by Monica Graz
It was 8.45 in the morning and Lita was walking fast down the street. Dressed in one of her uniforms dresses, the mint green one, her sensible working shoes and a cardigan to protect her from the morning chill she was heading for her first outside work as a maid and cleaner. Her heart was beating fast as she tried to avoid the looks of the morning walkers, though no one seemed to pay any attention to her, another domestic worker clearly running an errand for her employers in that rich part of Mayfair.
She was carrying a small canvas shoulder bag with some basic cosmetics a couple of aprons and Daphne’s mobile phone and credit card for emergency reasons. She was slightly amused and excited as she looked at the hem of her work dress where a few spots of discoloration were very obvious, clearly the results of chlorine and a big tell tale for her activities. She also couldn’t’ fail to notice the state of her hands which already lost their softness and looked rather red and rough, the hands of a domestic. Miss Magda was very pleased when she noticed that in the morning before her departure from the Arnellos residence.
“You are safe Lita, nobody could detect anything else but a domestic worker on you at the moment. It is not only your uniform and hands but also the lack of any frivolous accoutrements, a totally utilitarian look.” She said chuckling happily.
Lita wasn’t certain if she should be pleased or worried with that comment so she simply said, “Thank you Miss Magda, that makes me less worried for my first day in a new working environment. I certainly am interested in keeping a low profile.”
She looked at her cheap wrist watch again. She wanted to be there on time for her first day. She wasn’t far now, probably another 5 minutes walk? She tried to revise her ‘Lita’s story’ or ‘Lita’s myth’ as she started calling it. She revised it again in her mind. She was in London for over a year now working as a live in maid in the Arnellos residence. The family was away for an indefinite period and the apartment’s caretaker Miss Magda Matveyev kindly agreed to let her work as a cleaner in an outside job for an extra income in order to be able to help her family in distress back in her country. She was single with no other attachments or obligations.
She turned the corner and there it was in front of her the house she was going to work as a maid. The house where nobody would know anything about the rich girl called Daphne. They would only know Lita the woman with no surname who would work for some extra money badly needed.
The familiar excitement butterflies were back combined of course with a large amount of anxiety. She looked at the building, a typical white stucco Georgian house probably 150 to 200 years old. She saw the grand main entrance and then in a few meters to its right a low metal gate with steps going to the basement. That was the traders’ and servants’ entrance and there she had to go.
She took a big breath, and tried to remember her Tagalog greeting she was going to use if Rosie was answering the door. She started descending the fairly steep steps with slightly trembling feet. The, totally inconceivable just a few weeks ago, new phase in her life was about to begin.
She timidly rang the bell and waited patiently her knees still trembling. She heard steps approaching and in a moment the door opened and a small Filipina woman probably in her early forties, wearing a standard morning uniform, light blue dress, half white apron and comfortable canvas shoes looked at her appraisingly taking it in instantly that a fellow maid was at the door. She was about to say something but Lita managed to speak first.
“Magandang umaga. Ako si Lita.” she said in her best singing Tagalog, wishing good morning and stating her name.
Rosie - because this must have been the Filipina who opened the door - was clearly taken by surprise because she answered also in Tagalog, “Marunong ka bang mag Tagalog?”
Lita thought that this is enough for a simple introduction and said in English, “I speak a little Tagalog. What I know I learned it from a Filipina we were working together some time ago.” She nearly blushed as she said her first innocent lie.
“Ako si Rosie,” she said smiling and then continued in accented English, “Come in Lita, Mistress warned me about your coming, I see you are already appropriately dressed for work. Would you like a cup of coffee before I start showing you around?”
“Yes please, that would be lovely,” Lita answered in her up market accent and then she remembered that she had to change the way she spoke English, ‘simpler words, heavier accent and the occasional grammar error is the answer’ Magda kept reminding her and she was going to concentrate on that.
As Rosie was pouring coffee from the coffee machine they both heard steps coming down, the unmistakable sound of heels.
