One morning my dear husband Magical Martin suggested we get a cleaner to take over all the domestic duties at 164 Kensington Park Road in the gentrified area of Notting Hill in London. He knew I was not a domestic goddess and saw no reason for me to waste hours doing boring housework rather than running the archive I had founded and curated called 'Retrograph Archive.' It was the late 80s and the archive had become, through happenstance, also a a commercial photo library in 1985 specialising in Nostalgia, consumer advertising and social history through advertising and packaging.
The first home help was a lovely tall slender Jamaican woman from Montego Bay who came originally through an agency but soon accepted cash to come directly. She lasted a year but had to retire through suffering from a tennis elbow. So back we went to the same agency. This time they sent a Pakistani woman called Nasima with a winning smile and not very good English. She wore a colourful sari, could not read or write, was always smiling and washed my plates with running water from the kitchen tap as though she was holding them under an Asian waterfall or in a flowing river.
Thus the charming Nasima Begun entered our life. She was sharp, asking us to employ her directly at the same price we paid the agency. In those days the wage was £6 an hour but she only got £3 as the agency took the rest in profit. How could we refuse? She was honest, slow but thorough. If she saw something that was in the hall waiting to be thrown out, she would ask if she could take it. She was like a magpie and accumulated many items we no longer needed.
In time she revealed the mosaic of her life bit by bit usually because she wanted Martin to photocopy personal documents for this and that. Somehow she got a council flat in a grey concrete tower block at the top end of the Edgeware Road not far from Marble Arch, W2. When my client in Prague came to London before the Berlin Wall tumbled, I organised him a bed at Nasima's and fixed the rent on several occasions. She moved out to sleep in her living room. I expect today she is doing Airbnb!
It seemed she had left her husband back in Pakistan and become a chattel to a female Pakistani doctor having no passport of her own. The woman and her husband had treated her badly like a slave without any payment and beat her black and blue not allowing her to leave the house. Of course she did not know her rights, spoke only Urdu and didn't know she could have got help from the Pakistani community or even that there was a mosque in the area.
One day the postman came to the door with a parcel to be signed for. The doctor opened the front door but in the confusion taking in the parcel and signing for it, Nasima, who was cleaning in the hall at that moment, pushed past the surprised postman, up the garden path and ran for her life out on the main road crying for help. Suddenly she saw a woman in a sari and ran up to her. The rest is history as the local community took her under their wing.
When we met she was having a relationship with a married man. The usual scenario. He had a wife back in Pakistan and children but appeared to be separated. Nasima told us she was divorced and produced a document for Martin to copy. Somewhere she had a grown up daughter who came to live with her before she got married. Her lover seemed to own or was the manager of a mini supermarket where she also worked in the evening even though she could not read the packets and tins but recognised the illustrations.
We were invited to her daughter's wedding in a local community hall. I remember the copious platters of delicious food everyone in the community brought and the vivid colourful saris and brassy looking jewellery. We were warmly welcomed as we were Nasima's Bread and Butter or I should say Curry and Rice! Her educated daughter spoke English well and had been brought up in London so that part of the jigsaw did not fit!
Nasima sometimes did my shopping in Portobello market and cooked us a curry or a tasty stew. Her vocabulary was 'little, little', always repeating the word. Then one day she amazed her master Martin saying that she had passed her driving test. Her lover had taught her. I suppose she learned the road signs like she recognised the packaging in the mini market. Anyhow she explained that a convoy of 3 cars would be driving to Pakestan via Iran and she would be away 3 months! Would he hold her job open? 'No' was the answer and so sadly we had to part company as we had to urgently get another housekeeper. Nasima had been part of our family and we were very fond of her.
I often wonder what happened to this positive woman with practical intelligence especially if she could read and write today. Who knows - perhaps she can now 30 years on!
Written sitting on the hard steps in Farringdon tube station waiting for The Thames Link back home to Brighton after a weekend in Enfield, London. 23/7/17.