Madel had never been a good correspondent, and Karen resigned herself to the fact that it could well be some weeks before she heard anything. She didn’t have to worry about keeping her mind occupied in the meantime: she was always occupied. By the time all the dishes, cups, knives, spoons and glasses from Fruhstuck had been washed and put away and she had ensured that those maids who didn’t work in the kitchens had gone about their tasks for the rest of the day, it was almost time for her to serve the mid-morning coffee, milk and biscuits and to take Miss Annersley’s elevenses to her study. After that, the cold meat and salads and the fruit and cream for Mittagessen had to be prepared, and then served, and then the cutlery and crockery cleared away.
Then the food for Abendessen had to be prepared and put in the large, slow-burning ovens to cook. She had to ensure that any items that were running low were added to her shopping list, and then at three o’clock it was time to serve Kaffee und Kuchen. Following that, there was yet more washing up and clearing away to be done, and then came the final preparations for the Abendessen, the main meal of the day.
She tried hard to vary the meals and at the same time to ensure that those dishes that were particular favourites with the girls featured reasonably regularly, and that in itself took a considerable amount of planning given that she was catering for a large number of people on a budget that was not particularly generous. As well as the cooking, once all the meals of the day were finally over she had to check the laundry and ironing done that day to ensure that it would pass muster: she knew that some of the laundry maids regarded her as something of a tartar but she preferred that to letting them risk one of Matron Lloyd’s notorious tongue-lashings. Then there were some days when she had to prepare a whole set of picnic lunches at short notice, or interrupt her other work to take cakes to the Head’s study for special guests. Not to mention heating up milk in the middle of the night if someone been woken by a noise or gone sleepwalking.
Still, she couldn’t complain. There were far worse places to be in this cold weather than her nice warm kitchen or the domestic staff’s sitting room. In fact, life at the Chalet School was really quite comfortable compared to the conditions she’d worked under at the Kron Prinz Karl. These days, most hotels paid far more generously than the school did; but when she’d been young the wages paid to girls such as herself by the hotels on the banks of the Tiernsee had been little more than a pittance.
The amount paid by the Chalet School had seemed generous by comparison. And she and Marie had been envied by the other girls of Briesau and the other lakeside villages for the kindness which Lady Russell, then Miss Bettany, had showed them and her insistence that the girls always be polite to them. They had considered themselves very lucky to be employed by the Chalet School.
She still considered herself very lucky to be employed by the Chalet School. As unmarried cooks’ lives went, she supposed that hers wasn’t a bad one.
It wasn’t long before the snow came. Karen watched as the girls set off for their fun and games in the great outdoors, trying not to see the wistful glances of the younger maids as they set about their work. She wished that she could send them outside to play in the snow, just for a little while, but the fact that the pupils and mistresses had been excused lessons for the day never meant that the domestic staff could be excused their work too. In fact, there was always more work to be done when it snowed. Gaudenz had been up even earlier than usual that morning, ensuring that all the heating was working properly; and she and the maids would have to scrub all the wooden floors once the girls had walked over them with their wet boots, not to mention washing all those winter sports suits and ensuring that none of them ended up in the washing with any of the bed linen. She could just see Matron’s face if the sheets ended up being dyed crimson.
Maybe the weather was delaying the post from Austria. Or had Madel found out something that she was finding it difficult to write about?
When the weather was like this, something hot was usually served at Mittagessen, and so Karen, together with the kitchen maids, set about chopping vegetables with which to make huge vats of soup. She’d been up early and, tired out, was finally about to retire to the domestic staff’s sitting room for a few minutes’ rest when the wretched bell rang to summon her to Miss Annersley’s study. Karen sighed. Surely no-one could ever say that she and her staff didn’t work hard, but sometimes they were all sorely tempted to wreck that bell mechanism so completely that its irritating peals would never sound in the kitchen again.
