A Conversation for Life
Down the Rabbit Hole - part one
Rosa Del Fuego Started conversation Oct 24, 2011
The newspaper advert said that two elderly ladies wanted someone to cook for them. Having just finished an exhausting period of fostering two exasperatingly difficult children and unsure whether the experience had left me with my sanity intact, this low pressure job would be the answer. I could manage a nice plate of mince and potatoes, I thought.
Walking up the street to the address I was given on enquiring, it became quite daunting. Massive sandstone villas flanked the road. The gardens were all immaculate. Any weed would have been killed on sight – you know the sort of place.
I rang the doorbell, and a very tall but ancient old lady peered out the window expectantly. She eventually managed to answer the door, but it was obvious she was nearly blind, and she had the most peculiar sideways, almost crab like gait. I was ordered to a chair, and duly sat down.
She explained the scenario. She lived with her friend, who had gone into hospital. Her friend, Miss Constance, usually looked after all the kitchen needs. Until she was better, someone was required to do the shopping and cooking. It all seemed quite simple.
She produced the biggest magnifying glass I have ever seen, (next to a telescope) and proceeded to work her way laboriously through a long list of questions, which had been drawn up for her by her lawyer. She took copious and laborious notes with her one free hand. Eventually, the crunch question came:
“Can you cook?” she asked
“I think so. I have been married for ten years and provided meals for my husband and two boys all that time.”
“Yes, but can you cook?” she again asked expectantly.
“I have no formal training, if that is what you mean, but I am quite capable of turning out an ordinary meal.” (Sometimes it is only afterwards you realise you have made a gigantic faux pas)
“So can you or can’t you cook” she persisted.
Flummoxed by this continual questioning, I eventually confessed to being very good at it.
She drew the interview to a close, and said I would be hearing from her, once she had talked to her lawyers.
The phone rang the following afternoon.
I was offered the job, and accepted. My hours would be from 9-2 Monday to Friday.
Completely unwittingly, I had just obtained the position of cook for the retired Principles of the top college for Domestic Science in Scotland.
I was unaware I was about to go back in time…………. about to become a downstairs girl.
So, I turned up for work, that first day, completely oblivious and eager for a new experience. The old lady, whom I nicknamed the Wing, allowed me to shop and cook and prepare things as I wished. It was an eight apartment house, and there was a maid who had been with them for forty years. She was now eighty, and still appeared three times a week, rain, hail or snow, working nine hours for the princely sum of £1.50. Annie told me things such as that she had not had a pay rise in fifteen years and that the Wing was 86 years of age.
“Why on earth have you not reminded them about your pay?” I asked.
“Och, we’re used to each other. I like to get out the house because my sister just sits and reads all day. I couldn’t be doing with that. She is no company to speak of, and I like something to do. Besides which, nobody else would understand them now. No, my place is here, and I get my bus fare paid!” Perhaps she was an older version of Pollyanna?
Old Annie, as she was known, was not allowed to use polish. Spit and elbow grease were cheaper. She worked on a rotational basis, starting at the first room in the house. She cleaned that thoroughly, and on Day 2 she cleaned the second one, and so on. Then she started at the beginning again. “Cleaning” involved lifting the carpet, and climbing up ladders to clean the lights. It was a considerable effort for someone of her years. She had to come through the kitchen to get her ladders for the high cleaning. Balancing them carefully on her shoulders, she would set off, tottering. I was never quite sure who was in charge of this bit – the ladders seemed to come alive with the forward momentum and she would start running across the kitchen in an attempt to keep pace. I was terrified she would fall – she merely said: “Och, I’m used to it, I’ve been doing it for that long.”
The first week, the only piece of drama was when I was greeted in the morning by a very worried “Wing”.
“You’ll never guess what happened last night!” she announced on my arrival. “There was the most terrible racket coming from the boiler.” This was situated above what had been an old range in the kitchen.
“Have you turned it off?” I asked
“Oh yes. I’ve called for the electrician to come this morning. I’m so worried that it will affect your work. Do you think you will manage?”
I said I’d do my best, and an electrician arrived and crawled all over the space where the boiler was for the best part of an hour. When he finished, he said he could find no fault, and that it was safe to switch on. We switched it on, and all seemed to be normal.
The next day, I was given the same story. There had been the same noise, occurring at the same time, and it had gone on and on….. I looked carefully, and saw that on the mantelpiece below the boiler housing there was a repeater alarm clock.
“I think your repeater alarm clock must have been knocked when Annie was cleaning” I said.
