32 HIGHBURY PLACE, Lisa del Rosso

32 HIGHBURY PLACE
by Lisa del Rosso 

God said, “Get off the Tube and call.” It was the only time a voice, an outer voice I swear I heard, spoke to me.  There are, of course, other explanations: it could have been Buddha, Mohammed, a Martian, Satan, or I could have had a schizophrenic episode.  Nevertheless, whoever it was said, “Get off the Tube and call.”  I thought of it as the Tube by that time, not the subway, not anything remotely American.

There was a tiny box of an ad in one of the free magazines proffered at the mouth of most Tube stations. I needed a job and a place to live, so had been perusing the stack on my lap and finding absolutely nothing in my skill set, which was also absolutely nothing. I had graduated from LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), and then was subsequently cast in the Academy’s graduating musical, “The Pajama Game.” The gig came with a small stipend. Very small.

I got off the train and called.

A posh, slightly harassed voice answered. This was Angela.  She said she was a journalist.  She sounded welcoming, trusting. I wondered why. The woman didn’t even know me. My interview was for the following day at 32 Highbury Place, overlooking Highbury Fields.

I hate children. I had been forced, for what I now see as economic reasons, to look after my two younger sisters every, single summer in my teen years (until I got a real job, that is) and resented both my mother and them for what I perceived as a raw deal. Then, it was explained to me that I was the oldest. At thirteen, I was supposed to be “the responsible one.”  And I had no choice.

Those summers completely colored my view on children. I was unable to go to summer camp, even if it was in my own town: unable to hang out with my friends. My time was not my own.  What I could do was read, and hate my sisters. I did watch them; I did keep them safe. But I never wanted to feel like that again: trapped. Caged.

What I was doing applying to be a nanny was beyond me.

If I had had any sense, I’d have read a few books, maybe “Nanny 101,” or “Nannying for Idiots,” or even “What Not to Wear on Your Nanny Interview.” But I read nothing, and showed up at the interview in my street clothes, which would have gone down perfectly well in theater circles, but not so much in nanny circles, or the mothers who hire.

I wore: black opaque tights, black suede heels, a tiny black and red plaid mini-skirt, a black sleeveless semi-sheer tank, and a short, black jacket. Designer Vivienne Westwood would have loved me that day, but she was not looking for a nanny; Angie was.

This is how Angie described me:

The young woman standing on the doorstep could have come straight from a Hollywood film set.  A mass of sheeny black curls cascaded down her back. Full lips were glossed scarlet against a perfect pale complexion. She wore a spray-on tight mini skirt and little black sweater leaving no doubt about her curves. She teetered on kitten-heel shoes. 

I had taken a moment to glimpse through the sitting room window, as I always did when someone rang the front doorbell, making sure I wanted to open the door. To say I was shocked is understatement. I would never have imagined such a person as the owner of the warm, slightly shy voice on the phone answering my advertisement for a nanny for my sons Zek,9, and Cato, 5, 

Perhaps I should have taken pause when she gave me her name – Lisa del Rosso – which certainly has a touch of the flamboyant about it, or when I picked up the New York twang. But she sounded nice and enthusiastic and I needed a replacement nanny badly.

The door opened and a barefoot, lithe blond woman in leggings and a blue top greeted me, complete with a blond male child clutching her side.

Hello, I’m Angela,” she said. “Won’t you come in?”

We walked down a hallway with a checked black and white floor, then through a heavy door into a mauve-colored kitchen. Angie left me for a moment, taking blond male child with her.

I looked around, startled, and realized I was not in another home, or even another country; I was in another world entirely. Their house was a sensory-overload experience. The walls in the kitchen had writing all over them, great scrawls of pencil, up to say, 4 feet high.  The children were allowed to write on the walls? In the house I grew up in, if I had deliberately put one mark on any of the walls that would have been cause for a good dose of corporal punishment.

There was an ugly, grey, unvarnished table that would not have looked out of place in the woods of Maine in lieu of a normal kitchen table, with long picnic benches to match.  There was something called an AGA which heated the whole room and looked pretty old-fashioned and very cool. Colorful crockery piled up in and around the sink. Books, notes, magazines, newspapers and postcards covered every counter, shelf, and most of the table. From the kitchen, one could walk straight through to the sitting room, in an open-plan fashion. There, a worn, green leather sofa crammed with overstuffed pillows in African prints and a wicker chair worse for wear sat on a stripped pine floor. On the walls, a large, neon painting of two girls sitting next to each other, with their knees up, showing their vaginas co-existed next to black and white photographs of what looked like parts of Africa.

I walked away from the neon vaginas, and back into the kitchen. There were French doors that opened out onto an enormous, walled garden, at least 120 feet in length, which was surprising for London. More surprising were the chickens, not in a coop but roaming freely (the coop was at the very back, in a corner, I later found), and a large, panther-like cat being ardently pursued by a bowling ball-shaped white bunny.

I was definitely through the looking glass.

Angela called to me from the kitchen. “Tea?”

