You do your best for them and they’re still not happy. You’re run ragged; bow legged the amount of times you’re up and down those stairs, and what thanks do you get? And she’s the worst of all. She encourages them, she tells them, with that stupid little laugh in her voice, any problems of a technical nature: see The Man of the House. They think you’re a piece of meat.
Oh Mr Collins the light bulb’s gone again in my room.
John, have I shown you the photos of my nephew?
Meester Collins, you so funny.
Where were you last night Johnny? I was waiting for you.
Oh Meester Johnny, no ees lock on door, I very frighty man weel come when I nakee.
You can’t help it if you’re irresistible, can you? It’s hardly your fault you’re good looking and handy with a screwdriver. It’s her fault.
She only employs single girls for the chambermaiding, Czechs, Kiwis, Greeks. Bloody Gypsies she calls them. They’re required to live in and she won’t let them have visitors in their rooms. I’m giving them a roof over their head, not running a bordello, she says. You’re the only male company they get and sometimes they’re grateful. You can tell the ungrateful ones right away.
When they first come for interview she keeps them waiting in the hall. She rushes into the back kitchen and turns the telly off, even if it’s the racing. You might have a few quid on a race that’s already started but the telly goes off all the same. She kicks your legs off the coffee table and makes you button up your shirt while she runs around lifting plates and straightening up. Then she brings them through for their tea and puts out the nice biscuits. After the introductions and while she’s popping in and out with the tray you can size them up. A look and a smile is as much as it takes.
Those that don’t like you staring will come over all hoighty toighty, face turned away, mouth like a cat’s arse, handbag clasped to the chest. Even when she comes back and she’s sitting there telling them how it’s only twenty minutes into Manchester on the bus, you can look them over so long as you do it behind her back. She always goes on about how nice it is to have a man about the place so that even the stuck up ones have to give you a smile, that is, if they want the job.
She leaves anything of an administrative nature to the Man of the House so you always have to get their work permit, references, previous address, date of birth, that kind of thing. Sometimes they’re a bit sticky about the details, especially the date of birth. You’re never twenty nine! you say, you don’t look a day of it. They all smile at that.
She leaves you to get on with it which is just as well seeing as she’s nearly senile.
Mrs Griffiths, the woman two doors down, had a stroke, she says, they took her to Trafford General but she’s never spoken a word since.
I know, you tell her, with that tired patience in your voice, you’ve already told me, you’ve told me twice already today.
Have I? she asks, baffled.
Yes, they took her to Trafford General and she’s never spoken a word since, isn’t that it?
That’s right, she says, and then her mouth looks caved in.
Well can we leave it at that then please Mum? you say, just letting a little of the exasperation out between your teeth.
There’s a few things you can do to keep her on her toes. While she’s upstairs supervising the bed changing you can pour tea into two mugs and then empty the mugs until there’s only the dregs left. You empty crumbs out the toaster onto a plate and leave a buttered knife beside it. When she asks, you say, we’ve only had the tea and toast ten minutes ago, d’you not remember?
Of course, she says, of course she remembers. But she hardly ever asks anymore. She just looks so bewildered that you can’t look at her or you’ll laugh, or you’ll cry, one or the other.
Sometimes she’ll get upset and shout at you and flap her dish cloth at you telling you you’re nothing but a big fat lazy lump.
It’s her fault you’re fat with the lovely dinners she puts down to you every night, you say, trying to soothe her.
Why don’t you get out and get a job for God’s sake?
But she doesn’t really want that. She’d be scared on her own with only the truckers and the gypsy chambermaids. They’re not to be trusted, especially chambermaids who have things: pills, photos, money at the back of their drawer. Hidden where they think no one will find them, beneath their silky panties. You couldn’t be up to them.
She doesn’t want that. She needs you here to run the place. You could’ve had any job you wanted, you sometimes remind her. You had the brains for it, no question. Didn’t they want to you to go to uni? Sent a letter home from school and everything. But you’re not suited to the nine to five, she’s always said so. At times she’s sweet and you buy her a nice present, a World’s Best Mum mug or a new coat or a bunch of flowers or something and she says, you shouldn’t have spent that kind of money on me, where did you get the money for that?
I won it on Sundance Harry in the three thirty at Sandown, remember I told you?
Oh yes, she says, Sundance Harry, that’s right.
She knows not to answer the phone but sometimes if you’re stuck in the lavvy when the post comes she gets to the mail before you. That’s a letter for Sarah from Visa, she tuts. Earning a living wage, why do young women need so many credit cards?
Sarah McKay from Pekatahi, New Zealand, with her darty eyes, skinny little legs, and the lesbian way she has. Sarah McKay with the scrunched up faded cotton knickers and not much else in her drawer. She calls you Mister Collins, but not in a respectful way. She looks down her nose at you in the breakfast room, all hoighty toighty because you’ve tried to show her a bit of affection.
Some of them don’t know how to take it. Sometimes you even get the feeling they’re only being nice because they think they’ll lose their jobs. And that’s not nice, not when you’re only trying to bring them a bit of comfort. They all start off with Mr Collins but it’s not long before some get to John. It’s when they get to Johnny you have to watch. When they start whispering your name, pleading with their sad eyes, that’s when you know it’s time. But Sarah McKay doesn’t whisper or plead. Ach well, you tell yourself, it’s no loss. Her bones would snap if you tried to ride that one anyway.
But she stops you on the stair.
Mister Collins, she informs you, Pavla answered the telephone yesterday while you and your mother were out.
She and Pavla Barsinski know only too well that staff are not permitted in the downstairs lounge except at meal times and they’re not supposed to go anywhere near the phone. You want to kick her head in, it would be nothing to snap her skinny neck, she’d hardly be missed, here or in Pekatahi, but you stand and smile.
And, amazingly, it turns out the call was for me! she says, Lloyd’s Bank visa department. They’re investigating because, apparently, I’ve recently applied for a credit card.
Is there something I can help you with Sarah? you say, as sweet as you can.
Well you can begin by explaining why you’ve tried to illegally take out a credit card in my name, she says calmly. The best of it is, and you’ll laugh when I tell you this, she says, smiling for once, is that when my business went bust I was left owing the Bank Of New Zealand more than six hundred thousand dollars. That’s a bit more than even you could lose at the betting shop Mr Collins, she says, laughing.
Mum is all perturbed. She’s away, she says, bags packed, room cleared, not a word to nobody.
Ach, we’re better off without the likes of her, you say.
But where will I get another maid at this short notice? I’m too old to be scrubbing out trucker’s toilets, the mess they leave the place. That Sarah’s a tinker like all the bloody rest of them. She’s supposed to give proper notice.
But she did Mum, I told you, weeks ago. I told you Sarah McKay had given notice and you said well I’ll be glad to see the back of that one. D’you not remember?
She tries to remember. The Lady of the House struggles to put on a show of remembering but the tears come.
Come here, you say gently, putting your arms around her.
I think I remember, she says looking up into your face.
That’s right, don’t worry Mum, it’ll come back to you.
Oh Johnny, I don’t like to let you down son, it’s just, sometimes I don’t…
Shsss now, you say. You could never let me down.
You pull her frail body in close and hug her tight, so tight you can feel her bones and she cries out with pain and delight.
You’re the best little mum in the world you say.
You have to wipe your eye when you say it.