Wilma Taylor, born Arellano—pronounced ah-ray-YAH-no—is about to walk up the first step of the concrete staircase when a disparaging whistling sound makes her flinch, less a startle reflex than the expression of a dreadful anticipation. She stands still, a sigh of despair filling her throat as she listens to drawling footsteps approaching behind her. Even though she reads it every day—well, she even dreams of it—her eyes are still masochistically drawn to the dauntingly large sign right next to her at the bottom of the stairs, Designated staircase number one for regular People. Dogs and helpers, proceed to Designated staircase number two on the other side of the shopping plaza. Even dogs are entitled to their uppercase letter.
Wilma glances at her watch, four minutes before the end of class. Her daughter Marie is frantically frog hopping in the Kids in Motion classroom. As the second longer whistle blast becomes more determined in its shrillness, Wilma swivels around with resignation to face the security guard, a young man she has never seen before, with eyes so narrow they look like clam shells, who’s waving his finger at her as if to say, Nice try, young lady!
He expertly spits his whistle in his right hand and tucks it inside his pants pocket. “Ma’am? Ma’am?” Where did the d vanish? “Where are you going?” He has the revengeful air of a scapegoat who’s been waiting since kindergarten for his turn to lash out. Well not today, young man! By now, Wilma has learnt her lesson and never leaves the house without her Hong Kong identity card.
“Sunshine House. The preschool.” Wilma indicates the second floor of the building with a nod. “To pick up my daughter. Marie.” She adds in an exaggerated tone, “Taylor.”
In the irritated mumble of someone whose job consists of repeating the same line over and over, the guard starts, “Please proceed to the other staircase,” his left arm extended in the direction of the plaza’s west wing. Five minutes walk. Five more to run up the stairs two by two and stride past the bakery selling the stale pineapple buns Marie devours in one bite, the local cha chaan teng restaurant, the foot massage place, then all the way through the suspicious-smelling Wellcome supermarket to finally access the school premises. There’s not enough time, yet Wilma can’t resolve to say it out loud. I am not a helper. She’s about to ask what’s wrong with this staircase but gets silenced by a sharp drilling sound coming from the back of the mall. Hopefully they are building a Designated staircase for Filipino-born women married to Western expatriates. Three minutes before the end of class. Marie collects her painting, a purple goofy-faced stegosaurus. She puts it carefully inside her schoolbag as if it were as precious as mommy’s diamond wedding ring.
Another wheatish-skinned woman dragging a wailing dog heavier than her on a leash walks towards the West wing, chatting animatedly on her cell phone in what sounds like an Indonesian dialect. The reddish-brown and white fur ball belongs more to Siberia than hot and humid Hong Kong judging by the distraught way its tongue is lolling out of its mouth. The girl’s gaze is fixed on Wilma and the guard. It’s unclear if her head is outrageously shaking at the injustice of the scene or at a colleague’s arrogant presumption.
“Ma’am. Please. You have to use the other staircase. The one on the other side of the plaza.” After each sentence the guard emits a kind of snorty grunt, a taste for savory phlegm or a lingering cold, it’s hard to tell.
“What other staircase?” Wilma dares him to say it out loud. The one for maids. You look like a maid.
“The one on the other side of the plaza.” The man is an automated voice message system all by himself.
Wilma is only one floor below her daughter. Marie. Ends with a e, not a a. The guard reaches out, as if ready to grab her elbow and guide her in the right direction. Wilma doesn’t budge, a freedom fighter.
“What’s wrong with this staircase?” she reiterates. Two minutes. Marie puts her shoes on by herself for the first time, smiling proudly at her teacher. The whole school is cheering.
The security guard remains silent, swaying on his heels. When Wilma turns towards the stairs, he starts anxiously looking in his pants pocket for his whistle, lost among a soft pack of cigarettes, a mucus-soaked Kleenex, his latest Galaxy smartphone and an Octopus card with 4.60$ credit remaining, twenty cents short of his bus ride home.
“I have the right to use this staircase,” she insists.
“Ma’am, have you read the sign?” The guard points in an aggressive I’ve had enough movement.
“Every single day,” she barks. And then she settles down again. “Twice a day actually. Every morning when I drop off my girl, and every afternoon when I pick her up.”
“Oh, I see, so you confess to breaking the law twice a day.”
