Wash and wipe

“These qualifications are handed out to people in underdeveloped…er…developing…countries on the basis that something is better than nothing” gravely intoned the official at the Department of Education and Science, dismissively handing back Sunil Herath his clip file. “…not intending to be nasty”, was thrown in as an afterthought. Sunil was left to arrive at the inevitable conclusion that he was not qualified for a teaching position in the United Kingdom.  Until that moment, Sunil had fondly believed that all that promised to be his entitlement to a glorious future in a new land, was contained in that clip file.

Vexed though he was, he could not deny that the official was right.  He had not worked as a teacher in his own country, although he had invested the last few years of his life acquiring teaching certificates awarded by the education department of southern Australia.  As a 16-year old school leaver, he had won a Foreign-Aid correspondence scholarship leading to a diploma in primary-school teaching. While engaged in low-paid, mind numbing, routine clerical chores at the municipality during the day, he had pored over cyclostyled notes and paper-bound texts sent by Air Mail from Australia most evenings at home. He assiduously completed all assignments.  Accumulating the annually awarded modular certificates, he fervently hoped that someday these would provide the key to a better life.  It did not occur to him that it was pertinent he had never been inside a classroom in a teaching role.

So, he was now a ‘coloured immigrant’ in this great metropolis, London, of which he had heard, read, and seen pictures, both still and moving, throughout his young life.  He believed that it was all those certificates he had collected that earned him a ‘priority voucher’ to enter Britain. Yet, London, England, now that he was physically there, was quite a strange place to him. Sunil struggled to get his bearings and acclimatise himself to the new surroundings.

Sunil had always prided himself on his good command of English. His parents, who spoke no English, had sacrificed so much to send him to a renowned ‘public’ school in the capital.  He was boarded at various private houses during his secondary school career in the capital, Colombo. Undernourished and physically weak, he could never aspire to any sports or athletic achievements. However, he had diligently acquired six GCE O’ levels, with his best subject being English.  He regularly won the class prize in the subject.  He contributed short stories and sketches to the annual college magazine and the youth page of the ‘Ceylon Daily News’. He prided himself on his mastery of the English language.

Suddenly in London, he was made acutely aware that he mispronounced even the most common everyday words. Television in his country of origin was still some way off in the future.  With independence from the ‘mother country’ there were very few authentic models left that he could emulate.  His participation in British Council activities had been few and far between, although he used the library as often as he could. Sunil realised with dismay that he was perhaps speaking a patois that a native English speaker would hold in disdain.  It took some effort therefore, for Sunil to look the education department official in the eye, and to utter with strangulated dignity “I understand… thank you very much Sir”, before bowing out.

Sunil could not have been anything other than polite.  Both his primary and secondary education in the old colonial capital had ensured that he would always be well behaved and respectful towards his seniors and who he thought were his betters.  He began to realise that at this stage in his life, practically everyone he encountered fell into one or the other of those two categories.

Never mind, he would still be able to survive by washing dishes – rather, pots and pans, at the newly built Hilton Hotel.  A friend, more an acquaintance, someone from the old country whom he had run into on the day he arrived, had promised that he would have no difficulty in finding a temporary job to tide him over.  A job, any job, was what he needed.  Cash-strapped Sunil had sold his foreign exchange allowance of £150 to a better-off fellow passenger on the French ship that brought them to Southampton via Suez and Marseilles.  All that remained now from that transaction were three crisp ‘fivers’ thinly lining his plastic wallet.

“That’s almost two week’s wages” Derek had consoled him.

Enough to buy a couple of shirts, a tie and a jacket to go with his pair of cotton trousers. He grabbed a corduroy sports jacket, size 40, displayed in a shop window priced at four pounds, ten shillings, and sixpence.

“You’d never be without a job in this country. Plenty of washing-up jobs in hotels and restaurants. Besides, between jobs you could always go on the dole.  Nobody minds that, as long as you’ve put enough stamps”.

“Stamps? Whadya mean? Postage stamps? What’s this ‘dole’ business?”

“On your card – insurance card.  Oh, never mind about the dole. You’ll soon learn”.

Derek Caspersz, a fair-skinned ethnic minority member, a burgher of Dutch extraction from the old country, had lived in London for over a year. He obviously felt he had more going for him than the brown-skinned newcomer boasting of ‘qualifications’.

“Forget the damn paper qualifications.  Everybody gets more or less the same wage at our level.  Paid weekly too”.

“That so – weekly?” This was news to Sunil.  He knew how difficult it was to make the monthly pay last even a fortnight in his previous, one and only job, back home.

“You get very little by pen-pushing.  So, get those god-given muscles working, mate.”


Oh yes, Derek was fast becoming a Londoner.

Sunil Herath, even though skinny, at five -foot-ten was taller than most of his compatriots.  He pulled himself up to his full height and squinted dismissively at Derek. He, Herath, had set his sights on other, more serious and better things in metropolitan London.  For now, there was no shame in starting as a kitchen porter. He would take up the job offer.  Hilton Hotel was only a few minutes walk from the Kardomah café where the ‘mates’ had been drinking coffee.  Sunil had been ensconced in digs in a back street in Knightsbridge, which again, Derek had arranged for him.

The man next to Sunil scrubbing great big copper pots and pans was a diminutive Yorkshireman named George.

“Wastaben lad, we’re all f***ing foreigners here”.

That was George’s way of making friends with Sunil, the other ‘pot washer’, who had been instantly christened ‘Smilee’ by the kitchen fraternity.  More than half the kitchen staff, especially chefs, sous-chefs and cooks was German or Swiss, and obviously, the two KPs were the lowest in the hierarchy.  For some time Sunil wasn’t sure whether George was speaking to him in English and even whether Yorkshire was a foreign country.  The first week or so, Sunil would wince every time George used the f…word.

Sunil works long hours and eats at least two meals at one of the Hilton kitchens.  He has no aversion to eating anything they provide, including all meats, but he does sorely miss his curry.  It took him some time to learn that there was a Ceylon Student Centre close by, where he could occasionally get his fill of authentic hot curry.

The first few days of eating at the Hilton, Sunil has to rush to the toilet quite frequently. The big Chef is none too pleased when the unwashed pots start piling up.  He tells George to keep an eye on the slacker.

“Hey where’re you taking that effing pan?”

Sunil drops the milk pan and instead grabs an empty milk bottle.  That should do, until I get back to my digs, he thinks.  As soon as he returns George eyes him suspiciously.

“What the f.***ing hell are you doing in the can – with that damn bottle?”

“Bad tummy George, sorry!”

“I know you are shitting in there but why the bloody bottle.  Every time you go to the loo you got to carry something.  Keep you f***.ing company? Is that it?”

“Look at it this way George”.  Sunil picks up a small used milk pan and wipes it with a paper towel. “Is this clean George?”  He shows the pan to George.

“No f***.ing way. I didn’t see you wash it?”

“That’s what I mean George”.  Sunil takes the pan and holds it under the tap.  The pan is rinsed in soapy warm water.  He then wipes it with the paper towel.  “Is it clean now?”

“What the f***ing hell are you playing at?”

Sunil thinks that he is now ready to use the Queen’s English.

“I am demonstrating to you George, that while you ‘stupid effers’ just wipe your asses, we civilised folk from Asia, always wash before we wipe”.


By Migel Jayasinghe



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