“A REPEATER alarm clock?” she quavered. “I didn’t know there was such a thing!”
Although she was very nearly totally blind, it was never mentioned, and she obviously preferred to have “normal conversation” at which she was very talented. When her friend, Miss Constance arrived home from hospital everything changed. Constance, although younger at a mere 78 years, was obviously “IN CHARGE”. I began to feel quite daunted. This was really not at all what I had envisaged. I had thought that my Nursing skills would come into play, and I cheerfully went to visit her in her bedroom the first day she was home. She was absolutely flabbergasted at my “audacity”, and drew up rules to keep me in my place.
1. I would start in the morning by collecting their coffee cups from breakfast. Apart from this and taking them coffee and serving lunch, my place was in the kitchen, and I would stay there at all times. If the doorbell rang, I would answer it politely. If it was a visitor, usher the person into the hall, take their name and then go upstairs to announce the arrival of Mr/s. X. I would then return downstairs, and providing they wished to receive such company, precede him/her upstairs.
2. A list would be left on the table to work from for their lunch. They wanted a three course lunch everyday.
3. They wanted coffee brought to them at 11 am every morning.
4. A small, cold evening meal was all that was required.
5. I could have a cup of coffee half way through the morning, but I was to remain working and standing while I drank it.
6. I would do the shopping as decided the previous day. Certain shops had to be used for meat and vegetables. (This I understood – it was getting off the bus three stops early to buy the margarine which I found difficult.)
7. They liked steam puddings. I would prepare a steam pudding three times a week.
8. They wished to be summoned for lunch by the sounding of a gong, at 12 midday exactly. A minute before or after would not do. The gong had to be sounded in a certain way, or they would not respond to the call, I was informed.
9. I would be allowed to sit with them for two courses at lunchtime. After that I would forego the pudding, serve them and proceed to tidy the kitchen.
10. After lunch, I would wash the dishes, and make their supper. I would then clean the oven, wash the dish towel and hand towel, brush the floor, wash the floor and clean the silver.
My last duty was to carry their fully prepared supper tray upstairs.
As lunch was at 12md, and I left at 2p.m. these last two hours were always frantic.
So began my learning. I thought I had gone to assist them, but their knowledge was massive.
What struck me was the fact that they knew exactly how long it would take me to achieve what they wanted. Any list left on the table could be completed by one minute to twelve, leaving a brief minute for last minute checking before sounding the gong.
“Who do they think they are?” I had complained to Old Annie.
“Oh, they are very fine ladies. They used to be in charge of Atholl Crescent (College of Domestic Science). People thought they were wonderful. They have been very good to me.”
It was now a terrifying ordeal having to sit through what you had prepared as they ate it, usually without comment. No comment was not what was wanted. No comment seriously meant it was not worth commenting on. The conversation was perfectly polite otherwise. The only obvious difference between my status and theirs at lunchtime was the fact that I was limited to two Brussel Sprouts, whereas they had three each. The joys of being a downstairs girl!
Conversation could be quite dramatic.
“What did you have for supper last night, Mrs McLean?”
“Oh, it was pork chops last night.”I answered.
“Pork chops!!” Miss Constance repeated in astonishment.
When it is said like that, it brings out all the defence mechanisms, and I got prickly.
“What’s wrong with pork chops?” I countered.
“Oh, nothing, really. It’s just that we would consider that a “party” meal.” Then there would follow reminiscences about the great and the good that they had entertained. How it once was, how people knew how to behave; the beautiful and elegant handmade dresses that had delighted them.
Then there was the day when the Wing spotted the neighbour across the road arriving home with her children during our lunch.
“Look at that!” exclaimed the Wing. “Isn’t that atrocious!”
I followed her gaze, but all I saw was a woman and her two sons dressed very smartly in matching red, white and blue anoraks.
“What can you see?” I asked. It was a serious question. She responded.
“I can see quite a lot if it is far in the distance. That girl – and these two boys of hers – they are wearing Jeans!” (I could hardly see this.) “Do you remember” she asked, turning to Miss Constance, “when we flew into New York and saw all these people wearing those ghastly denims, and were so grateful it couldn’t happen in Britain?”
The other thing that was very striking was that in the three months I stayed with them, I did not open one tin or use any ready made food. Everything was cooked from scratch, and as such, there was no rubbish at the end of the week. No wrappers, no plastic – just the occasional empty tub of margarine, which was the only item that was ever frozen. But then, of course, it was an offence in their day to throw food away.
