Do Try to Speak as We Do: The Diary of an American Au Pair

Do Try to Speak as We Do: The Diary of an American Au Pair

by Marjorie Leet Ford

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It seems like the perfect job: an upper middle class English family desperately needs a nanny. The father is an aspiring novelist, the children are well-heeled, and the mother's accent radiates with charm over the transatlantic phone. So young Melissa jumps at the chance to travel overseas and live an aristocratic life of tea and crumpets. But her romantic notions

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It seems like the perfect job: an upper middle class English family desperately needs a nanny. The father is an aspiring novelist, the children are well-heeled, and the mother's accent radiates with charm over the transatlantic phone. So young Melissa jumps at the chance to travel overseas and live an aristocratic life of tea and crumpets. But her romantic notions are shattered when she becomes an unwitting target of the family's genteel snobbery, icy wrath, and ridiculous misunderstandings. Melissa's letters home cast a sharp eye and quick wit on the family's bizarre cast of friends and relatives, but she eventually learns that a little bit of understanding and tolerance can go a long way - and can even teach her more about herself - in Do Try to Speak as We Do by Marjorie Leet Ford.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Reading Ford's first foray into fiction feels like snooping through a friend's diary, alternately entertaining and ordinary. Set in London and in the coastal Scottish Hebrides, this is a classic fish-out-of-water tale a character is placed in unfamiliar surroundings and left to fend for herself. Suddenly losing her job because of corporate downsizing and deciding as well to postpone her wedding to overprotective artist Tedward, 20-something San Franciscan Melissa optimistically accepts a position as an au pair to an upper-middle-class English family, the Haig-Ereildouns. Mr. H-E is a member of Parliament, and Melissa envisions her six-month stay in the U.K. as a cross between a Mary Poppins adventure and a scene out of a Merchant-Ivory costume drama. Instead, she is greeted by three young terrors and assigned arduous chores s in a London flat with no central heating and prewar plumbing. Mrs. H-E is impossible to please, constantly criticizing Melissa's American English, and she secretly seduces Melissa's friend Simon. Treated as an outcast by the snobbish adults, Melissa is befriended by the family servants, like gossipy English spinster Nanny, and by Trevor, the H-E's nine-year-old son, who is obsessed with death. After an actual death occurs, Melissa acknowledges the personal problems that were the real reasons for her flight from America. Sumptuous details of upper-crust dinner banquets are perhaps the most tantalizing attribute of a bland book that fails to summon the verve that could truly animate the comical aspects of the cultural divide between the U.S. and England. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Reeling from a recent layoff and the possibly permanent postponement of marriage to her longtime love, Melissa takes a position as an au pair to an upper-middle-class English family. It seems like the perfect job. The children are well behaved, the wife sounds charming over the phone, and the husband is a member of Parliament. Melissa's visions of tea, lawn tennis, and elegant parties quickly dissolve upon her arrival in England, when she is handed the tasks of a scullery servant, impossible working hours, children forever on the brink of disaster, and a constant whirlwind of packing and unpacking as the family bounces between their home in London and their crumbling estate in rural Scotland. A faux pas lurks at every turn as Melissa strives to hone her British speech and manners and to overcome the polite but frigid anti-Americanism of the family's friends and relations. In addition to her other tasks, she must teach three-year-old Claire, who is deaf, to speak the Queen's English. Melissa describes all these trials and tribulations with wit and charm in her letters home. This first novel by the author of Cactus: A Prickly Portrait of a Desert Eccentric is delightful indeed; fans of Bridget Jones and the current spate of British TV sitcoms will love it. Highly recommended.--Susan Clifford Braun, Aerospace Corp., El Segundo, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A beguiling first novel wryly details the great divide between Brits and Americans—in everything from cussing to bathing—as a young American recalls her time as an au pair and the lessons she learned about life and love. When she loses her job with a San Francisco ad agency and calls off her wedding to Ted, Melissa, feeling she's so far failed at everything, decides to work in England, but the only work she can get is working as an au pair. She accepts a job with Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun, whose husband is an MP for a district in Scotland, and heads to London. The couple have three children—eleven-year-old Pru, nine-year-old Trevor, and three-year-old Claire, who is deaf (one of Melissa's many jobs is to teach Claire to speak). Shortly after her arrival at the London house, a grim, shabby place, the family heads up to Troonafchan in Scotland, which is even more bleak and cold. Hot water is rationed—Melissa has to share bath water with the children—and the sun never seems to shine. On the way up to Scotland, the family drops in at Phillingsford, Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun's family home, a place rich in history, comfort, and servants. There, Melissa meets Nanny, now retired, who soon befriends and counsels her. Back in London, Melissa, who loves food, gains weight, and is increasingly unsure she wants to marry Ted, especially after she's met handsome scientist Simon. Though she loves the children, and admires Mr. Haig-Ereildoun, she is terrified of his wife, who makes her work long hours, and rants if she serves the children such American food as hamburgers or sandwiches, or uses American expressions. At the end six months, Melissa, a deliciously wittybutfairobserver, with prospects of a new job and love and tired of life downstairs, hands in her notice. A sweet charmer, and a promising debut.

