Assembly Instructions, by Agri Ismaïl

It was early 2008 and houses were going before you even had a chance to see them. So when our estate agent – a leggy Russian who had the magical ability to get men to considerably lower their ask – called us to look at a newly constructed bungalow with a seaside view, we felt pressured to take it. We had been sleeping in Tina’s friends’ guest room since we’d landed three weeks ago and we felt that our presence was starting to bother them. When the estate agent showed us the four-bedroom bungalow, then, we took it even though it was bigger than we needed and located in an area of the city that neither of us actually liked that much. Tina wondered if we could afford it, a concern I waved off in front of the estate agent.

“Look honey,” I said during the inspection of the house, peeking into a small utilitarian room with neither windows nor wall sockets. “You can use this as a walk-in closet.”

This remark led to the one moment of solidarity between Tina and the estate agent as they looked first at each other with exasperation and then at me with pity. This, the estate agent explained to me, was the maid’s room. The walk-in closet was by the master bedroom, she said and gestured to a massive space, all mirrors and light bulbs.

We signed documents that same day, the year’s rent divided into two postdated cheques to the landlord, handed over with a third cheque addressed to the estate agent’s firm. We took Tina’s friends out for dinner that night to thank them for their hospitality and they made a point of ordering a second and then a third bottle of wine.

Our first night in the house we marvelled at the view, at the amount of rooms we had at our disposal. “Did you ever think you could afford a place like this?” I asked Tina who kissed my neck. “We’ll be happy here, I can feel it,” she said.

We made sure to turn off the lights of the rooms we weren’t in. We stole Wi-Fi from one of the neighbours. We sat on mattresses with our laptops on our laps, drank Diet Coke and read the Guardian. We observed from afar the country we had both grown up in crumbling. “It’s so sad,” Tina said. “You just watch, they’re going to blame the poor. Say it’s scroungers and irresponsible loan-takers who led to this.” I squeezed her hand and we looked out over the water of our new home.

Our belongings arrived six weeks later, crates after crates of London belongings uprooted and scattered across this new place, furniture trying its best to fill this gaping space, our umbrellas and winter clothes going from prized, necessary, possessions to extraneous clutter, as were the weather and public transport apps on our phones that went from being prominently features on the first page of apps to being relegated to a folder at the very end nested alongside Stocks and Voice Memos. During this time, we used the maid’s room as a storage space, a waiting room for our boxes until we could figure out what to do with our belongings in this our new home. We donated many clothes to charity.

We noticed that even though we had shipped our combined furniture from our two London studio apartments, half the house remained empty. The furniture that we did own was not stylish or expensive enough for the emptiness to seem to be on purpose, like some last bastion of late 90s minimalism, so we went online and a few days later three men delivered flat brown packages that were assembled into furniture with remarkable speed and efficiency. The men barely spoke when they were in the house (I remember thinking that maybe they didn’t speak the same language although they did look very similar so maybe they were just being polite). They left their slippers outside and walked around the house barefoot. Once they had left Tina would mop the floors clean, but while they were in the house we both sat, wine glasses in hand, leafing through the assembly instructions, instructions that had frustrated us during our student years by their wilful abstraction, directions reduced to images and arrows that lacked any context. We looked at the crudely drawn genderless humanoid figures and sipped our wine.

When the three men had finished assembling our furniture one of them said “water” and Tina went into the kitchen, returning with two large bottles of French mineral water. “For you,” she smiled, holding out the bottles to the men.

It was only once the house was fully furnished that we first discussed what to do with the maid’s room. I distinctly remember, though Tina disagrees, that neither of us wanted a maid at first. We said it was to commodify another human being, to abuse the labour-power that they had to offer (these were Tina’s words, but sentiments that I shared). “I don’t want them to look at me with those sad eyes all day,” Tina said, pouring out the final drops of the last bottle of red we would have until my liquor license was approved, “It’s bad enough to have to see all those workers at the mall or at the gas station.” I agreed. “By having one in our house we’re accepting the exploitation of the working class by exploiting these people ourselves.” We kissed and finished the wine.