“Yes, please,” I said, walking back in and sitting down at the picnic table.

But could this glamour puss so inappropriately turned out for the rough and tumble of our energetic, high-spirited and at times unruly boys, possibly be the right stuff? Still, Lisa,19, had journeyed across London and I should at least invite her in for a cup of tea, and a brief chat, and then it would be thanks, but no thanks, I decided.

Angela asked what I was doing in London, and I told her about LAMDA, singing, and the hope of pursuing some sort of performance career. From there, we segued into museums, theater and books. We seemed to have similar interests and be on the same wavelength, so I didn’t feel intimidated at all, despite the fact that I really did not know exactly why I was there. And she seemed strangely…interested in me. This might have been because she was so used to interviewing people, but I didn’t know that then. Angela has a gift for making people feel comfortable; that what they do in the world matters.

Do you want children?” Angela said.

This was an interview question?

“No, I don’t,” I said.

Oh really, why not?”

And I told her. She said they all sounded like sensible reasons.

Then blond male child came bounding into the room. “This is Cato. He’s five.”

What kind of a name is that?

Ang, who’s this?” he said, rubbing his eyes.

This is Lisa, Cato.”

And they call their mother by her first name. Of course they do.

Another, older child came in, with an unruly mop of bronze hair and a scowl on his face. He was carrying a soccer ball.

This is Zek, and he’s nine.”

Not Zak, not Zeb, not Zeke, but Zek. Okay. If I had that name, I’d scowl, too. The boys kept inching closer to me to get a better look.

So you’re American?” said Zek, with an unmistakable note of disdain.

“That’s right.”

There was a pause. What did he expect, that I’d deny it?

This interview wasn’t going the way I wanted it to at all.

Zek’s small chest was puffed out, like one of those little Blowfish.

Americans are rubbish at football, y’know.”

“You think so?”

Complete rubbish.”

“I used to play on a team,” I said.

Did not!”

“I did. Team won town champs every year I played, too. We were really, really good.”

Zek paused. He looked at his ball.  He looked back at me.  “Prove it.”

I said, “When?”

He said, “Now.”

I looked at Angie. I really wanted to kick this kid’s ass, and I’d do it in bare feet if I had to.

“What size shoe do you take?” I asked.

39, something,” she said.

“Um… translate that?” I said.

7 and a half, I think.”

“Close enough. Do you have a pair of sneakers I can borrow?”

 That might have been that, but within minutes of Lisa perching decoratively on the sofa, Zek, our elder son, came into the room. He heard Lisa ‘s transatlantic twang and burst out: “You are American! I bet you can’t play football”.

The years I played goalie in middle school, I found out I had incredibly fast reflexes, a perfect skill for that position. I also found out I could kick a soccer ball very, very high and very, very far.

Across the street, out on Highbury Fields, I continued to listen to Zek berate Americans and watch him stick his chest out, until I knocked the ball out of his hands.

“Go to the end of the fields.”

What?”

“Go to the end of the fields.”

Right, like you can…”

It was a perfect, early June day: not too hot or too cool. The grass on the field was a green I have only ever seen in the UK and Ireland, due to the rain; the sun was shining in a bright, blue sky. The English call this kind of day rare.

When I kicked the ball, it went so high and so far, I stopped watching it and instead watched Zek and Cato’s heads go up, up, up, and then all the way down.

All was quiet for a moment. Then Zek called to me.

I was wrong! You can play soccer.”

We stayed out there for about 45 minutes, playing and kicking the ball around. It was great fun.

It was a moment of transformation! Lisa kicked off her high-heels, asked if she could borrow a pair of sneakers and within minutes she was out on the green opposite our home with Zek and Cato, playing a makeshift football match. And, as Lisa later put it, she “kicked the crap out of them.”

That impressed me as much as it did the boys, and during the “trial day” Lisa came to spend with us, I was won over by her artless friendliness, her obvious delight in the unorthodox way we lived, and her immediate rapport with the boys.

Angie hired me, and two days later, I moved in.

We all sort of fell in love with each other; Angie had no daughter and I had no family in London. Being the boys’ nanny never felt like a job, it was more like being paid to play and wrestle and get mucky, like an older sister. It completed the circle of my interrupted childhood. Angie once told me, “I’ve always said my children are the best form of birth control.” Except, I became that daughter and for over twenty years, they have been my second family. My life was changed irrevocably because I listened to a voice I swear I heard, and made a phone call.

Lisa del Rosso originally trained as a classical singer and completed a post-graduate program at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), living and performing in London before moving to New York City. Her plays Clare’s Room and Samaritan have been performed off-Broadway and had public readings, while St. John, her third play, was a semi-finalist for the 2011 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Literary Traveler, Serving House Journal, Young Minds Magazine (London/UK), Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, The Neue Rundschau (Germany), Jetlag Café (Germany), Writers on the Job, and One Magazine (London/UK), for whom she writes theater reviews. She is working on a collection of essays and teaches writing at NYU.
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