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Chapter One

THE SKY ALTERNATES FROM gray in the day to black at night. Since we're five miles from the nearest village, two miles from the nearest farmhouse, and starlight doesn't come through the clouds, when I switch off the lamp the darkness will be as thick as India ink. In the morning the sky will rheostat into gray again. The mist seeps into the closets (or cupboards, as they say here), so the socks and underwear are damp. Even the sheets have a touch of wet, like ice, when I get up the courage to inch between them. Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun has let me use the heating pad she bought to soothe Grampy's rheumatism, which acts up when he comes to stay. He's only come here once in his life. In summer. He didn't like it. She says the central heating Granny and Grampy have at home is the root of her father's health problems. My weakness, in her eyes, comes from having lived a soft life in America. "You do have thin blood!" she sympathized today, glaring at my left hand ditched in my coat pocket as I laid the table for lunch. A cloud of white breath puffed out of her mouth with each syllable. In this house, all words come out with frosty white puh-puh-puhs. We keep the butter, which comes in a pound cube, next to the teacups in the hutch, and a knife saws off slivers so brittle they shatter. A steaming cup of tea is cold by the second or third sip. And taking a bath is torture. The water heater is tiny, giving enough for three inches in the tub. To get the contraption going, you go down to the cellar and build a coal fire, go up to the kitchen and pull a lever, and wait half an hour. (Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun thinks it's too complicatedfor me, so I've only watched. Same with the washing machine; that has to be operated with a hand crank.) When the water's hot, first I bathe the three-year-old, Claire ("bahth" her, I'm supposed to say—"Do try to speak as we do," Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun has requested); the water is cool before I can force Claire in, kicking: She kicks for fun, she scratches for fun, and when she triumphs it gives her glee to see my face and hands striped and dotted with blood. By the time she's sudsed and rinsed, a quarter of the tub's water is on me and a quarter on the bathroom floor, sloshing like melted snow around my knees; nine-year-old Trevor bathes ("bahths") in the inch and a half that's left, then eleven-year-old Pru, then Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun, then me. You can imagine how beige the water is by the time I get into it, but you can't imagine how cold. By the time I'm through, the water heater has warmed up a fresh tank for Mr. Haig-Ereildoun.

    It's funny about good and bad. I've always thought bad was more interesting, but maybe good is. This just hit me because although I can hardly wait to get into the details of Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun's personality, I think of Mr. Haig-Ereildoun and feel my heart billow up with eagerness to get onto that subject. I'm pretty sure he has no idea the rest of us share freezing bathwater, and I hope he doesn't find out. Since the water heater is what it is, and he's as sensitive to people's feelings as he is, it's lucky that when it comes to practicalities he has a certain obliviousness. Unfortunately he's not here much; he's a member of Parliament and spends all day out chumming with his Aberdeenshire constituents. When he is here, for an hour or two after breakfast, he's locked in his study, writing a novel. He's written two—on Scottish history—and he says perhaps the third one will be the charm.

    The other person who seems to notice how I feel is Trevor. Luckily for me, he's here all day, my constant companion. It's odd to have your best friend be a nine-year-old. I'm going to hold back, though, and not jump ahead and tell you about any of the Haig-Ereildouns, or even me, until I get you settled in here, where I am right now, in bed.

    My method of getting into bed is to slip the heating pad, turned to high, between the sheets near where my feet will be; when my teeth are brushed and my face washed, I move the heating pad up to where my knees will be; when my shoes are off and my second layer of socks on, I move it up another length; then, under the tent of my coat, which I never take off except for a bath, I hurry to switch from my jeans into my pajamas and push the pad up again. Before I put my arms back into my coat sleeves and fumble the buttons with my numb fingers, I slip the pad a step closer to the pillow; after I've tied my long plaid scarf over my head and ears and wrapped the rest of it around my throat, I do a little jig to kindle up warmth and then move the pad onto the pillow as I slide under the blankets, double pairs of socks first, rearranging the bulk of my coat, which weighs five pounds and looks like Russian army surplus. When the heating pad has warmed the pillow, I scramble it back under the coat and pajamas next to my skin, taking care not to let any air in as I finish the adjustments. Tilting the lampshade by my bed to angle the beam through the crevice between top and bottom sheets, I take the writing pad and my pen under the covers with me. I brought War and Peace here, thinking I'd have plenty of time, but it's turned out almost all of the twenty-four hours are spoken for by Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun. I work almost three times as many hours per day as we'd agreed by letter that I would work for my pitiful pocket money but she says there's nothing else I could do here anyway.

