"I will never understand these New York women." Magda said to her husband, Alexei, as she shelled peas in the kitchen.
"They live in such a rush," she went on. "In the morning, they drink only coffee, and say they have no time to eat breakfast. A sandwich at their desk in the office, and take-out in the evening. They have no time to sleep properly, so they drink more coffee the next morning. It is no wonder they are always so tense."
She glanced over at Alexei, who was sitting at the kitchen table nearby with a newspaper, and he nodded.
In Magda's opinion, the women whose houses she cleaned were almost mad with this need they had to be independent, this need to show that they did not need a man, that they did not need anybody. And none more so than her newest employer, the high-flying lawyer Miranda Hobbes, with her red hair and her spacious apartment on the Upper East Side that she was hardly ever there to enjoy.
It seemed such a lonely way to live. These women knew much about sex (Magda had found some things in Ms Hobbes' bedroom that she could not even work out what they were for), but they knew little about love. They didn't seem to understand love at all. She put the peas to one side and started chopping bacon. "Of course, if I try to tell them these things, they think I am just a silly old woman," she said with a wry smile. "Well, I thought the same about old women when I was their age. Talking always of nothing but marriages, and babies, and which woman was not looking after her husband properly." She paused. "But they knew more than I realized. They knew about love – how it is complicated and real and wonderful. And about people – and how they will often surprise you, if you let them."
Alexei grinned as he reached out and squeezed her bottom. "Surprise!" he said.
"No," she smiled back. "I guessed you were going to do that."
Magda quickly learned how Ms Hobbes liked things to be done, and they treated each other with mutual respect. But after several months she had come no closer to understanding her.
Magda approved of Steve. He was not false. He did not hide behind his job, his background, his education, like some of the men Ms Hobbes had brought home. A cruel person would have pointed out that this was because his job, his background, his education were none of them impressive enough to hide behind; but if anyone had said this to Magda she would have given them one of her looks. He was a good man, and that was what mattered. And he was good for Ms Hobbes. He made her slow down, made her laugh, showed her that she did not need to be doing every minute of every day.
When Steve and Magda were alone together he asked her about her life and he was really interested, not like some of her employers who tried to be familiar just because they were not comfortable with the idea of someone working for them, but who did not listen to her replies, and did not remember from one week to the next what she had said.
So Magda told him about Alexei, and his work as an electrician. About their small flat in the East Village. About their ten-year-old great niece, who sometimes visited them on Sunday afternoons.
And he told her about his Ma, Mary, and her love of the society pages in the New York Times. And about his elder brother and the Saturdays they'd spent as teenagers cheering on the New York Knicks from the cheap seats when they could get tickets, and sneaking into sports bars to watch the games on TV when they couldn't.
And, as time went on, she told him about her life in the Ukraine before she moved to New York. About the terror in the days after Chernobyl, knowing that even the air you breathed was poisoned. About keeping faith alive when the church was illegal. About her little red-haired daughter, Elena, her only child, whose birth was difficult and left her damaged inside. Who was beautiful, and quiet, and good. Who died at the age of eighteen months.
And he told her about growing up wearing his brother's hand-me-downs, which hadn't even been new when his brother had got them; and evenings spent in the dark because his Pa – who worked on building sites – hadn't been able to get work that week, and there were no coins left for the electricity meter. And how his Pa had been a boxer in his youth; and was a gentle and quiet man most of the time, but sometimes, the day he'd been paid for a job, would come home drunk and angry; and the boy Steve would know there would soon be blows and screaming and he couldn't stop any of it. But, he quickly continued, he didn't want Magda to get the wrong impression of his Pa – they'd been a happy family most of the time, and his Ma had been devastated when his Pa had died two years ago.
Steve was the kind of man Magda would have liked her daughter to marry, even though he did not earn much money in his job as a barman. But, she thought, perhaps, like Ms Hobbes, her daughter could have earned her own money.
Magda couldn't help overhearing the row. Ms Hobbes voice was sharp and exasperated. Steve's was confused and defensive. The two of them had always argued a little, but recently the rows had seemed fiercer, and more frequent, and they were never quite made up.
"For God's sake, Steve. I am not your mother!"
"I don't want you to be my mother. I want you to be my girlfriend. Why can't you just open up and trust me a little?"
"Well, maybe if you showed the least sign of responsibility – of behaving like an adult. But no, you're the eternal kid. Always expecting other people to pick up after you."
"Don't patronise me. I can look after myself just fine! I'd just...you know...I'd like to be able to look after you, sometimes, too."
"Oh!? Now who's being patronising? I'm not some fainting damsel in distress, you know. I don't need protecting or rescuing or whatever you need just to make you feel like a big strong man."
