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Meet my au pair…

May 22, 2007

When I was about two or three, my mum decided to go back to college to do a B.Ed (my five-year-old brother and I thought it was hilarious that mummy was going to school to study duvets and pillows). My father was a high-flying surgeon at the time and so we rarely saw him in the week days. So it was necessary for my parents to take on an au pair. Think what you like about families who do this, but my parents thought they were doing the best for their children. Far better to have someone living in, like another member of the family, for their children to get close to and trust, than a succession of random, faceless baby sitters. Not sure why they didn’t choose nursery. Maybe they thought we were too young.

Anyway, so I was very interested to watch Cutting Edge: Meet The Au Pairs (Ch4, 9pm) last night because, like many others, I thought there was a bit of a stigma against parents who go down the au pair route. My middle-class shame made it impossible to admit that we had au pairs growing up to friends and family. Yes, we could afford it. No we weren’t like that hideous Chelsea single mum, whose daughter plays the harp and asks for a finger bowl when eating chicken croutons (or drumsticks to you and me).

My parents were most like the Scott-Darlings (except with a less wanky name), who hired Turkish au pair, Perin, for their three young boys. On her first day Perin, desperate to find the sea, takes the boys on a 20-minute trek, tripping across busy traffic to finally find a stony beach full of sea-weed and washed up shopping trolleys. This really reminded me of a vague memory I have (filled in since by my hysterical mum) of one terrible au pair we had who, having got to the end of her tether with a three- and five-year-old left us on Dulwich High Street to find our own way home. I clearly remember my brother grabbing my hand as we crossed one busy road, and several passers by stared open mouthed (of course, no one did anything!)

As revenge, when my brother and I got home, we decided to create the bathroom disaster to end all bathroom disasters. We locked ourselves in and sprayed the place with toothpaste, hair gel, mummy’s special perfume, daddy’s shaving cream. We made as much mess as we could and somehow thought we could get away with blaming it on our au pair (don’t feel sorry for her. Remember what she did). My mum came home to find said bathroom and didn’t need us to tell her we hadn’t particularly taken to our new houseguest. She freaked out when we told her what she did though. Ha!

After that, we might have had other au pairs, but I’ll never forget one truly special person. According to my mum, Liz Thomas met my mother in a park. She was an au pair for another family and my mother had taken us out for the day. They got chatting and swapped numbers and then one day I think Liz called my mum to see if she wanted a coffee. I’m not sure of the details, but Liz became our au pair soon after.

She was amazing. So creative. We were never bored, and she ensured that we had an early childhood full of fun and laughter. One time she made me a hobbyhorse. I’d always wanted one and so she whipped up a black beauty, with gold ribbon for reins and a black mane that would fly in the wind as I raced him around the garden. Honestly you couldn’t have bought a better quality horse in a shop, it was that good. Another time, she gave me her childhood doll, Zoe. She was about knee height to an adult, but about half my height at the time, I suppose. Apart from Liz, she was my best friend. Except she didn’t have any clothes. Not to worry, Liz and I (well Liz) bashed out a wardrobe to rival Gautier. These were clothes to scale – teeny tiny stitches and darts that could have been carried out by a professional dressmaker. I picked the fabric and Liz then made Zoe: a nightie, a quilted dressing gown (she actually quilted it herself!), a posh dress and a day dress. Sadly I think I only have Zoe’s posh dress now as it all got lost in various moves.

Liz was a devout Christian. I think she might have even been a born-again Christian (the worst sort!). As a not-very-religious Jewish family, my dad didn’t care at all. But my mother (who always wanted our family to be a bit more active on the whole religion front) was always quite uncomfortable with Liz’s faith and there was an underlying tension, ever present in the background. I didn’t mind. Liz read us bible stories and that’s just what they were to me; stories. Eventually though, my mother asked her to leave – I’m not sure why.

But Liz was truly amazing. It must have been very difficult for her to live with a family that was essentially in meltdown. My father’s alcoholism had reached a point where he’d become quite violent towards my mother and sometimes towards myself (although to a lesser extent). I think one time Liz had talked to my mum about it, but I’m not sure what had happened. All I know is that, had Liz not been around, I’m sure my brother and I would have been more effected by The Divorce than we have been; Liz’s mere presence took our attentions away from our parents’ crumbling marriage and on to painting and making and doing. She was a wonderful, caring person and I shall never forget her.

But I’ve lost her. Every so often I launch a mini campaign to try and find her again and tell her just what she meant to me. But each path reaches a dead end. All I know is that her name is Liz Thomas, her dad used to work for Armitage Shanks (so I always think of her when I wash my hands!). I think she was a nurse at some point (either before or after her stint with us) and that she or her parents might have lived in Ealing at some point. But that might just be my memory playing tricks. At the time, she was tall, thin, had very dark brown (almost black) straight hair in a bob and wore glasses. I even tried asking the folks at Trisha to help track her down, but they never got back to me. They only like dealing with chavs obviously. Can you imagine the show if they had toffs like me guffawing all over the stage?

So that’s Liz. Destined to stay in my memory, forever thought of with fondness and love…

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