Lady Charlotte, the author of the original story Arriving in Milan, has kindly agreed to take the story where Monica Graz (will a little help from yours truly) have left it. This is the first of at least three questions that our heroine will have to answer. I hope you enjoy this installment as much as I did. And to make reading previous installments of the story easier I've created a Molly saga label.
by Lady Charlotte
1. Question One
“Tell me, Julia,” said Signora Moretti, “Back when you were the youngest ever Professor of History at Cambridge, did you reckon yourself a feminist?”
I stared in consternation at my employer. It was a long time since anyone had called me by my original name – and even longer since mention had been made of my original career. I could feel myself going red – and then I paused to wonder if someone as dark-skinned as I now was could actually go red. I tried to meet Signora Moretti’s eye. Of course, it was impossible. As I did instinctively now, whenever I looked at a European, I found myself lowering my gaze to the floor, and fiddling with the hem of my apron.
I tried to find my voice. “I… I…” A cascade of thoughts and memories had come unbidden into my mind; but my words were humiliatingly inadequate to expressing what I wished to convey. “When I… first… when I no maid, Madam… I no want…”
“What?” Signora Moretti’s forehead wrinkled into a frown. “You are making no sense.”
“I no want man… when I no maid…”
“No.” Signora Moretti shook her head brusquely. “I cannot endure listening to such hopelessly clumsy English.”
“I sorry, Ma’am.”
“I should think so. It is a shame Linda isn’t here to translate for you. Isn’t it?”
“She is going places. Her English is almost flawless now.”
“Not like you. I doubt you will ever master the language.” She smiled at me.
I gripped the edge of my apron more tightly. It had been a month now since Signora Moretti had overheard me talking to Linda, after my friend had come round to tell me about her new job, no longer working as a domestic, but as a secretary to her boss.
I still remember very vividly that day. After Linda had gone, Signora Moretti had made sure to tell me how impressed she had been. ‘There are those with aspirations and there are those stuck at the bottom that will always be at the bottom. I want your English to be far more rudimentary than it is, Molly. I want your Filipina friends to despair of it. To know, whenever you are spoken to in English, that one of them will have to translate for you. I want them to think of you as the incorrigibly dumb one.’
So it was that she had imposed new conditions on what I was allowed to say. I was forbidden ever to use any tense other than the present, and obliged to speak using only the singular form of nouns. I was given a list of 200 words, all of them consisting of a single syllable, that was henceforward to constitute the sum total of my vocabulary. ‘The’, ‘am’ and ‘is’ were all notable by their absence. As a result, whenever I was asked a question in English, I found it a desperate struggle to reply. I would concentrate on marshalling the few words I was permitted to speak, and find that my actual meaning was almost impossible to convey. Compared to my fellow maids, I sounded tongue-tied, ignorant, like the peasant woman that I appeared to be – a foreign domestic worker indeed.
“You may speak in Tagalog,” said Signora Moretti after a pause. “I have a new colleague, a psychologist from the Philippines, who is fascinated in your case. He will translate for me later.
So, Molly, I ask again, did you use to be a feminist?”
So, Molly, I ask again, did you use to be a feminist?”
With a great surge of relief, I began to speak. It was almost as though Tagalog were now my native tongue – for, compared to English, I could talk in it without having to pause or worry. Naturally, I gave my employer a scrupulously honest answer. I told her that I had indeed been a feminist, both in my personal life and in my academic work. Had it been, I now wondered, a defence against my submissive instincts, an expression of my anxiety as to where they might lead me? Be that as it may, I had indeed, yes, been proud to reckon myself a committed feminist… and even as I affirmed that, my employer raised her hand, and signalled enough.
‘Though I don’t understand Tagalog I know your answer, Molly. See, I have this article here that you wrote.”
She raised her iPad, and I saw the flash of a title from a world aeons ago, back when I had been a professor, back before I became a maid. “I know as well that, despite your new status and profession, you retain the instincts of a feminist. And how do I know that?”
I looked at her helplessly. In my uniform grown shabby with the rigours of housework, I could not have felt less feminist. “I… Ma’am, I…”
Again, my employer held up her hand. “I know, Molly, because Mr Singh has been complaining. He says that you have been looking down your nose at him. That you have not been amenable at all to his advances.”
“Please, Ma’am.’ I shut my eyes. Memories of the previous evening, when Mr Singh, the Morettis’ chauffeur, had pressed needlessly tight against me as we passed in a corridor, made me flush. “He… me… he touch me…”
“Silence, girl! And if he does touch you, so what? You should be honoured! You do understand, Molly, that it is your destiny to marry – and that being so, that Mr Singh would be a remarkable catch? A Singaporean citizen, with all that implies for your residency rights here, so much as looking at a girl like you! You would be honoured to have such a husband. You stupid, vain, arrogant little girl!”
My flush deepened. It had never crossed my mind that Signora Moretti might intend me to marry – and my sudden consciousness of the abyss that awaited me, of the future that might well be mine, suddenly made me feel faint.
“I have decided, Molly, that you need to be reminded that a girl like you, whose whole destiny is to marry, to have children, and to be at the beck and call of her husband, cannot be permitted the airs and graces of a feminist. Who do you think you are – some spoiled Western woman?”
Not pausing as I shook my head, Signora Moretti continued. “To that end, I have decided that John Carlo, who works as the chef at the Embassy, will be coming here more often to cook for us. I have told him all about you. I have told him that you are single, and ready to marry – indeed, that you are eager for children. Should he propose to you, Molly, and you not have a good reason for refusing him, I will oblige you to marry him. And you know I can do that, don’t you?’ I nodded, my legs feeling like jelly.
“So,” my employer continued, “given the choice, I think you need to be a little less stand-offish with Mr Singh. Don’t you?”
Breathing deeply, I brought myself to meet her gaze. “Please, Ma’am…”
I bobbed a curtsey, turned and left. As I did so, I felt tears rising in my eyes, and I began to run. I didn’t stop until I had reached the sanctuary of the kitchen. Except that as I reached it, I saw that the door was open, and heard the sound of pans being clattered beyond it. Heart racing, I pushed the door fully open. There, standing before the oven, was a huge man in a white apron. He turned to look at me. His pockmarked face lit up. He smiled, and I saw that his broken teeth were yellow. “You must be Molly,’ he said in Tagalog. “I have heard all about you. You’re darker than I’d thought you’d be, but you’re quite pretty, all the same. I think we are going to get along.”