This is it. Gearing down in my fourth-hand, seaweed-coloured Opel Monza, I decide this is the moment where my life is about to change forever. I take the right hand turn into Hollywood Drive. It’s not really called Hollywood Drive, but as far as neighbourhoods in Johannesburg go, this is pretty darn close. Most of the embassies and consulates and what-not are here . . . Well, a lot of houses have flags on them so I’m just assuming. I have heard that some of the most expensive houses in South Africa are on this street, as well as some owned by high-profile politicians, so naming it Hollywood Drive just seems appropriate to me.
My cell begins to vibrate with a purr.
“Hi Mom,” I’m a little annoyed that she has phoned me again. “Actually I’m driving right now . . .”
Mom doesn’t seem to understand the cell-phone-to-car-driving illegality ratio and most certainly doesn’t believe in the fine I would get if caught.
“Yes, I am on my way to the new job . . . No Mom, it’s not that politician’s house. I just said they live in the same street!”
Now she’s going on about some guy she read an article on in the Sunday Times. I should never have told her he lived in this area. Her voice is suddenly earnest and reminds me of my grandmother who would cling to her seat like a kidnapped victim whenever my dad picked her up and drove her anywhere. Mom’s been getting worse ever since I moved here.
“I am just concerned, you know, that you are not thinking this through properly.” She pleads. “You’re not in Cape Town anymore. You might think it’s very glamorous, but Joburg is different – you really have to be careful! I was watching Carte Blanche and that character apparently had sushi served off naked women at one of his parties . . .” Seriously? That sushi incident was years ago. Does she have back dated recordings that she sits and watches over and over again? I wouldn’t put it past her. Her voice, accelerating to a high speed quiver, interrupts my thoughts. “Oh, Jemma, I really hope you aren’t thinking of becoming that sort of girl. First you take up with that… that girly-boy, and now you are selling your body. I knew this day would come. Ever since you and your brother stopped going to church!”
“Mom! Please calm down. I told you this is an au pair job. Just like the ones I had before. Fully clothed! Nothing to worry about. Just ask Jason. And actually, I really am driving so have to go . . .”
Now is so not the time to get into another argument. I am on an important mission right now. Mission Hollywood Drive.
I have driven past the house, or rather, The Estate, where I will be working, a few times over the last couple of days to familiarise myself with the ins-and-outs of my new work-hood; good thing too, because there seems to be a lock-down feature in this part of suburbia that turns the entire block into a giant security village between certain hours of the day. Giant gates have been erected across all access streets but one, and are barricaded off.
I have done the drive a few times – you have to circle an entire area like a vulture before making your way in, which feels like a bit of a waste of time. But as a criminal deterrent, I bet it works, based solely on the fact that would-be attackers and thieves just couldn’t be bothered to put in the time and petrol emissions. Even if they did make it in, that over-enthusiastic private security bunch that followed me while I was rehearsing my first-day-at-work drive would put them off. I mean, they really followed me. Me! With a face like this? I have freckles!
“Babysitting is not a real job, Jemma. I thought we discussed this . . .” Mom is still speaking. I’ve been able to block her out until now. Sigh.
“No Mom,” I resign myself to the fact that we will, in fact, be having yet another one of these conversations. “We didn’t discuss anything. And it’s not babysitting. They advertised for a ‘governess’. I’m an au pair.
“Some people make a career out of it. Who do you think looked after Prince William and Harry when they were small? Not just a babysitter. An au pair! Anyway, Mom, I really do need to go now. I promise to call tonight. Love to Dad!” I hit end call quickly before she can protest.
I drive past the swanky suburban perimeter gates, flash the guard at the entrance boom my most winning “This Time I Actually Do Work Here” smile and take the next right to my destination. Watching the street in my rearview mirror for any potential security inquisitions, I stop the car for a minute. Yes, this all feels right. Well, almost everything. The air is melting hot in my idling car, as usual, and she lets out a loud back-fire, inciting further interest from the security post. As much as I love the old girl, as soon as I save up enough for a deposit, I am totally getting a new car. And with this job, that won’t take long at all.
My phone purrs again.
“Mom, I told you, I’m driving! Please–”
“Good Gaga, child!” The male voice on the other end of the line is comically surprised, with just a hint of indignation. “If I’m your mother, then there are some dark drugs at play here!”
“Oh, I’m so sorry Frederick.” Woops. “I thought you were my mother. Was just getting another lecture from her about the job.”
Frederick is my bff, the one Mom calls a ‘girly-boy’. The concept of genital based gender classification seems to be entirely lost on her.
