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J O B S AT I S F A C T I O N
Waiting for the bird
As an aspiring writer Ursula Holden made ends meet by working as an agency domestic help. One night she ended up looking after her literary heroine
In the late Sixties I worked for Problem Ltd, a firm that organised the needs of London’s householders. It claimed that no problem was too great or too small – it would sort it. Armed with addresses and telephone numbers, I dealt with and cared for the needs of children of all ages. I cleaned acres of floors, washed clothes, read to the blind, cooked meals for large and small gatherings. I waited at tables, served at weddings and funeral receptions, looked after dogs and pets. My wage was one shilling and sixpence an hour paid by the householder. At the time I was trying to be a writer; flexible hours suited me.
When I was told who was in bed I was dumbfounded – I admired her more than any other living writer
My most rewarding job was looking after a writer whose work was causing a literary stir. I was directed to an address in Gloucester Road. The door at the top of some stone steps was opened by a Mrs Moerman, who explained why I was needed. Her elderly mother was upstairs. Mrs Moerman and her husband were going to the ballet that afternoon. I was to stay with her mother until after four, when someone else would take over.
As we went up she told me that Sonia Orwell, who owned the house, was in Paris. I was incredulous. I said I had read about Sonia, the wife of George Orwell, the writer who had befriended Jean Rhys.
‘It is Jean Rhys who is here now. In bed.’ I was dumbfounded. I admired her more than any other living writer.
‘She will be pleased you know her work.’ Mrs Moerman, whose name was Maryvonne and whom I had read about, showed me into Jean’s room at the top of the house.
Her huge blue eyes under white curls looked at me from the pillows. Maryvonne introduced me but Jean just smiled vaguely and didn’t speak. I think she saw me as an intruder, however well-meaning.
Maryvonne explained what I needed to do after they had left. ‘Oh, and don’t give her any alcohol,’ she added. ‘And if she should ask,’ her husband spoke with a marked Dutch inflection, ‘just say there isn’t any.’ Jean’s medication precluded alcohol.
I closed the front door after them and went up. I was alone with one whom I regarded as a literary goddess. She had recently attracted notice with her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Her earlier novels were being republished by André Deutsch.
I asked if I could get her anything. Tea perhaps? Or coffee? She shook her head, murmuring how nice it was here in this
18 THE OLDIE – November 2011 lovely warm place. I later learnt that she had been living in some discomfort in a remote Devon village.
Framed Picasso drawings on the walls of the stairs down to the basement looked like originals torn from his scrap book. To me, the house felt increasingly like hallowed ground.
The kitchen was bright and modern with lovely food in the fridge. I took the plate of cold sliced turkey, salad and a dainty little pudding upstairs. She looked pleased but barely ate anything.
Maryvonne had left a turkey sandwich for me. After I had tidied the kitchen, I heard pattering feet upstairs. What was Jean doing? I didn’t hear the lavatory flush or taps running, but when I got back to her she was neatly in bed, asking in a pleading voice if she could have some whisky. I said I would look for some, returning to say what a pity there was none. Would she like to rest now? Or talk? I would love to hear more about her work. She was uncommunicative. She just said ‘Read Voyage in the Dark.’ When I got a copy I was entranced.
I mentioned my own ambition to write, hoping she might advise me or show interest. She only said ‘Don’t ever tell.’
Years later, having achieved my ambition, I understood what she meant. By discussing work in progress you risk losing an intensity of purpose. Writers are like hungry goldfish. Flattery feels like the food that keeps us going, but shouldn’t be trusted.
Jean said she would like to re-read one of the Agatha Christie novels on the shelf. She never tired of Hercule Poirot which surprised me; detective novels never appealed to me.
Later, after a cup of tea, I asked if she would like her curtains drawn and the light switched on. ‘No, don’t. Sometimes a bird comes.’ It seemed unlikely, the clouds outside were low and grey.
The doorbell rang downstairs, my time was almost up. It was Francis Wyndham, her friend and literary advisor who had done much to promote her acclaim. He ran upstairs and I heard her greeting him with animation. ‘I’ve been thinking about what you said…’
I said goodbye and went down the stone steps to the street again. It was very cold.
I am older now than Jean was when we met, but can still hear the expectancy in her voice, telling me to leave the curtains.
‘Sometimes a bird comes.’
Me and my doctors
WILFRED DE’ATH has a whinge – but might he be the patient from hell?
MY DOCTOR, Dr Parker, keeps me waiting, on average, 40 minutes per visit. After four such delays, sitting around in his dreary little waiting-room, I pointed out that this came to nearly three hours of my life which I can never have again. So he suggested that I take the first appointment of the day, 9am, in future; but even then he kept me waiting nearly half an hour. When I complained again, he said, ‘Well, I have to look at my mail and answer my phone messages, don’t I?’ Yes, I guess so, but why in my time which he clearly considers is less important than his?
(After one such delay, he asked me: ‘Didn’t you see that I was attending a road accident just outside?’ I looked through the grimy window but could see no sign of an accident – I suppose that’s something they teach them to say at medical school when patients complain…)
We reached an impasse at this point, so he suggested that I go to see his assistant, Dr Krishnan: she is a much better time-keeper as well as a good doctor (I’m only suffering from a mild form of diabetes in any case). Dr K is in her early 30s but looks about 17 and cute with it (I admit fantasising about her as an Indian schoolgirl).
Things are going better now – Dr K
only keeps me waiting 5 or 10 minutes tops, but I still hate their waiting-room. Why can’t Dr P spend a small fraction of his (undoubtedly enormous) salary on doing it up a bit? A new carpet and some decent pictures or fresh flowers wouldn’t come amiss.
Truthfully I doubt whether Dr P even knows what I look like since he spends the whole of our appointments staring into his computer screen. This is the main reason I have such contempt for the modern medical profession (Dr K, to be fair, does look me in the face now and again).
As a result of another wait for the dilatory Dr P I missed out on my next appointment which meant I lost a considerable sum of money. When I told him this he asked (in a letter) whether I wished to make an official complaint. No, I replied. I just want you to see me on time for once. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘you would expect me to delay the next patient if it was you who was the emergency, wouldn’t you?’ True, but I never seem to be the emergency. At 74, I don’t feel ill inside myself; I feel about 24 and am seriously considering taking Dr K out on a date.
Meanwhile, Dr P and I are opening up the war on a fresh front – he writes to say that, in order to save his PCT a bit of money, he wants to reduce my medication. Just wait till I see him!
November 2011 – THE OLDIE 19