"That's not what I meant. I...oh forget it."
And Magda heard the front door slam.
When Magda heard that Ms Hobbes had split up with Steve, she said nothing. But that day she worked silently, instead of singing as she usually did; and scrubbed things rather more fiercely than necessary.
She complained to Alexei about it that evening. He smiled and reminded her that it had taken him three years to persuade her to marry him. "Do not worry, "he said, hugging her and kissing her on the forehead. "If it is right, fate will make it happen."
A few months later, Magda noticed that Ms Hobbes was growing fatter. When it became obvious what was happening and equally obvious that Ms Hobbes was not going to volunteer any information, she asked. "You have baby?"
Ms Hobbes sighed. "Yes," she replies, and sounding as if she had said all this too many times already, she continued, "Steve's the father. It was an accident. We're not getting back together."
The baby – a boy - was born that spring. Magda visited Ms Hobbes in hospital, bringing a bunch of red and white tulips and some homemade pastries. The morning sun was streaming through the window, and Miranda Hobbes had the embarrassed radiance of all new mothers.
"You look beautiful," Magda said.
"Yeah, so everyone keeps telling me," Miranda replied. "Glowing, they say. My hair needs a wash, I've got bags under my eyes, I haven't had zits like this since I was a teenager, and I've got discharges coming from places you really don't want to know about; and yet everyone keeps telling me I look beautiful. There must be some kind of law that you have to say that to new mothers. "
Magda smiled. "People say it because it is true."
Miranda called for the nurse, who brought the boy from the nursery. She had named him Brady - Steve's surname.
She held the infant warily. Magda could guess that Miranda had not been the sort of girl who had spent hours playing with dolls. Magda had not much liked dolls when she was a child, either.
"Want to take him?" Miranda asked.
Magda reached out for the child. His scalp was already covered with fine hair, and it was red like his mother's. Like her daughter's. His eyes were half-open, and he whimpered slightly at the disturbance, not really distressed.
"Welcome to the world, little Brady," she said quietly.
Magda did not like Lina. Lina was the woman Ms Hobbes had hired to look after Brady. But she was not the right sort of woman to look after children. She did not laugh, or smile, or sing. She did not love children. And Magda knew that babies needed love, as much as they need food and warmth, if they were to grow up strong and healthy.
It was 9pm and Magda was in the kitchen, scrubbing the skirting boards. Lina had left at 8, as soon as her contracted hours were up, pausing only to check that Magda would be staying until Ms Hobbes returned. Brady began to cry, and she went and checked that his diaper was clean, then returned to the kitchen. But his crying continued, and she heard it move from tired whimpering to a gulping wail of real distress and fear. She sighed, then pulled off her rubber gloves, and went through to his room.
He was lying in his crib, screaming. His face was red and he had kicked his blanket off. She picked him up, and began to sing, tentatively at first, and then with more confidence.
Spy moye dityatko
Ya sberezhu tebe vid kolodu
Sberezhu tebe vid vovka ta vedmeya
Miltsno spy moye dityatko
[Hush little baby, my little baby
I will keep you safe from the cold
Safe from the wolf and the bear
Sleep soundly, my little baby]
She sang it a second time, and then a third, rocking him, comforted by his warm weight in her arms. Before too long, his cries died away and he fell asleep. She laid him tenderly back in the crib. The sun had set whilst she was singing, and the room was now almost dark. Moved by a foolish impulse, she leant forward, and kissed him lightly on the forehead. His skin was soft and warm and slightly damp. "Spy moye dityatko" she whispered.
She turned round, and with a jolt saw Ms Hobbes standing in the doorway.
"That was beautiful," Ms Hobbes said. "What was it?"
Magda started straightening up the bottles of baby lotion on the stand, feeling two spots of colour burning in her cheeks and trying fiercely to suppress the tears that were suddenly pricking behind her eyes like a sneeze. "Is old Ukrainian song," she said.
The next day, Miranda Hobbes called Magda into the lounge, and asked her if she would consider looking after Brady as well as carrying out her housekeeping duties. She started to say that there would, of course, be an increase in Magda's wages to compensate her for this extra work, but Magda was nodding vigorously in acceptance before Miranda had finished the sentence. She sang as she cleaned for most of the next three days. And she continued to sing lullabies to Brady when he would not sleep.
Steve adored his son, taking every opportunity to visit, whether he had arranged it with Miranda beforehand or not. This annoyed Miranda; but Magda was more than willing to conspire in it. Partly, of course, because she thought it was important for Brady to have the chance to get to know and love his father. But partly because – well – perhaps sometimes fate needed a bit of help.