“Oh good.” Frederick breathes out in relief on the other end of the phone. “So I’m not your mother after all. Phew! I was about to start worrying about stretch marks. Having a baby will do that to you, you know. Unless you are Victoria Beckham…”
“Oh, no. Stretch marks? We wouldn’t want that!”
“Jemma darling, I just wanted to wish you luck with the meet-and-greet. Knock ’em dead, sweet-bottom.”
“Thanks Frederick. You’re such a honey. I’ll see you later though, right? You’re coming over this eve so I can tell you all about it?”
“Definitely. See you then!”
I hang up, look at myself in the rearview mirror once more, dab at my damp face with the handy tissues I always keep in my oven-on-wheels, and add a dust of fresh face powder to hide my pink-cheeked, thirty-five-degree Celsius excitement. So not a good look.
“OK, Peaches,” I say out loud to my car, “here we go!”
Happy and hot-flushed-faced, I arrive at my new place of work: 8 Bishop Drive, Sandhurst, Johannesburg. Home of the rich, the royal, and the totally awesome.
I sign the registry (the registry! For a private home!) with a dark man in a crisp white pajama-come-butler suit at the entrance to the driveway, start Peaches up again with the usual splutter, and navigate her along the windey path towards my sparkling future.
The cobbled stone bricklets clink under my car tyres all the way up the shaded drive and I see the beautiful, clear blue Highveld sky peeking through the leaves above me. On the left of the path I keep catching small glimpses of the grounds. Firstly tennis courts. A bit retro – old money for sure – then smooth sheer lawns. Some heavily manicured bushes and shrubs, and I could have sworn I saw a big grey animal galloping up the garden. As I’m about to speed up – this is taking ages – I see it. Rising up above me like a glowing beacon of all things wonderful to come: the main house.
Woooooowwwww. A fresh wave of excitement bubbles up in my tummy and I can’t help but grin like the Cheshire cat. This is my new ‘office’? No wonder they are paying me so much.
I see Kobus, personal assistant to Mrs Totally Awesome and the one who hired me, standing close to the side of the house-come-Palace chatting to another dark man dressed in white. There is a parking area to the left, so I pull Peaches up to a stop and switch off the ignition. I make sure my hand brake is as high and tight as it can go – there is no way I’m chancing a freak accident with Peaches rolling into one of those Greek-ish white marble statutes on the other side of the neatly bricked drive. They’re surprisingly ugly, but very expensive-looking. All Rands and no sense, as Mom would say.
Kobus is now heading over the lawn towards me. I do one last lip-gloss check in my cracked rearview mirror and climb out of the car. A light January breeze catches my skin as I turn to face Kobus, whipping up the ends of my hair, and it makes me feel all fresh and giddy. In the glorious presence of this house, I am suddenly a bit light headed.
“Miss Richardson!” Kobus stumbles over a few bushes, then quickly backtracks to make sure he didn’t do any damage. He straightens up again and gives me a discoloured toothy smile. “I’m so glad you’re here!”
“Please, call me Jemma. Wow, what a place!”
He bustles up to me, slightly out of breath, and sticks out a damp hand to shake mine. “Welcome aboard, Jemma.”
I had a full hour-long interview with him two weeks ago at offices belonging to one of the companies my new employers own. I was just about to give up all hope when he called back. I did think it was a bit odd that I got the job before I met the parents or their children, or even found out their real names, but I suppose with this kind of client, you can’t be too careful. They’re famous, after all. “Practically royalty” were Kobus’s exact words in the interview and I am guessing he acts as a buffer against the paparazzi and would-be chancers who might try to pose for the position just to get close to the family. An international flag (Japan? India?) flutters in my peripheral view and I suddenly feel very special. Trusted. Discreetness in this neighbourhood is clearly a necessity, but he chose me.
I wonder, for the umpteenth time, who these people could be? Mr and Mrs Totally Awesome, yes, but who are they really? Frederick and I spent hours over pink cocktails discussing the possibilities. He suggested the Dalai Lama, but even I know that’s not probable. Is it? How old is he anyhow and is he allowed to, you know, mate? Or is it just the Pope who’s not allowed a Mrs Pope?
My mind starts wandering again: Maybe it’s a local T.V. celebrity. Like that guy Mom loves on Carte Blanche – maybe he has small kids. Or it could be a high-profile parliamentarian. . . After all, doesn’t that other guy live on this block. . . Oh no! What if it is that other guy? I’m not sure I’m ready for naked sushi parties . . .
Kobus sees the worried look on my face. “Are you nervous?” he asks kindly.
“Oh no,” I quickly recover, widening my eyes at him in a show of enthusiasm. “I just can’t wait to meet the family. Will both parents be here today?”
