A helping hand for Superwoman

A helping hand for Superwoman

Two students have very different attitudes to the domestic helper they hire, in this story

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A helping hand for Superwoman_L
Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen

Waving my hand to illustrate my point, I exclaimed: "But you don't even know who they really are!"

"Who cares? Everyone else has one," laughed my tall, blonde roommate, Annabel. I frowned, unable to get past a feeling of awkwardness at having an older woman we hardly knew come and live with us. Bel giggled again at my apprehension.

"You know, Mitchie," she smirked, pointing a manicured finger in my face while I struggled not to go cross-eyed. "If you really wanna know her life story, you can just ask her." I bit my lip - by then it might be too late.

Bel assumed a stance of triumph, her hands on her hips.

"So it's settled. We're getting a helper!"

Three months of intense background work later, Charlotte arrived.

A small, elegant and demure woman, dressed in a pristine white uniform and carting an unexpectedly tiny old suitcase, stepped out of a red taxi. I watched her with equal wonderment. She appeared to be 10 or 15 years older than me and Bel. I knew she had come to Hong Kong to supplement her husband's income and support their two youngest children's elementary schooling.

I wondered what kind of life she had had in the Philippines before coming to keep house for a pair of gweilo university students.

I, unlike Bel, wasn't used to leaving my dirty plates lying around or handing over a wadded ball of dirty clothes, complete with embarrassing stains, to someone else. Even when I lived with my parents, I had been expected to help around the house. I felt lazy just sitting on the couch, lifting my feet as Charlotte diligently vacuumed the living room.

With practically nothing to do around the house, I had all the time in the world to focus on my studies. With wealthy parents, I didn't even need a part-time job. My grades increased by a significant margin, and I still had time to go on outings and to parties with my similarly-blessed friends. I was incredibly grateful to Bel for her original idea.

Charlotte was a pretty good cook, and we enjoyed a few weeks of traditional Filipino cuisine, before Bel, in typical Bel fashion, declared she was tired of such meals, and handed Charlotte a weightwatchers' cookbook and instructions on keeping track of the points.

"Last month she was on a Japanese kick," I told a bewildered Charlotte. "There was so such salmon in the fridge, it still smells."

Charlotte just smiled blandly and nodded, before turning back to the ironing board.

When exam week came at university, Bel and I had no time for anything but eating, sleeping, and studying. We bolted down dinner - Charlotte had mastered the cookbook - and raced back to our rooms. Stress gnawed at my gut and brought my mind to the point of implosion.

Then came the "Night Before".

It wasn't her fault, but my frazzled mind was incapable of coherent thought by this point. I was glaring down at the one imperative point I failed to comprehend, when Charlotte, influenced by motherly instinct, quietly opened my door.

I struggled to ignore her, waiting for her to leave. When she didn't, my frustration overflowed and I spun around in my computer chair.

My elbow smacked Charlotte's arm and the steaming clay mug she was holding smashed on the desk. I watched in paralysed horror as the hot, rich coffee saturated my carefully annotated notes, my life's work.

"NO!"

Charlotte stood by, stunned, as I gawked at her in disbelief.

I jumped from my chair, practically shaking with outraged fury.

"What the ..., Charlotte?! My notes! They're ruined! Now I'm gonna fail, thanks to you!" I jabbed a finger at her chest, and opened my mouth to say more, but gave up. Charlotte's eyes were wide and her mouth half open, bottom lip trembling slightly.

I let my breath out in a small gasp, almost a sob. "Never mind. Just go, ok?"

Charlotte turned and scurried from my room.

The next morning, Bel and I left early. Charlotte stayed in her room; no sound came from behind her closed door.

Leaving the exam room, I felt as if I was Atlas, finally freed from my burden of the Earth.

Bel and I attended a wild party at one of our friend's houses, out in Sai Kung. The pounding music and alcoholic buzz that filled the heavy July air banished any doubts I had regarding my performance, or worries about the mosquito bites I knew would tattoo my legs by tomorrow.

The only cloud in my sky was the memory of my harsh treatment of our poor helper.

In spite of our pounding headaches and dry mouths, classic symptoms of the frat party hangover, Bel and I dragged ourselves out of bed at around two the following afternoon. Charlotte fussed over our dishevelled appearance and shockingly dirty clothes (now some of THOSE stains really were embarrassing), before preparing us a fry-up brunch/dinner. She bustled about, smiling, opening windows to "get some fresh air into you!"

The guilt surfaced.

A little later, when I felt human again, I took her aside. "Charlotte, I'm so sorry for how I treated you last night. I know you were just trying to help, and I way overreacted. Can you forgive me...?"

She laughed. I stopped and blinked.

Charlotte patted my arm in her maternal way. "It's okay, ma'am. My son goes to university back in the Philippines - I should be sorry to disturb you."

Her smile was so warm and so without guile, I couldn't help grinning back at her.

Over the next few weeks, Charlotte and I began to get to know each other better. We chatted when I had free time, and she protested when I picked up a dishcloth or a broom to help. "You pay me for this, ma'am! I must do my job!" Somehow she was not surprised when I ignored her.

Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but from then on I felt us begin to form a connection I had missed since I moved from the family home. A "have a nice day" when I left. A smile when I returned. A particular style of cooking that just reminds you of home. Eventually, I talked her into dropping the customary 'ma'am', and I just became Mitchie.

I finally realised what had been missing.

Charlotte had been with us for close to six months when she came to us with a request. "I'm sorry ma'ams, but I have go home now. My husband is sick. I want to be with him."

She wrung her hands in front of her apron, and worry was evident in her eyes. "Please let me go, ma'ams." Her voice shook, totally convincing us of her legitimacy.

What could we do but release her?

Bel and I restarted our chore routine. The house was quiet when we arrived home at night, and the shadows loomed in the unlit unit. I mourned the quietly content atmosphere that once filled the rooms.

I frequently imagined Charlotte in the Philippines. Was her husband okay? Would he recover? How were her children? Had her son come home from university, too? What about the little ones? I felt the same concern I would feel for my own relatives.

Bel complained that we were still paying her, even when she wasn't actually here.

I began to question my feelings. Bel was correct in that Charlotte was, in essence, an employee. We paid her for her work. We supplied her with a place to stay. The three of us had signed a contract to allow her to live in Hong Kong, provided she lived with Bel and me. Bel certainly thought of her as nothing more than a personal handmaiden.

But was I so wrong to believe that, in those six months, we had formed a bond which, if it wasn't friendship, went beyond the boundaries of master/servant. Was I so wrong to believe that as we swapped stories about friends, family, and life in general, something had changed?

But I still remembered how I felt when Charlotte was here. How I had loved being fussed over; being treated with near reverence. How I had been made to feel important solely on the basis of not having to partake in household drudgery.

I wondered, did I miss Charlotte the way I did because of our mutual affection, or because of how she had made my life so much easier?

Two weeks went by. Then another two. The end of Charlotte's leave drew near. But suddenly, out of the blue, we received a letter.

Charlotte wrote to us telling that her husband was still ill, and was unlikely to recover.

She begged to be released from her contract; to allow her to be with her family in these difficult times.

Bel and I spent hours hunched at our now-just-as-messy-as-ever dining-room table, nursing cups of slightly bitter coffee. We poured over the pros and cons of letting our helper go; moral as well as economic. At long last, we reluctantly came to a decision.

We sent the letter shortly after.

What would you have said?

This is the second finalist in Young Post's 2011 Summer Story competition, sponsored by Dymocks, in which HK$3,000 worth of book vouchers are up for grabs. Each week we will publish one of the finalists' stories, with the winning entry appearing in Young Post on September 3.

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