The school secretary pops her head round my room door.
‘Jenny, will you be able to make the governor’s tea next week?’
This kind woman has nurtured me since I arrived and this is no time for me 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.
Your predecessor used to get the girls to do it. We’ll pay you back for the ingredients you use.’
Well that’s alright then. The girls will 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 twenty.
I curb my fury and wonder if anyone who visits my room has any idea of the planning and preparation it takes to manage my large classes of noisy teenagers who want to cook.
School starts when students bring in cooking baskets with ingredients for the day. I register my form group, then progress through several classes when students cook, clear up, pack up, eat, catch up on homework, find out what to bring next week and come in for help with revision. I prepare demonstrations, sweep and clean the room before the cleaners turn up – they won’t do it if it’s too messy. I manage my food storeroom, checking the eight sinks, twelve cookers, cupboards full of baking tins, saucepans, frying pans, drawers full of cooking tools, and my tiny cupboard holding the latest precious electrical whisks and Kenwood chef.
When the bell rings at the end of school, I wash dishcloths and tea-towels in the ancient twin tub and hang them in the gas driers ready for the morning when they must be folded and packed away.
I check that aprons are clean, the ovens and gas rings are off, and that the rubbish is ready for collection.
And long after everyone has gone home or to the pub, I collect my marking which must be completed that night then think about what 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 and shorts.
‘Sir says, can you wash these and send them back folded up when they are dry? The last teacher did it, and he said you wouldn’t mind.’
Somehow, things must change, but for now I put on a sweet little woman act, and comply with their needs. I’m new and want to get on with people.
Of course I will find time to prepare the governor’s tea and wash the football shirts.
But I have dark thoughts ready for a fight.
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?
Get the boys to do it, I say – the girls are busy cooking governor’s tea while their teacher washes the school football outfits.
Enough of grumbling. My grandmother has told me that one good turn deserves another. And it is my turn to begin.
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 dithering over worksheets, comparing their latest boyfriends, chipping off flecks of pearl nail varnish and picking the split ends in their backcombed hair. 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.’
I’ve failed to persuade other teachers to take them into their lessons, 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. Write a shopping list so that you can go out and 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. There is a risk that the pair could sabotage and poison the food for everyone on the committee.
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 fit for The Ritz tea rooms, but I’ve borrowed it from my days as a waitress in Wicksteed Park Tea Pavilion in Kettering.
The Park was famous for its brandy snaps, and sold them wrapped in crackly cellophane for teatime treats. On brandy snap baking days the chef offered me one piped with a swirl of fresh cream, topped with a squelchy red Maraschino cherry fished out from a jar in the cocktail bar. Brandy snaps are gingery and crunchy, and the cream oozes as you bite. They are a cake maker’s triumph, and a test for Carol and Vicky.
Carol and Vicky grumble in with shopping baskets laden with porage oats, tins of golden syrup, a glass jar of Heinz salad cream, boxes of eggs, punnets of mustard and cress and the very extravagant show off tins of asparagus. My elaborate governor’s tea menu is also a cunning plan to stock up my storeroom. After this first baking session, I hope we will have plenty of spare ingredients and I can save some fresh cream and use real butter instead of that fishy County Supplies margarine.
The rest of the class is busy making Swedish tea rings as I check the shopping list. But first Carol and Vicky must dress to impress. Someone might check the tea progress, and they don’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 smart occasions.
As they change and button up, Carol and Vicky transform. Gone are the short skirts with rolled up waistbands, and the half undone ties.
A pair of smart cooks emerges.
We prepare the hostess trolley. We need 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 all the Beryl Ware and cutlery is clean?’
They glower at me.
‘Why can’t someone else do this, miss?’
‘Because, girls, they all want to get a CSE exam and you two don’t.’
This tea will test their stamina, and give them no time to gossip or sulk. 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 school 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 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 of snaps to roll and hold and more baking in the oven.
And on and on they come until the cooling rack is piled high.
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 and cut into quarters.
We lift precious mushy spears of asparagus from the tins and place them on buttered brown bread, then roll them up tightly and cut into small portions. Tinned asparagus is our most expensive ingredient, 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.
We pile the hostess trolley with sandwiches, buttered fruit scones, crunchy flapjacks, brandy snaps, and butterfly cakes.
The rest of the class gathers to coo and ah over Carol and Vicky’s work, amazed that these two can produce anything edible.
The feast is finished with hot brewed tea and they wheel the trolley into the headmaster’s study. The governors smile sweetly, but I’m thrilled at the surprised looks from the teachers on the school panel who know this unruly, disruptive pair from their wanderings around the school corridors.
Carol and Vicky return with me to my cookery room. It is a tip, but I’m too tired to fight with them over clearing 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 trolley, 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 pull on my overall and rubber gloves and clear up the mess, before my cooking classes arrive.
Next week 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 from £50.
Please provide evidence to show how much money you would like for the year.’
As my grandmother said, one turn deserves another.
A year later I 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 drier, and I am free to soar ahead and teach my subject with no distractions