Not a day passes in which I don’t regret firing Irena. She was my ‘daily’ from 1991 to 2004. I don’t think I could have asked for anyone better qualified. Until she came to work for me she had been a professor of geology at a Russian university, but she lost her job when the Soviet Union collapsed and became an economic migrant. In spite of this setback, she never displayed any bitterness. On the contrary, she was remarkably stoical — something to do with the Russian soul, no doubt. Her only shortcoming was that she never called me by my correct name. She’d misheard me when I first introduced myself and after I’d let it go for a few weeks I became too embarrassed to correct her. So for the duration of her 13-year employment she always referred to me as ‘Terry’.
By the time Caroline moved in with me in 2000, Irena had become a kind of surrogate mother. I think it’s fairly normal for middle-aged dailies to develop a maternal affection for their bachelor employers, but in the case of Irena it went slightly beyond that, possibly because she’d left her own grown-up son behind in Russia. I became equally fond of her, particularly after my own mother died in 1993. But the upshot was that she was a bit suspicious of Caroline. She didn’t think she was good enough for her ‘Terry’.
At first, Caroline put up with Irena’s obvious hostility. She was amused when Irena tut-tuttingly corrected her attempts to do the laundry, explaining that ‘Terry’ liked his shirts ironed just so. We used to joke about it, but I was secretly relieved that she didn’t ask me to get rid of her. Caroline had passed the Irena test, even if Irena found her wanting.
Unfortunately, relations deteriorated when Sasha was born in 2003. The problem was, Irena insisted she knew better than Caroline about every aspect of motherhood. No matter what it was, Caroline could do nothing right. In the end, this became intolerable and Caroline gave me the ultimatum I’d been dreading: ‘It’s her or me.’
Sacking Irena was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and to sugar the pill I paid her six months’ salary. Weirdly, she didn’t seem to mind. Either I was mistaken about how attached to ‘Terry’ she was, or it was that old Russian stoicism again. Probably a bit of both.
We’ve been through several dailies since, none of them a patch on Irena. Our latest one, who’s been with us since Freddie was born, was called Maria. I had a reasonably high opinion of Maria, which is why I said yes when she asked if she could house-sit for us while we were away in Kenya. She explained that her two children were coming to stay from the Philippines and her current flat wasn’t big enough for all of them. I had no reason to think she’d be an irresponsible tenant, particularly as I’d been paying her tax and National Insurance for five years.
I’m sure you can guess how this story ends. The house was relatively clean and tidy when we got back last week, but we’ve gradually been discovering more and more things wrong. The first thing we realised was that she’d used up various household essentials without replacing them: washing powder, dishwasher tablets, Fairy Liquid. Then we discovered that our larder was almost empty — no rice, no condiments, no cooking oil. After that, it became more serious. None of our bins had been emptied and the outside bin, the large plastic one that gets emptied by the rubbish men each week, had disappeared completely. The washing machine was broken, as was the shower in the children’s bathroom. Sasha discovered that someone had eaten all her Christmas sweets.
There was a note. She thanked us for our kindness over the years and announced that she’d found another employer and wouldn’t be working for us any more. No forwarding address, nothing about any of the breakages. I tried calling her, but the number is no longer working.
I daresay she thinks we’ve got off lightly, given how hard she’s worked. And perhaps we have. At least she didn’t steal anything. But it makes me realise just how special my first daily was. Irena, if you’re reading this, please get back in touch with ‘Terry’. As far as his wife is concerned, all is forgiven.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 March 2013Tags: Domestic service, Everyday life, Family, Immigration, Marriage