When it was time to buy a car I got a 2% loan from a local bank to finance the purchase of a 2-door German sports car. Tina claimed (and she was right) that we needed something bigger for when we did the groceries but I maintained (and I, too, was right) that in the line of work that I was in I needed to project a certain measure of success. If I wanted to be seen by my bosses as one of them I needed to dress and look like them. Dress for the job you want and all that. We later leased an SUV for Tina to drive (she felt safer in an SUV and the size of the boot made it easy to stock with groceries) as the bank wouldn’t give me a second car loan.

Eventually we began using the local supermarket’s delivery service when we ordered bottled water. To avoid gaining weight, which expatriates were known to do upon moving here, we had both enrolled in a notoriously rigid fitness regime that mandated drinking three litres of water every day and Tina, understandably, didn’t want to drive to the supermarket every day, nor did she want to carry six bottles from the garage to the house. Aside from the water, we still did the grocery shopping ourselves as we couldn’t trust the supermarket employees to choose quality produce but so once a week we would call the supermarket and asked them to deliver the full 42 litres of water that we needed. Tina felt bad that we were only ordering water (which was cheap) but I maintained that using their service was actually more useful for them than us pretending they didn’t need the money. I opened a bottle of Fiji water and took a swig. “We don’t have the luxury of avoiding their services – they’re suffering, they’re dying back home. They’re grateful to be bringing us water if that means a tip,” I explained calmly, veering into a capitalist critique that included the line “we may not like it, but that’s how this society is structured, we’ve tacitly accepted it by merely being here”.

I received my first bonus six months into the job, a full 20% of my yearly salary, and after a discussion with Tina I decided that I should buy a good watch. I spent more than I thought was possible to spend on a wristwatch, a simple Swiss piece in rose gold, and knew that this would set me well apart from the others in my department and act as a clear signifier to the Managing Director that I was a man of similar refined taste (the watch was of the same brand as the Managing Director’s, after all).

I am ashamed to say that it was the aforementioned fitness regime that led to the first argument between Tina and myself. I came home from work one day, exhausted and having narrowly avoided three accidents on the highway and found Tina on the couch, in sweats, her face illuminated by that particular blue that backlit gadgets emanated. She began telling me of a particularly egregious example of sexism uncovered by a feminist blog as soon as I walked through the door. She didn’t even look up at me from her screen, she just aimed her inner monologue towards me. “Do we have anything to eat,” I asked and she shrugged, still not looking at me, and said that it was her rest day. I instinctively felt that a rest day should simply mean that we don’t go to the gym, not that we sit around on our arses all day not even bothering to pick up that morning’s coffee cup to put in the sink. Especially since some of us, those of us who worked, didn’t have the luxury of this kind of rest. What she was espousing wasn’t so much rest day as it was goddamn lethargy day, I said. Tina began ranting about gender structures, as though it were the patriarchy’s fault that I didn’t have anything to eat. We ordered takeaway but even though we were promised by the website that the food would be delivered within half an hour it took over an hour to get to us, the driver having gotten lost. We did not tip him.

A few months later I started feeling that I should get a new watch – the one that I had was admired by my colleagues and friends to be sure, but it had ceased, for them and for myself, to be an object of wonder. It was now taken for granted. Whatever boost it had given my social capital, it had now plateaued and I needed a new watch to show that I was still mobile, still on my upward trajectory. For this second watch I took out a loan. The man who sold it to me told me as I admired it on my wrist that this wasn’t just a watch. This was an investment.

Then Tina had a miscarriage. I didn’t know what to say to her. I knew she wanted the child more than I ever did, but this may have to do with the fact that I had only been told she was pregnant two weeks before it happened. She wanted to be sure, she had said, before telling me. So when she had her miscarriage I felt strangely numb, as if this was the culmination of something that only concerned me tangentially. Still, I felt a certain wistfulness at this potential future that had been so brutally erased. I took Tina on an expensive holiday to make her forget about the whole ordeal but she mostly cried. I bought her an exclusive designer scarf at at the tax free before departure that I knew she wanted only to find when we landed that the same scarf was cheaper at the other airport. We didn’t have sex once that trip.

