Maid To Order : 2.5 minute read by Farriz Mashudi 02/08/2020
Villa Number 12, a Lebanese family wanted a maid. They’re Christian, like Deborah, only from a different denomination.
“DEE-BOO-RAH,” she said her name the way it was spelt, stressing every syllable exactly the same. She wouldn’t say it any other way.
Believe me, we tried, despite her protestations, every one of us. Even the five-year old confessed to well-intentioned attempts over milk and cookies. Because we were genuinely fond of her, we just wanted to help; and so we called her ‘Debra’, no matter what. In our minds, at least, it would improve her life if her name was correctly pronounced. The spelling looked normal enough.
Most maids never needed to write, but much like the maids employed by the droves in local households, we put her in charge of groceries. This made Deborah the boss of our shopping lists, an exalted role she performed with relish. Deborah must have liked, enjoyed even, telling us exactly where to go in Carrefour. . . And Number 12 must have liked her a lot, too. They’d come to ask if she had a sister.
The exit papers and work permit weren’t cheap, but wouldn’t break the bank for most families in the compound, including Number 12.
A singular truth, all Filipinas had a ‘sister’ at the ready to come to work in the Middle East.
Deborah came into our lives as Annalee’s cousin; Annalee from Number 3 who used to babysit. Sharing one car, my husband and I worked five days a week, Sundays to Thursdays without a lunch hour. We took annual leave twice-yearly for the Eids. Long-drawn affairs, they afforded us with ample time to travel. And there were the furnace hot summers when everyone who could get away, invariably did. The maids took the opportunity to put their feet up. And why not.
Starting at 6.30 a.m. with the sun already high on the way in, weekdays we’d be home by 3.30 or 4.00 p.m. Annalee wouldn’t mind if we were later sometimes. She only had dinner to start at six, and we paid by the hour. Her employers were Western, you see. Their terms applied.
Being merely Western-educated, the reality of maids with rights was new to us. Verging on dystopian, actually. But more than grateful for the shared-help, who were we to object. And when we asked if Annalee had a sister, or close cousin that could come to be our full-time live-in, <ENTER> Deborah.
But who was this now, with the deathly scowl? She looked nothing like her sister.
It may be wrong to judge a book by its cover, but if face-reading was an art, this one was a dud, for sure.
When the sister’s scanned passport had arrived to print-out and pass to Number 12, as bad photos went, it couldn’t have been any worse. Puckered skin, pinched mouth, sallow cheeks, wiry hair, the sourest of faces. Think ‘angry prune’, and you’d be pretty close.
‘For once‘ – her words, not mine – Deborah insisted, they truly were siblings. Same parents, she said, swearing to it on her life.
But ‘Christian’, it seems, doesn’t necessarily mean wise or compassionate.
Insistent on a Deborah of their own, Number 12 still had the sister come.
“How big was the risk anyway?” they thought, the ‘Scowler’ being after all, Deborah’s sister.
Was it the daily repast she could barely relate to? Nothing but bread — and only 2 slices — for every meal, day-in, day-out, was a bit much for anyone.
The 5-minute showers? Any longer, they’d switch off the mains. . . Still better than the families that condoned washes only on Friday.
Or did her sullen looks that wouldn’t wash away, deeply offend?
Behind closed doors, who was torturing whom, we wondered?
Deborah didn’t care to elaborate. The real sister wasn’t to last a month, but another, more appropriate, replacement ‘sister’ was found soon enough; One whose home conditions being more dire, made her more accommodating, and more readily willing to be made to do simply as ordered.