I gradually became used to my routine, but it was like entering another world every day. One day Miss Constance told me her brother was arriving.
“He is a Vicar, and has a very busy charge” she told me. “I hope he will have a bit of peace to relax here.” This was accompanied by the meaningful look that I had come to recognize. Interpreted roughly, she was asking me not to let her down, and not to be too intrusive.
When I passed the front of the house on my way to work the following week, there was this man seated all alone in the large dining room, looking slightly lost. This must be her brother. Ah well, I must behave.
I went in to the kitchen to look at the mammoth list of “to do” before lunch, and saw that the ladies breakfast dishes were already waiting for my attention. It seemed a pity just to wash some of them, as he had obviously still been eating. After a reasonable time, I very politely knocked the door of the dining room, and asked the gentleman if there was anything I could get him, or if he was finished with his breakfast. He was extremely pleasant and grateful, and thanked me as I went to remove his dishes.
I really didn’t stand a chance. With the ears and eyes of a hawk, Miss Constance pounced on me within 10 seconds of my entry to the room, and dressed me down in such a way that it caused total humiliation. Her brother was very embarrassed, and repeatedly attempted to intervene – or intercede – on my behalf. It was to no avail.
“She has to understand that she cannot go barging in on people, John” retorted Miss Constance. “There are such things as manners, and she is going to learn them!”
It soon became apparent that they still had the “Monday Morning” feeling from their work days. They were guaranteed to be in a bad mood, and it took every bit of enthusiasm I possessed to lift their humour.
One particular Monday, bracing myself as usual for what lay ahead, I opened their front door at 9am prompt and shouted a cheery “Hello! I’m here!”
“Mrs. McLean,” was the immediate response. “The string for the steam pudding!” It was Miss Constance talking.
I had to think back to the Friday. Yes, we had had a steam pudding, and the famous piece of string, which was carefully preserved after each cooking, (and must have been at least ten years old,) had been placed over the tin opener as normal.
I rushed into the kitchen in consternation at the perceived loss of this vital piece of equipment.
“I put it back on Friday – over the tin opener” I explained breathlessly as I entered. And it was there. I looked at Miss Constance, puzzled.
“Maybe you put it back, but you didn’t wash it. Did you?” she asked.
I had to confess that I hadn’t.
In my innocence, I had believed that an hour and a half of boiling would be sufficient.
So began my initiation. Gradually I was instructed on what to do in the kitchen – and I had believed that I knew! They had tricks and recipes aplenty and never lacked variety.
THE GAS MAN COMETH
The knob on their gas fire was difficult to turn. I had been unaware of this difficulty until I arrived one morning to find the whole house in a fluster.
“Mrs. McLean,” Miss Constance began, “We are expecting a gasman to call today to fix our fire. No time is being given for his arrival, although we insisted that it be in the morning, as it is the dining room fire. As you know, we need the fire on for our lunch. We have insisted that lunch should not be interrupted, but should he arrive nearer twelve, do you think you could hold lunch?”
I assured them that I could – it was Shepherd’s Pie – not too hard to keep warm.
As I went about my kitchen chores, I was aware of a considerable amount of noise from the front of the house. As instructed, though, I did not leave my post. I concentrated totally on potatoes and mince.
At 10.20 am, the gas man arrived, and I heard him attempt to leave unsuccessfully at 10.35. He eventually managed to get out the door for eleven. At which point the shout went up:
“Mrs. McLean, could you help us, please?”
I left my designated area, to discover that Old Annie had been very busy. The solid oak dining room table had been moved out, as had every other moveable piece of furniture. How she had managed this, I know not. Every immovable piece was covered in a dust sheet – all for the adjustment of a screw!
CAULIFLOWERS and SILVER
After several weeks, I became bored with the sprouts, and asked if we could consider another vegetable for a change.
“The cauliflowers in the village look lovely” I prompted.
A huge debate followed, and a chairman was very nearly required for the difficulty of this decision. However, I eventually received sanction to buy ONE cauliflower the following day.
Never have I been more nervous. The time and thought that went into choosing this cauliflower was immense. Having decided on the most beautiful cauliflower – not too big, not too small, no discolouration, I bore it work wards proudly.
Miss Constance was standing at the kitchen table, fingers drumming impatiently – a sure sign that she was going to inspect the purchase. By this time, I was almost raving about the wondrous cauliflower I had found!
She waved away my enthusiasm.
“Put it here, please!” she instructed.
