‘I do think we should have told them the truth.’ I said to DH, with more than a twinge of guilt.
‘We did tell them the truth.’ He answered, completely unperturbed.
‘Well, we told them part of the truth – but not the whole truth – if the truth be told…’ I reminded him.
‘Mmmm,’ he agreed, distinctly non-committal.
You see, it’s not that we lied to Agatha’s new employers when they called us for a reference. It’s just that we omitted a few fairly serious facts which in hindsight (and according to the heated discussions about maids on expatwoman.com ) we should have been more honest about.
After all, Agatha has her good points. She is very honest and as strong as an ox. Despite constant complaints that she’s ‘too old and tired’ she has only taken three sick days in the past six years. She’s never late either – not even by a nanosecond. She’s supremely organized; from out-of-date items in the fridge to the near-autistic, regimented order of my knicker drawer. Unlike many maid/nannies in this country, Agatha is a disciplinarian with the children too. Rather like us, they don’t dare disobey her. And herein lays the problem.
But it wasn’t always like that. You see, when Agatha first came to us many moons ago, she wasn’t nearly so anal or domineering. Indeed, she had been working for an Indian family who’d given her just one half/day off every fortnight, and who’d made her sleep on the floor on a roll-up mattress in the same room as their two children. She was on call 24/7, had no privacy at all and was paid just Dhs800 a month. Furthermore, she was as thin as a rake, with the kind of half-starved cheekbones of a famine victim, and a mousey temperament to match.
She was the first person I’d interviewed for the position. She was also in the country on a visit visa, because, after five years of servitude with the Indian family, she’d felt the need to escape back home for a while. She had no references, barely spoke a word to me, and when I asked her to change oldest son’s nappy, she put it on back-to-front. She also never smiled – which should have been a warning. But I felt most dreadfully sorry for her, because I could see she was desperately shy and that she desperately wanted the job. So, as I was working from home and could watch her for a while, we took her on.
Initially, she was delighted to be with us. Our maids’ accommodation is a little self-contained chalet with its own bedroom, bathroom, kitchen (with cooker/fridge/washing machine) and front door, and we were fairly relaxed about her duties. ‘Just keep the house in order and watch the baby when we’re working,’ type thing.
As we were unused to having a full-time maid, and still getting to grips with the kind of sleep deprivation trauma you only experience with your first child, we rarely went out in the evenings either. Even when we did, and it was on a weekend, we made a point of paying Agatha extra for her trouble.
But little by little, things began to change. The perks we’d happily volunteered, became expectations – and Agatha started to ask for things.… A Lot. First it was a bigger fridge – she wanted a double-door jobbie with a big freezer compartment. Then it was the bigger telly and the new DVD player (the one we gave her only played original – not pirated disks). There were advances too – which in hindsight, foolishly, we wrote off, along with numerous other financial requests. Eventually, DH and I began to raise eyebrows at each other as the ‘asking’ continued, because our generosity, (which could not be boundless due to financial constraints), was nevertheless pretty good – though clearly not appreciated.
Indeed, this December just passed, Agatha even told an astounded DH that she was ‘very disappointed’ by the amount of money we’d given her for Christmas (we are a bit strapped for cash at the moment) along with a stocking-full of carefully chosen presents.
But back to the story. As Agatha became emboldened by our gentleness, the balance of power slowly shifted. By now, oldest son was a strapping three-year-old, sleeping 12 hours a night, while youngest son (aged six months) was a well-behaved second child – also sleeping 12 hours a night. With our lives back on track, we began to crawl out of our self-imposed ‘early parenthood years’ prison – and socialize.
We couldn’t afford to go out much, so we entertained at home. But we never asked Agatha to help us cook, or wash up after one of our messy dinner parties, as many expat households do. Instead, we’d drag ourselves out of bed, and somehow, heads pounding, clear up the debris while juggling the childcare. After all, we reasoned, it was Agatha’s weekend too.
More fool us! The less we asked of her, the less she did. And the less she did, the more we took on. And despite all this, like utter fools, we still doled out the pay rises. The result was that whenever we asked Agatha to do anything out of her self-imposed routine, like ‘babysitting’, ‘ironing my work clothes’ or ‘taking the children to the park’; we were often met with a negative response.
Tragically, what had started as domestic bliss became a domestic battle of wills. And by the time I went part-time at my company four years into her service, Agatha decided that she also, was going to become part time….. And there was diddly-squat that I could do about it….
That’s when things got really bad. DH and I began to draw straws over who would ask our terrifyingly surly maid if she could babysit. The past two times I’ve made the request, I’ve been turned down flat – not because Agatha had other plans, but because she just ‘doesn’t want to’. I do need to say at this point, that far from being the worn-out skinny waif she once was, Agatha is now as plump and hearty as a pigmy hippo….
In short, our well-intentioned kindness had, over time, created a monster…. And despite my initial protestations, when other ‘maid-employing expats’ had declared that ‘you spoil them [maids] if you’re too nice,’ I have to say, that I finally think they are right….
Yes, these days, Agatha runs our household with all the efficiency [and terror] of a Nazi commandant. Shoes are removed promptly at the doorstep. Greens are eaten (whether they make you feel ill or not!) and only a fool would ask her to forgo her 1.5 hour daily lunch break – even if you’re on a project deadline.
I admit I’m not proud of having called her ‘bloody steel britches’ under my breath on occasions…
If you’re wondering why we didn’t sack her years ago, well, there are several reasons really. First off, we are both really frightened of her. And secondly, every time we’ve been seriously tempted to end the partnership, some huge expense, like an AC meltdown, or an exploding car has meant we could only afford to renew her visa – not terminate it and re-sponsor another maid (which costs around Dhs8,000 – or £1,500).
So, as we enter Agatha’s final 24 hours of employment, and Dipti (our new, very sunny natured maid) takes over, I will enter this new phase of domesticity with a steely heart and wallet tighter than Michael Flatley’s buttocks. Sorry Dipti – that’s just how it’s got to be…
I’ve also decided I won’t be apologizing to Agatha’s new employers. And I’m not going to feel guilty anymore either. After all, they interviewed her, and liked her enough to ask for a reference. We were honest – insomuch as we truthfully answered the details they requested. And, yet, despite having had a taste of what’s to come, they are still willing to take her on…. And frankly, more fool them…
Because Agatha has already demonstrated to them that she likes to call all the shots. As she told me proudly very recently, ‘New Madam wanted me to sleep in the small bedroom and use the bathroom down the hallway. But I said I wanted the bigger room with the ensuite bathroom or I wouldn’t take the job.’
‘Oh. Really Agatha? And was the room free for you to take?’
‘Oh no, ‘she said with smug relish. ‘New Madam was using it as her office. But she’s going to move into the small room, re-paint the big one and give it to me…’
So good luck to Agatha and all who employ her!
After so many years of servitude dear readers, I think I deserve my freedom!