“Actually . . .” Kobus lingers on the word apologetically. “Neither. The lady of the house is – er – out, and the father of the children doesn’t live here any more. They’re divorced.”
“Oh,” I’m a little taken aback. This isn’t exactly what I was expecting, but I guess he never did specify whether it was a single-parent home or not and I never asked. And if the father doesn’t live here any more, the chances of naked-sushi parties seem very low. Which makes me feel a bit better.
But neither of them being here on my first day of work?
Too busy to meet the stranger you have just hired to care for your children?
“No matter,” Kobus chirps. “Let’s go see the girls, shall we?”
He’s a funny round sort of man, all jolly like Father Christmas but with the distinct creases of corporate stress lines on his brow. Come to think of it, his eyes also seem somewhat shifty – sort of like his exterior is programmed in saying “Welcome to this happy healthy working and living environment” but his interior is a scrawny, panicked little white rabbit man, desperate to scurry away. A stain on his middle and index fingers match the stains on his teeth, confirming a cigarette addiction. He’s probably just hyped up on nicotine.
I follow his smoky aroma round the drive-about and up towards the monstrous sky-high glass doors at the main entrance. There is an elaborate fountain positioned with enough space for cars to, I imagine, be valeted to and fro. A deluge of rich watery shrubs and glistening rock features coat walls on either side of the walkway between the drop-off-zone and the front entrance. And is that Koi I see? I love koi fish! I cannot wait to tell Jason about this place. My twin brother would get such a kick out of it.
“Those koi are so karmatic! I love the colours,” I say matter-of-factly to Kobus. I like to use words out loud as soon as I invent them – that way they seem more real and I get to pretend they exist, which is fun. When people don’t call me on it, of course. I would never do it on Twitter.
Kobus gives me a strange look, puts his hand on the elaborately carved stone handle, and after a second glance at me (perhaps I should have gone with ‘karmic’), pauses and turns his whole body to face me. “You will obviously be using the staff entrance round back normally, but just for today let’s go through here.” He sort of twinkles at me, as if to convey what a privilege it is for us to be using the ‘regular folk’ entrance. I nod and pretend to be honoured.
As he pushes the thick patterned glass doors open, I catch my breath. Straight ahead, with a skylight directly above, streaming light down on to its shiny perfectness, is a gorgeous white spiral marble staircase. It’s as if I have died and been brought to the ethereal stairway to heaven!
Kobus bends down and unlaces his matt-black snakeskin shoes. “No one is permitted to wear shoes in the house,” he explains. “Dust from the outside world brings in bad omens.”
“Bad omens?” I ask, a small laugh escaping before I can stop it.
“You know, bad luck, nasty demons, the tokoloshe – that sort of thing.” He rolls his eyes ever so slightly, but gestures for me to take my shoes off too.
He’s funny. I knew I’d like him.
Obediently I start to un-do the buckle on one of my fuchsia pink, wedge-heeled gladiator sandals.
After placing my shoes carefully by the doorway, I step onto the white marble floor. Suddenly I feel disjointed. Those shoes were the final touch to my meet-and-greet outfit. I had started trying different ensembles the moment I got the job, and must have changed my mind about a hundred times since then. They’re not going to notice your shoes, Jason had practically yelled at me when I asked if we could go for one last mall search, as I had ‘nothing to wear’.
He was right after all – they aren’t even going to see my shoes now.
I smooth down my black stretch pencil-skirt, feeling suddenly short. I had chosen to wear the ever-faithful interview top again, even though Kobus had seen it at our first meeting. It’s a sapphire blue polar-neck sleeveless top that looks just formal enough for someone to take me seriously, and yet bright enough to make me look fun and interesting – the way I imagine you would want your child-minder to be. The stretch skirt was chosen to reflect flexibility and competence when it comes to running around after toddlers. Corporate-black, of course, to show that I am a professional governess, not just a babysitter.
But the shoes were special. They were what made me feel good about myself, giving me the final essential to every outfit: Confidence. I take a deep breath. It will all be OK. No matter how short or incomplete I feel.
“These are all genuine Samurai swords,” Kobus gestures in a hushed voice, sweeping his arms round the room. The enormous staircase is in the centre of a wide entranceway with high walls and three separate archways leading off to other sections of the house. The surrounding walls are set off with ancient paintings and magnificently worked swords hanging in glass floating frames. Miniature down-lights highlight the shiny metal.
“Ah, Tulie. Jemma, Tulie is the head housekeeper here, and the best person to ask any questions you may have about the rules. Tulie, this is the new au pair.” Kobus steps aside so I can see a small sturdy barefoot woman dressed all in black coming through one of the arched entrances. The black tunic makes her look as though she belongs in an exotic Indonesian health spa, leading me off to have my hot stone massage.