It was Brady's first birthday, and the apartment was filled with party guests. Steve was there. So were his new girlfriend and his mother, Mary; as well as Miranda's current boyfriend and her three closest female friends – the married one, Charlotte, had also brought her husband. There was also a clown, hired by Mary Brady, who everyone else was trying to ignore.
Mary Brady and Steve's new girlfriend were in the kitchen, drinking beer and laughing loudly, when Magda came in searching for the birthday cake (and also for Steve and Miranda, who both seemed to have disappeared).
"Oh. I think Miranda took the cake through to the storeroom, so there'd be more space in here for the drinks and snacks," Steve's girlfriend said.
In the storeroom, Magda found Steve and Miranda. They were looking into one another's eyes, and glowing with a sort of confused joy. They jumped apart as soon as they saw her. Magda smiled, and closed the door again. The cake could wait for a few minutes.
The day before Miranda and Steve's wedding, Magda happened upon Miranda standing before the mirror, wearing the long burgundy dress she had chosen for the occasion. Magda met her eyes in the mirror, and smiled. "You know, I wish my mother could have been here for this," Miranda said quietly.
Magda looked Miranda up and down. "I think she would have been very happy. And very proud of you," she said.
Miranda bit her lip slightly, and smiled. She nodded. "Thanks," she said.
"Magda," Miranda said one day a few months later. "Mary Brady is going to come and live here with us. She's had a stroke, and she can't really live by herself any more. She's kind of...confused."
Magda sighed inwardly. She had tended to stay out of the way when Mary Brady visited. Mary Brady did not really understand the idea of a housekeeper. She wandered into the kitchen and tried to help. And she drank too much, and got sentimental, and wanted Magda to get sentimental too. Magda did not do sentimental – at least not the way Mary Brady did. But there was nothing else to be done.
It was obvious that Mary Brady was not quite right in the head any more. She'd get Steve confused with his brother; or think Brady was Steve as a baby again; or not know who Miranda was at all. Magda would come in in the morning to find the contents of the kitchen cupboards strewn over the worktop, and packets of crackers and half-eaten jars of peanut butter in Mary's room. She couldn't help noticing how tired Miranda and Steve both looked. Only Brady, too young to understand, seemed unbothered by the presence of this new person in the household.
A few weeks later, when Miranda's friend Charlotte was visiting, Magda suddenly heard Miranda shouting in panic, and then the front door slamming. She hurried down the corridor to find Miranda gone and Charlotte holding Brady. "What's happening?" she asked.
"We found the front door open and Mary gone," Charlotte explained. "She was saying something earlier in the afternoon about visiting the zoo with Steve. She thinks Steve's still a little boy. Miranda's gone to find her."
An hour passed. Miranda had still not returned, and Charlotte had to leave. Magda let Brady play with some empty detergent bottles while she did the laundry, and tried not to worry.
Eventually, she heard a key in the front door, and then Mary's voice. "I'm all dirty. These clothes are smelly. Why doesn't anyone take care of things in this house? And I'm cold."
"Come on,"Miranda replied. "Let's see what we can do about that."
Magda was carrying another load of damp clothes past the bathroom door, which was slightly ajar. Mary was in the bath. Miranda was gently squeezing a sponge so that the warm water ran down Mary's back. Mary was laughing like a child.
A few hours later, Magda was ready to leave for the day. She glanced into the dining room, and saw Miranda sitting at the table, a half-drunk cup of coffee in front of her, and looking utterly collapsed like a balloon a week after a party. Magda could no more walk past, pretending she hadn't seen, than she could walk past a lost child on the street.
She went to Miranda, her heart feeling oddly swollen and tender.
"What you did..." she paused, trying to find the words. "That is love. You love." She did not know if she meant love for Steve, or for Mary, or love as a way of behaving, a way of living in the world. Maybe she meant all of those. Maybe that was what love was – not just two people, but the web of support and care that, between them, they wove around all those they knew – friends and family and those like her that weren't quite either but who still cared. Cared, perhaps, more than they admitted even to themselves.
Miranda glanced up at her, and Magda could see even more clearly how tired she was. "Let's not make a big deal of this to Steve," she said faintly.
If there were words for what she wanted (no, not wanted; needed) to communicate at that moment Magda did not know them. Instead, she leant over and pressed her lips to Miranda's brow, one hand reaching up to cradle the back of Miranda's head.
She straightened up. "I'll - see you tomorrow, then" she said.
"Alexei?" she asked sleepily that evening when they were lying in bed. "You know I love you, don't you?"
"Of course I do, my darling," he replied. "I love you, too."
Love, Magda thought.
Real and complicated and wonderful.
In New York or anywhere else.