Dutifully, she abandoned her plans for a well-earned sit-down and trooped up to the study, where she found Miss Annersley and her co-head Miss Wilson in conference with Joey Maynard. Probably they were discussing the coming of age celebrations … in which no-one had even suggested including the domestic staff, although they would doubtless be expected to provide meals for all the guests expected for the occasion. Had it really been twenty-one years? So many memories …
“Ah, Karen. Would you bring us up some coffee and cakes, please?” Miss Annersley asked.
“Yes, Fraulein Annersley,” Karen answered automatically. Back down the stairs she went. She carefully placed a pot of coffee and a plate containing a selection of cakes on to a tray, which she carried carefully back up the stairs, narrowly avoiding slipping on a patch of melted snow that she suspected had come from the boots of either Karl or Thomas, two of the lads who assisted Gaudenz. She had spied them throwing snowballs about earlier in the day when they were supposed to have been clearing the path. She wasn’t going to say anything, she’d decided: they were little more than boys, after all, and she only wished that her girls had had the chance to enjoy themselves in the winter wonderland outside as well.
Arriving at the Head’s study once more, she found the door shut. Miss Annersley tended to shut the door when it was cold, in an attempt to keep the heat in. Karen frowned. The tray was heavy and she wasn’t sure that she’d be able to hold it safely with one hand whilst she knocked on the door with the other. Bending down, she placed the tray carefully on the floor. She was about to knock when something she heard made her stop. She would never deliberately eavesdrop, but it was impossible to avoid hearing what was being said when you were standing right outside.
“I’m just ready for a cup of Karen’s coffee,” Miss Wilson was saying. “No-one makes coffee like she does, not even Jeanne de Lachennais. Her cakes are always delicious too. I can’t imagine the school without her.”
Karen beamed. It was nice to be appreciated. She felt much better now. Then she heard Miss Annersley’s voice.
“I doubt that she can imagine life without the school. The school is her very life, I believe.”
My very life, Karen thought. Is this what you think my entire life has been about? Cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing? Oh, I was brought up to know that I would always have to work hard. I never expected anything else. I wouldn’t want anything else: I wouldn’t want to live as the mothers of some of the school’s pupils do, with servants to care for their homes and their young children whilst they do nothing all day but go shopping and pamper themselves and pay calls on their friends. But do you never stop to think that even the school cook is entitled to moments in her life that are far removed from the daily routine of her work? And there have been such moments in my life. Maybe there never will be again, but there have been. And you never realise that, do you? You look at me, if you bother to look, and you think, if you think at all, that the high points in my life have been producing a perfectly shaped cake or a cup of coffee that people say tastes like nectar. What do you know about my life? “The school is her very life” indeed! But is that what everyone here thinks about me? Is that how I seem to them all?
Karen tried to keep her mind on her work for the rest of the day, but her nerves were fraught, and she was ready to scream by the time Yseult Pertwee complained that she didn’t like the meal that Karen and the others had slaved over all afternoon and asked if there were an alternative. It was virtually impossible to please everyone, and, whilst it often seemed odd to her that no choice of meals was offered, it had always been the system at the school that you got what you were given. The resources allocated to the kitchen wouldn’t have allowed for providing more that one option anyway. In the end she made a meat sandwich and slipped it to Yseult when none of the mistresses or prefects were looking. It might be against the rules but she wasn’t about to see any of the girls go hungry.
She was glad when she was finally able to retire to the sitting room, where she settled down to chat with Gaudenz’s wife Lisa and a group of the younger maids – Anneli, Miggi, Nette and Berta. Their sitting room was a pleasant place. They were never invited to attend any of the school’s evening entertainments but they had a radio in there which was always tuned to stations playing the latest music (the sort that Mr Denny heartily disapproved of); and two of the maids, Mechtilde who could always be relied on to make the others laugh and her friend Vreneli who was equally lively, had adorned the walls with posters of their favourite film stars. Much more cheerful than the staffroom where people were always moaning about bad behaviour or errors in prep, they all agreed!
