A fine, tall man walked towards the vacant seat next to the speaker. Tina whispered to Lea, "He's French. He arrived last week".
Lea put her index finger on her lips, but Tina continued: "French people tend to stare at you, giving you an impression that they are interested in you".
After the meeting, while Lea was playing with two children from Nigeria whose father was doing his PhD in engineering, the French man came to speak with her. She didn't respond to his hello, just nodded. Tina's impression of him kept on ringing in Lea’s ears.
Lea couldn't remember how long the French man stayed in silence, watching her giggling with four- and six-year-old boys.
On Wednesday of that week, Lea's neighbour interrupted their lunch at the college mess hall. "Someone came this morning, looking for you, while you were in your lectures. He didn't sound Australian."
Tina looked at Lea with a smile, "It was probably froggy."
"Please don't use that word; it's derogatory".
"Oh, you're defending him already. Well, let's call him Freggy".
A student from Malaysia called Mae, whom Lea hardly knew, remarked on how French women accept unfaithful husbands.
Tina agreed with her. "Their former president had a mistress and daughter; they didn't make a big deal of it".
"I'll go for someone less likely to cheat on me," Mae insisted.
Tina moved her head up and down while gulping on curried chicken.
Lea's lips parted, assuming Mae was a Catholic because if she were a Muslim, she would be used to polygamy and not make that remark.
That same day, Lea's neighbour joined their table at dinner time. She faced Lea: "Oh, I forgot to ask you. Did you get the letter he placed under your door?"
Lea nodded, feeling the heat spiralling from her stomach to her brain.
Tina's eyes lit up. "Ah, perhaps a love letter. How romantic, under the door".
Tongues started to wag over Freggy at International House. His regular appearance at the common room and hallways spiced conversations among residents. Whenever Lea refused an invitation to a movie or picnic from her friends, a rumour circulated that she wanted to be with Freggy.
Mae fuelled the fire: "She prefers him over you, Tina".
Tina did not like what she said and answered back. "In your religion, you don't have to decide on one. How many wives does your father have?"
Lea, shifting her gaze from Tina to Mae, realised that the latter was a Muslim. She wanted to transform the awkward atmosphere instantly but was lost for words.
Graciously crafted words came out from Mae’s mouth. "My father has only one wife and discourages my brothers strongly from having more than one woman. In our religion, if you feel you can't deal justly with two or three, then marry only one".
Tina stood up; her chair squeaked. She carried her plate back to the kitchen counter and did not return to the table.
Tina and Mae hardly spoke to each other, but the gossip about Freggy lingered on. Even during the youth fellowship, those who had not met a French man in person expressed strong views about them. Mae's friend, who's from Polynesia, remarked, "They are nice but condescending".
Lea's face showed no reaction. She knew that in 1946, this country of five islands became an overseas territory under the constitution of the French Fourth Republic and was renamed French Polynesia in 1957. Indeed, not everyone there was happy about it.
Freggy was oblivious to the gossip about him. He never missed the Saturday youth fellowship. When he started coming to International House on Sundays and calling Lea during the week, gossip of a love affair spread to other colleges. He was a "non-Housie". (Housie is a term for an International House resident). Since he was an outsider, his trousers and shirts, movements, and words were examined and given explanations. Most of the latter were national stereotypes. They're fashion-conscious, prone to strikes and take a lot of time off except when in bed, and dunk their baguette in a bowl of hot chocolate.
One evening, while they were playing scrabble, Tina confided that she had bet with Jo about Freggy's interest in Lea.
"It seems I have lost 20 dollars already. Mae has heard that Freggy was seen talking to a red-haired sheila, speaking in French".
Lea hid her frowning. "You're always critical of him. Why did you do the opposite? You should have put your money where your mouth is."
"You're my friend. That's what friends are for".
Jo started singing: "Knowin' you can always count on me for sure. That's what friends are for. For good times and bad times, I'll be on your side forevermore. That's what friends are for".
Tina clapped her hands and said, "Hey, my friend, it's only a rumour."
Behind the gossip wall, Lea appreciated Freggy's frankness, persistence and perseverance. Soon, there was more tongue wagging. Freggy became Lea's lover despite discouraging words coming from all corners of the university town.
For the first time, Tina praised Freggy: "You won, bravo."
"There's something in her worth pursuing. I didn't win the battle against your friend but against babble-merchants".
"Are you referring to me? I did not start the gossip about you, about French men, or about …"
"It's all right. You're forgiven".
"Forgiven for what? You, French men are ..."
Lea laughed and put her hands around their waists. It's a day she would always remember, a day when she walked beside her best friend and Freggy to go swimming at the university’s Olympic-sized pool.
Lea's British friends organised their engagement, as they felt compassion because neither of them had parents and family in Australia. A month later, during their church wedding in the Philippines, American missionaries came because they heard that the 'white' groom did not have any relatives and should be afforded moral support.
Lea's marriage vows included a promise that she would go wherever he went, which haunted her later when she had to leave Australia to be with him in France: the first two years in busy Paris; later in beautiful, sunny Nice of the French Riviera; and now in the tranquillity of Thionville that borders Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany.
Thionville is a town full of gossip, but Lea was sheltered from this since she didn't speak their language when she arrived.
Freggy and Lea have been married for 38 years, and no one gossips about them anymore, either in France or Australia. Even if they did, they could not care less. They could not have asked for a better life than being together and bringing up two multilingual and multicultural children.