"Tell me, Julia," said Signora Moretti, "back when you were the youngest ever Professor of History at Cambridge, did you reckon yourself an atheist?"
She held up her iPad. A photograph – me with Richard Dawkins, three years ago. An entire eternity now. “You hosted him at the Cambridge Secular Society. I imagine, as a high-flying academic, you felt yourself too smart for God. Didn’t you, Molly? Too smart, too comfortable?"
Standing before my employer, I found it a struggle not to sway. A struggle not to curl up on the floor, to go to sleep, to surrender to my paralysing sense of exhaustion and simply lose myself to oblivion. My workload had been increased after the interview with Signora Moretti in which she had intimated that I had two choices of husband. The scale of this revelation had been such that for the days and the nights that followed I had been unable to think of anything else.
The veil of my complacency had been ripped away, and the vulnerability of my situation, as a peasant from a country in which women were expected as a matter of course to marry, brutally exposed to me. That I had ever thought to look down on Mr Singh! How could I have been so foolish, so arrogant? If I married him, I would have residency in Singapore, and the security that would come from being the wife of someone who would always live there.
I had sought to attend more to my appearance: to brush my hair more carefully, to try and make my cap perch more prettily on my head, and even to improvise with cosmetics. The shame of this, that a chauffeur was now someone that I yearned to have look favourably on me, made me shiver whenever I thought of it. Yet I knew as well the standards imposed on me as a Filipina – that I could not, as I would have done in the West, actively intimate my interest in him. Instead, I had to be with him as I was now with all men: submissive, yielding, obliging. The most I could do was to blush when he looked at me, and perhaps, when he spoke to me, nervously giggle. And all the while, lurking in the kitchen, fat, greasy and grinning, was the rival suitor: the man who, if Signora Moretti had not been lying, intended to make me his wife.
But perhaps Signora Moretti had alternative plans. Certainly, it was rare now that I was alone with him in the kitchen, and not busy at work. A few days after my conversation with Signora Moretti, she had begun to increase my workload. Without letting up my duties at home, she had informed me that I was to be employed as well as a cleaner at her university. Every day of the week at 5, I would have to get the bus from her house and report for duty at the campus. There I was employed for eight hours as part of the housekeeping team. I would not be back in bed until at least 2 am – only to wake up at 6 the next morning.
So it was, when Signora Moretti suddenly introduced the topic of atheism to me, I was too exhaustion-befuddled to do anything save stare stupidly at her. She smiled at me, then reached into a drawer. "You might find this interesting." She handed me a small pamphlet. I looked at it. The Church of St Bernadette, it read. "There’s a mass every Sunday in Tagalog at 1.00 pm," said Signora Moretti. 'Were you a devout Catholic, Molly, like most girls of your status, I would be more than happy to let you attend. Indeed, I would be happy to give you the whole afternoon off. So it’s a shame that you’re an atheist, isn’t it?"
I looked at her. Sunday was tomorrow. A whole afternoon off! I swayed at the thought. "Please, Madam…"
I was wearing a rather conservative and ill-fitting dress that Signora gave me telling me casually, "Put this dress on for the Church Molly, it's an old one of mine I used as a house dress back in Italy, too warm for me in the Singapore climate but perfect for you. It's modest enough, the three quarter sleeves and the length below the knee are perfect for your first Church visit. And don't forget to cover your head with a scarf when you go in."