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“Has everyone got a cup of coffee now?”  Hilda Annersley asked, looking round her study at the seven other people gathered there.  Nell Wilson was there, of course, along with Jeanne de Lachennais, Nancy Wilmot and Ruth Derwent as three of the most senior mistresses and Anna Mieders who, as the domestic science mistress, was probably better acquainted with the workings of kitchens in general than anyone else on the teaching staff. Also present were Biddy Courvoisier, whom she’d asked along because it had occurred to her that someone who was no longer actually at the School might be able to see matters more clear-sightedly than those who were, and Joey Maynard who, as ever, was there for reasons of which no-one was entirely sure.

 

Hilda took a sip from her cup and sighed.  The coffee that one of the maids had just brought up from the kitchen wasn’t quite as hot as it should have been, and the plate of cakes that would have accompanied it had Karen had still been there was missing altogether; but then that wasn’t surprising. Nothing relating to the domestic sphere of the School was quite as it should be any more.  She wished that lukewarm coffee and the absence of her mid-morning cakes were the worst of the problems, but they were far from being that. What was more, the situation was going from bad to worse, which was why she’d decided to hold this meeting. 

 

“I’m sorry to have to tell you all,” she began, “that we’re going to have to find a new cook to start after the Easter holidays.” It was accepted that by the term “cook” she actually meant someone who would not only be responsible for the cooking, but would also hold the position of head of the domestic staff with all that that entailed.

 

“I thought you’d only just got a new cook,” Biddy said in bewilderment.  “Didn’t someone new start a few weeks before half-term?  Heidi, was it?”

 

“Charlotte,” Hilda said.  “Heidi was the one before her.”  She tried hard not to grimace.  Karen had left four weeks into the summer term which had seen the coming of age celebrations take place, and they were now well into the second half of the Easter term of the following year.  It had taken a while to find a replacement for Karen – oddly enough, people hadn’t seemed to be as keen to work in the Chalet School kitchen as might have been expected – and then the woman they’d eventually taken on had walked out after less than a fortnight. 

 

Since then, they’d had no fewer than five cooks, some of them better at the job than others but none of them, it seemed to Hilda, with very much staying power nor, now that she thought about it, with the strength of character that the position probably required. None of the previous four had lasted more than a couple of months; and Charlotte, who’d just announced that she would be leaving at the end of this term, had said that the only reason she hadn’t left earlier had been because she’d known how worried the Head had been about the recent scarlet fever epidemic and hadn’t wanted to give her any more trouble at such a difficult time. 

 

Hilda couldn’t remember there ever having been any significant problems in the domestic department in all the time she’d been at the School, until these past ten months or so; and for once she was at an absolute loss as to what to do next.

 

“Quite frankly, I just don’t know what to do any more,” Hilda said.  “None of the cooks we take on seem to want to stay for more than half a term, if that; and I don’t have to tell any of you that standards seem to be slipping.”

 

“I honestly don’t think it’s a case of the domestic staff not working hard enough,” Ruth Derwent said, “but … well, meals never quite seem to be ready on time any more; and items of clothing are getting mixed up in the laundry, which I suppose isn’t surprising with such a large number of people in one place but which never happened when Karen was here.”

 

“Peggy Burnett went to take a P.T. lesson first thing yesterday morning only to find that the gym was still being cleaned,” Jeanne de Lachennais added. “The same thing happened with the sewing room when I was due to take Inter V’s embroidery class on Monday, and apparently one day last week the Sixth Form splashery somehow got missed and never got cleaned at all.”

 

“Kathie found two of the laundry maids in tears in one of the corridors earlier today,” Nancy Wilmot said quietly, “but, when she asked them what the matter was, they wouldn’t tell her.”

 

“I know,” Hilda said, a worried expression on her face. “Without a doubt there are some serious problems to be addressed. The reason that I’ve asked you all here today is to find out if any of you have any ideas as to what might be going wrong, and to ask if any of you have any suggestions as to how we can put it right.”  Nell gave her a supportive smile and she smiled back gratefully.

 

“It was never like this when Karen was here,” Anna Mieders said.  It was something that everyone at the School seemed to be repeating like a mantra at the moment, and Biddy couldn’t help feeling that it couldn’t be doing much for the present cook’s confidence.

 

“How is Karen?” Nancy asked.  “Does anyone on the Platz hear from her, do any of you know?” 

 

“My Anna does,” Joey said.  “In fact, she had a telephone call from Karen a couple of days ago. I know that they write to each other quite often but I was very surprised at Karen ringing from Austria, given the cost of international phone calls.  They were talking for ages as well. I was getting quite annoyed about it, to be honest, because Anna was supposed to be taking Bruno and the twins for a walk and all three of them were getting impatient.  I did try to find out what it had all been about later on, but Anna wasn’t very forthcoming.  She seemed very pleased about something, though.”