Afterwards, Tina’s parents came to visit; miscarriage emotional support such as it was from the world’s most passive father and most passive-aggressive mother. We took them to expensive branches of restaurants that originated in the London they had just left and they complained loudly about the shallowness of everything here, the lack of culture. “How can you be OK with the way that this society is treating its workers?” Tina’s mother lectured us as she was having her plate taken away. Tina sighed, exasperated. “Mom. It’s more complicated than that.” Though their stay didn’t quite qualify as emotional support, it did give us a common enemy and we found ourselves, once they had left, closer than we’d been in months.

A few weeks later it was felt – once Tina began complementing her fitness regime with yoga and I was spending more and more time at work supervising an M&A that the company was undertaking – that we didn’t have as much time doing household chores as we would have wished. We began, then, discussing employing a maid for the first time in earnest. We looked into getting one of those robotic vacuum cleaners but a quick calculation showed that it would be over a year before it would be cost-effective to get the robot over getting the maid.

The search for a maid was gruelling: hundreds of CVs came in after our one day notice in the local newspaper, rendering my personal e-mail address forever unusable as it instantly became a beacon for every spamlist imaginable, asking me daily in language made to avoid spam filters if I wanted a bigger penis. The women who sent us their CVs often included retouched photos with colourful studio backgrounds.

Their names were beautiful and ridiculous: Missy Sunday Rose, Ladie P. Lim, Violet Fructuosus, Sweet Ellsworth-Hays, Pritty Gatito, Bonbon C.C. Amandine, Princess Ramirez. We interviewed a few, selecting them at random as there was nothing in a CV that made one Filipino maid stand out from another. Tina vetoed a few that she deemed too pretty, as though I would indulge the horrid cliché of the Western man having it on with his maid. The interviews consisted of the same few questions: how long have they been in the country, what was their previous job like, why did they leave and what is their visa situation like. We chose Ladie in the end, based on her eyes. They were trustworthy eyes, I said to Tina and she agreed.

Ladie P. Lim was in her late 30s (the CV listed her birth date) and lived here while her husband (a builder) lived with the two children back in the Philippines (the CV listed her life story, too). She often wore an oversized yellow t-shirt with a faded Tweety Bird on it.

Ladie didn’t move in with us for the first few months. We still felt uncomfortable to have a person who was essentially a servant living amongst us as we ate our food and watched our TV shows. So instead she came by five times a week, taking the metro from her home (a room, she told Tina who would then tell me, that she shared with five other Filipinos) to the station closest to our home where she would either take a bus or, if no bus came, call Tina to come pick her up. She didn’t say much at first, Tina, but eventually she confided to me that she saw hiring the maid counter-productive. If the goal was to give us more free time, then surely her wasting half an hour every other day to pick Ladie up and drop her off went against that goal. I still maintained that it would be weird to have someone to boss around and give orders to in your own home, to which Tina sighed that I would be a terrible father, a comment that hurt more than it should have. I refrained from making it a big deal because I knew that she would later regret having said it, torturing herself over an off-the-cuff remark like this for hours, if not days to come.

When the ripples of the financial crash finally hit us, we began having to think about “making ends meet” again, that Londonian cliché we had hoped to have banned from our vocabularies forever. To be sure, we were far from the epicentres of New York and London so the disruptions were both delayed in time and lessened in intensity. Still, we sold my car and Tina had to choose between the fitness regime and yoga (she picked yoga). We switched to local bottled water and I sold the second watch, finding out that there was no market for it and the people who had sold it to me with such beatific smiles wouldn’t even give me a third of its value now. Tina and I began discussing what to do with the maid, whom we were paying almost seven hundred dollars to a month. We didn’t want to get rid of her – where would she go, Tina told me in hushed tones one day while Ladie was cleaning the bedroom. We have a responsibility to her now, to her family. I agreed, this was a human being after all, not an object to be sold and be done with.

