Michael Ondaatje once said something really clever about his Sri Lankan family and their penchant for exaggeration. I can not remember his exact words because every time I try to recall them I get distracted by what I might actually say to Michael Ondaatje if I ever ran into him. Of course even in my imagination I get so star struck I end up saying something really cheesy like:
“Hi Mike, I love your work. Can I call you Mike? No, ok, I totally understand. Really sorry. Did I mention I just love your work? Sure, I’ll leave you alone now…”
For the record, our Au pair Anecdotes sadly do not involve any exaggeration, it is all true – and very little of what you are about to read is funny. I don’t think I could make this stuff up if I tried. After we hired and fired Au Pair 1 (the negligently dangerous, irritatingly lazy one), and before we hired Au Pair 2 (the wonderful one I want to adopt), we hired Au Pair 1.5. She is named Au Pair 1.5 because she stayed half as long as Au Pair 1 ( ie. 3 weeks) and I probably should have fired her within 1.5 hours of hiring her.
I interviewed AP 1.5 several times over the phone as she lived interstate. We also interviewed her on Skype. During this time we asked her the usual questions. For example: “Now that I have explained the role, do you have the energy, fitness, stamina and strength to handle a job as demanding as this one?” On Skype, AP 1.5 explained that she was a little overweight but that she was trying hard to lose it. She said she understood the job and was confident she could do it as she had done similar live-in jobs before.
On arrival at our house, which was the first time we actually met her face to face after she had flown-in to come live with us, I didn’t need my GP mother to tell me that AP1.5 was not overweight. She was morbidly obese. I am not at all weightest and I have nothing but sympathy for her. However, her condition meant she could not:
(a) bend down to pick up things such as, you know, a small child;
(b) comfortably change or bathe the younger children;
(c) run after a child if one ran away from her in a dangerous place such as, you know, a carpark; or
(d) take the pram down our driveway.
Whilst I was still wondering which part of the au pair job AP1.5 thought she could actually do for us, when she told me in her interview that she could “do it all…”, other problems emerged (oh yes, there were more).
In her interview AP1.5 explained that all babies loved her, she had never met a baby that did not take to her in all her years of childcare. Her inability to physically pick up a child might have been a problem had my younger children been prepared to go anywhere near her. Every single time she entered the room, for the entire three weeks, Newborn would start crying and run away from her. Tercero’s reaction was not quite as bad. He was friendly with her, charming even. Unless she attempted to go near him, at which point he would put his little hands on his little hips and yell “Get away from me, don’t touch me. Please.”
In her interview, AP1.5 explained that she had lived with families before and she was comfortable with the intimate arrangement. Perhaps a little too comfortable. At night, AP 1.5 would come out and want to talk to me and husband at length, wearing a scanty, red, silk slip. From her dental hygiene to her swollen and discoloured ankles, AP1.5 actually reminded me of an elderly hobbit. The kind of hobbit where you are not sure if it is a male hobbit or a female hobbit. Don’t get me wrong, I love the hobbits. They saved Middle Earth and although they aren’t as glamourous as the elves, they have more courage than all of Elvendom put together. I just don’t want to see a hobbit in lingerie right before I go to bed. Husband and my father politely made it clear to me (not her) that they also did not want to see it.
On our first day together, after knowing each other for about an hour, AP1.5 told me during breakfast that she had many health issues. Apparently she was born with double the number of organs and whilst I was sympathising with these clearly terrible health problems, she told me that she “had two vaginas”. AP1.5 told me what no employer should ever have to hear. AP1.5 explained that she could not “have sex, [she] could do other stuff but not sex.” Too much information over porridge. Too much information, too much information. Too. Much. Information.
Whilst AP1.5 was very, very comfortable with us, she was not so comfortable with new people who came to our house. She would often be unable to make eye contact with new people and would sometimes walk into the room and stand between me and the new person I was talking to, blocking them with her back and then tell me something as though she could not see that I was just in the middle of a conversation with some one.
I didn’t mind the social strangeness with newcomers, it made me feel sad for her. Secundo and I suffer from shyness and I am hardly socially competent. I didn’t mind her trainspotter-like obsession with the historic movement of tectonic plates and earthquake tracking, the minute details of which she would run out of her room to share with us in an almost tourettes-ian way on an hourly basis. I am a bit like that with Star Wars. I didn’t mind that her friend Jane had researched our property on the internet and she and AP1.5 knew more about it than our agent, lawyer or mortgagor did. I too would research my new employer although I might not tell them about it. I didn’t mind the deep, irreparable grooves that were gouged out of our new, expensive, hardwood flooring, at the place where she sat at her computer researching us and her earthquake updates. I know it’s only wood.
I did mind that I often found myself at 5:30pm, alone, feeding four hungry, tired children. Prima and Secundo would be snapping at each other because one looked at the other the wrong way. Newborn and Tercero would be trying to climb onto my lap and push the other off at the same time. Whilst the older two deteriorated into a scene from Taxi Driver, and the younger two vied for territorial control, I had to wonder where was my au pair, who I was paying to help me in exactly this situation. AP1.5 was hiding in the kitchen, binge eating her dinner.
I know that AP1.5 had some serious physical and probably mental health problems. I am not heartless and I am sympathetic. The social justice lawyer in me recognised the importance of the Disability Discrimination Act and protecting the employment rights of people with illnesses. The former corporate lawyer in me recognised that AP1.5’s failure to disclose her health issues during the interview process could be construed as procurement under false pretences and wilful endangerment of the children’s safety (How did she think she was going to catch Tercero in a carpark?). In the end, it was just the mummy in me that hid in the bathroom (with several small children) and cried into whatever toilet paper was left on the toilet roll.
From about 6am until 9pm every day, like every mummy and daddy, I work: wiping tears and bottoms, nursing sicknesses, mediating conflicts, checking homework, cooking, cleaning, laundry, schlepping to activities and more. At about 9pm, I take a moment and all I ask for is two things in life:
(a) 42 minutes during which time no one is allowed to talk to me, cry near me, whinge at me or vomit on me. In these precious 42 minutes I must be allowed to watch some ridiculous American crime drama involving an interesting but not-too-challenging plot, an endearingly quirky ensemble cast and an attractive male protagonist (in this case Mark Harmon in NCIS. Mark, the passing years have been very kind to you); and
(b) a little help around the house please.
One Sunday in May, husband left on a two week business trip to London. We had just been through a week of bronchitis, bronchiolitis and a burst eardrum. We agreed that we would address the home help problem after the London trip because whilst he was away, I desperately needed a second pair of hands. I was outnumbered by sick children so any second pair of hands would do. The day after husband left, AP1.5 told me she was leaving us too. Her reasons were that she had a chest infection that might affect her undisclosed heart condition, and she was not able to do parts of the job such as “reach the cupboard on top of the fridge”. Yes, that was the part of the job she thought she could not do. She gave me 2 hours notice and left. The next day I hired an au pair agency who found me Au Pair 2 (the wonderful one I want to adopt) a few weeks later.
Michael Ondaatje, if you are reading this, every word is true. I could not have made it up or exaggerated it if I tried, even though I too suffer from that Sri Lankan affliction of Chronic Exaggeration. And Michael, I love your work.