by Camille Langtry and Monica Graz
Another strong gust of wind made me shiver and I’ve cursed myself for not putting on a wool scarf or a cardigan over my uniform dress. My thin coat alone was hardly adequate. It couldn’t have been much colder than 12 degrees, but it surely felt like Siberian winter to me! Must be that treacherous chilly wind, I thought to myself. After years spent in the climate so hot I could wear a t-shirt or a light summer dress with flip-flops all year long I’ve certainly got out of habit of putting on layers of clothing to go outside. And Milan’s unpredictable October weather didn’t make it any easier - on some days it almost felt like sunny summer, but on others, like today, it was freezing!
I was right in the heart of historic Milan, surrounded by endless crowds of noisy tourists going in all directions. I looked at the address written down on a piece of paper. It should be here somewhere very close as per instructions: just three blocks away from the Duomo, off Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. I looked around again and finally saw a small restaurant sign in a narrow side-road. Looks like I got here first.
It was lunchtime and the place looked packed with men and women in their smart and stylish office attire. Why did she pick this place for a meeting? It was clear I didn’t belong. Not it my cheap coat, that thankfully fully covered my uniform dress so that my station in life wasn’t immediately obvious to everyone. I saw my reflection in a large window - a dark-skinned Asian woman, her black hair gathered in a simple ponytail - the reflection I’ve long got used to. To an outsider I was just another migrant worker from some godforsaken place half a world away. At least I couldn’t be mistaken for an Arab and wasn’t immediately seen as a potential threat. Still, I was here in Italy to steal jobs and government benefits from the locals. That was the prevailing sentiment these days and I sometimes felt with my skin how unwelcome I was in this country. What a contrast to my first stint as a maid here! Italy has changed almost as much as I did.
The door to the restaurant was open and there was a waiter with a long white apron wrapped around his waist standing by the entrance. I didn’t dare enter. The waiter was sizing me up suspiciously, probably trying to figure out if I was a potential client: I was clearly neither a tourist nor an office worker. At that moment a strong gust of wind lifted the hem of my coat, revealing my light blue front-buttoned uniform dress, something that the waiter didn’t fail to notice. He smiled and winked at me as if saying 'you are one of us after all'. I blushed all over and decided that it was best to wait just a bit and sat down on a bench across the street, hoping I wouldn’t freeze to death by the time she gets here.
I’ve been back in Milan for almost two weeks now, working for Signora Matei again. It still felt unreal to be back to where it all started, but here I was, Molly Angelica Puente, a Filipina maid, trying to earn some money thousands of kilometers away from home and my three kids and a husband. It was a one-year contract for now, but Signora said she’d extend it if she’s satisfied with my performance. I certainly hope she does - the pay here is two or three time more than what I would have made in Hong Kong or Singapore! Going to Italy is the Filipina maid’s equivalent of winning a lottery. Going to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia - her purgatory. I was the lucky winner, even if I couldn’t see my kids for a long time! At least the Signora allowed me to use skype on her computer once a week and I could see their faces.
It was probably because of who I was to meet, but I couldn’t help but think about how I got where I was over and over and over again. I’ve long accepted who I have become and I didn’t really need to rationalize my choice any more, but being here, in the city where it all began, has made me analyze the past four years of my life.
After my showdown with Mark things began moving much faster, as if this last barrier was no longer holding me back from fully becoming the real me. With Mark out of the picture, John Carlo fully stepped in as the sole male interest in my life. To my surprise he was apologetic about losing control and, as a way to make it up to me, presented me with large silver hoop earrings. I put them on for our next date - it really pleased him to see me trying to look sexy for him - and this time around he behaved himself. We went out a few more times - each time John Carlo was becoming more and more reckless with kissing and touching and fondling and I was becoming more and more receptive.
Then the inevitable happened. I discovered that I was pregnant. I remember how scared and insecure I felt on that day. What if John Carlo dumps me now? And what about my status in Singapore? Wasn’t I warned about it by the doctors and then by the Signora herself? Yet here I was, knocked up like some ignorant peasant girl who’s never seen a condom in her life. What shocked me almost as much as the news that I was pregnant was John Carlo’s reaction. “How do you know it’s mine?” was his question as he shrugged his shoulders.