So we lowered her salary to four hundred dollars and let her stay in the maid’s room. It worked out well for all concerned: Ladie didn’t have to travel so far to come to our house and didn’t need to pay rent while we got her to work for us longer hours for less pay. Everyone was happy.

Ladie was meticulous with the house: she dusted not only the places that one would expect dusted but even the top of the closets or behind the media centre were made pristine. We almost made it a game, Tina and me, checking the most hard-to-reach places, to see if she had covered this area as well, dragging our fingers across various surfaces and invariably finding them immaculate. We were almost disappointed that she couldn’t be stumped. She vacuumed only when we were out of the house and did the laundry to Tina’s exacting instructions. We liked her. In fact, even on a personal level, Ladie helped Tina / us through a rough patch when Tina found a bar stub in one of my blazers before sending it to be dry cleaned and found out, by searching online, that the bar in question was a notorious dive to pick up prostitutes. While it was true that I had gone there, it was when I was accompanying a group of German businessmen with whom we had just finalised a deal. None of us did anything other than drink overpriced beers and gawk. The bar, a tiny place with mirrors everywhere to give the illusion of an abundance of women, had a handful of Asian prostitutes all wearing identical-looking black dresses. The uniform-like homogeneity gave them this air of bored service workers, down to the semi-alert gaze that they gave the men they found looking at them while scanning the room like waitresses. Most, if not all, of the women had the same look, a cross between suicidally bored and mechanical come-hither. The men – overweight expats with untucked short-sleeved shirts – had a look of their own, equally complex: intimidated, terrified, with the eyes of children let loose in toy stores. There was a band playing pop covers of the latest hits, a camp male vocalist and a girl wearing a schoolgirl outfit who could very well be one of the other girls in the bar. They were terrible but had many eyes on them since they alleviated the terror of having to speak to the women. When the men weren’t watching the band butcher the top 40, they were looking at one of the many screens showing re-runs of the week’s football matches. There seemed to be a particular terror in being snubbed by a prostitute. So we drank up and went home and I thought nothing more of it because, well, I hadn’t really done anything wrong.

Of course, try explaining that to Tina. The mere fact that I had kept this from her, she said, meant that on some level I knew that it wasn’t OK. So I didn’t sleep with them, that didn’t mean that I hadn’t by my mere presence endorsed an institution that bought and sold women like cattle. How could I not see how fundamentally fucked up that was?

We didn’t speak for days. Having done nothing wrong, for once, I was livid at how Tina was treating me. Ladie became our surrogate child instructed to bring messages back and forth across enemy lines during the days of silent treatment. “Sir says he has work dinner”, “Ma’am says she ordering food” and so forth while Tina waited for an apology that I felt I didn’t have to give. Ladie and Tina spoke a lot during those days, “bonded” Tina would later call it. Often Tina would speak at a volume where even though her words were directed at Ladie, I knew that they were meant for me, as though she were a theatre performer. Then, one day, we made peace. It happened the way that these things always do: we just woke up one day and forgot to be angry with one another.

A few weeks after this I came home from work one day finding a silent Tina sitting on the edge of the bed. A carousel of wrongdoings that I had kept from her circled in me as I sat next to her, put my arm around her and gave her my most emphatic “Honey? What’s wrong?”

“I can’t find my bracelet.”

Even though she had dozens of bracelets, she didn’t need to specify which one she meant – it was the diamond bracelet that her father had given her when she graduated college.

“Did you even bring it?” I wondered, relieved that it wasn’t something I had done.

“Of course I brought it. I brought everything.”

“I just… I can’t seem to recall you wearing it here.”

“I don’t wear it. It’s too precious to me. But I know I had it.”

“Well when did you last see it?”

“Where it always is. God,” she said, thinking me dismissive.

“You don’t think…”

“No. Come on. Not Ladie.”

“Well. If you’re sure you had it…”

“I am.”

“Well. Who else could it be?”

We conducted a stealth search for the bracelet that first day, to make sure that Ladie didn’t notice us rummaging. We were sure Tina had just misplaced it because the alternative – that a woman we had in our house and that we were supporting had stolen from us – was too disturbing.

