Friday, July 27, 2007

M and my dirty laundry

I always cross the line. That invisible line between professional and personal in the vicinity of which I too often dwell. I do not say this with pride as I once read that it is a sort of pathological condition - the insistence on being authentically ourselves all the time.

M is not exactly my cleaner so I am spared from saying here, 'my cleaner said' and so on; she is the cleaner of my sister and brother-in-law's house. But that is where I am house-sitting at the moment so for now she cleans up after me.

M insists my Spanish is fluent in the same way that misguided friends believe I speak good Arabic. So M and I chatter away in Spanish and of course I ask her about her son who is on holiday with her family in Colombia, and she talks happily about how he scolds her for calling to often and not letting him get on with her holiday. And not quite from one minute to the next - as I like to talk and listen too- but after an hour or so, M is in tears and I am comforting her, and I wonder is this wrong?

Should I stick to the right side of the line - is is somehow unfair to let someone with whom the power relations are so unequal - open up their heart to you, let you into their confidences? But I am a 'nobody' too if it comes to that: I have no paid work, no home, no husband, no authority. M is my sister's cleaner: the possessive is attached to her name.

The first part of M's story is horrific. Then I hear perhaps worse.

One day over eight years ago her waters broke. She took herself into a London hospital, St. Mary's in Paddington, and said in her broken English - I have no water inside - the baby cannot breath, y 'esta hogando'. She was ignored and told to return home and wait for labour to begin. She became ill and was admitted to hospital and yet they did not induce her. One day, ten days later, a specialist came by and he happened to have worked in Argentina for years and spoke perfect Spanish - he talked to her and exploded in anger: "Why was I not called earlier? This poor woman, this poor woman." M repeats his sympathetic chant proudly: "Esta pobre senora; esta senora pobrecita".

M is in agony by now and she is given an emergency Cesarean. The baby boy is full-term, but rushed to intensive care with breathing problems, his skin covered in black marks. M is also in a very bad way but keeps telling the nurse: "I don't care if I die, but don't let my son die, please save my child."

It is difficult to plead convincingly in a foreign language.

M's tears do not come yet but her eyes are shining and it is at the moment she tells me of how she was taunted by the nurses: "You cry-baby; you're a cry-baby; stop crying!" and as she begged the nurses to get her baby out, they reproached her, "Are YOU a doctor; are you a doctor? You're not a doctor; just wait."

And it was then I felt sick; what causes and what necessities such aggression or rather what is it about M that encourages the British nurses to have such contempt for her opinions and such an absence of sympathy for her physical discomfort?

M and I have been sitting on the floor of my sister's dressing room; she scrubbing a stain on the carpet that I failed to remove after my cat left me a little 'present' there some days back. I'm still in my sister's big towelling dressing-gown. We move upstairs to the third floor to change some sheets or hang some laundry and we get stuck on the mezzanine, and now she is crying, but not about the nurses and the hospital and the fear of death, which she swore to forget - too painful as it was, but about her husband who stupidly cheated on her. I say 'stupidly' because he didn't think it through and he seems to be worse off for it now. The details are a little fuzzy in my head already but it goes something like this: they applied to the council to move to a bigger flat, and they were lucky and were give a new flat in a better part of London. Across the road from a pub.

M's husband, J, begins to spend his days in the pub. I suppose he has a history of drinking, but we don't go into that. From her window M watches the coming and goings of regulars - many of whom are women who do not seem to work and pass all day there, drinking and laughing. J begins to come home later and later and one day when he fails to come home by 2am she somehow traces his footsteps and sees his car outside one of the regulars' houses; a woman she got to know from her window. M is crying and I hug her and suggest we move up the stairs as it is odd to narrate such a story on a mezzanine. We move up to in front of the washing-machine and stop, and she continues. I don't press her to sit down. She is advised by her counsellor and lawyer to not take him back, to divorce him. She does throw him out, but she won't divorce. He pleaded and pleaded with her to forgive him, sending SMS saying how much he loves her and how sorry he was, but she resisted. Now she says she feels nothing - no desire - if he passes a hand over her knee. He still visits sometimes, in fact she continues to do all his laundry and stays up ironing his shirts. Why, God Damn it, I ask? He isn't capable, she replies.

M invites me to stay - she has a spare bedroom she says proudly. Now her son sleeps in her bed as he is afraid of burglars/murderers/pirates and wants to protect his mother. If J, the father, visits, the son forbids him from entering their bedroom.

M breast fed her son until he was four and a half years old and until she went to the doctor and was told that she must stop and also that she was over-feeding him and his intestines would explode! Each morning she would prepare soup and several purees; she was terrified he would starve to death.

Something else M said to me as she scrubbed the second stain on another part of my sister's carpet chilled me: Once she decided to go into the pub across the road and talk to the lady she had seen her husband with. The woman shouted at her to go back to her home, and taunted her: "You don't drink; you don't smoke; you like being in the home all day, so go home. that's where you belong." This was another woman who said that. But then this was an English drunk addressing a petite Colombian woman. And we all know about other 'cultures' and 'traditions' and can remind people of what their culture dictates for them. M looked at me a little shyly and said, "you know I do drink a little glass sometimes, just a short glass; It's not because of my religion."

I decided finally to have a shower and M changed the sheets on my bed.

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