Chapter 4, Pt 2 of 4
DOMESTIC HELP AND MISSES PERRY
When eventually we had to give her notice, I saw tears roll down her cheeks. I have not forgotten them yet because I have a guilty conscience that it was partly through my fault that she had to leave.
I managed to carry on without any help for a couple of months after that, but the work was obviously too much for me especially the cleaning (often scrubbing) of the three rooms of the surgery, washing the front-door step, sweeping the concrete and polishing the brass plates outside. I did not want to be a snob. The thing I admired in English people most was that they got on with any menial work, indoors or outside, without any feeling of embarrassment. I wanted to develop that habit myself.
One of our friends suggested that we should engage a part-time help, if possible an experienced woman who would not need to be told very much. I liked that idea and as there was no shortage of domestic workers of any age, we were soon fixed up with Mrs Smith. She was an experienced, capable and very smart lady and I was thankful that she minded her own business and did not parade her knowledge and experience in any way.
She could have easily done that. Actually, it was a good thing for me to have such a cultured and well-spoken lady in the house. I needed her influence badly, because just then I was getting into the habit of picking up any commonly spoken phrases and using them indiscriminately. I was not aware of this fact myself until Mr Jones, a blunt but well-meaning elderly patient of Sheel’s pointed it out to me.
I was out for my usual walk with Roy, our ginger mongrel, one morning when I saw Mr Jones standing on the footpath opposite the “Laindon Hotel.” Whether he had just come out of the hotel bar, after having a pint or two, I could not say, but as soon as he saw me he stopped and moved his walking stick towards his back for support. He had a leg affliction and could not walk or stand properly. He raised his hat and said: “Good morning, madam.” (He always addressed me as “madam”.) “Taking your dog out for a run?”
I made an attempt to stop and chat with him, but Roy would not give me any peace, and was tugging at his lead all the time. I pulled him up with a jerk. “You little devil,” I said, and without thinking that there was anything wrong in it. I repeated the phrase again. But when I looked up Mr Jones’s face had become very stern.
“You must not say that. He is not a devil,” said Mr Jones. I did not think he was. I simply repeated the phrase I had picked up from somebody. Was I unconsciously picking up and talking in the language, which did not sound right, even to the Laindon people? It seemed that I was. I went home and persuaded Sheel to find someone who could help me in furthering my knowledge of literary English.
Not very long after that, when Miss Helen Perry, a retired schoolteacher, came to see Sheel in the surgery, he brought her into the house and introduced us. I took to her straight way. She was a tall bespectacled lady with a pleasant face and gentle precise manners.
At the beginning she thought it best for me to read a page of an easy English Classic to her. I well remember sitting in her scrupulously clean dining-cum-sitting room (she called it living room) and reading aloud the most impressive passages from “Jane Eyre.” I found Miss Perry’s method of correcting me very different from that of my blunt straightforward Indian teachers. If I pronounced a word wrongly, she would simply say in her usual soft voice, “I think it is pronounced differently,” or “If I were you, I would say it like that.”
I became quite friendly with Miss Perry’s younger sister. Miss Alice, who lived with her. She wore her long hair in two buns, like earphones, was taller, more witty and apparently a much stronger personality than her sister. She encouraged me to talk freely to her, which Miss Helen Perry did not like to do. I even ventured to ask Miss Alice once when we were having tea, which they very kindly provided for me after each lesson, why she did not get married. She gave a chuckle.
“Oh, I was very hard to please. Most of the young men were not worth marrying. I did have one though,” and here she lowered her voice, “but he was killed in action. The wretched war robbed many of us girls of our sweethearts at that time. But I do not really need a man to protect me.” Miss Alice went on in her usual humorous manner, “I am quite capable of looking after myself.”
I could see that she was. She did all the digging and other heavy work in their garden, which was fairly large and beautifully kept. The flower garden in the front was her pride and joy. She had more than 50 varieties of roses growing there, and she told me the names of each species, some of which were quite romantic ones. She also grew prodigious vegetables and fruit. It was amazing to see this tail, well-built lady of nearly 60 climb up a high greengage tree with no difficulty at all: she would often bring down a basketful of ripe juicy fruit for me to take home.