“You no use staff entrance?” she says to Kobus in a blunt monotone. She turns to me and sticks out her hand. “Nice we meet, Jemma.” As I shake it, all visions of Indonesian back massages disappear. She must have more callouses on her hands than a hard-boiled lumberjack.
“You have an interesting accent, Tulie,” I try a friendly smile. “Are you from here?” She stares at me. “Er, from South Africa?” I add, just to be sure.
“No,” she says, and turns to walk away.
Sheesh. Tough crowd! No karmatic-ness going on there.
“Erm,” Kobus looks at me uncertainly, then quickly hurries after Tulie. “Come on, Jemma,” he adds. “Let’s go meet the girls.”
Kobus explained in the interview that I would be taking care of two girls, one aged five and one aged seven. I would be a live-in au pair from Mondays to Fridays, and be expected to stay on weekends when asked to. Holidays were negotiable, but I would most likely travel with the family over that time. Extra pay would of course apply. My duties would include waking the children, getting them dressed and packed for school, driving them to and from school and any other extra-curricular activities. I would help them with their homework, monitor their progress, liaise with their schoolteachers and report back on everything to their mother. I would indulge them with play time, but it was also my responsibility to be sure they were spending a few hours a day on non-school-related educational activities. I wasn’t sure how the evenings would work, but I supposed there would be family time and I would only be needed if their parents worked late or had engagements to attend to. I was planning on discussing this hidden aspect of the job description with my new employers when I met them, but I guess, considering their absence, that will have to wait.
Kobus and Tulie are way ahead of me now so I hurry up to follow them and try not to get any more distracted by the ornate-looking vases and statues along the walls, ignoring the distinct feeling of Alice in Wonderland, falling down that rabbit hole. I walk down a long open passageway, past the entrance to what looks like a sunroom (in the same way Marie Antoinette would describe her “summer cottage”) and out some stack doors on to a brightly-lit terrace.
I shield my eyes, momentarily blinded by the sun, and hear splashing, giggling . . . shouting . . . screaming . . . galloping . . . ? And then thud! Everything goes dark.
Opening my eyes I realise I am lying flat on my back on smooth, buttery tiles, and a giant sea-lion is slobbering all over my face.
“Bruno! No! Down, Bruno! Down!”
I scramble to my feet, thanking my lucky fairy-star-dust that this skirt goes to my knees with enough give to avoid embarrassing panty-flashing moments, even though they are pink and part of a matching set. In the event of head-on collisions, I hear my mother’s voice echoing in my head as I rub at the bump on the back. She never warned me of animal encounters.
Suddenly remembering where I am, I push wildly at the hair stuck in my mouth and turn to see four bewildered faces staring at me. Five, if you count the dog – though he doesn’t look concerned at all. He looks more excited than anything, as if he is just itching to have another go at me. Kobus is holding onto the bouncy six-foot Weimaraner who obviously thinks this is all a big game.
“I’m so sorry, Jemma. Bruno! Down! Jislaaik, I’m gonna klap you.” His Alberton accent is suddenly much stronger as he wrestles the dog. “Jemma, are you OK? Did you hit your head?”
“I tell he bad dog,” Tulie looks mildly indifferent. “You want cold cloth?”
“Er, no thanks. I’m fine.” My voice has gone up a few pitches, and I am burning red with humiliation. I rub the back of my head again, checking to see if the bump is growing, and wince slightly as my fingertips find the tender patch.
Tulie shrugs, and ushers two children towards me. She reminds me of a mother hen with them, all dusty and flustered. “This girls. Girls, this new babysitter.”
Great. Even they call me the babysitter.
I look past Tulie as two of the most angelic-looking, raven-haired girls step forward. Both still dripping and in matching swimsuits, the little one with arm bands on, they shake off some of the excess water, their eyes fixed on me.
“We are so sorry. He loves to jump at people.” The taller one speaks first in an assertively husky, yet childish voice. “I’m Tasanee, and this is my little sister Lola. It’s so nice to meet you.”
She pronounces her words carefully, formally. She holds out one of her hands to shake mine. Like a grown-up. I can’t help hesitating in surprise for a moment. These girls must be used to all kinds of important people being around, I guess – what’s one new babysit . . . au pair to them?
“Lovely to meet you too, Tasanee.”
She has wide oval eyes and a round face like the sun. Her grin is big and full of oversized teeth, planted with just the perfect level of politeness. She’s very sure of herself, evident as I take her hand and feel her firm grip.
