Monday, October 22, 2007

A miracle in the eye of the beholder

Magda is in charge of the café in the office where I work. The café serves a rather uninspiring collection of sandwiches, salads, crisps and soft drinks. This is not the fault of Magda but the outsourced catering company who employ Magda. Magda is always pressing for improvements. One "victory" was the introduction of jacket potatoes! Ludicrous fire regulations prevent even toast being made in our office but Magda somehow gets around the regulations and has a virtual black market in things like bacon and sausage around breakfast time. Magda knows what the customer wants even if her employers don't.

Despite being in the centre of London with sandwich shops and cafes all around, the office café is always packed at lunch. I think in no small part, the loyalty to the humble office café is due to the attitude of Magda to her customers.Magda greets each customer and gets to know everyone's name despite the relatively high turnover of people in the office. Magda has made herself everyone's favourite Auntie in the office. She shares in the delights of life like births, engagements and weddings. She is also a counsellor especially to the "girls" in the office who are periodically whisked into her office next to the café to discuss some crisis or other.

Magda is both sensitive and outgoing knowing which customer can take a joke and which customer just wants a quiet word.

For all her cheerfulness, Magda over 18 months of selling sandwiches to me has revealed a life story that on many levels seems tragic.

I don't know the full details but she shares fragments with me and others in quiet moments when the café is empty.

Magda was born in Poland but somehow came to England during the Cold War. She married quite a successful Englishman and they had one daughter. Magda lived the life of a comfortable London housewife and mother, taking her daughter to school and in addition to keeping house and home didn't need to work so spent time visiting art galleries and exhibitions with her circle of friends.Then her young daughter became sick. A form of leukaemia was diagnosed and British hospitals seemed unable to offer any real hope. There were options but they were in America . Magda and her husband made the difficult but inevitable decision to remortgage their house to pay for the travel and treatment in America . The treatment was received but ultimately failed. Magda's only child died the tragic death of the young.

Subsequently and in circumstances Magda has not revealed, her husband died. Magda was widowed and alone in London with a huge mortgage on her house. In circumstances that would have crushed many Magda got on with life although that simple line cannot do justice to all the trials and issues she must have faced.

Magda the kept lady of leisure, now widowed and childless had to work. She ended up working for the office café and is still paying off her mortgage.

Now in her late forties, Magda has a remarkable love of life and love of humanity in general. However her life cannot be easy. Her employers, the outsourced catering company are far from generous employers and at times such as the recent underground strikes, Magda was forced to get up at 4am to take an elaborate route of buses into work to be around to have the café ready for the start of the day. There was no taxi offered by her employer to beat the strike. As on other occasions Magda perseveres where others would give up.

Magda's finances seem precarious. She earns £8.50 an hour which does not go a long way in London especially when still paying off a big mortgage. Other than that she has to return to Poland periodically to visit her aging Mother.

Then recently an old stray cat entered Magda's garden in West London . The cat obviously had some instinct as I doubt it would have got such a generous welcome in many other gardens.
The flea bitten cat was cared for, fed and revived by Magda. Then it managed to loose and swallow a tooth resulting in vet bills of over £400, money Magda could ill afford in reality. Magda keeps a £500 emergency fund for trips to Poland if she needs to see her Mother. This was largely exhausted by the stray cat.

However while according to conventional wisdom Magda was financially unwise, Magda's life has taught her that the loss of wealth is far less painful than the loss of life so she saved the cat.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her experiences Magda is a strong Roman Catholic and her faith is the one thing that keeps her strong.

The Firm has recently introduced awards for exceptional service and despite working officially for another company, Magda was nominated and then given an award. In the context of a 200 partner firm where many partners often earn over £1 million a year the monthly award at £500 was not particularly significant. However to Magda, saviour of stray cats and friend to all while earning £8.50 an hour, the award was a major issue.Magda was delighted and declared loudly "It's a miracle". Her finances, for now at least, are liquid once more.

I was just struck by the positive outlook of one who has lost the two people closest to her in being able to declare a miracle over £500. Miracles are not much recognised these days but as Magda proves there are miracles each day and sometimes they do not seem significant to others. For a partner in the firm I work, £1 million may not even be a miracle. But in comparison to infinity a million pounds is also insignificant. Money like so many things, depends on the meaning we give it and the purpose we put it to. I think Magda will give her £500 more purpose than many others would. Miracles are in the eye of the beholder.


Angela said...

This is so sad. But very well written.

Angela said...

This is so sad. But very well written.

Luis said...

thank you Angela

Anonymous said...

i think there is also quite uplifting element in the story - the lady has got a very strong will to live and soft loving soul at the same time - bless her! I wish it would be more people like this!


Luis said...

thank you W- glad you saw this aspect to her story