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99 APRIL 2007
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the literature


In Paid Servant (1962), the sequel to his 1959 novel To Sir, With Love, E.R. Brathwaite wrote about his work with Social Services in the UK. This is a brief excerpt.

I remembered the address of Roddy’s mother which Miss Storey had given me, and, acting on impulse, decided to have a try at finding her. The address was in a dingy side street, not far from Paddington Station; the apartment house was, from the outside, as clean as the prevailing soot and grime allowed. Miss Williams' flat was at street level; the closed door and heavily curtained windows gave it a somewhat deserted air, and it was without much hope of finding her in that I knocked on the door. I heard movement inside, then the door was opened. She stood there, blinking in the bright sunshine, her slim figure wrapped around in a thick towel robe, the long, wavy brown hair hanging slackly around her face and on to her shoulders. A pretty face, girlish, except for the eyes, large, brown, regarding me with casual inquiry.


"Good afternoon. Are you Miss Williams?”

“What if I am?”

"I’d like to talk to you.”

“What about?”

"Your son Roddy.”

“What about him?” The voice was flat, the eyes cool, unwavering, the attitude relaxed, casual, deliberate. I had the feeling that if I made the slightest slip, said the wrong thing, she would just as casually slam the door in my face.

"I’m the Welfare Officer dealing with his case, and I thought it would be nice to meet his mother and have a talk with her.”

She stared at me a long moment before replying: “What’s there to talk about?”

Perhaps you’d like to know how he’s progressing.” Her question had left me floundering in uncertainty.

"No, I wouldn’t like to know.” No change whatever in expression or voice.

“Couldn’t we discuss the matter indoors, Miss Williams?” I felt at a disadvantage standing there. She considered this awhile, then suddenly said: “Okay, come in.”

The room I entered was small, clean, and pleasantly furnished, but musty, as if rarely used; she closed a door which probably led into a bedroom, then opened the heavy curtains across the windows, letting sunlight into the room. We sat at opposite ends of a narrow settee. She crossed her legs and wrapped herself carefully in the terry-robe.


"He’s a very fine little fellow.”


"I’m trying to find foster parents for him, to get him out of the Home.”

“Well, what do you want from me?”

Irritation was slowly crowding all the good intentions out of my mind.

"Don’t you care anything about him?” I asked her.

"No.” The word came out flat and definite. I sat looking at her, wondering about the protracted process which finally made her like this. Something must have been happening inside her also, for now she leaned forward.

"Look.” A new strident note was in her voice. “I made up my mind before he was born that I would not look at him, wouldn’t have anything to do with him. I’ve never seen him, don’t know what he looks like, don’t want to know. I’ve had enough, do you hear, and I’m finished with that.”

“Wouldn’t you like to see him? He’s really a lovely child.”

"No, I don’t want to see him.” She stood up and moved behind the settee, as if wishing to put some protective barrier between us. “He’s better off where he is. I didn’t want no child in the first place and I told them so. That woman who came to see me a long time ago, I told her. So what do you want to come bothering me again for?”

I thought of something else.

“We've been trying for a long time to locate you.”

"I’ve been away.”

“The Council will expect you to make some contribution to the child's upkeep, or if you know where his father is we could try to get in touch with him.”

"You and the Council can expect what the hell you like.” There was no anger in her voice, only boredom. “I don’t know where his father is and I don’t want to know. I’m not working, so I’ve got no money to give them.”

I looked around the room; for someone unemployed she seemed to be doing quite well. However, that was none of my business. She must have observed my glance, for now she fairly blazed at me: “Well, what are you looking at?”

I did not answer, but stood up, bade her good-bye and left. It was obvious that she had succeeded in shutting the child completely out of her life, and never allowed herself to know him or care about him, and there seemed to be no point in pursuing it with her. Perhaps, as she had said, Roddy was better off without her. I would report on my interview with her and leave it to those concerned with payments to see her about contributions for the child, but I held no hope for their success.

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