Next Friday, October 15, the Society for Aids Care will hold a fund-raising gala dinner at Government House. As usual, it has organised a sale of items specially created for the event: this year 17 designers are offering 20 chairs (the evening is called An Affair of Chairs) which will be auctioned by Sotheby's. There will be a couple of dance troupes, who will weave their way through these creations before they are sold. The most moving part of the occasion, however, will surely be when the guests say goodbye to Sister Maureen McGinley, who has been the society's prime mover since it was founded in 1994, and hello to Nichole Garnaut, its new executive director. The society sent me a fax about the evening's entertainment which was headed with its motto: 'Together, we make a difference!' I think it's fair to say that together, Sister Maureen and Garnaut make a difference in terms of being, on the surface at least, as distinct from one another as two women could possibly be. Sister Maureen has been a nun for 33 years; Garnaut, the former managing director of Group 97, who opened - among other things - Petticoat Lane, one of Hong Kong's first gay bars, has not. As contrasts go, it's as if the Missionaries of Charity had announced that Mother Teresa was to be replaced by Madonna: undeniably talented, savvy, connected and faint-makingly trendy she may be but she is not, one instinctively feels, the obvious choice. I started to say this to Garnaut the morning we met and, being no fool, she replied, 'The nun and the, um ...? Right. No one knows how to label me any more.' And she laughed. She has a terrifically dirty, complicitous chuckle and if I were one of the patients - the society tends to prefer the word 'client' - staying at The Lookout, its beautiful care centre in the New Territories, I'm sure I'd be cheered by it. Mind you, at least part of its rusty timbre is because she smokes with awful (and awesome) compulsion. She had spent the week prior to this interview with 'flu, but she was still smoking and coughing in about equal measure. She'd suggested we meet at Wyndham Street Deli specifically so we could sit outside where she could puff away. Half-way through, she ran out of cigarettes and when the deli declined to send someone out to buy a pack, she rang up Post 97 ('Hi, sweetheart, it's Nichole') and had them delivered to her. 'I'm still very connected to 97,' as she observed. In fact she's currently the group's co-chairman ('and a substantial shareholder'), although last year she was supposed to leave Hong Kong and go to live on a Greek island with her girlfriend. There was some fanfare about this departure so what, exactly, happened? 'I was going to move to Greece because I felt that all my adult life had been spent in Hong Kong. I'd come here from Australia in 1985 when I was 20, and I felt I was a bit sheltered.' Sheltered? 'Sheltered isn't the word. I needed a broader spectrum of surroundings and education and influences. It appealed to me to go somewhere quiet and spend time being introspective.' These plans were fairly advanced. 'Then some other circumstances presented themselves which made me reconsider.' Which were? Garnaut did a I'm-being-incredibly-relaxed cat-like stretch (which she repeated when she was asked subsequent awkward questions) and said, mildly, 'I'd rather not say. It's personal.' So she stayed with Group 97 until January 1, then went travelling, first back to Australia then round Asia. What was she deciding? 'Nothing. My decision was not to decide anything for a while, to throw it out there to the universe really.' And what did the universe say? Garnaut gave her heh-heh-heh engine-start laugh and replied, 'It asked me to look after the Society for Aids Care.' What actually happened was that she was on the phone to Stacey Hildebrandt, the society's director, a couple of months ago. Hildebrandt was then eight months pregnant and deeply concerned about Sister Maureen's impending transfer back to England. 'So I suggested to her that I step in.' Why? 'Because I was trying to calm her down. To make her feel better because she's my friend.' I liked this reply: it had the ring of absolute truth about it, it expressed what I suspect is typical Garnaut spontaneity, and it held no professed sense of vocation. But it was also the case (and, to her credit, this was not something Garnaut made a big deal of to me) that she was already involved in the society's activities, and had often had informal meetings with Sister Maureen and Hildebrandt. So she started work on September 13. At this juncture, Hildebrandt arrived at the deli to join us. 'Shall I tell her about the first day?' she asked Garnaut, who grinned, coughed and said, 'I threw on this Gucci dress, very see-through, no underwear.' I must have looked astonished because she added, 'The circumstances meant I couldn't reach my personal belongings so I borrowed some underwear - clean, of course - and it was see-through. But I thought it looked okay.' 'Until you saw Maureen and Nichole walking down the street,' added Hildebrandt. 'I died laughing.' 'The most fantastic thing Maureen did for me,' mused Garnaut, looking sober, 'is that she didn't really give me any advice. I know that was deliberate. She completely allowed me the freedom and flexibility to make my own judgments and fit my own style.' What about the solace which Sister Maureen could tap into spiritually but which might be harder for Garnaut to locate? 'Something interesting happened when I started,' she said. 'By chance, I ended up spending the day with a North American man who had been HIV positive for 15 years. He gave me incredible insights into the different phases he'd gone through. That day I had a lot of work to do, but there came a point where it didn't matter what else I had to do. That's very different from jobs I've done before where you can fob someone off. That gave me a lot of personal solace. I knew that what we're doing is really helping people.' So is Hong Kong about to witness the unveiling of a very different Nichole? 'I didn't have a lot of training for this role. I was a little bit insecure about that to begin with. Yes, I'm very aware that it's different. I needed change and I didn't know what that change was. But it sits very well with me.' Some tickets at $3,000 are still available for the gala. If you wish to make a donation or volunteer, please contact the Society for Aids Care on 2559-2006.