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Bonzer Words!: "Mother's Help''

Carla Sari recalls her struggles to learn English while working as a "Mother's Help'' in London.

Carla writes for Bonzer! magazine. For more enjoyable words visit www.bonzer.org.au

When I was twenty I went to London to work and learn English. My work permit had been arranged by correspondence through an Italian employment agency. I stayed with a family in a suburb near the zoo. I never got to see it. I was far too busy.

My live-in position was called "Mother's Help". I thought it meant "nanny", which turned out to be wrong. A "Mother's Help" was expected to do most domestic jobs. In my case it also meant taking care of three small children.

I had completed a Primary Teachers' Training Course and spoke some French. Mrs Bane picked me up at Victoria Street Station and the first thing she asked was "Parlez vous Francais?" to which I replied, "Oui, oui."

Satisfied, she drove me to her spacious home. I'd travelled by train from my home town to Calais, then by boat to Dover and by train again to London. After I dragged my suitcase inside, Mrs Bane's mother gave me a cup of tea and a biscuit before showing me to my room. When I finished unpacking it was dark. I'd travelled without sleep for twenty-four hours.

The following morning, at five, I heard the youngest boy crying by my bedside. His nappies were full. I didn't have a clue where to wash him and find clean nappies but soon found out.

Mrs Bane was an actor. Before leaving for the studio she left instructions in French. Somehow I coped. I realised, however, that I'd never have a chance to learn English. I told Mrs Bane that I needed a few hours a week to attend language classes. She had a better idea and showed me some children's books, saying that reading in bed before falling asleep was be the quickest way to learn English.

One afternoon, after finishing the vacuuming, Mrs Bane's mother found me sitting down, trying to make sense of one of the stories with the help of a dictionary. She was outraged. I gathered from her body language that I was there to work not to read. But I wasn't reading. Those little Anglo-Saxon words made no sense at all. Not yet.

I told my employer that there'd been a misunderstanding and I wanted to leave. "You can't," she said. "You signed a contract and must stay with me for a year."

Two days later, noticing my long face, she came up with a suggestion. "When the children are asleep and you've finished the washing-up, come up to my bedroom and I'll teach you some English."

That very night I rushed upstairs and found her in bed, reading The Devil's Disciple by Bernard Shaw, currently showing in London. She had a small part in it and was learning the lead part too.

She gave me the text and began to recite, expecting me to prompt her when she forgot her lines. Instead, I stood there, staring helplessly at the page and at her. She flew into a rage and grabbed the book out of my hands.

Trapped and isolated, able to communicate only with Mrs Bane and in my school French, I wondered what to do. But I was young and could see the funny side of the situation. I never cried. I remember laughing myself to sleep and regret I didn't keep a diary.

Deep down, I knew something or someone would turn up to change my predicament. My intuition was right. The change happened sooner that I had expected.

Carla Sari 2003

You can contact Carla at carlasari@hotmail.com


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