I spent the following night in tears and had to gather all my courage to tell the Signora the news in the morning. She was quite indignant, saying I betrayed her trust and calling me irresponsible and stupid. Yet, somehow I felt that she was neither mad nor particularly surprised. After all it was her who was pushing John Carlo to flirt with me and who convinced me it was in my best interests to accept him as a suitor.
Was this all part of my total transformation plan devised by her and Signora Matei back in Milan? I couldn’t tell, but my gut feeling told me that I was right. Her next actions only strengthened this belief. She took things into her own hands completely. Within an hour John Carlo was in the house and she locked up in a room with him for a long period of time. After they emerged from the room he came to me, apologized for our earlier “misunderstanding” and offered me to become his wife. The baby needs a father and he’s not the kind to run from responsibility. I wondered what the Signora told him so that he changed his mind, but I had little choice than to nod my head.
The wedding ceremony was a very simple affair, with only a handful of guests. Yet, the Signora insisted that I put on a traditional white mestiza gown with a boat neck and butterfly sleeves - paid by her as a wedding gift - and my hair was done in a pretty bun with a long veil attached to it - I was a picture perfect Filipina bride, much to John Carlo’s delight! I had a photo from the event in my wallet - me, looking very scared in my wedding gown, my husband in a white barong shirt, confident and all smiles. It was clear from that picture alone who was taking the lead in our relationship.
I was still too early in my pregnancy, making it easy to leave the country without making it to the black list - or having the Signora fined a substantial amount for letting me go astray when on her watch. So John Carlo and I moved back to the Philippines - my new home.
Much to my surprise, John Carlo’s tales of his own “restaurant” turned out to be an exaggeration if not an outright lie. It was more like a small street cafe with several outside tables. And he didn’t own it, his older sister Cristina did. She was a sturdy, large woman, that didn’t think much of her brother - or anyone else in the family for that matter. I think John Carlo owed her money for something, but I was never really told the backstory and I never asked. This meant he essentially worked in her cafe as a cook for free to pay her back. Cristina was happy to let the girl who was cleaning the place earlier go and I took her place as an unpaid cleaner and dishwasher. Cristina herself was a cashier and a waitress. As far as she was concerned, I was too uneducated to work at the register and my non-existent English meant I couldn’t take orders from the foreign tourists, that were the main clientele.
When the time came for me to give birth I was sent to my husband’s village, where his parents lived. It was a few hours by bus from Manila - and then another 15 kilometers by foot from the nearest stop through endless fields. His parents - Alfonso and Ruby - were a sweet couple in their late 50s, who’ve worked all their lives as rice farmers. Needless to say - my pregnancy notwithstanding - I was busy helping them with endless household chores, often of the kind I haven’t done yet, such as feeding the pigs and the chicken or carrying water from the well - there was no running water and no toilet. Thankfully I was spared working in the field just yet. Still, I was now a true peasant girl. I was not only cut off from the educated Western world completely, I was even cut off from Filipino big city life. My village life also improved my Tagalog with numerous farming-related terms.
Finally I gave birth to twin baby girls - Angel and Althea. Fortunately they looked a lot like their father and not at all like the real me. I was really scared that they may be too white to arouse suspicion from my husband and his family - especially given my dark skin. Thankfully they looked like normal Filipino babies and I didn’t have to explain that I had no white lover when I was in Singapore.
After a few months I had to leave my daughters behind with my in-laws and go back to my husband in Manila. I was back helping at the cafe, but also found a part-time job as cleaner in a shopping mall nearby. John Carlo seemed very happy with his twin daughters, but told me in no uncertain terms that he really wanted a son. So almost every day I was busy fulfilling my wifely duties - obviously with no protection - and it wasn’t long before I was pregnant again.
Nine months later I gave birth to a healthy baby boy, who was christened John Michael. It was shortly after he was also sent to leave with his grandparents that my life took another sharp turn. I was busy washing dishes in the cafe’s tiny kitchen one day when I heard a familiar voice, asking where I was in Tagalog. I looked outside and saw a visitor from my old life back in Milan standing by the counter - my former fellow maid Conchita. Then, of course, unlike me, she didn’t look like a maid at all - she looked like a middle-class lady in her stylish summer dress, an iPhone in her manicured hand. Her Italian savings did her good after all!
“Molly, how you’ve changed!” she said excitedly and gave me a hug. “You look every inch like a true Filipina! I bring you excellent news!”