The little one hasn’t said anything yet and is standing slightly behind her big sister. Head tilted down, she peeks up at me through a silky sheen of black hair falling over one side of her baby face. Her eyes are beautifully oval like Tasanee’s, but more slanted in the corners, and her lips are much fuller. She holds no resemblance to her sister’s confident exterior, but rather looks like a scared, delicate princess in a Disney storybook. As soon as she catches my eye, she pops two fingers into her mouth and starts sucking furiously. I sink down to my haunches and tilt my head to one side.
“And it is very nice to meet you too, Lola,” I soften my voice encouragingly. She is holding a plush toy rabbit to her chest and is swinging her body slightly from side to side. “Is that your rabbit? What’s its name?”
Lola takes her fingers out of her mouth just long enough to say “Mu” and then goes straight back to sucking the finger-dummy, and cuddling her bunny. Then she holds out the toy for me to see. She has the cutest shy voice – much sweeter than Tasanee’s loud annunciation.
“Those fingers must be very tasty,” I lower my voice to a secretive whisper and give her a wink. She giggles sheepishly, revealing tiny front teeth set skew in a jaw of milk-duds.
“Oh, Lola,” sighs Tasanee loudly. “You can be such a baby sometimes!”
“Well, I’ll let you girls get acquainted,” interrupts Kobus, still struggling with the dog-monster. “I’ll just put Bruno back in his kennel and have a chat to Tulie, then we can all give Jemma a tour of the house.”
I straighten up again and watch as Tasanee elbows Lola playfully. She drops her shy surveillance of me and starts chasing Tasanee along the stone patio and down some steps to a pool area. I follow them to see the whole garden open up in front of me like the grand grounds of Versailles. The terraced pool is on a deck overlooking a lush green lawn and has a glass front that overflows to another pool a few meters below. Further down the hill are intricate pathways, trimmed hedges and ponds stretching all the way to the tennis courts at the bottom. No wonder it took me so long to get up the driveway. This place is huge!
“Watch this, Jemma.” Tasanee dive bombs into the pool causing Lola to squeal in delight and jump back as water splashes all over her.
“Do you like to swim a lot?” I ask, finding a dry deck chair to sit on.
“Oh, yes!” answers Tasanee, emerging from the luxury pool. She stalks over to where two towels are laid out and lies down on one of them. “I also like to tan,” she says with an overly mature air. Lola has trotted across to where her big sister is sunning herself and copies her, lying stomach down on the free towel.
“Dry you self, girls!” Tulie’s authoritative voice croons from the patio door. “We show Jemma house now.”
“Where is Tulie from?” I can’t help but ask Tasanee as we walk back up to the house. I know she’s only seven, but something about her makes me automatically want to relate to her like she’s older.
“Oh, she’s Thai. The last one left,” Her matter-of-fact statement baffles me slightly, but I decide not to push it just yet, remembering that she is, in fact, only seven and I should not be gossiping with her like high school teens.
Tulie takes Lola’s towel from her and starts to rub the little girl up and down roughly, making her look as though she’s about to fall over. She squishes up her face as Tulie ruffles the towel over her head. “Tulieeee,” comes her muffled complaint from behind the aggressive drying.
“You must dry before walk in house,” Tulie scolds. “Mummy get very cross.”
The tour of the house leaves me breathless. I have never in my life even dreamed of a place like this – a home so decadent and embellished. There are four main living areas downstairs, a spacious, fully-equipped gourmet kitchen, and two wings on the top level.
The East Wing – seriously, that’s what they all call it – belongs to the mother and I don’t get taken beyond the entrance to her passageway. The West Wing contains three bedrooms and a playroom. Each girl has her own double bedroom with a four-poster princess bed, a TV cabinet, walk-in closet, and a sofa lounging area at the bay-style window, littered with enough stuffed toy animals to populate their own plush zoo. Tasanee’s room looks like a shrine to Hello Kitty. Her bed linen, throw cushions, wall clock, bedside lamp – all Hello Kitty. Her toys seem to be ninety per cent Hello Kitty related, and even her laptop, strategically placed on a mini pink Hello Kitty homework desk in the corner has a bedazzled Hello Kitty cover and screensaver. Both rooms have en-suites with heated floors, Tasanee’s with a Hello Kitty bathmat, of course. They both have rainforest showers, jet-stream Jacuzzi baths and stage-lit make-up mirrors. I walk around, taking in every detail in amazement. Everything is pink and purple and silver glitter and white fluffy cushions and Swarovski crystal and fairy lights. It’s the princess room every little girl dreams of.
But the best part, the very best part, is that my room is exactly the same!