    Well, it's occurred to me I could take a walk. I'd love an hour or two outside this house, away from this family. My lungs long for some free air. I can just imagine how big and lovely the breaths would be, just walking along, swinging my legs, not being polite. I mean, right this minute, under the covers, I'm not being polite. But any second, someone could knock on my door, and I'd have to spring to politeness.

    After a week here, I asked, in as nonchalant a way as I could fabricate, when it might be convenient for me to take a day off. Her answer was quick, with a scowl: "Wherever would you go?"

    I couldn't think of any particular place, right off the bat.

    "No," she said, "for the present I think a day off would be rather a waste of time."

    I hate disagreeing with people. So I swallowed. It took another week or so, inside the house, feeling more and more pinched, always under her glance, to mention once again my idea—modified this time to just a couple of hours.

    "I was thinking," I said.

    She was at the kitchen table, leafing through the village newspaper, and I was finishing the breakfast washing-up. "I thought—one of these days I might just stroll around a little, with my camera."

    "Well!" she said. "That's a splendid idea. But do wait for a sunny day."

    I felt the swoon of black a prisoner must feel when someone nails a board over the small window high in the cell wall, shutting out the last beam of daylight. "Do you think we'll ever have a sunny day?"

    It was a sincere question, but she thought it was a terrific joke, and she's repeated it to several of her friends.

I MUST ADMIT, WHEN I've finished the washing-up after lunch and bedded Claire down in her sea of blankets and Tin-Tin books, Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun usually puts a generous look on her face and says, "If you like, you're free to go to your room now, to write letters for an hour." A couple of times I settled down on my bed and tried to concentrate on War and Peace, but what I always really want is to sit at the little desk and write letters. My one day in London I bought five pads of beautiful blue airmail paper, a heavenly blue with the texture of silk. I get my daily letter to Tedward done: "Dear Sweet heart," and a page of whatever I can think of that isn't complaining; then I start a letter to whoever else I feel like writing and tell the whole truth about what's going on. The hour is maddeningly short. I don't get another one until all the children have stopped fighting and laughing and playing tricks on me. It takes a long time, and every night it seems like it'll never happen, but every night they give in to drowsiness.

     I click my door shut. Energized by their absence, I want to stay up all night. The second I let myself doze off, the morning gray is back, intruding. I have to rush to get dressed, then get the three-year-old, Claire, dressed and fiddle with her hearing aid until it stops screaming, and then coax Trevor. He's like me, always daydreaming, so it takes him half an hour to put on each sock. Pru, thank heavens, is completely self-sufficient, or we'd never get to breakfast.

NOW I HAVE TO describe my room. It's big. The walls are painted Wedgewood blue, and the carved moldings are painted cream. The twin bedsteads are rosewood or something else gorgeous, carved by hand way before I was born, maybe before my great-great-grandparents were born. The bedspreads are thick, white, tufted, with voluptuous layers of fringes. A lady's writing table gets daylight from the window. A dressing table seems to curtsy, in a taffeta skirt, with an old mirror on a swivel stand, a china pitcher and washing bowl, and a set of silver brushes, combs, and a hand mirror. To comb my hair and put on lipstick, I sit on a small round bench with a taffeta skirt that matches the dressing table's. There are slipper chairs at opposite walls, and beside the fireplace two small armchairs face each other, upholstered in a print that reminds me of old Blue Willow china, all faded. The fireplace—too small for logs, no doubt meant to burn coal—hasn't been lit since I've been here, but it gives the feeling of a fireplace. Between the facing armchairs is a low, oval table, also of rich-textured wood, carved and polished to reflect colors in an abstract way. On the little table is a fancy white china pot, planted with brilliant pink cyclamen, and a small Wedgwood ashtray. Forgetting I have on my thick serviceable coat and letting my imagination put on an evening gown, I strike a wooden match from my yellow Swan Vesta matchbox, compressing my lips into a rosebud and pulling in on my short fat Silk Cut cigarette. Pretending long nails instead of my bitten ones and extending the cigarette fingers of my left hand, I bring the flame close to my lips for a blow and give the smoking matchstick a regal drop into the Wedgwood ashtray. I take another puff, and I stride (on my imaginary high heels) to the dressing table and exhale at my reflection in the antique mirror. I sit down and join myself for a cigarette. In this light, my brown hair is rich and shiny, my cheeks have roses, and you can't see any pimples.

    Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun has shown with her glare what she thinks of smoking, but I enjoy it. Her husband smokes. She's always buying him pound bags of lemon drops and Pascall crystal mints, hoping he'll like those better than his Rothmans.

IF I WERE WHAT Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun calls a "proper nanny," I wouldn't get such a pretty room. Proper nannies have to go to nanny school, and when they qualify, they get jobs with half-decent pay and sleep in cubicles. "I have uniforms in all sizes," Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun's letter told me. The letter arrived in San Francisco after the phone call. If she hadn't added, "or, you may wear your own clothes if you prefer," I wouldn't have come.

    Up until not so long ago, Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun says, the nannies from the best nanny school wore brown pinafores over crisp blouses of brown and white striped cotton, with starched white collars and cuffs. In Kensington Gardens the prestige nannies must have been as easy to spot as Kellogg's cereal boxes in the grocery store.

    The ex-prime minister and his family visited Scotland, and their nanny wore a tailored gray jumper that looked like a uniform. In the kitchen, on our way into the dining room with the tea things, the ex-prime minister's nanny was horrified when she saw me put my face close to Claire's and exaggerate my lips to whisper, asking if she needed to wee-wee. "We don't say `wee-wee'!" the ex-prime minister's nanny huffed.

    "What should I say, then?" I asked.

    "We say `tinkle'!"

    I saw Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun's eyebrows react. She was the one who had told me to say "wee-wee." (I'd said "pee.")

IF ANY HOUSEGUESTS COME to stay at Troonfachan, I'll be moved upstairs, to what I imagine is a cell. I haven't seen the little rooms on the third floor, because the door to the service staircase is locked. What I imagine is so ugly that I'm not even curious. There aren't any real servants living here now, although there are uniforms—small to huge—hanging in my closet. Mrs. Campbell comes every day to vacuum: she wears a sweater and skirt, and Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun refers to her as "my daily." I wear jeans, and she refers to me as "my American girl." I wish I could show in writing how Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun trills the "r" of American, making it start out with a "d" and following through with a resounding "h." When no one's around, I practice: "Amed-h-hican." Trying to speak as they do is one thing I like about my job.

    I hadn't realized I was coming to a country where I didn't understand the language. I mean English. Not Scottish. Scottish would be impossible. In one of her friendly moments, Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun chuckled that I might write a book on the differences between American and English. If I stay here long enough, with a good enough stock of these heavenly blue notepads, maybe I will end up with something as long as a book.

    The worst example of the language difference happened the night we got to Troonfachan. (It's pronounced TROON-fah-kon, by the way.) It gets dark around four-thirty in the afternoon, so the sky had been black the last hours of our drive. Rain, no moonlight. We were all tired, hungry, and we had cartons of groceries, linens, toys, and books to put away before we could fix supper. When our headlights hit the big old farmhouse, rain whipped at it, and the wind was so strong it was hard to open the car doors. The key to the front door didn't fit. "Honestly, Angus!" She grabbed his keys and the door simply opened. The light switch didn't work. "You don't even know what a fuse box is, do you!" she hissed at her husband. "Melissa, fetch me the torch." Torch? "Oh blast! You just stand there and contemplate while I fetch the torch." Her head tucked down against the rain, she came back from the car with a flashlight. So they call that a torch.

    When she'd filled the house with electricity and I'd put away the children's clothes and made the three beds, I tossed a sheet on my own bed and heard footsteps racing down the hall. She banged on the wall next to my door, which was open.

    "Melissa!!" (You should hear how she hisses the s in my name.) "Melisss-sssa! You didn't make up the cot!" Her face was red as the bullfighter's blanket.

    Explosions of fear went off inside me. I heard my voice quiver as I whispered, with all honesty, "Yes I did. I made up the cot."

    "You did not!"

    "But—I did ..."

    "You did not!"

    She marched me down the hall. There, in the children's room, were the three beds, all made up with sheets, blankets, and pillowcases. One was the small bed, the kind Claire sleeps in in London.

    "You did not make up the cot!"

    I hardly had any voice, but I pointed to the small bed and eked out the words, "Yes I did."

    She pointed to the crib and said, "You did not!"

    "Oh!" I said. "The crib?"

    She glared at me.

    "I'm sorry," I said. "We call that a crib. This is a cot." I pointed to the undersized bed.

AFTER MAKING UP THE crib, I walked down the hall to my room and shut the door. Closing the collar of my overcoat snug around my throat, I sat on the edge of the half-made bed and frowned.

    There is a phone in the kitchen, I said to the room. There is a phone book. Somewhere in this county there are taxis. I have traveler's checks.

     I knew the address was: c/o Haig-Ereildoun; Troonfachan, near Bridie; Aberdeenshire; Scotland. I assumed Troonfachan was a small town. But it's the name of the house. The village, Bridie, is five miles away. That might sound close, except if you have a heavy suitcase, five shopping bags bulging (I wish I'd spent the money on a second suitcase), a tennis racquet, and no car. I'm not allowed to drive their car. And it rains. Getting here, I had the feeling it rained all the time. Now I know it only rains most of the time. The nearest actual town is ten miles away, but it has no train station. The nearest city is fifteen miles, which would be quite a walk, in the rain, with my stuff.

    I went to the shopping bags, suitcase, and handbag stacked in the corner and dug out a Silk Cut and my yellow box of matches. Striking one, I said to myself, I can get back to London. Lighting the cigarette, I thought, If she speaks to me that way again, I will use the phone book, the phone, the taxi, the train, and my dollars. My breath, as I blew out that match, had a satisfying whistle.

    I sat on the bed and smoked and didn't unpack my suitcase.

    The oddest thing happened. The next morning, I didn't say a word about my resolve. But she seemed to know. All that day, she spoke to me as one human being speaks to another. I wonder if my posture told her. After supper, I unpacked my suitcase.

MY WINDOWS ARE TALL and wide. To shut out the cold, you can pull thick curtains, triple- or quadruple-lined. In the morning I'll open the curtains, and although the sky will be pewter, the grass will glow with greenness. The light doesn't seem to beam down from the sky but up from the ground, like green neon. Two or three fluffy white lambs will munch. An organization of Scotch pine trees will poke their stout bodies up around the borders of the grass. Unfurled to the horizon will be folds of patchwork farmland, checkerboard squares of color: ochre, shades of green, and here and there, mustard. Through the branches beyond, I'll see glints of bright yellow daffodils.

    Forests carpeted with daffodils. Those are the words that sailed into my mind the second I decided to come here. I saw the woods Lady Chatterley romped through wearing nothing but chains of wildflowers. I saw luncheons served on the lawn, as in Henry James and Merchant Ivory: wicker furniture and linen tablecloths and silver cigarette boxes. The second I decided to come here was when I heard the pretty music of Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun's English on the phone, transatlantic. "Hang on!" she said. "Do you play tennis?" "Then be sure to bring your racket, as we have courts in Scotland."

    The tennis courts are a crisscross of weeds between chunks of cement. The lawn is too soggy for luncheons. The music of Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun's voice is usually like a soprano hitting the wrong note. But I was right about the daffodils. The forest floor—all its rooms and corridors and crannies—is dappled with more brilliance than streets paved with gold. But without a lover, or a reason to romp, the daffodils give me an odd kind of pain. It's not exciting pain, not the pain so acute you forget everything. It's a dull, polluted disappointment.

    I keep thinking of a poem about sadness. "Ode on Melancholy." By John Keats. I wrote a paper on that poem once, and I got so close to it that I think of Keats as John. He says if you want to face true sadness, don't look at the sad things: "Glut thy sorrow on the morning rose ... Or on the wealth of globèd peonies."

    He thinks that what really wrenches the heart is beauty. "Beauty that must die." But my problem is worse. In these misty forests with yellow dapples, I sense that this beauty is here and will be here, and that I am here and will be here, and that I won't be able to enjoy it. I don't enjoy it.

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Meet the Author

Marjorie Leet Ford lives in San Francisco. She has worked as a broadcast producer and conceived the long-running National Public Radio series "Tell Me a Story," traveling around the world to record great writers, including Raymond Carver, Eudora Welty, John Updike, and Alice Walker, reading their short stories. She was also once an au pair in England. Do Try to Speak as We Do is her first novel.

Marjorie Leet Ford lives in San Francisco. She has worked as a broadcast producer and conceived the long-running National Public Radio series "Tell Me a Story," traveling around the world to record great writers, including Raymond Carver, Eudora Welty, John Updike, and Alice Walker, reading their short stories. She was also once an au pair in England. Do Try to Speak as We Do is her first novel.

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