Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Márai on class and qualified tradesmen

Judit, the ex-maid speaking to her lover, shortly after the Communist take-over in Budapest, reflecting on her days in service. She married the young master of the house, of course. And divorced him too, a lot richer, but, by now, a fair bit older. Here she reflects of middle-class manias and indifference.

The old woman had a cleaning mania. Despite the servant with his tidying and me with my work she would call in outside cleaners once a month, people who arrived like the fire brigade, complete with ladders and strange machines, who washed and scraped and fumigated just about everything. We also had a regular window cleaner whose one job was to wash and wipe the windows that we, the resident staff, had already washed. The laundry room smelled like an operating theater, where they destroy the germs by radiating the place with blue lamps. It was so superior, this laundry room, you might have taken it for an expensive, upper class funeral parlor. I never entered it without a sense of faint religious awe, and then only when her ladyship allowed me in to help the laundress who washed, ironed and folded linen as precisely as a village woman washing the dead and sorting the newly dead man’s clothes. You may be sure they weren’t about to trust me, a slattern by comparison, with delicate, highly professional work such as the great annual wash!... It was a special laundress who came, summoned by an open postcard from her ladyship to the effect that she should rejoice and prepare, for the dirty washing was waiting for her!... And of course she did come, delighted to be of use. My help was limited to assisting her put the finest shirts, underwear and damask tablecloths through the mangle. On no account would they trust me with the washing itself!.. But there came a day when the laundress did not appear when called. Instead thre was a postcard written by her daughter. I remember every word of it since it was I who took the post upstairs and, naturally, I read whatever was not in an envelope. This was what the laundress’s daughter wrote: “Dear madam, I regret to inform your kind ladyship that my mother can’t come to do the washing because she is dead.” She signed it, “Your humble servant, Ilonka.” I remember the way her ladyship wrinkled her brow as she read the card. She looked cross and shook her head. But she didn’t say anything. At that point I stepped forward and volunteered and, for a while, they let me do the washing, at least until a new laundress was found, one who was a laundress by trade and was still alive.

Because everything in that household was done by qualified tradesmen. ‘Qualified’ was one of their favorite words. If the doorbell broke it wasn’t the manservant who fixed it but a tradesman called in for the occasion. They trusted no-one but qualified tradesmen. There was one fellow who came regularly, a man with a ceremonial air, wearing a bowler. He was like a university professor called to a council meeting in the provinces. His job was to cut corns. But he wasn’t just any old cutter of corns, the kind people like us sometimes visit in town, slipping off our shoes and extending our feet so they can slice the corn or an extra growth of hard skin away. What a thought!... He wasn’t even a common kind of home chiropodist – we would never have allowed one of those in the house. No, this man had a business card, you could find his telephone number in the directory. What it said on the card was: Swedish pedicure. We had a Swedish pedicurist come to the house once a month. He always wore black and handed over his hat and gloves with such ceremony when he entered I felt so overcome with awe that I almost kissed his hand. My own feet were frostbitten, on account, as you know, of those damp winters in the ditch and I had corns and bunyons and ingrowing toenails that were so painful I could hardly walk. But I would never have dreamt of asking this foot artist to touch mine. He brought a bag with him, like a doctor. He put on a white gown, carefully washed his hands in the bathroom, preparing himself for the operation, then took an electric gadget from his bag, something like a small dentist’s drill, sat himself down by her ladyship or the old man, or my husband and set to work with the electric chisel shaving away the hardened parts of their gracious skin… So that’s our corn cutter. I must say, darling, one of the high points of my life was when I was lady of that refined house and ordered the maid to call the ‘Swedish pedicurist’ because I desired to have my refined corns treated. Everything happens in life eventually if you wait long enough. Well, this happened.

Not that he was the only qualified tradesman to call round. A great deal of such activity followed the moment I brought the old man his orange juice. He lay in bed with the bedside light on and read an English newspaper. The Hungarian papers, of which there were a great many in the house, were only read by us servants, in the kitchen or in the toilet when we were bored. The old woman read the German press, the old man the English, but mostly only those pages that were full of long columns of numbers, the daily updates on foreign stock-markets, because while he wasn’t a great reader of English the numbers did interest him… The young gentleman read now the German, now the French papers, but as far as I could see only the headlines. I expect they thought these papers were better informed than ours, could crow a bit louder and tell bigger, more whopping lies. That appealed to me too. I’d gather up whole bed-sheets full of foreign papers in the various rooms, nervous and awestruck.

So, after the orange juice, when it didn’t happen to be the Swedish pedicurist, it was the masseuse. She wore lorgnettes and was quite rude. I knew she stole, dabbling with sticky fingers in the bathroom among the creams and cosmetics. But she pinched cakes too, and the exotic fruits the manservant had left in the parlor from the day before… she’d quickly stuff her face with two mouthfuls, not because she was hungry, simply to deprive the house of something. Then she’d enter her ladyship’s room and give her a thorough pounding.


Billy C said...

"Then she’d enter her ladyship’s room and give her a thorough pounding."

The anecdotes amused me, George, but on that final one, I burst out laughing. Yes, I like this maid. :)

lucas said...

Marai is pure magic. I've only read him in fragments, but clearly it's time to do more than that. Wonderfully observed/recalled/invented.