The school secretary pops her head round my cookery room door.
‘Jenny, can you make the governor’s tea next week?’
This kind woman has nurtured me since I arrived and it’s no time to be stroppy.
‘Normally about fifteen to twenty people turn up. Nothing fancy. We just need a few sandwiches and some scones, biscuits and homemade cakes. The teacher before you got the girls to do it. We’ll pay you for the ingredients.’
Well that’s alright then. The girls can do it. On top of all the other things they are learning and cooking in my lessons, somehow me and the girls will find time to prepare a not-too-fancy homemade tea for fifteen to twenty.
I wonder if visitors to my cookery room have any idea of what it takes to manage my large classes of enthusiastic teenagers who are cooking all day.
My door bursts open first thing as students bring baskets full of ingredients for cookery lessons. Then deliveries arrive from the butcher or greengrocer. I’m emptying the dryer and folding clean tea towels and dishcloths, hanging up clean aprons and shoving those that need repair into a drawer to fix in my bedsit. Instead of going out on dates!
Next, register my form group, then classes stream in ready to cook, eat, clear and pack, get homework, find out what to bring next week or come for help with revision. When the bell rings at the end of school, I tidy my food storeroom, check the eight sinks, twelve cookers, cupboards full of mucky baking tins, saucepans, frying pans, drawers full of cooking tools, and my precious, locked cupboard holding the new electrical whisks and a Kenwood chef. I wash dishcloths and tea-towels again in the ancient twin tub, spin them until damp and hang them in the gas dryers ready for the morning when they must be folded and packed away again. Then sweep and clean the room before the cleaners turn up – they won’t do it if it’s too messy. I check the ovens and gas rings are off, and that the rubbish is ready for collection.
‘Bye’ teachers call as they scurry past my room, off home to a nice cosy family and cooked dinner.
And long after some others have gone down the road to the pub, I collect my marking and list the food I must buy for my teaching the next day.
And all with no help.
In my first week, a lad brings over a pile of muddy football shirts, socks and shorts.
‘Sir says, can you wash these and send them back when they are dry? The last teacher did it, and he said you won’t mind.’
Of course I will find time to prepare the governor’s tea and wash the bloody football shirts. I’m new here and want to get on with people, but somehow, some way things must change! Unless they’d like me to sleep here in the home economics flat!!
On my drive back to my Hampstead bedsit I plan my argument.
In this school, does the art department paint the school walls?
Do English students write the school brochures?
Will Maths present the school accounts?
And does Science manage the school grounds and dig the gardens as part of their biology studies?
SO WHY SHOULD I PREPARE A LITTLE TEA FOR UP TO 20 AT THE GOVERNOR’S MEETING AND WASH FOOTBALL KIT!
Enough of grumbling. My grandmother told me that one good turn deserves another. And it is my turn to begin.
The school secretary said ‘Get the girls to do it’ so Carol and Vicky are a natural choice for the tea task. This pair of school ragbags refuse to bring ingredients to my lessons, and spend their time sprawled over worksheets, comparing their latest boyfriends, picking the split ends in their backcombed hair and flicking flecks of pearl nail varnish onto my frequently swept floor. They’ve cooked their way through the cheap ingredients in my storeroom and are bored with making jam tarts and scones. Any reprimand from me gets a tornado reply.
‘Miss, we’re leaving at Easter, you can’t make us do anything.’
No other teacher will take them in their lessons – they removed them from their registers long before I arrived. So the ragbag pair is mine, once a week, for a whole afternoon, and we need to get on.
‘Carol and Vicky – you’re going to make the Governor’s tea. Here’s the recipes, write a shopping list so that you can go buy the food next week. We’re going to impress them with your cooking. This is the menu.’
They glower as I give them my written list.
Governor’s tea menu
Egg and salad cream sandwiches
Asparagus rolls made from tinned asparagus and brown bread and butter
Fruit scones with butter twirls
Brandy snaps with whipped cream
Butterfly cakes with piped butter icing
Tea with milk and sugar.
This tea menu is borrowed from my days as a waitress in Wicksteed Park’s posh Tea Pavilion in Kettering.
The Park is famous for its brandy snaps, and sells them wrapped in crackly cellophane for takeaway teatime treats. But in the Tea Pavilion they are displayed on the Tea Trolley and served piped with a swirl of fresh cream which oozes out when you take a bite. Brandy snaps are a cake maker’s triumph – crunchy, gingery and really hard to make. They’ll be a test for Carol and Vicky.