Anneli, who was one of the laundry maids, was giggling about some of the items she’d found in the washing – it was surprising what Matron wore under her starched uniform, not to mention the stays that enabled Miss Annersley to maintain her trim figure. Karen grinned to herself. She’d love to see the “upstairs” staff’s faces if they ever found out some of what got said in the domestic staff’s sitting room! It wasn’t all hard work and no play, even if sometimes seemed like it.
She relaxed and joined in the conversation. For a little while, at least, it took her mind off wondering just how much longer it would be before she heard back from Madel and what news, if any, her cousin would be able to give her.
Later, in her bedroom, Karen grimaced at the sight of herself in her thick flannel nightgown, with curlers in her hair. However, given that she always covered her hair with a cap whilst she was cooking, every day would be a bad hair day if she didn’t at least try to do something about it by using the curlers. She sometimes wondered why she bothered, given that it wasn’t as if there was anyone here who took the slightest interest in what she looked like, but pride drove her to at least make an effort. As for the nightgown … well, it was cold at this time of year, and she had nothing else to keep her warm at night, apart from a hot water bottle.
Getting into bed, she pulled the bedclothes tight around herself and picked up her latest romantic novel. Matron might ban the girls from reading such things, but Karen enjoyed them and turned a blind eye when she saw the maids reading them. They were harmless, after all: Matron might say that they filled the girls’ heads with nonsense but there was nothing wrong with a bit of romance between the pages of a book, was there? She’d borrowed this one from Anna, and was anxious to finish it because she knew that Rosli was waiting to read it next.
She was engrossed in reading about the lives of the characters in the novel – it was funny the way that the romances in these books were always between doctors and nurses rather than doctors and teachers! – when she was rudely disturbed by the sound of something creaking. Was she imagining it? No. She could definitely hear a noise. Quietly she crept out of her room and into the corridor. She shivered as a cold draught hit her. Where on earth was that coming from? All the windows and doors were supposed to be shut. Then she realised that not only was one of the windows open, but that someone was climbing through it.
She was about to scream for help when she realised that the person climbing through the window was a young girl. Surely one of the school’s pupils hadn’t been out of bounds at this time of night? Then the silhouetted figure assumed the shape of Mechtilde, one of the kitchen maids. The girl saw Karen standing before her and her face fell. Getting in at this time of night was strictly forbidden, and Karen was famed for having a fearsome temper.
“What on earth have you been doing?” Karen hissed. “Do you know what time it is? And it’s freezing outside: the snow’s thick on the ground. You could have caught your death of cold. And why was that window open? Vreneli was supposed to have checked that they were shut before you all went to bed. Oh Mechtilde, look at the state of you, you silly girl!” It must be snowing again: the girl’s coat and hat were covered in white flakes, which were rapidly melting, and her boots were wet. “Go and change out of those wet things at once and then come to my room: I’ll get a hot drink and a hot water bottle ready for you. And try not to wake anyone else, please.”
“It wasn’t Vreneli’s fault,” Mechtilde muttered. “I asked her to leave the window open: please don’t blame her.”
Karen raised her eyebrows sharply. “Then you went out intending not to be back until this ungodly hour? That makes it even worse. Oh Mechtilde, I’m supposed to be responsible for you girls! Tell me truthfully now: were you meeting someone? A man?”
Mechtilde nodded. Karen sighed. “Go and change. I’ll get the coffee on.”
Shortly afterwards, she heard a knock at the door, and assumed that it was Mechtilde. “Come in,” she called
It was Gwynneth Lloyd. “I thought I heard a noise,” the school’s head matron said suspiciously. Karen glared at her. Did the wretched woman have ears like a lynx? How on earth had she managed to hear people moving about so far from her own bedroom? “No-one is unwell, I hope?” Matron enquired, peering into Karen’s room in a way that made Karen’s hackles rise. Could the woman never mind her own business?
