Home Help

I was eleven before we got a home help—an age at which my own girls had been taught to help out themselves. But then, 1946 it must have been, Daddy was made headmaster at the Saint Alban Grammar School and no longer had time to oversee my sums or whip up the Yorkshire pud. And Mummy was—well, now we would say depressed, or possibly fibromyalgic. Daddy said she was fatigued, she was a little under the weather, she suffered from a headache that at times amounted to a migraine.

She had always been fragile, and this was somehow connected to her pale features and Slavic eyes—porcelain skin, he said; dramatic eyes—though in the event it was Daddy who died young and she who carried on a martyr into the pensioners’ home till she no longer recognized me.

But at the time I’m talking about, just after the war, Daddy was effortlessly active while Mummy lay on the sofa in a blouse with languid sleeves, say, and a skirt of mouse-gray crepe. It’s not that she drank—that is not this story—or at least that was not the problem. She bathed and dressed, she powdered her brittle jaw and, erratically, tackled this or that patch of bookish clutter. But she was in some elemental sense increasingly not there. Daddy would bring her tea, a lovely man himself—gentle eyes, fine facial bones, a pale goatee that might have been a whisk broom for a doll’s house. His hair was thinning slightly, and he combed it across his pate, which somehow suited him. Seven days a week he wore a narrow three-piece tweed with his Cambridge fob across the vest. And when he was promoted, meaning more money but less time, he signed on for a home help up from Sussex with good references.

I was apprehensive to the point of nightmare. Daddy said the young lady came from an academic family herself, back in Wallonia. I did not know where Wallonia was, and to me it suggested a moated castle where a Gothic nanny would stand over me with a ruler while I spent deadly hours improving my handwriting.

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