“I am not breaking any law.”
A yellow stray dog approaches sniffing around, its eyes roaming over the ground, unconcerned. It pauses at the infamous sign, one leg up, a few drops of urine spurting against the pole, and then starts lazily climbing up the steps. Halfway through the staircase, the mongrel sits for a second as if worn-out from the hike, then slowly retraces its way back down the stairs and walks away in the direction it came from. As if the security guard suspected the dog’s disruption was in fact a diversion attempt orchestrated by Wilma, he dramatically takes a walkie-talkie out of his shirt’s pocket and with the voice of someone who’s been watching his share of law enforcement television shows, he starts, “This is Staircase Number One. We have a situation here. A helper who refuses to proceed to the other wing.”
“I am not a helper,” she finally shouts in a quivering tone hovering between rage and shame.
“Can you prove it?” He enquires, his eyebrows teasingly wiggling at her.
“Is this a joke?” She raises her hands to her head, nervously shuffling along. How many times is she gonna have to flash her Hong Kong identity card, how many times? With an exacerbated sigh, she opens her designer purse, searching for her designer wallet. Her wallet? She did remind her helper to replace it inside her bag after tipping the delivery guy. Right? One minute. Marie is singing the Good-Bye Teachers song at the top of her lungs. Proud mothers are taking turns to peep inside the classroom through a little hole designed for that purpose.
“What’s your nationality Ma’am?” the guard quizzes in a FBI kind of tone.
She can explain; it’s all right. “Well, I was born in the Philippines, but—”
“Ha, see!” Upon hearing this self-incrimination, the guard almost starts victoriously jumping up and down.
“But it doesn’t mean that I’m a maid. Filipino maid is not a pleonasm.”
He frowns in confusion, mouthing a silent “What?” but recovers right away. “Right,” he chuckles. “Do you have your employment contract with you?”
“My—No!” Her eyes bulge in exasperation.
He gives a brisk crack of his knuckles. “Are you working illegally in Hong Kong?”
“What—No, I don’t have to work. Listen, I’m not a maid. Not a worker. Just a housewife, my husband’s American.”
“Oh really?” he warbles sarcastically. “Never heard this one before!”
“Look at me,” she pleads. “My clothes, my haircut, my necklace, my wedding ring. It’s obvious I’m not in the domestic helper’s income group.”
“I wouldn’t know Ma’am. I’m not authorized to judge people from their appearance.”
“Right,” she explodes with an ironic guffaw. “Strictly from the oiliness of their skin and the thickness of their hair. I see.”
As she takes her phone out of her handbag and starts urgently looking for family pictures, she hears the sharp clicking sound high heels make on concrete stairs. A pretty brunette in her late thirties appears, holding hands with a sulky little boy. The guard greets them with an elaborate nod resembling something of a royal bow. Wilma’s grin as she recognizes her daughter’s classmate rapidly turns into a panicky wince when she realizes she’s late. Marie is waiting in the entrance hall, crammed between an oversized aquarium and a coat rack. Teachers shake their heads. The secretary searches through her files for Wilma’s cell phone number. A Peppa Pig sticker is solemnly brought over.
A hundred and twenty-six steps below, the mother is returning Wilma’s greeting, her eyes attentively widening, almost expecting to be asked for directions.
“This is ridiculous but could you please confirm that I am Marie’s mother?” Wilma chuckles at the absurdity of her own question, as if saying, I know, right? Some people!
The brunette darts a quick worried glance at Wilma and the man then without a word pulls her kid closer to her and quickly walks away like someone escaping from a beggar.
Exasperated, Wilma puts her hands up and yells, “Please! You know I’m not a helper. We see each other every day at school. Twice a day!” She stomps her feet in rage. “Your son peed in his pants yesterday.” She lets out a loud frustrated grunt and without a final glance at the security guard, she starts sprinting towards designated staircase number two.
While running away she could be reflecting on the injustice of blood heritage or shedding tears for her own poor mother and her even poorer grand mother and entire generations of Filipino women who bravely yet vainly sacrificed their lives, their youths, their marriages, their self-esteem and any chance of happiness they had just to ensure that Wilma would never have to suffer the same discriminations and humiliations. But no, what occurs to her at this exact moment is that the designer sunglasses hiding her sobs of anger cost twice her Indonesian helper’s monthly salary.
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