by Lady Charlotte
3. Question Three
‘Tell me, Julia,’ said Signora Moretti, ‘back when you were the youngest ever Professor of History at Cambridge, what did Mark Fitzwilliam mean to you?’
I tottered at the question, clutching at the desk. Perhaps it was my exhaustion. The Signora, who had rescinded her instructions that I join the university cleaning team the moment I had begun going to church, had reassigned me to it for the whole of the past week. I stood before her in my hideous yellow housekeeping uniform, my long black hair pulled back into a ponytail and threaded through the gap in my baseball cap. Naturally, I was standing.
I blinked back tears.
‘Address your comments to Professor Carpio.’ She indicated the stout and bespectacled Filipino sitting behind the desk in front of me. It was his office in which I was standing, having been summoned there from mopping the main hall of the Psychology Department. The Signora had introduced him to me as the psychologist who had been translating my Tagalog for her. I remembered what else she had told me about him – that he was fascinated professionally by my case. And now, here I was, standing before him: an exhausted, dirt-smeared cleaner.
The Professor reached into a drawer, and took out a tissue. He handed it to me. ‘Do you feel able to answer?’ he asked me in Tagalog. His tone was kind. ‘Would you like time to compose yourself?’
I wiped my eyes with the tissue, then shook my head. ‘No Sir,’ I answered, again in Tagalog. ‘But… I don’t know how you knew. About Mark.’
He smiled. ‘You are a fascinating case. Worth the effort of researching.’
Instinctively, I bobbed a curtsey.
‘You see?’ He laughed in astonishment and delight. ‘Your reflexes, Molly – they are wholly those of a servant. Of someone conditioned to respect and obey her superiors. And your accent, your language – I would never for a moment have imagined, had I not known better, that you were not a peasant from my own country. I mean that as the highest possible compliment. Your transformation from a European academic into a Filipina servant girl is quite astonishing – and self-evidently reflects some quite complex psychological needs. I have been exploring them, and now wish to know if I am close to an answer. So – to repeat your employer’s question, girl. What did Mark Fitzwilliam mean to you?’
The sudden sternness in his voice put me on guard, and reminded me that I had no choice but to answer him truthfully. I bobbed another curtsey, and lowered my gaze. Then all at once, in a mighty rush, everything came out – everything that I had sought to escape, to repress, to forget had ever been. How Mark and I had been colleagues in the same department, bitter rivals both professionally and ideologically. How deliberately and callously he had sought to sabotage my work. How my focus on a gender-informed historiography had provoked his bitterest contempt, and how all my analysis of the dynamics of patriarchy in early-modern Europe had prompted from him nothing but scorn. Of how, when the vacant professorship came up, and we both applied, the success of my candidacy had made his own all the more bitter a failure.
‘And you desired him?’
The question came unexpectedly.
‘Oh yes,’ I answered, taken utterly by surprise. ‘Of course. Oh yes.’
‘He is a good-looking man. He has the look of a Lord Byron about him. A man who knows how to handle a woman.’
I breathed in deeply. My mouth had gone dry. I found it an effort to swallow.
‘You wished to be his slave?’
Again, I could not answer. The Professor smiled, then typed up some notes. He turned to the Signora. He spoke to her in English. ‘It is as we thought. How do the French put it? Cherchez l’homme…’
He turned back to me, and continued to speak in English. ‘Did you ever tell him?’
I shoke my head in mute misery.
‘You were too ashamed?’
‘Yes. It is as I thought. The ego and the id, in titanic confrontation. In your academic career – feminist. In your erotic imaginings – the very opposite. The two sides of you fuelling the other, locked in an unforgiving conflict that was simultaneously an embrace. Fatal, fatal.’ The Professor nodded to himself, then typed something again. He glanced at the Signora, who was also looking thoughtful. He gestured with his hand, as though to give her the floor. She leaned forward.
‘You are so very afraid of men?’ she asked.
‘Afraid of him.’ I answered in English, but neither the Signora nor the Professor seemed to mind. ‘Because I desired him. Because I loved what I hated. Because I couldn’t bear the agony of it.’
‘So you accepted my friend’s invitation – to become her maidservant in Milan.’
‘Yes. She knew – we had talked. Online.’ I paused, suddenly aware that I was still talking in English. The Signora must have read my thoughts, for she gestured with her hand that I should continue with my narrative, and not switch to Tagalog. I closed my eyes, remembering that online conversation I had long had, the safety valve it had offered me in the depths of my love-hate obsession with Mark. ‘I had written her stories,’ I explained. ‘I had confessed everything. She understood. She offered my sanctuary. She offered me refuge.’
‘And so three weeks into your professorship… Three weeks – you left.’
‘Went to Milan.’
‘Embarked on the trip that would ultimately lead you here – to becoming what you are now. A Filipina. A peasant girl. An overseas domestic worker.’
This time I did not answer. Instead, I glanced at the reflection of myself in the office window: almond eyes, dark skin, yellow uniform. Not a trace of Julia left.
And then, abruptly – the bombshell.
‘Julia.’ I looked at the Signora. ‘Julia, listen. Mark is coming to Singapore. He is taking up a job here. He is coming…’ – she paused – ‘with his wife.’
I stared at her in disbelief. ‘No.’
‘No.’ I began to shake. ‘But… I can’t…’ I pulled off my baseball cap. I looked around in desperation, as though for some escape route, some way out of the horror in which I suddenly realised that I was trapped.
‘No,’ I sobbed, ‘I am not Molly. I am Julia. Julia. You just called me ‘Julia’. I can’t do this. I can’t do this any more. I can’t.’ And I began to sob.
The Signora stepped out from behind the desk. I thought she was going to slap me – but instead she took me in her arms. She clasped me tight and let me rock in her embrace. She smoothed the tears away from my cheeks.
‘I think you should meet him,’ the Professor said suddenly.
‘But…’ I touched my face. ‘Look at me,’ I sobbed. ‘Look at me.’
He shrugged. ‘You cannot run away. You need closure. Yes, it is my decided professional opinion that you should meet him.’
‘You want to meet him, don’t you?’
I opened my mouth to say ‘no’ again, to scream it – but found that I couldn’t.
The Professor smiled. ‘You are a fascinating case, and I am glad that I have been able to study you. But as I just said, my professional opinion is that you have been running too far, too long. It is time to stare your own demons in the face.’
I breathed in deeply. I sought to tame my sobs. ‘How?’
The Signora continued to stroke my cheeks and to hold me. She whispered softly in my ear. ‘I have invited him to supper. Him and his wife.’
I struggled to break free, like a rabbit caught in a trap, but she continued to hold me in her embrace, and to rock me. ‘Next Saturday. I think it is time you met him.’
‘Face to face,’ the Professor reiterated. ‘No more running.’
‘But…’ I looked down at my yellow uniform. My cheeks flushed so violently I could feel them burn. ‘No… Not like this.’
‘Of course not,’ the Signora laughed. ‘Of course not.’ She glanced across at the Professor, who nodded, and rose to his feet. The Signora released me from her grasp, and crossed the floor to join him. Together, they both studied me. I stared at the ground. Strangely, I felt more humiliated now than I had ever felt before, to have spoken to them as Julia, and been treated as such in return, and now to be an object of their close attention, dressed in my yellow cleaning uniform.
‘Next Saturday, Julia, you will come face to face with Mark again,’ the Professor said. ‘Don’t worry. I will be there. I regard you almost as my patient, and I want what is best for you. Yes, it will be mortifying, no doubt – but it will also be for the best. Of that I have no doubt. So – do you agree to meet him at supper?’
I stared at the floor. Suddenly, the thought of seeing Mark again, of speaking like the academic I had once been rather than the maid that I had become, and of recovering all I had lost, seemed a prospect so delicious that I was astonished I had not allowed myself to yearn for it before. I looked up. I nodded. ‘Yes. If you truly feel that it is for the best.’
The Professor looked pleased. ‘Yes. Yes, I do.’
‘But… I can’t… I mean, I don’t have any clothes. Not suitable for meeting him. I can’t meet him like this.’
‘Of course not.’ The Signora laughed, as though at the ridiculousness of the very idea. ‘But don’t worry, Julia, I have already thought of that.’
‘Oh yes. I mean – you can hardly wear one of your worn and shabby uniforms, can you, not when you are staring your past directly in the face?’
‘So I took the precaution, suspecting that you would agree to meet Mark and his wife, of buying something suitable for the occasion.’
‘You are welcome.’ She paused, then smiled. ‘Would you like to see it? I know your size, so I am confident it will fit. I know also that you cannot afford expensive clothes, and so, although the dress is indeed well beyond your domestic worker’s budget, I am content to let you have it as a gift from me.’
‘Thank you. Thank you!’
The Signora gestured with her head towards a side door. ‘It is hanging up on the back. Why don’t you go and have a look?’
Heart pounding, I did so. The thought of it – the thought of a new dress, of meeting Mark, of meeting Mark in my new dress – I could almost cry with the joy of it. Of no longer being a maid, of becoming Julia once again…
I opened the door.
I stepped inside.
I looked at what was hanging on the back of it.
And there it was: black, short sleeved, with white piping, and matching apron. A dress appropriate to a maid serving at a formal function. My new dress…