Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - These have been the au pair years

Sabina, from what used to be East Germany, was a delight; cheerful, smiling and with a brother, she announced with pride, prominent in the neo-Nazi youth movement. She came beaming off the ferry from Aberdeen, to be met by my wife, Susan, who, by way of small talk, asked our first ever au pair if she had any hobbies or interests. Sabina thought for a moment, then announced: "I like to drink beer."

She did. So much, in fact, that on two occasions when my general practitioner wife needed her to look after our three-year-old son, a local friend had to be drafted in to babysit Sabina. Actually Sabina was rarely alone with the child and she was a pleasant, amenable . . . relaxed house guest. When the relaxation became near-constant, and she began to prefer looking after the babies in a local seal sanctuary to our human offspring, we regretfully had to send her home.

We had a local girl in to help next, who stayed during the week and was afflicted with a mother who telephoned my wife three times a day to find out how her daughter was getting on. Then, a move to the Scottish mainland saw a nanny disaster of the most upsetting kind: a registered, fully trained childcare operative who smoked and gossiped with pals while ostensibly looking after the wean, ransacked Susan's jewellery and, it emerged later, battered our son and swore him to secrecy. Put not your trust in regulation.

Back in Shetland, the jewel known as Elaine, a friend and neighbour, became the key to childcare success as more bairns arrived and pressure of work increased on both marital components. Closer than any auntie, she is an integral part of the family still, and deeply loved by all. But in the past three years the need for extra live-in help, specifically to cover the dreaded 4am medical emergency call, has meant the return of the au pair, with variable outcomes.

First, there is the problem of finding someone prepared to live in Shetland, or who knows roughly where it is. Wiola, from Krakow, was 18 when she arrived off the boat in Lerwick. Eyeing the piles of peat by the side of the road to our house she said incredulously: "So . . . you burn dirt?" But she was bright, intelligent and helpful, using her year with us to perfect English, do a course in journalism, save enough money to travel and swot for a university place. She's now doing postgraduate work in America and has been back to visit us with her sister. She was great with the kids, and for her the au pair experience seemed nothing but positive.

Then there was Erica, from Hungary. Much of what appeared on her application form was untrue. It turned out she had been married, and there was some question over whether she was divorced. She was, in effect, an illegal alien. She had the longest fingernails I have ever seen, hated housework and played James Last tapes perpetually. She crashed our car four times and dumped a local boyfriend for the Tory candidate at the last general election, with whom she ran off. The police are still anxious to speak to her. People claim to have glimpsed her on TV news coverage of Scottish Tory get-togethers. It's possible.

Gabbi, also Hungarian, arrived looking frightened and hungry. She was astonished to find that we cooked, and that our children did not hit or abuse her. She was able to cancel the emergency food parcels she had arranged to be sent from Hungary, as she had become convinced that English people did not eat proper food. The best folder of clothes I have ever come across, she was fine with the children and, like Wiola, saved money and studied hard. She left us to work for an expatriate Russian count in Cardiff, who had a swimming pool.

At the moment we do not have an au pair. I am the au pair, in fact. On the whole, I think the girls who came to work here got a good deal, partly because oil-rich Shetland is equipped with free educational courses and is a historically welcoming community. And they had little to do but provide extra cover for half an hour here or an hour there while either Susan or myself headed home.

There is no doubt that some au pairs are being treated as little more than slaves by families in this country, and that some of the girls are completely unsuited to childcare. Some of them have dubious, hidden pasts and they are in your house 24 hours a day. It can be difficult, threatening and unpleasant. Meanwhile, I am thinking of taking up the option of becoming a full-time au pair - if I can get my wife to increase the standard rate of £75 a week and let me go for English lessons. They might come in handy.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing