From Spark’s London Story Telling at the Canal Cafe Theatre. The theme for the night’s stories was The Kindness of Strangers.
The Trouser Button
During my two pregnancies I suffered from morning sickness only once: four months pregnant with my daughter, my second child, I vomited one morning into the toilet as my husband walked straight past the open bathroom door. He said nothing. ‘I was sick this morning’ I said that night. ‘Were you?’ he said.
I went out every Wednesday to the Canberra Art School. ‘I probably won’t be in next week’, I said one evening at my drawing class. The young woman who’d been sitting opposite me for the last six months, making careful illustrations in pen and ink, looked up in surprise and asked me ‘Why not?’ ‘I’m having a baby’, I said. ‘It’s due tomorrow’. No one in the class had noticed my pregnancy. I forgot myself sometimes: one day on a crowded bus, the driver yelled back at the passengers for someone to give up their seat to the blind man just getting on. Schooled from early life in manners, I automatically stood up for him. No one else stirred, and he nodded as he took my seat. It was only when, strap hanging, I glanced downwards that I remembered myself that I was seven months’ pregnant.
The early drilling in manners given by my mother stood me in good stead though. It had taught me that there are in the world certain people who like good manners, and respond. This gave me a magic trick.
It’s quiet in Canberra where we lived then, very quiet even in the centre, and there’s no one much around when you are at home with little ones. I would pack my baby into the pram and set off for the Canberra Centre, a shopping mall ten minutes’ walk from our house. Luckily, it didn’t have any automatic doors: luckily, because the reason I went there was to hold open doors for people. Why? Why, when I myself had a pram to manage? Because then a stranger would look me in the eye and say ‘thank you’. Often that would be the only contact with another adult I’d have all day. ‘Thank you’. I was part of the throng of humanity, not trapped in the packaging of our suburban quarter-acre block. I would always join the same queue in the supermarket no matter how long it was, because I had found that one of the till ladies would always ask me how the baby was and say how beautiful she was; but that kind lady was taken off the tills when she was promoted to management.
When my daughter was three months old, I travelled with her and her brother to Hanoi where their father was working. ‘You must be mad to take a baby there’, I was told. But the Vietnamese have children, don’t they? In excited preparation for the trip, I had bought a pair of white trousers that seemed suitable for tropical heat. I got them not long after I’d given birth, and they were rapidly becoming too large as the baby weight dropped off. Buttoned up, they just fell straight down. I can sew, but was occupied with the baby and her five year old brother. I held up the over-large trousers with a nappy pin. Who would ever notice? I felt as good as invisible anyway.
When we arrived at our Hanoi hotel, our room was not ready, so we were brought tea while we waited in the lobby. The receptionist was a very slight young woman beautifully dressed in a flowing, pristine, pure white silk ao dai. The baby had a dirty nappy, so I asked her where I could go to change it. She showed me into the ladies’ toilets. But she did not leave me there. Fussing down over the baby, she insisted on changing the nappy herself. ‘But it’s dirty!’ I said. ‘No matter!’ She did everything with ease and grace, and willingly. This was only the first of the kindnesses that Vietnamese strangers would wrap me in during our two visits to this delightful country. They showered my boy with presents. Men and women alike, they delighted in having their turn at holding and cooing at my tiny daughter.
The maids who came to clean our room at the hotel and to take each day’s dirty laundry would enter the room without knocking – it’s just their way – showing no surprise, embarrassment or concern to find its occupants in any state of undress. They would rush in, smiling and clapping their hands and stretching them out to vie with each other to take the baby for a cuddle. They spoke little English. The language spoken was the universal language of admiring the baby and fussing over the small boy. ‘One boy! One girl! Very Good Mother!’ Of course I did not feel like a good mother. I was sad, exhausted and lonely.
One day after we’d been there a couple of weeks, the laundry maid entered just as I was doing up the nappy pin on my trousers. I hadn’t even any idea that she’d noticed this, as she rushed to make a fuss of the children as usual. But the next day, when the clean, pressed trousers were silently returned, there was an extra, new button neatly sewn in place, in exactly the right spot.
Thank you, Vietnamese laundry lady, for your attention and your thoughtfulness. I remember your kindness still.