What enlightened employers, I thought when I heard that their domestic worker lived in their house with them, and not in servant’s quarters. Now their parents were coming from overseas for a two-week holiday, so they were booking her into our Air BnB round the corner for that time. They forgot to mention her name.
She stepped out of her employers’ car on arrival, huge and stately, carrying herself with aplomb. Her hair was beautifully plaited and arranged mainly on one side of her head. In South Africa one needs to mention – none of them was white. When I stepped towards her, she touched my shoulder and inclined her head towards me. I felt an enormous need for acceptance, warmth. Her name was Grace.
Two days passed, and I didn’t see her. She was gone when I got up at 7, and came home after I’d taken Irang out for her last wee walk at 9pm. When she came home on the third day, still looking groomed, I mentioned that she was working hard. “Yes, my schedule is hectic,” she smiled, so dignified. Hectic? I thought. It’s exploitive, and now I know why they want you in the house. But I bit my tongue because I’m running the BnB for someone else. Don’t stir.
The next day Puseletso, our house helper two days a week, was scheduled to clean that room and change the sheets and towels. However, she came to me to announce, “I can’t clean that room. It’s too untidy. Clothes everywhere. And she’s only slept on the sheets for two nights, so she’s all right.” Now Puseletso is experienced and I’m a stand-in. Also, when I’m taken by surprise, I tend to react on the lenient side, a fact which my children exploited brilliantly. So I didn’t say, No it’s three nights, or Let me check with the owner. I said, “Oh. All right then.”
The next cleaning day was Thursday, which was Human Rights Day. Puseletso would not be working, of course, but of course Grace was. So I was on cleaning duty, and when I went into Grace’s room, I saw what Puselesto had meant. It looked as if a bomb had hit it, but I tackled it with determination. Pick up one tissue at a time, I thought. Fold the clothes and put them in piles on the desk – blouses, underwear, socks.. The really dirty clothes were in the laundry basket – it was full. I didn’t think about it. Too much to do. Ah, here’s the lid for that open jar of cream. Ah, this must be the net that keeps her gorgeous hair in place while she is sleeping. Another plastic shopping bag with left-over KFC. It was clear to me that she took all her rage out on her own body. I told myself not to judge. With hours like that, all she could do was eat take-aways for comfort and drop into bed to sleep at night.
Eventually the towels and linen were on the washing line and I could vacuum and dust. I brought the fresh sheets and made the bed; replaced the towels. Now that looks welcoming, I thought. She deserves it.
Then my eye fell on the corner of the laundry basket sticking out from under the bed. Our policy is that guests may use the washing machine. We show them the ropes, and it’s over to them. That works well with vacationing Parisians, but when would I show her? When would she do it? I remembered my childhood – there was always a black woman to pick up after me, do our laundry, cook our dinners… Mom never expected them to work hours like Grace’s, and we were taught to be respectful and say please and thank you. Big deal. Where were her kids? I had never asked. And this was Human Rights Day.
I took the basket to the scullery and put on another load of washing, hung it out and folded it neatly when it was dry. Thank you for the chance to pay it forward for one day. I hoped she wouldn’t be too grateful. I wanted her to be the madam – this was my Madam and Eve moment, I smiled to myself. It occurred to me that she would not know what usually happened at an Air BnB; how should she?
Indeed, when I saw her that evening and mentioned, “I didn’t iron any of your laundry,” the queen could not have been more gracious. “Never mind, dear. I appreciate it.”
That weekend I was out for much of Saturday morning. When I got back, I heard Grace talking in the kitchen area; I thought she was on her phone. I’d been looking forward to a swim, so I put on my swimsuit, wrapped a towel around myself and headed through the dining room towards the pool. Around the dining room table were five people. Grace happily introduced me to her two sisters, brother-in-law and niece. We had a pleasant chat and I went for my swim. While I was swimming, I remembered that one of the house rules the owner had mentioned was No Visitors. I’m not suited to doing this job, I thought. Surprised again, and too lenient again, but what should I have said? Walking back, I exchanged pleasantries again and noticed the glasses of sugary cooldrink, KFC boxes and more all spread out for their little party. Back in my room I worried. Could Grace think the Air BnB services included this kind of cleaning up? If they did clean up themselves, would they use the recycling bin properly?
I was still wondering how I would deal with the situation when I fell asleep. I woke up to a roar. Good heavens, that sounded like our vacuum cleaner. Yes, for sure, and it got so close to my door that Irang gave a protective yap. Grace must be vacuuming the entire house. She must have, like the pro she is, easily found the vacuum cleaner in the owner’s linen cupboard and taken it out to use. Wow! When I’d changed, I went to make a cup of tea. First, the dining room – oh great; spotless. The glass on the table shining without a smudge. What about the kitchen? Ditto. I opened the waste and recycling bins – nothing. The visitors had taken all the scraps and litter away with them. Bless their hearts. Grace is never going to hear from me that visitors are not allowed, I vowed. She had mentioned that they hadn’t had a chance to see one another for the longest time. I realised how ugly my thoughts had been, that she might not clean up when she had a chance. Shame on me.
Next Thursday I will do her laundry again, although Puseletso will object. I am so grateful for the day that Grace came into my life and heart.