The bracelet was nowhere to be found.

The second day Tina was looking for it more visibly, leaving drawers open after she was going through them and sighing audibly, banging the doors to all the closets.

I came home from work, having been thoroughly scolded by my Managing Director who had started, in light of recent redundancies, to demand I do the job of three different people. He    told me that if I wasn’t willing to do this, maybe I wasn’t the superstar I had said I was, maybe I was here – the MD had held his palm horizontally, close to the desk – when he needed me here – his hand now eye-level. The house was a mess, papers everywhere, open drawers and clothes pouring out of unzipped bags like the entrails of dead animals.

“Nothing?” I said to Tina who sat there in the middle of the bedroom with a box of photographs in her lap. My box of photos. I noticed the one on the top of the pile immediately – one of me and my ex-girlfriend, our arms around each other in a bar. Which of course would have been OK except for the fact that this particular photo was taken almost three months after I was supposed to have called it off with her, that I was supposed to never have seen her since Tina and I got together. And there, stamped in horrible orange across the lower corner, was the date.

“No. Nothing. It’s gone,” she said, curt. Was she annoyed with me or with the fact that the bracelet was still missing?

“Ladie!” I shouted, “Can you come here one minute?”

Tina hissed at me to not get her involved.

Ladie came into the bedroom, wearing her usual Mickey Mouse t-shirt and pink plastic flip-flops.

“Yes sir-ma’am?”

“Ladie,” I began, thinking it best to keep a calm, low tone. “Have you seen madam’s bracelet?”

“Bracelet?”

“Yes. It is diamond? Diamond jewellery? Her father gave it to her?”

“See. Ladie. It was here. In this box. You didn’t take it to clean? Or to repair?”

“No, ma’am, sorry ma’am. Maybe you don’t bring.”

Tina and I exchanged a pained look.

The next day, when Ladie was at the supermarket to get some water, we went through her room.

The room, the maid’s room that I had once mistaken for a closet, had its walls plastered with gaudy images of the Virgin Mary and of grainy printouts of what I assume were her family members. Neither Tina nor I had been inside it since Ladie had moved in. Tina rummaged through her few belongings, a few clothes and multiple Bibles, and eventually gave up. I myself kept up appearances by half-heartedly looking in the one drawer and under the bed but was beginning to feel tired about this whole affair and wanted it to all be over.

“Honey,” I said, taking Tina’s hand. “I’ll buy you another bracelet.”

“It’s not about the bracelet,” Tina said, yanking her hand out of mine. “Can’t you see she’s taking advantage of us!”

“Well. What do you want to do?”

We let Ladie go that night and told her we would revoke her employment visa. We felt that we couldn’t trust her anymore, regardless of whether or not she had taken the bracelet. She cried as she packed up her room, we could hear her through the door. “She’s trying to make us feel guilty,” Tina said. Maybe she was.

Shortly thereafter, my firm made me redundant (another Londonian word I would have hoped to forget) and we decided to move back home as we couldn’t afford remaining in our luxury bungalow. At some point during the packing process it became clear that Tina and I wouldn’t be moving to the same place. We never spoke of it out loud, it was just a fact that gradually became evident: we were done as a couple. There were no fights, no tears, we just knew that whatever once had existed between us was no longer there.

Tina got most of the good furniture and I took the assembled cheap stuff that we paid some men to disassemble and pack in a container. We had to explain several times that the belongings were going to two different addresses and they had to keep them separate.

My furniture arrived a month later to the north London apartment that I had rented after having stayed at my parents for the first few weeks. I had to download the assembly instructions for the furniture as we had either not kept them or the movers had neglected to pack them. I toiled over the flimsy pieces of wood for days. This stuff, once taken apart, was impossible to put back together.


Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq- and Sweden-based writer whose fiction has appeared in the White Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and the Bohemyth among other places. He has also published essays and criticism in Al Jazeera, 3:AM Magazine and Swedish magazines Glänta and FLM. He tweets at @a9ri.

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