I placed it in front of her. She picked it up and looked at it closely. She turned it over. She looked piercingly at me, and then put the cauliflower on the table, turned on her heel and left the room without a word.
Now, by this time, I knew the signs. I knew that this cauliflower for some reason had failed to please her. I also knew that when I took their coffee up at 11am the door would be open and my shortcomings would be able to be overheard.
Coffee time could not come quickly enough. I mounted the stairs, and sure enough the door to their private sitting room was open.
“Mrs. McLean bought a cauliflower today” said Miss Constance, as if this was news. “I haven’t said anything to her, as I know her father in law is very ill, but really! The stalk wasn’t even wet! I think we may have to think about getting the vegetables delivered.”
I was so distressed at having failed in my mission, that it upset me for the rest of the day. Lunchtime came, and I retired thereafter to clean my domain. On cleaning the silver serving spoon, I dropped it on the linoleum. That is all. Just dropped it – didn’t run over it with a trolley or throw it down in temper. To my utter horror and disbelief, it cracked – right along the base.
I went upstairs to face the dragons in their den and confess my sins.
They appeared to be even more horrified.
“That was my family silver!” wailed the Wing. “That was a £200 spoon, Mrs. McLean. How are you going to recompense us?”
“Em, well, will your house Insurance not cover it?” I asked in mortification.
“I think we will just have to take the silver away from you.” said Miss Constance. “Could you get used to eating with the stainless steel cutlery, Persis?” (This was the Christian name for “the Wing”).
“If you think it best – I don’t mind,” returned Persis.
“It seems such a shame to have all these nice things around and not use them because we have a member of staff that doesn’t care,” mused Miss Constance aloud.
Red-faced and ashamed, I returned to see out the remains of this most dreadful of days.
Now I was seriously short of time, and my last task, their supper of banana and jelly, was setting in the fridge. I set up the tray to take to them, and checked it – cups, saucers, bread, butter, milk, jam, spoons, knives, napkins. All present and correct. The jelly now set, I placed the plates on the tray, and headed for the stairs at quite a rush, aware that my bus would be leaving in three minutes.
The stair rounded two corners and each had a landing. On the second landing, I tripped on the first upward step. With remarkable presence of mind, (I thought) I aimed and threw the tray, hoping beyond hope that it would land safely on the top step. It appeared to come to rest exactly as I had planned, but then rocked slightly. In that slow motion effect which is the portent of doom, it slid all the way down until it was on top of me, and I was wearing the milk.
I thought about crying and spilt milk. The clattering of all the cutlery and crockery seemed horrifically loud.
On cue, the door opened, and Miss Constance looked disapprovingly down on the scenario. I really did not feel at my best, lying on the landing surrounded by cutlery and crockery, not to mention the jelly and bananas.
“And what have you broken now, Mrs. McLean?” she asked severely.
I held up the shattered remains of her personal cup.
“That was a £10 cup. I have no idea what we are going to do with you. We obviously have to make do without our crockery as well. Perhaps you should consider your future.”
All the way home on the bus, I considered my future.
The first hurdle, which I knew I was going to meet very soon, was my mother in law. As both she and my father in law were staying with us, she appeared to have taken to hiding behind my front door when I was due home, awaiting my anecdotes. With her husband so ill, she was virtually confined to the house while I was out. To cheer her, I had sat on the bus journeys home, and tried to work out the most humorous slant on my day. She had become a real addict, and I could hardly get past her without giving her a small crumb as a taster. My job on the bus therefore was to transform all my horrific experiences into something wildly amusing.
This obviously would not be too difficult today. I didn’t resent it, really. It took her mind off her worries for a short while, and the length of time it took me to make an amusing story was merely a bus journey long. I just wished she would let me sit down for a well earned coffee first.
And my father in law, the world’s most contented man, appreciated the diversion from the intensity of her anxiety, being aware he was the source of her constant worry. As his condition had deteriorated, he had to move into a single bed in the ground floor bedroom with my husband and myself. We all knew he had very little time left. “Aye, Lass” he would say, cornflower blue eyes twinkling beneath his silver eyebrows. “You’ll not have your sorrows to seek with “the wee barra” when I’m gone!”
When confidence was being dealt out, the Wing and Miss Constance were at the head of the queue. They knew how to appear absolutely terrifying when lacking stature, as was the case with Miss Constance.
Now that I had been relieved of all shopping responsibilities because of my incompetence, they chose to phone a local greengrocer and place an order to be delivered. A youngster tried to deliver fruit and vegetables the first day as requested. He brought in the crate, huffing and puffing.