She took out a thick envelope from her leather bag.
“Here, from Signora Matei. She’s really eager for you to come back. I don’t think I’d ever be coming back there myself - as much as I love Italy. She would be delighted if you could take my place. Here is your invitation letter,” she continued in a very excited manner .
Going back to Italy was the last thing on my mind. What about my children, my life here? My husband John Carlo had a different opinion. Of course you must go, he said. Do you know how much they pay there? This is your chance to make good money for us, don’t you understand? Thousands of girls would kill for a chance like that!
After all the visa formalities I was back in Milan to my previous job as a housemaid. Signora Matei was her old self and acted as if I’ve always been nothing more than a simple Filipina maid, treating me accordingly. Julia was never brought up as if she’d never existed. Then, just over a week after my return, I had another visitor from my past - Jennifer! She was still working at the British consulate here and was in touch with the Signora, who mentioned to her that I was back in Italy without saying in what capacity.
So when she came to visit her friend and a new Filipina maid in a neat black and white uniform and a smart cap opened the door for her it wasn’t until the Signora introduced me that she finally realized who I was. She looked at me with her mouth wide open, unable to say anything. To my great surprise, after she managed to regain her composure, Jennifer said that she needed to discuss something with me and asked me if I could find the time to meet her for lunch the following day.
I looked at my wrist watch. Jennifer was already 10 minutes late and I was freezing. I stood up and began walking up and down the street to heat myself when I finally saw her. She was dressed in an camelhair coat with a wide belt, knee-length suede boots with very high block heels and a floppy hat - a vision of style and sophistication. I couldn’t help but wonder if she dressed up just for me to underscore how different we’ve become.
She looked me up and down with great interest and, without apologizing for being late, invited me into the restaurant. She said something in quick, almost unaccented Italian and we were given nice seats on the sofa by the window. The same waiter who saw me standing outside wanted to take my coat, but I refused adamantly, remembering what it was concealing. He smiled in a conspiratorial way that made me blush again and departed with Jennifer's expensive coat.
I looked at the menu and quickly realized that this place was well beyond my meager means. I couldn’t afford throwing out 50 euros for a meal. Jennifer sensed my hesitation and told me it was on her.
“Thank you, Ma’am,’’ I replied without thinking. It just seemed natural to call her that. We were from completely different worlds now.
“Julia, please, drop this Ma’am nonsense. You can still call me Jennifer,’’ she said.
“Yes, Jenniper,’’ I replied with my sing-song Filipino accent, which by now was the only way I could really speak unless I concentrated very hard - and even then I often slipped. Years of almost no English practice were paying off.
Jennifer smiled and put her delicate white hand on my dark brown one. I couldn’t help but notice that she had a very stylish silver bracelet on her thin wrist.
“I’ve been in touch with Mark, you know. He told me how immersed you’ve become in your new persona. I didn’t realize how complete your transformation was,’’ she said, looking me straight in the almond-shaped eyes. “Don’t worry, if it’s your choice, I respect that.”
“Thank you,’’ was all I could say.
“However, I have news for you that may force you to re-consider that choice,’’ she told me and put a blue plastic folder on the table. “Do you remember your uncle Peter?”
Of course I did. My father’s older brother. He was a very successful businessman, possibly a multi-millionaire, but I didn’t know for sure. He and dad were very close and, when I was a young girl, we would spend each summer in his huge seaside mansion in Kent.
“He passed away recently and, by the look of things, since he didn’t have children, you, as next in kin, stand to inherit most of his fortune. He mentioned you specifically in his will,” Jennifer said and paused, waiting for my reaction.
“Don’t you want to know how much?” she finally asked me after I remained silent.
“It’s over 90 million pounds!” she said in stage whisper, clearly expecting me to show at least some enthusiasm.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Of course I had no idea that my uncle died. We’ve been out of touch for years even before I left England. I knew he was wealthy, but I didn’t realize how rich he really was. My mind was racing. But why Jennifer? What’s her role in all this?
“This is… a lot,’’ I finally managed to say and Jennifer smiled.
“You bet it is. Imagine what you could do with all this money!” she said excitedly. She took out several pieces of paper and put them in front of me. “Here is a copy of the will. Look at the date there. That means you have just over a month to claim it or it will go to the state.”
I looked at the papers and pushed them back to Jennifer across the table.