“Everyone is perfectly well,” Karen said firmly. Not that Matron would be all that interested if they weren’t: no-one ever bothered to ask the domestic staff if they’d had mumps or German measles or scarlet fever or whatever other epidemic happened to be striking the school. For the most part she, Karen, was left to deal with any minor ailments, and she’d spent many a night sitting up with one or more of the younger maids when they’d been ill. “I awoke and decided to make myself some coffee. I’m sorry if I disturbed you.” There was no way that she was going to have Mechtilde or any of her other girls subjected to an inquisition by Matron, or by Miss Annersley either for that matter.
Matron’s eyes strayed to the book lying on Karen’s bed. If she dares to say that that isn’t a suitable book to have in the school, I’ll make sure that every last one of her sheets gets dyed lime green, Karen thought resentfully. Matron might be in charge of such domestic matters as the linen, but she certainly wasn’t in charge of the domestic staff’s private lives. Seeing the look on Karen’s face, Matron thought better of what she’d been about to say and made her departure. Few people ever got the better of her, but Karen was one of them.
Mechtilde arrived a few moments later, a look of fear on her face. Karen was “a poppet” (to quote the school’s pupils) most of the time, but it was well known that she could be a tartar when she was angry, and she had good reason to be angry this time. She was responsible for supervising the maids and she might very well get the blame if Miss Annersley found out that one of them had been breaking rules.
“Don’t look like that, girl! I’m not going to eat you,” Karen said firmly, handing the girl a mug of coffee, “but I am responsible for you whilst you’re young and under my supervision, and I don’t like to think of you being out until all hours, especially in this weather … and especially if you’ve been staying out late with someone who might end up bringing you only sadness. What have you been up to, Mechtilde?”
A list of men whom the girl might have been meeting was going through her mind. Who was there living nearby? Herr Denny? Herr Laubach? Gaudenz? Or one of the Herr Doktors from the San? Herr Doktor Courvoisier? Herr Doktor Graves? Surely not Herr Doktor Maynard?
“Well?” she asked. “I’m waiting.”
“I was meeting Heinrich,” Mechtilde muttered. “We were only going for a walk: we weren’t doing anything wrong. We both get so little time off that we hardly get any chance to see each other.”
Karen heaved a sigh of relief that she hastily turned into a cough, not wanting the girl to think that she condoned her actions: whatever the reason, the girls weren’t supposed to be out this late, as much for their own safety as anything else. However, she knew Heinrich, the lad who worked as a general handyman at the San and did odd jobs at various houses around the Platz. He was a decent enough young man. Oh, what a relief that the girl hadn’t been foolish enough to get mixed up with any of the masters or the doctors. That way could lie only trouble. Stick to your own kind, Herr Braun’s voice came back to her across the years. You should have known that, Karen. You’re only a kitchen maid.
“All the same, you had no business being out so late, and you most certainly shouldn’t have been walking about in this snow,” she said firmly. “Don’t let me catch you coming in at this time of night again!”
“Is that all?” Mechtilde blurted out in surprise. She’d expected Karen to give her a tongue-lashing the likes of which she’d never forget. How surprising people could be sometimes.
“I was young once, you know!” Karen said. She smiled at the look on the girl’s face but was saddened by it too. Did all her staff think that she’d only ever been middle-aged, spinster Karen, the school cook, her main concerns in life the timings of the meals and the cleanliness of the kitchen? “Take care, Mechtilde,” she said gently. “Go to bed now, and try not to wake the others up. Another time, be more careful. What if Miss Annersley or Matron Lloyd had caught you? Drink your coffee, and take this hot water bottle: we can’t have you catching a chill. And don’t be discussing this with anyone else, please. I can’t have people coming in this late regularly or I’ll be in trouble with the school authorities myself. Off you go.”
Mechtilde looked at her in amazement and then smiled, and leaned over and impulsively kissed her on the cheek. “Get away with you!” Karen said; but inwardly she was pleased, even though she didn’t allow herself to smile until the girl had gone.
I was young once, you know, she repeated to herself when Mechtilde had gone. I know what it’s like when you get so little time to see each other that you forget what time it is or how many rules you’re breaking. I understand. I remember.