“That’ll be £4.29” he gasped.
“Do you think so?” she asked, politely, yet menacingly. “Just place the crate here, and I’ll inspect what you have brought. Once I am satisfied, you will get paid.”
I winced, quietly.
Miss Constance, who was all of 5 feet tall, stood at the top of the table where the goods were being delivered.
He obeyed her command, in ignorance of the onslaught to come.
The spectacle was highly entertaining when I was not on the receiving end. With the steam pudding to prepare, I had no difficulty in acting as if I were fully occupied.
“Would you call that an apple?” she asked the boy, piercingly. “I wouldn’t, and I don’t intend to pay for it. Here!” And she threw it back at him.
“And this” she exclaimed “was never an orange - not in my day, anyway.”
So it went on, until she had reduced the bill by half.
The poor lad was at a complete loss. I found it difficult to maintain my composure. I hoped that nobody would notice my shoulders heaving with mirth.
The following week, it was the greengrocer himself who appeared, bearing excellent fruit and vegetables. There were no complaints. Easy to achieve when you know how. The young delivery boy never appeared again.
On Thursday, I appeared for work as normal. “Now, Mrs. McLean” I was informed. “The Dean of York’s wife is coming for coffee. Please prepare a Victoria sponge. It has to be ready for 11a.m.”
Thunderstruck, I protested uselessly: “I’ve never made a Victoria sponge.”
“Did you hear that, Persis?” cried Miss Constance. “This girl has never made a Victoria sponge! What age are you, exactly?”
This was a command for information. I confessed to being thirty.
“She’s thirty years old and has never made a Victoria sponge! Well, I never!! What do you think of that, Persis?”
Persis looked most dejected. There was obviously no telling just how far standards had fallen. All must be chaos outside these walls.
“Mrs. McLean” explained Miss Constance, with obvious impatience. “There is a cookery book in the cupboard. It explains how to make a sponge. Please just follow the recipe. It is very simple. It should not tax you. We will look forward to the cake at 11a.m.”
So saying, she shut the door very firmly behind her.
I rushed to the cupboard, and located the instruction manual.
I followed it word for word. Twenty minutes later, I was feeling much happier.
It was looking good – the consistency was as described in the text book.
Then serendipity took a hand.
A Victoria sponge must be baked in two halves. Because I have a slight eyesight problem – or can’t see straight – whichever way you wish to phrase it- the sponges went into the oven with the shelves at a slight angle. This meant that each sponge was slightly higher on one side than the other. I was mortified, as I had not realised the shelves were not straight until the sponge rose unevenly.
“How on earth did you manage that?” asked the Wing in wonder, as if I had conjured up a genie. “I have never seen anything like that before in my life! You’ll have to ensure that the narrow part meets the higher part when you put it together.”
Even I, with all my failings, had managed to work that one out.
The Dean of York’s wife duly arrived, with all the announcing and preceding, ascending and descending that went on. The coffee tray was set and the coffee and cake were served.
No comment was made. Ah well!
Lunch passed quite quietly, with no reference to the inferior cutlery, forced on them by my carelessness. The crockery had indeed been removed from my dramatic reach as well, and they were now on “using” cups and saucers.
I took my story back to my mother in law, whom I had now christened “The Waiting Pigmy” behind my front door.
How she laughed. “Oh, I don’t know how you put up with that! I wouldn’t have the patience for it! And she really threw the fruit at the boy? Some folk don’t know when they are well off!”
I asked her if my father –in – law, or Faither, as he had asked me to call him, had had a good day, mindful of how ill he was.
This casual query launched a vivid description of all the minutiae of the last five hours.
Faither sat and listened to her diatribe about how much he had managed to eat or not eaten and gauged my reaction, eyes twinkling mischievously.
“And I made the custard, just the way he likes it,” she was saying “But he couldn’t face it. You’ve no idea the effort I put in. There wasn’t a lump in sight!”
He was a man of few words, but an excellent communicator with his eyes. He could give a running commentary without opening his mouth. Looks of “Well, you asked the question!” or “She’s having you on!” “I tried my best” were all in his repertoire and flitted easily across his face.
When he brought his eyebrows into full play, what was being said by the narrator was almost irrelevant. Possessing the ability to laugh at himself, he insisted that the whole world laugh with him.
It was the most difficult task in the world, keeping a straight face. And he knew it.
©Linda Jane McLean
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