“I am sorry, but I don’t think that is possible. Look at me. I am married with three kids. All my documents show me as a Filipina. I don’t look like old Julia at all. I would never be able to prove who I am. And I’d never be able to explain it to my family,’’ I said.
“Don’t be silly,’’ was Jennifer’s response. “Explain to your family? You don’t think they’d appreciate getting 90 million pounds all of a sudden? It took a lot of effort to locate you and now you are telling me you don’t need it?”
“You don’t understand. I can’t tell them my life is a lie and I am not who they think I am.”
“So you are willing to give this all up because you can’t tell the truth to your husband and your children? Is that it?”
When she put it like this it certainly made very little sense, but I couldn’t for the life of me imagine trying to explain it to John Carlo. I was Molly and that was it. And Molly didn’t have a rich dead uncle in England.
“What if you don’t tell them for now?” she suddenly said. “I will vouch for you and help you re-establish your identity. I got your old passport from Signora Matei. You look nothing like the photo there, but that is not important. There are other ways to prove your identity - DNA, dental records and so on. Finally, I am sure I can convince your mistress to also speak on your behalf. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. We’ll get you a new passport, you can travel with me to England and claim what is rightfully yours!”
“What’s in it for you? It’s not like we were ever best friends and you’d want to help me out of kindness,’’ I asked her rather rudely, but it didn’t embarrass her in the least.
“I’ll be frank with you, Julia. This is true, I never really liked you. And when you were at the early stages of your transformation I found it incredibly amusing, but what you’ve done to yourself since then is beyond any erotic fantasies you might have had initially. This is beyond insane. And it would be beyond insane if you’d turn down all this money. What’s in it for me? I won’t lie. I will get a very hefty commission from the lawyers. They couldn’t find any trace of you since you took a London-Milan one-way flight four years ago so they’ve been in touch with the consulate here, trying to locate you. But money aside, believe it or not, I do want you to get a semblance of a normal life. Is being a migrant maid your highest ambition for the rest of your life? I can’t believe we are even having this discussion!”
“I don’t want any discussions with you, Jennifer,’’ I stood up, ready to leave. “This is my life and I want to leave it as I see fit. I don’t need your advice or your opinions.”
“Very well,” she said calmly. “You need to think it over. I’ll give you a couple of days. Take these documents with you to study. And here’s your old passport you would need to get a new one,’’ she handed me my U.K. passport that had been locked away deep inside the Signora’s safe since my departure to Manila.
We went outside and Jennifer made her last attempt to convince me.
“Why are you being so egotistical? Don’t you want your children to have a decent living? With you working as a maid they’d never get good education, good food or good clothing. I understand that you are living your submissive fantasy, but you also have other responsibilities now. don’t you think?”
“I have an idea,’’ she continued, a mischievous little fire in her eyes. “I just can’t believe you’d let all this money go to the state. Why can’t we do it like this: you’ll do as I say, get new documents and claim your inheritance. You don’t need to tell your family anything. I will manage all this money on your behalf, we can set up a trust fund or something, they are ways it can be done. You can continue your life as you see fit. If you want to remain a maid, I can hire you and pay you much more than Signora ever will. You can tell your husband I am an eccentric English lady, a fairy godmother who took a liking to you and wants to help you and your children financially. Don’t you want your kids to go to a good university? I’ll take care of that with that money.”
“Good bye, Jennifer,’’ was my reply as I turned my back to her and began walking back home, the folder with documents and my passport in my hand.
“See you in two days then!” she told me.
I didn’t answer, but I was in a complete turmoil as I started walking fast towards the bus station that would take me back to my employer's house. Jennifer's revelation was far too big to ignore and she was right: I was not alone in the world anymore playing with my erotic fantasies and my various insecurities. I had three young children to take care of and a husband to consider.
But my mind wasn't anymore Julia's sharp mind of four years ago, it was the simpler mind of Molly the Filipina maid working abroad to raise money for her family back in the Philippines. I needed some guidance, I had to consult with Signora Matei and I was going to trust her judgement. After all she was to a large part responsible for the creation of Molly. Now she had to advise her creation how to proceed.
This last thought put my mind at rest and I was more relaxed when I saw my bus coming. Yes, I was going to trust Signora Matei's judgment on this one. After all I was just a mere housemaid, what would I know about those complicated financial matters?