Suddenly, in these circumstances, I became aware that, on the other side of the Sea of Azof, we had an interested spectator. The way this knowledge gathered in me was the strangest thing in the world–the strangest, that is, except the very much stranger in which it quickly merged itself. I had sat down with a piece of work–for I was something or other that could sit– on the old stone bench which overlooked the pond; and in this position I began to take in with certitude, and yet without direct vision, the presence, at a distance, of a third person. – The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
In a town in South Holland I sit down with a young Romanian woman and she tells me a story;
I was born in Romania, but at age 10 I moved to Portugal with my mother and brother. My father was already living there. My childhood in Romania was great. I was a happy kid, very happy. Our house was always full of people: my parents, my brother, my grandparents, my great grandmother and our dog. Every Sunday, the family were together, all together around the table having lunch. After that was TV time or listening to traditional music. Our neighborhood was also full of kids and I played with them. So, I can say that I had a great childhood without any technology. I started learning about Romanians in The Netherlands when I was in Portugal. There was a You Tuber and I watched her videos. I wanted her story to be my story. But I also met a Dutch guy in Lisbon and that’s the real reason why I made the decision to become an au pair. I found a job with an Indian family. They have a 4 year old child. It started well, too well. And I made the mistake of washing up the dishes and ironing their clothes, to make a good impression.
I was to do it all the time but an au pair is not a housekeeper. One day, I came home at the weekend very early in the morning and the door was locked from the inside.
How did you get in?
I didn’t until they woke up.
How long did you wait?
Two hours. They started to call me selfish, only spoke in their language. You are too emotional they told me. Their behaviour became hot and cold. To leave my family in Portugal and go to a new one was a big step. I’m attached to my mother. I didn’t want her to worry so I did not tell her what was happening. There was a camera above my bedroom door and in the child’s bedroom.
Were you told they would have that?
No. The father said it was so he could see who is coming in and out of my room.
Was there one in your bedroom?
I don’t know. They told me during school holidays that I had to take care of another Indian child. I said not without pay and they laughed. A Dutch lawyer told me I should report them. I can’t just leave the child.
He is attached to me. He wants to be with me all the time. He has tantrums with his mother not me. There was a big one and she cried because I would not intervene. After that she ignored me. The husband was away on business. She said I could use her bike whenever I wanted and so I did. Then, she came to my friend’s house and took it back even though she never uses it. I had no other way to get home. I had to use the bus and I don’t like to as I want to save fare. They also don’t give me money for their son to travel on public transport though they drive a BMW. From then on I could no longer find the bike key.
She hid it?
Yes. One night I was asleep in bed and the father texted me. He was going to pick up his wife in Rotterdam. I needed to stay awake in case the child needed me.
Wasn’t he asleep?
He wakes up all the time.
Did you do it?
Yes, I waited on the sofa. Hours later, the father comes back through the door with the child.
He took him and didn’t tell you?
I don’t know. He even asked me what I was doing there on the sofa and not in bed.
What are you going to do?
Leave. Go back to Portugal.
And they will get a new au pair?
They will have to. I am the fourth one.
Are you going to study?
Yes and there’s a strange thing. The father, he offered to pay for the first year of university. He is rich, the fees are nothing to him.
Are you going to accept?
I think so. My parents can’t even dream about being able to afford it.
What does your mother do?
She works in a geriatric care home. I am different from the other au pairs.
They are from wealthy families.
So, it’s fun and games? A way to travel?
Are you with an agency?
No and that was a mistake.
You were naive?
What stayed with me as I travelled home after our talk was not the dysfunction and abuse. I’ve heard dime a dozen such stories in all countries I’ve lived in. What stayed with me is that she is the fourth au pair, that she was attached to the boy and he to her. I know the feeling. In my early 20s, I took care of a 6 month old. If you had told me how much I would miss her when the job ended, I wouldn’t have believed you.
I had recently seen a BBC drama called Remember Me starring Michael Palin which had echoes of what I’d just heard. It is a supernatural tale of a man in a co-dependent relationship with the ghost of his nanny who cared for him when he was a boy in India.
The bond is two way but the main character tries to make a break for freedom, ironically in a care home. Our first glimpse of the nanny is terrifying. But there are later ones which cut her as a deeply lonely and adrift character. She never made it home, cursed and useless in a land of limbo, crying on a swing set.
The British Library highlighted the plight of abandoned ayahs in Britain.
Life was full of social and emotional tensions for the governess since she didn’t quite fit anywhere. She was a surrogate mother who had no children of her own, a family member who was sometimes mistaken for a servant. Was she socially equal or inferior to her employers? If the family had only recently stepped up the social scale, perhaps she’d consider herself superior. She was rarely invited to sit down to dinner with her employers, even if they were kind. The servants disliked the governess because they were expected to be deferential towards her, despite the fact that she had to go out to work, just like them. One governess, known only as SSH, recalled how, sitting down to dinner for the first time in a new job, she was overwhelmed by a ‘sense of friendlessness and isolation’ when she noticed herself pointedly served after the ladies of the house. – The Figure of the Governess, Kathryn Hughes
I don’t think it a coincidence that Henry James chose a governess as the focal character in The Turn of the Screw, a novella but the Gothic text of all time. Henry James would have instinctively understood the need to use one. She is in-between, can never really exert power and is invisible in society as its sins are. He no doubt experienced this himself growing up in the USA, England, France and Switzerland. Governesses, nannies and au pairs see what another does not. They are messengers in literature and film. It is the governess in The Turn of the Screw who senses what is horribly wrong in an isolated country house. She understands the toxic influence the previous servants have had over the children. She correctly isolates that their absent uncle is damaging the children. The uncle the ultimate worthless elite. A charmer of ladies. An I don’t want to know man. He lives the 19th century version of jet setting and parental redundancy. There is another connection to India as it’s there where his niece and nephew’s parents die. A notable literary reworking of The Turn of the Screw is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Mary Lennox is a sickly and unloved 10-year-old girl, born in India to wealthy British parents who never wanted her. She is cared for by servants, who allow her to become a spoiled, aggressive and selfish child.
The governess fearlessly takes on a hopeless battle that she will lose. It is far too late for the children of the House of Bly. Who will listen to a young, unmarried woman dismissed as a hysteric? Some nobody who educates children of the aristocracy? Nonetheless, I have always found her credible. She takes seriously the souls of the children in her charge and for that she will always be a hero of mine.
“Is that where she lives?” My sister once asked my parents, pointing to Mont Blanc. She was 3 years old at the time.
Laura was a Zimbabwean lady who cooked and cleaned in my parent’s house. I am told my sister was often strapped to her back and never out of her sight. I have a memory, like those cartoon flip books, of a woman and a black Labrador. She would whistle and wherever the dog was, he’d come back to her. Another of a couple very happy to see me when I came down some stairs for breakfast. They made me a boiled egg with toast. To this day, my parents cannot tell me who they were. In the United States, a woman called Marie came to look after me for weeks on end. I only know she was British and the girlfriend of a cousin of mine. I learnt from her that going to the pictures meant going to the movies. It was her that comforted me when I cried and cried after a day at school. I told her that the teacher pretended we were all on an airplane and that it would take us away. Marie told me it was just a game. But it wasn’t a game to me. I never saw Marie again.
What are the long term consequences of outsourcing the care of children? What patterns emerge again and again? Who is watching your son or daughter and exerting a hold on them? Who is raising them in musical chairs of carers and/or countries and their cultures? Whoever they are, they’ll be be on the periphery of a child’s geographic memory. And one day they may pay a visitation. Remember me?