While I was researching Letters from Robin I made multiple searches, time and again, for copies of her more obscure books. I wanted to read all the fiction, if I could. Honoured Guest eluded me until it was too late to include in the book, but I still wanted to write about it.
The edition I finally found (pictured here) was the Angus & Robertson Bluegum paperback, published in 1989, with a revised text. The book was originally published in the Macmillan Orbit educational series, with illustrations by Margaret Power, in 1979. It was Robin’s second published book.
We’re in very familiar territory. This short novel (only 71 pages) is about Sharon Eldridge, who envies the beauty and privilege of other girls in her school and amuses herself with flights of fancy about gentler past times (shades of Hating Alison Ashley and Games …). She lives unhappily with her feckless dad and his ‘tizzy’ new girlfriend who shows Sharon no compassion at all. Sharon is still smarting from her mother’s abandonment sometime in the past.
Like many of Robin’s characters, Sharon’s refuge from the ugly world of school and neighbourhood thugs is an outwardly soulless, dispiriting section of abandoned park that was due to be landscaped by the council (shades of Junk Castle). The one good thing is it overlooks a tidy little cottage which Sharon learns is the home of old Mrs Wickham who sees through Sharon’s false bravado and her anger and becomes a confidante (shades of Penny Pollard’s Diary).
Mrs Wickham has a handsome grandson, Michael. He is older than Sharon, already has a girlfriend, so it’s not a Laurie Loved Me Best situation. Michael is a horse trainer (like Robin’s own son Peter) who respects Sharon’s desire to learn about racing horses and to use this knowledge to have a purpose in life. For she’s realised the reality behind her fantasies:
Reciting poetry only made me realise that all the things I was good at or interested in were useless skills, the way the world judged things. I started to fret and worry about my future.
Sharon’s friendship with both Wickhams is nurturing but best of all is the advice Mrs Wickham offers her the night Sharon stays for dinner, after Dad and Rosa abandon her to go on a trip away. Sharon is used to fending for herself, eating eggs out of the frying pan in front of the TV. She is impressed and surprised that Mrs Wickham goes to the trouble of elegantly laying the table for the two of them. ‘I thought all that stuff was only ever kept for visitors,’ she says.
Mrs Wickham replies:
Honoured guests, that sounds nicer than visitors … You’re my guest of honour now. But you know, Sharon, it’s not a bad idea to treat yourself like that all the time, even when you’ve only got a cat for an audience. You start thinking of yourself as an honoured guest wherever you are, even if you’re on your own. It makes a big difference … Honoured guests don’t ever have to put up with insults. You know, on my birthday, I always buy myself a gift, even if it’s not anything fancy … It’s not being greedy … It’s a little way you can remind yourself that you’re very special, just as important as anyone else. A guest of honour in the world.
I love the notion of an ‘honoured guest’. In several of Robin’s stories, characters bestow honours and prize on their new friends – think of the medal Shelley gives Ben at the end of Boss of the Pool and the one Seymour might give Angie in Came Back to Show You I Could Fly – but here’s an idea of rewarding oneself, instead of awaiting the approval of other people.
This advice comes midway through the novel and there remain social and domestic hurdles for Sharon to surmount before the end. Her frenemy, the precocious, provocative Francine avails herself of Sharon’s dad’s absence by hosting a party at the family home. Parties never go well in a Robin Klein story …
But this story ends with hope and fresh opportunities – Sharon becomes fostered by Mrs Wickham (Aunty Grace from now on). It’s quite a drastic solution but seems totally reasonable and practical in context. It’s not a free pass to an easy life; Sharon will be expected to earn her keep, and she’s made an enemy of Dad and Rosa so that will be to be negotiated. But nothing, it seems, will diminish her sense of being an honoured guest in the world.