This month, DH and I will renew the visa for our live-in maid, Agatha for the sixth year running. And, despite our occasional domestic spats, I will be relieved when her contract is neatly sewn up for another 12 months – and so will she.
You see, despite the fact that Agatha and I don’t always see eye to eye (she thinks I’m slack to let the children clomp about in my high heels, and I think she’s ever-so-slightly-anal-verging-on-autistic), we all get along just fine.
For a start, Agatha likes things ‘just so’ and her cleaning OCD means our house always shines like a new pin. Secondly, she has this uncanny ability to predict disaster. Like a scientist who studies infinitesimal movements in the earth’s crust, she can tell exactly when one of the children is about to do something dangerous about – ooh, ten minutes prior to tragedy. Finally, she makes the very best egg-plant chutney, and her chicken biryani is to die for.
However, Agatha, is also one of the scariest people I’ve ever met. She is bolshie, opinionated and stroppy. She absolutely hates any change in routine, and as for friends, well, when your ‘cross look’ could make a grown man cry at 50 paces…. Enough said.
In fact, the very best way to put Agatha in a bad mood is to spontaneously invite some extra children to tea.
‘Madam,’ she begins, in blatant annoyance, ‘What am I to feed them?’
‘Well, ‘ I say slowly, ‘we usually cook three fish fingers for each child, Now we have two extra children for supper, so add six more to the tray…’ This is received with a surly tut and flounce. Meanwhile, I roll my eyes heavenwards…
But other people’s woes are always a great leveler – and thankfully, it only takes a few minutes of conversation with fellow ‘Madams’, for me to realize just how lucky we are to have Agatha.
You see, employing a live-in housemaid isn’t always as easy – or as great as it’s cracked up to be. In fact sometimes, it can be a complete and utter nightmare.
Take one friend – a slightly cautious mum, who decided to employ a maid through an agency; ‘because they’re properly screened – it’s the safest way to do it.’ Her maid, Church-going-Nellie-from-Ethiopia, duly arrived, and initially seemed a gem. ‘She’s wonderful!’ gushed my friend when other mums quizzed her about the very pretty new maid. ‘She’s great with the baby, superb at the housework, she smiles all the time – and we hardly know she’s here.’
Church-going-Nellie-from-Ethiopia was clearly domestically talented. But sadly, she was also a prostitute who moonlighted on weekends. This was only discovered when she didn’t turn up for work one day, and my friend searched her quarters in a panic. The search rendered an unfeasibly large stash of condoms and quite a few pieces of unidentified male underwear. When confronted, Nellie confessed to her extra-curricular activities as though she was admitting she liked cream cakes [a guilty pleasure]. So visas were duly cancelled and Nellie was deported forthwith.
But the whole episode left my nervous friend very upset, even more cautious and quite a bit out of pocket too.
Sometimes dodgy cleaning practices can also wreak havoc. One girlfriend employed a houseboy to keep her villa ship-shape. She and her husband had a huge, slobbery German shepherd as a pet. For a period of 18 months, the couple suffered from continuous and unexplained bouts of nausea and vomiting. Neither of them could understand why they were so ill. All medical investigations drew a blank. It was only when my girlfriend came home unexpectedly, that the penny dropped. The houseboy was merrily washing up the dog’s bowls in the sink – with the breakfast things…
And then there’s the ‘Maid’s Grapevine’ – a network of gossip that gets passed along like some ghastly game of Chinese whispers – and it’s all about ‘Madams’ and ‘Sirs.’ Inevitably, you end up finding out all sorts of things about your neighbours that you never wanted to know.
And then the terrible truth dawns that your neighbours probably have a load of garbled dirt on you too.
For example, a very chatty Filipina maid once told us that the man down the road (the respectable father-of-three with the attractive wife) turned to women of negotiable affection (nudge nudge, wink wink) when his family went home for the summer.
‘No! Really Pinky? Are you sure?’ I asked, aghast.
‘Yes maaam,’ she confirmed. ‘He like Asian gurl too much. His wife no like sex anymore, so he try to get with my friend’s cousin’s sister. But she good Catholic gurl and tell him no. Then he go to Deira for Chinese ladies.’
I was shocked. He looked so respectable. But there was worse to come.
‘Madam find out when she go to doctor,’ added Pinky. ‘They have big fight because he give her bad germs from prostitute.’
Needless to say, DH and I never looked at our neighbours in the same way again. A cheery wave from ‘him across the street’ as I unloaded the shopping from the car, became a sleazy leer. And whenever I saw her, all I could think about was her unfortunate, personal affliction.
Another issue is the language barrier. There are many, many things that get lost in translation. One friend recently told me that she asked her maid to ‘chop the vegetables and defrost the fish’. She came home to a pile of finely chopped Hamour and a bag of soggy, once frozen broccoli. I pointed out that as basic logic was clearly an issue, it was a good thing she hadn’t asked the maid to ‘feed the baby and roast the chicken…’
Similarly, when we first came to Dubai, we enlisted the services of a part-time Sri Lankan maid (back then, such practices were legally grey). The maid’s name – and her pronunciation of it, caused us all much confusion. And, our attempts to address her correctly, usually went like this.
Her: ‘No. Muri.’
Her: ‘No. Muuri.’
Me: ‘Okay. Er, Muuri?’
Me: ‘ Muli?’
Me: [now a bit desperate] ‘Muleee then?’
Her: [really peed off] ‘NO! MURI!’
Me: ‘Er, fine. Well, here’s what we owe you love. Can you come again on Tuesday?’
Then, at Christmas time – after we’d been pronouncing her name incorrectly for about 10 months – she gave us a card, with her name signed in large capital letters, ‘MULIN’. Ahhh! That’s how you say it. At last!
So, once Agatha is legally bound to us for the next year, I won’t lament on her bossiness, her incessant use of Clorox – or even her complete inability to joyfully welcome the neighbour’s children. Indeed, I shall even ask the boys to stay out of my shoe cupboard for a little while at least. Because I know that we are very, very lucky.
And if you’re dabbling with the possibility of employing a maid, take my advice and be a little bit canny in your choices. Avoid anyone too young, too pretty, too loud and too friendly. Educate them about cross-contamination, salmonella and the dangers of dog spit. And, at the very, very least, make sure they have a name you can actually pronounce…
* Names have been changed