 

“They were probably just exchanging gossip,” Nell, who had a pile of letters to deal with as soon as this meeting was over and didn’t want the conversation to get too far off the point, said. 

 

“Quite possibly. Karen must see Anna’s family quite often now that she’s back in Tyrol, whereas Anna hasn’t seen any of them for months,” Biddy remarked pointedly. She looked directly at Joey as she spoke, but Joey whether deliberately or otherwise didn’t seem to understand what she was getting at.  Could Anna’s employer honestly not see how tired her faithful handmaiden was looking these days?  Or did she just not see what it suited her not to see?

 

“To get back to the subject in hand, what are we going to do about the problem of the domestic staff?” Nell asked, looking at her watch and hoping that someone had something constructive to suggest.

 

“Have you tried asking any of them what the matter is?” Biddy asked.  Her mother had been a lady’s maid and, although as such she’d been considered a cut above kitchen maids or laundry maids, Biddy as a result had slightly more empathy with the domestic staff than could be said of anyone else who’d ever taught or been taught at the School.  “Who’s the oldest of them?  It’ll be Gaudenz’s wife, won’t it – the housekeeper at St Agnes’s?  Lisa. And what about asking Charlotte exactly why she’s decided to leave? It seems to me that everyone here knows that there are problems but that no-one seems to have any idea what’s causing them and, with all due respect, you won’t find out without asking the people concerned.”

 

“I must say that that hadn’t occurred to me,” Hilda said thoughtfully.  “That’s not a bad idea at all, Biddy.  In fact, that’s exactly what I’ll do.”

 

“Well, good luck!” Joey said.  “I must go now, I’m afraid!  I don’t envy you these problems, Hilda, I must say.  What a good job that I don’t have anything like this to worry about.  I rarely have the slightest trouble with Anna or Rosli: they’re both impeccably well-trained!”

 

It was no good: she was going to have to sit down for a few minutes.  Anna sank wearily into a chair and thought back wistfully to those long ago days when she’d first worked for the Maynards. Back then there’d only been the triplets to look after (it wasn’t that she didn’t adore all the children, but having so many of them in one family made for an awful lot of work, especially since Fraulein Marani had left and not been replaced), when Robin and Daisy had always been willing to help out around a house that had been far smaller than Freudesheim was and when Frau Doktor Maynard had shared the task of cooking with her.  She heaved a deep sigh and took out of her apron pocket the letter she’d received that morning from Karen.  Their friendship had never faltered even though Karen was now living three hundred miles away and her life had changed so much - and would be changing even more come the autumn.

 

“Dear Anna

 

“I hope you-know-who wasn’t too annoyed about me keeping you talking the other day when I don’t doubt she had piles of work waiting for you to do, but I really wanted to tell you myself rather than putting it in a letter.  It probably wouldn’t seem particularly exciting to her with her long family, but it means so much to Rudi and me. We’ll start telling everyone else in another few weeks, God willing … although I think everyone at the hotel will have guessed by then if Rudi keeps being so protective of me.  I never thought I was the sort of person whom anyone would think needed looking after, but he does, especially now, although thankfully I feel all right so far.

 

“Are you sure you’re all right, Anna?  You sounded very tired, considering that it was the middle of the afternoon.  She works you and Rosli too hard; she really does.  I assume that when Maynard number ten arrives in early summer you and Rosli’ll be expected to look after him or her as well as looking after all the other children who aren’t away at school, on top of having that great big house to clean and all the cooking and the washing and ironing to do, not to mention walking the dog; and you hardly get any time off.  It’s too much.

 

“I saw your aunt at the weekend, and she’s worried about you as well: she said that your mother’d shown her your last letter and that they both thought you sounded very tired and downhearted. We’re all concerned about you, Anna. We went to visit her when we were in Briesau to see Rudi’s parents.  It tends to be easier if we go there rather than them coming to Mayrhofen to see us: every time they come here, they find something to criticise about the way we run the hotel, usually that we’re “too soft” on our staff and we don’t keep a “proper distance” between them and us! Still, we get on better with them than we used to; and we’re not really that bothered what they say about the hotel because we want people to be happy working here, and the winter sports season’s gone really well so far, touch wood. 

 

“We saw Eigen at the Kron Prinz Karl: your aunt’s so pleased that he’s got a job back at the Tiernsee.  He sends you his love.  Jockel was there as well.  He was telling us all about when he left Austria before the war and took Rufus with him.  Then Eigen came out with the tale of how he and “Fraulein Joey” (as he called her) rescued Rufus when Rufus was a little puppy who’d been left to drown.  I’d forgotten all about that. It’s so strange to think that the sort of girl “Fraulein Joey” was then’s turned into the sort of woman she is now.