The day before the tea party Carol and Vicky grumble in with shopping baskets laden with porridge oats, golden syrup, Heinz salad cream, boxes of eggs, punnets of mustard and cress and show-off tins of asparagus. They don’t know this but my elaborate governor’s tea menu is a cunning plan to increase my food stocks. After this first baking session, we’ll have spare ingredients and I can use real butter instead of that County Supply margarine that tastes of fish.
On tea party day the class is busy making Swedish tea rings . First Carol and Vicky must dress to impress. Someone might pop in to check the tea progress, and they won’t want to see this scruffy pair messing with their food.
‘Girls, hang up your duffle coats, take out your chewing gum, tie back your hair, and wash your hands. Then put on a clean overall before you start.’
Ha ha. I’ve got a couple of white cook’s overalls ready for special occasions. As they button up, the girls transform. Their short skirts with rolled up waistbands and half undone ties are hidden. A pair of smart cooks emerges.
I’ve prepared the hostess trolley with tea pots, milk jugs, sugar bowls, teacups and saucers, small plates and serving platters.
We need napkins and knives, cake forks and teaspoons, tablecloths and d’oyleys. And we mustn’t forget the tea strainer. We’re serving proper tea and need to make sure that all the china and cutlery is sparkling.
‘Carol and Vicky can you check that everything is clean?’
They glower at me.
‘Why can’t someone else do this, miss?’
‘Because they all want to do a CSE exam and you two don’t.’
This tea will test their stamina. As they start their baking marathon I keep a watchful eye knowing that at any time they could erupt, slam down their tools and leave the room with cries of
‘We ain’t doing no more! We ain’t your cooking slaves!’
Into the oven go the scones, then a swift clear up ready for the sponges which they will transform into butterfly cakes. Then the flapjacks and finally our biggest cooking challenge of all – brandy snaps.
Dollops of gingery, sugary, syrupy dough go into the hottest oven and out come golden brown craters which must be worked with speed. A snap is lifted, wrapped round a wooden spoon handle and held in place till it forms a roll. Your hands feel warm and greasy, but there is no time to enjoy this pleasure. There are trayfuls to process and more baking in the oven.
I join team Carol and Vicky to finish off the horns with piped cream, glacé cherries and tiny angelica leaves. Wicksteed Park would be proud.
Then it’s on with the sandwiches.
Peeled hard boiled eggs, mashed smooth with salad cream, mixed with mustard and cress then spread onto soft Mother’s Pride white bread with the crusts removed and cut into quarters.
We drain precious mushy spears of asparagus from the tins and place them on buttered brown bread, then roll them tightly and cut into small portions. Tinned asparagus is expensive and portions cannot be too generous.
The sandwiches go on a plate with a plain d’oyley. D’oyleys matter in my cookery world. Plain for savoury, frilly for sweet, and these rules must not be broken.
Another hostess trolley is piled with sandwiches, buttered fruit scones, crunchy flapjacks, brandy snaps, and butterfly cakes.
The rest of the class gathers to coo over Carol and Vicky’s work, amazed that these two can produce anything edible.
The feast is finished with hot brewed tea and we wheel the trolleys into the headmaster’s study. The governors smile but I’m more thrilled at the surprised looks from the teachers on the school panel who know this unruly pair from their wanderings around the school corridors.
Carol and Vicky return with me to my cookery room. I’m too tired to ask them to clear up. Instead I give them a bag of spare sandwiches and cakes.
‘Thanks girls – you’ve been great. Impressive cooking.’
They throw down their overalls, and resume their usual scruffiness as they wander off into the dark night, cackling through mouthfuls of sandwich.
Next morning I arrive early as usual, to start a busy day. In despair I see the hostess trolleys, parked in my room, piled with dirty tea cups, empty plates, crumpled napkins and tea pots full of cold tea leaves. As my form group catches up on their gossip, I don my overall and rubber gloves to clear up before my cooking classes arrive.
That weekend I prepare my case to present to the headmaster. I need help. This cannot go on. I cannot teach and clean up and be a drudge on my own.
I need a daily ancillary help and more funds to buy essential ingredients.
A few days later, I get a note telling me to come after school and interview candidates for the ancillary position. Help is coming.
The following week, my chosen angel, the marvellous Sylvia, arrives to be my right hand woman and saviour.
Later the school secretary pops her head round the door and leaves me a note.
‘The head will increase the capitation for your ingredients. Please provide evidence to show how much money you would like for the year.’
As my grandmother said, one turn deserves another.
And a year later I move up a teaching scale and get a pay rise.
The school kitchens agree to take over making the governor’s teas.
The PE department buys an automatic washing machine and tumbler dryer, and I am free to soar ahead and teach my subject with no distractions.