Rosie looked concerned and said in haste, “Mistress is coming down; probably she heard or saw you coming in, quick put this apron on; she wants her maids properly attired all the time.”
As she was talking she moved fast to a drawer opened it and retrieved an apron and threw it to Lita who quickly tied it firmly around her waist making certain that the bow was symmetrical at the back. That moment a door opened at the far end of the kitchen and in a few seconds she came face to face with her new employer.
She saw an impeccably dressed and heavily made up woman, probably in her mid forties walking towards them. She watched Rosie with the corner of her eye standing at attention, her hands cupped together in front of her apron and she did the same.
“Good morning girls,” the lady said in a chirpy voice.
“Good morning Ma’am,” Rosie answered with a slight curtsey and within seconds Lita did the same imitating rather clumsily Rosie’s movement.
The lady turned to Lita and scrutinized her with her large dark eyes. “I am Mrs. Leila Ahmad and you must be Lita. Miss Matveyev spoke very highly about you and your working ethos and efficiency. I understand that you are a live in maid in a big residence nearby, where Miss Matveyed is the caretaker. Is that correct girl?”
Lita thought it would be appropriate to answer the question with a slight curtsey again and said in accented and slightly bad English, “Yes Ma’am, I am Lita and I am maid in a house near here. The family is away and Miss Magda allow me to work out for some extra money that I need to support family back home Ma’am.”
“So I understand girl, so I understand,” Mrs. Ahmad repeated and continued in a firmer tone, “I intend to employ you unofficially three days a week Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9.00 am to 5.00 pm. Your wages will be a flat sum of 50 pounds per day which you will receive by Rosie at the end of your working day. You are unofficially employed here so if anybody ever asks you what you are doing in this house, you simply say that you help a fellow maid on a voluntary basis. Do you understand girl? I don’t want any trouble with the local authorities.”
Lita blushed all over as she answered with another small curtsey, “Yes Ma’am, I understand Ma’am, I don’t work here just help Rosie as a vol…, sorry Ma’am I don’t remember the word you just said?”
“That’s all right girl, the word is volunteer. I’m glad we understand each other.”
She looked at Rosie who still was standing at attention and turned back to me, “Rosie will explain everything to you and what your duties are going to be. We are a family of five, Mr Ahmad and our three children who are all at school presently. They will be back at about 4.00 in the afternoon and you will have the chance to meet them all.”
She paused and was getting ready to go and then she turned back and looked at Lita again, “and something else Lita, there are things in this house that are ‘haram’, Rosie knows them all and she will tell you. You see we are a Muslim family and though we are not in Saudi Arabia we follow certain rules about food etc.”
Lita said, “Yes Ma’am, but I not know word ‘haram’, what it mean?”
She looked at her in an amused look, “I can tell that you had never worked in a Muslim house or country before Lita, ‘haram’ is anything forbidden by our religion in Arabic.”
She paused and added, “The opposite of ‘halal’ which I’m certain you heard before, like ‘halal meat’ etc.”
Lita’s eyes got brighter; of course she knew about halal food, she had eaten several times in Arabic restaurants. She simply said, “Yes. Ma’am I see shops selling halal food in East London when I go visit friends there.”
“Good girl, I knew you would understand.” Mrs. Ahmad said and turning to Rosie, added, “I’m off Rosie; I have meetings to attend and friends to meet. I’ll be back in the early afternoon before the children are back from school. Explain to Lita certain thinks and do put her to work. This is your chance to remove some of the work burden from your shoulders, make sure that you use it.”
She started heading back to the stairs but she turned again as if she remembered something extra, “And girls could you please coordinate from now on your uniform dresses to be the same color? I see today a green maid and a blue maid, next time I expect to see two maids color coordinated. Is that clear girls?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” both Rosie and Lita said in unison but by that time Mrs. Ahmad was already going up the stairs to the main floor.