Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Sunday, 7 April 2013

Uninvited Guests

Immigration is in the forefront of news these days, parties vying with each other to prove to the paranoid majority that their policy is the most constructive - or destructive depending on which side of the population class/ line you are standing.

     Uninvited guests - what do they have to do to find favour, to be accepted?

     This was brought home to me forcefully when I got a fault in my boiler recently. The gas engineers come and go: 'Not much wrong with it,' they say. 'It's working, innit?' I am not convinced, so yet again I do a call-out.

     This time the guy who comes has a half-Chinese look, and a name to match. But his English is faultless and the accent pure East End. Second generation, I think. I sit on the hall chair waiting for him to come out in five minutes, dust his hands and ask me to sign the call-out slip. The boiler was working, so he could get away if he was so inclined.

     I had a cup of tea while I waited, read the previous day's Guardian, looked at my mail, had another cup of tea. Mmm. ??? I peered into the boiler area.

     The object had been completely dismantled, its innards spilling out over the utility room floor around the engineer. He spent hours with spanner and screw-driver coaxing it to do better. Off and on he went to his laptop to take readings. Then he went upstairs in search of the hot water system and the controls there. He fiddled for another half hour and fixed a valve that had jammed. He then called down to my daughter to put the thermostat up and down several times till he was certain the instrument communicated well.

     Then he came down and explained to me, in some detail, what he had been doing. I was amazed at his discipline and thoroughness.
     'The horrors of immigration,' my daughter said as he left. He hadn't learned the quick-exit methods. He was still carrying his newcomer's desire to impress.

     I thought of myself in this connection: when I worked in projects for the British Council I had a reputation for being the only Adviser who met deadlines. Other Advisers looked at me pityingly for this serious professional flaw - dead lines were meant to be ignored, weren't they? And why was I bucking the trend? Didn't I have anything better to do? Well, there was that too. I was a bit of a joke.

     Yet - I had come from a country where, if I slipped, there would be thousands to step into my shoes. I had to keep to the rules.

     I worked for the North Thames Gas Board briefly when I first landed in the UK. Fifty-nine pence for an hour, I was paid, and if I did well, I could be trained for a managerial role. God forbid - by the third day, I was fed up of connections and disconnections, of bills paid or in arrears. In my room at the lodgings, I had a gas meter, which ate 50p coins. Almost an hour's wage for three hours of heating. In my head also there was a serious disconnection.

     But times were good - there were plenty of jobs for the young - or even the not-so-young like me. At the big table where I fielded phone calls I was flanked by two Cambridge graduates. They were killing time till they decided how to save the world. This was 1974 and the world even then needed a quick save.

     Periodically they asked me to slow down with my files. 'You are showing us up,' one of them said. 'You work too fast.' So I took a Maths book in to read and when the supervisor was looking elsewhere. I caught up on the new Maths, which I hoped to teach. The floor manageress asked me to join the managerial trainees for the next year. I kept my head down and spent a lot of time hiding from her among the basement filing cabinets.

     Even then I knew: as an outsider I had to work twice as hard just to tread water. And so it is still with all the uninvited guests.



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