Sophie Monatte has lived and written in France, New York and Hong Kong. She’s earning her MFA in Fiction at City University of Hong Kong and writing her debut short-story collection in English. Sophie’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, The Writing Disorder, Outside In Magazine and The Red Line. Apart from being a compulsive backgammon player, she is terrified of exclamation points.
Designated Staircase Number Two
Wilma Parker, 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 as beads of sweat run down the nape of her neck; just another June afternoon in sweaty, steamy, sticky Hong Kong.
A sigh of despair fills her throat as she listens to drawling footsteps approaching behind her. Even though she reads it every day—even dreams of it—her eyes are still sadistically 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 until the end of class. Her daughter Marie is frantically frog hopping in the Kids in Motion classroom. The second, longer whistle blast makes her swivel around with resignation. She faces the security guard, a young Chinese man she has never seen before, with eyes so narrow they look like clam shells, waving his finger at her as if to say, Nice try, lady!
He spits his whistle in his right hand and tucks it inside his pants pocket. “Ma’am? Ma’am?” You go where?” He has the vengeful 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: Never ever step out of the house without your Hong Kong identity card. Not when you’re Filipino, anyway.
“I’m going to 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, “Parker.”
“OK, You go other staircase.” The guard extends his left arm 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 when a sharp drilling sound coming from the back of the mall silences her. Hopefully they are building a Designated staircase for Filipino-born women married to Western expatriates. Yes, it does occasionally happen. Three minutes before the end of class. Marie collects her painting, a purple goofy-faced stegosaurus. She puts it carefully inside her schoolbag, her treasure, just 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 go number two staircase.” After each sentence the guard emits a kind of snorty grunt, resulting from savory phlegm or a lingering cold—it’s hard to tell.
“What number two staircase?” Wilma dares him to say it out loud. The one for maids. You look like a maid.
“Yes! Number two staircase,” he repeats. The man is an automated voice message system all by himself.
Wilma is only one floor below her daughter. Marie. Ends with an e, not an a. The guard reaches out, as if ready to grab her elbow and guide her in the right direction. Wilma doesn’t budge.
“What’s wrong with this staircase?” she repeats. 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 menthol 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.
He shakes his head, “You break law, I call police.”
She can hardly refrain from smiling upon hearing the grotesque threat. She refrains, though, because it reminds her of childhood friends, these girls from her village, now here in Hong Kong, Singapore, or Taiwan, these girls not as blessed as Wilma, who would never laugh at such a warning. She thinks about Maggie, whose employers called the police when they discovered she was pregnant. Sweet Maggie, who was immediately deported home after refusing to have an abortion. She thinks about Freya, who was accused wrongly of stealing a necklace, and was still immediately fired once the precious pearls were found, the whole situation making her employers feel uncomfortable. She thinks about Nina, whose employers called the police when they discovered she was sending text messages and pictures of herself to the man she loved. God forbid! Silly Nina—behaving like a person.
“You break law?” the guard asks again.
“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 speaking in Cantonese. Wilma makes up her own translation, “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—rage, shame, a bit of both.
“You can prove?” 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 going to have to present her Hong Kong identity card, how many times? With an exacerbated sigh, she opens her designer purse, searching for her 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 Goodbye 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.
“You Filipino, Ma’am?” the guard quizzes in a ridiculous bad cop 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 jumping up and down victoriously.
“But it doesn’t mean that I’m a maid. Filipino is not a synonym for maid.”
He frowns in confusion, mouthing a silent “What?” but recovers immediately. “Right,” he chuckles. “You show me employment contract?”
He gives a brisk crack of his knuckles. “You illegal in Heung Gong?” His eyes actually blink with excitement.
“No, I don’t have to work. Listen, I’m not a maid. Not a worker. Just a housewife, my husband’s American. American. Meigwok yan.”
“Oh, of course!” he warbles sarcastically.
“Look at me,” she pleads. “My clothes, my necklace, my wedding ring. It’s obvious I’m not in the domestic helper’s income group.”
“Don’t know, don’t know,” he replies, waving his hands in front of her, as if his company policy forbade him to judge people openly from their accessories, only from the oiliness of their skin and the thickness of their hair.
As Wilma 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 rummages 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 attractive mother is returning Wilma’s greeting, her eyes widen attentively, like she’s expecting to be asked for directions.
“This is ridiculous but could you please confirm that I am Marie’s mother?” Wilma snickers 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!” 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 walking away she could be reflecting on the injustice of blood heritage or shedding tears for 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 won’t have to suffer the same discriminations and humiliations. She could be thinking about her mother, who had not been allowed to go back home to attend her father’s funeral; she could be thinking about her grandmother, who had spent her career sleeping on a sweaty kitchen floor like a dog; she could be thinking about Maggie, Freya, and Nina, who got punished for behaving like women in a society which expects them to be maids and maids alone; she could be thinking about all of them and many others.
But what occurs to Wilma at this exact moment is that the designer sunglasses now hiding her sobs of anger and frustration cost exactly twice her Indonesian helper’s monthly salary.