The Nepalese are back in our lives.
Three years ago last Christmas, Best Beloved and I were walking around our old neighbourhood and two small, brown-skinned men greeted us in polite English and asked if we had any odd jobs that needed doing. They washed the cars for us, and I took the younger one, N, to the field fairly regularly.
They lived in a small community of migrant workers and Asian asylum seekers a few hundred metres from our old house, and as spring became summer and the cricket set that Zenon had been given for his birthday began to be used regularly, N often joined us for evening games. Alex taught him to skateboard, and he borrowed my copy of Louis Fischer's biography of Gandhi and talked about joining my yoga class. The others found more regular jobs, but N did a morning or two each week with us, and Zeen in particular became very fond of him.
N had come to Cyprus on a student visa, but it was a sham. He had had no intention of studying hotel management in Nicosia. Instead, he skipped out as soon as he could, applied for political asylum, and started working in the hope of making enough money to leave Cyprus for ‘real Europe’. “There’s no future for me in Nepal,” he often said. “I miss home, but I never want to go back there.” He spoke about getting work as a graphic designer, and seemed to know something about the work. He was not unintelligent, but “Not clever enough, Manamou,” Best Beloved reported. “And yes, he can speak English, but to get any kind of a break in design here, he should improve his language skills by 500%. And he should lay off the booze.”
Sometimes he'd show up in the morning with a liberal sprinkling of cheap aftershave barely masking the smell of stale alcohol, but he was generally reliable and cheerful and worked hard. Then he disappeared. I went a few times to the place where he and the others had lived, but no-one in that fluid community knew where he had gone, so I assumed that he had managed to get on a boat to Italy as he had often spoken hopefully of doing, or had sorted out his papers and managed to find steady legal work.
Last spring he called me looking for work. He and two older Nepalese had moved on to another flat in Paphos near the Big Ones' school, and I would drop the children in the morning and pick up N and his friend P. They did about three weeks work on the house and in the garden, then P got another job and N drifted back to drink. I wanted to give him a break, but he became too unreliable to hire.
Before N's relapse, I spent an hour at their apartment one afternoon with the Little Ones. I had dropped N and P from work and they invited me and the boys in for tea, P rushing out for a packet of biscuits while N did a quick clean up. They showed me photos of home in Pokkhara, N's neat middle-class house; his retired civil servant father, a mother small and beautiful in a sari; a sister (now married to a Nepalese in Australia) in jeans and a short-sleeved top; a brother home from his studies in Texas.
But after he called me repeated mornings ‘too sick to work today’ we saw the Nepalese lads no more.
Until two weeks ago when the 'phut-phut' of a moped broke into Sunday afternoon and P and another man in his thirties were wondering if we had any work. “N had your number,” P told me, but is drinking all the time and lost it, so I thought I'd bring L and come out and see you myself.” Few people, he said, are paying for odd jobs these days, and work is thin on the ground. We had some things for them to do, so we arranged that they would come the following Saturday. N, it seems, is living on his state allowance and has no interest in much else. His friends take care of him, but need to survive themselves, and send funds home to support their families. Although the political situation has improved in Nepal over the last twelve months, life is still difficult there.
L showed up promptly with a younger man and they went to work. Best Beloved was cautious. “That young one's eyes look like he's on something...” But they put in a steady nine hours, taking only a short lunch break, so he told them to come back the following week. This Saturday, they almost finished the job.
I spoke with L a little about his family as our different jobs had us working side by side for a while. His parents and sister are in London, and his wife and daughter ('She's nine?' I said. 'Just look what you have to look forward to!' – I gestured at Sophia, throwing a teenage strop, in the kitchen. 'I know,' he laughed. 'She already drives my wife crazy!') are in Nepal.
We talked about the Gurkhas, and he said that several of the lads based at Dekhelia had visited him during the week. “They do a tour in Afghanistan, then come here for a rest, then are sent back out again.” I didn't realise that. “Quite a few of them really like Cyprus, and now that they have the right to live in England on completion of their five years' service, they plan to bring their families over and settle.”
When they tried to leave, L's key broke in the ignition of the bike, so they called out a friend – on another 'phut-phut' – who knew how to hot wire. Wildly excited, Zenon and Leo helped – rewarded at the end by short rides up and down the dirt road. “How old is he?” L's friend asked as he dropped off Zenon for the last time. When I answered “Nine on Wednesday”, the tip-tilted eyes crinkled and he threw a wistful glance at Zenon's back. “I have sons of one-and-a-half and nine at home.”
Then he waved, twisted the throttle, and 'phut-phutted' off in L's wake, a bottle of wine that Best Beloved had given and a big bag of vegetables from the garden stowed safely under the seat.
“Can't they stay longer and play cricket?” Zenon wanted to know. But I told him that they were tired after a long day's work. “Can they come to my birthday party?” I realised that although they would probably love it – souvlaki, cake, and balloon towers go down well for all ages and cultures – I don't have a phone number.
“Maybe next time,” I said. “But at least we should save them some cake for when they come on Thursday...”