 

“Your aunt was so lovely.  I’m sure she’d guessed about the baby and she realised that I was a bit nervous. She didn’t actually say so directly, but Rudi asked her about her children and she was telling him that her youngest children were younger than her eldest grandchildren, and that led on to her saying that she had her last baby when she was forty-five.  A good few years older than me.  Then she said something about Rosa looking after all the Russell children and Lady Russell being well over forty when Kevin and Kester were born. I’ve felt much happier since then.

 

“I’d better go now, because the menus for next week need sorting out, but please do think about what I’ve said, and think about asking Frau Doktor Maynard if you could at least have a holiday. It probably isn’t even legal for you to be working all hours with so little time off.  I never really thought much about there being employment laws when I was at the School (although at least there we could have some time off during the school holidays). I was just so glad to have a job and a roof over my head, and, anyway, we were brought up not to question what our employers and supposed betters told us to do, weren’t we?  But Rudi says that there are laws in a lot of places about employers having to give people a certain amount of paid holiday time every year, and imposing limits on the number of hours per week that people can be asked to work.

 

“You know that you’d only have to say the word and you could come and work here, but if you don’t want to do that then at least come for a break.  We’d love you to come and stay with us, and time, and I know that your family in Briesau would love to see you as well.

 

“Give my best wishes to Rosli, and to Lisa and Mechtilde and Vreneli and the others when you see them; and look after yourself 

 

“Love,

 

“Karen.” 

 

Hilda reconvened the meeting two weeks later, by which time she’d spoken at length to both Charlotte and Lisa, and two of the maids had announced that they were leaving to work at a hotel in Grindelwald which offered higher wages and shorter working hours. 

 

“From what’s been said, it appears that there are several main problems,” she began.  “One is that we really don’t have as many maids as we need. Unfortunately, we just can’t afford to do anything about that without economising elsewhere; and I hardly think the parents would be very pleased if we cut back on replacing games equipment, for example, so that we could employ more domestic staff.”

 

She paused, mindful of the fact that Joey was present and that it therefore might not be a good idea to sound too critical of the Russells.  One of the reasons that the Tiernsee had been chosen as the original location for the School was that the cost of living there had been so much lower than in Britain, and that was something that definitely couldn’t be said about the Gornetz Platz.  The Bernese Oberland wasn’t as expensive a place to be as Geneva or Zurich or even Berne itself, but nowhere in Switzerland was exactly cheap. Sometimes Hilda couldn’t help thinking that the decision to move here had been taken on the basis of what was best for the San, with the School just following because it had been taken for granted that the main branches of both institutions should be in the same place.  She and the others most closely involved with the running of the School had been given very little chance to have their say in the matter at the time: the Russells had made the decision whilst they’d been away in Canada.

 

It was all very well for Swiss finishing schools. The whole point of those sorts of schools was that they were supposed to be exclusive; and therefore parents expected to pay high levels of fees for them.  The same couldn’t be said of an ordinary school, even one as prestigious as the Chalet School: they couldn’t really charge that much more than the U.K. branch did or the parents of some or all the British girls might well decide to send their daughters back to Carnbach. 

 

Then there was the fact that servants’ wages had risen considerably in recent years, not just in Switzerland but elsewhere as well.  It was causing problems even for people who were far wealthier than the School was. Look at the number of aristocratic families back in Britain who were having to close parts of their stately homes, or open them to the public as tourist attractions. Look at Marie von und zu Wertheim and her husband, who were now having to let their Schloss be used for conferences for American businessmen. 

 

She’d tried saying something about this to the Russells in a letter when she’d first started looking into the practicalities of the move to the Oberland. However, Jem Russell, who regarded domestic matters as not really being worth his notice, hadn’t wanted to know; and Madge had just suggested that the girls be asked to dust their own cubicles and help clear the tables – which really made very little difference to the domestic staff’s workload whatsoever. 

 

“We don’t have any fewer staff than we’ve done ever since we moved here, though,” Ruth Derwent said, “and we never used to have all these problems. Why’s it all started going wrong these last nine or ten months or so?”

 

“We had Karen before,” Hilda said.  “It’s always difficult replacing someone who leaves after a long time, whatever their position; and none of the cooks we’ve had since she left have stayed long enough to settle in properly or to get used to the way things are done here.  Also, I don’t think we ever appreciated just how well Karen organised the domestic work.  That just isn’t happening any more. The cleaning isn’t being planned properly, so rooms aren’t being cleaned at the most convenient times for the people who use them and occasionally some rooms are being missed out altogether.  The meals aren’t being planned in advance as well as they used to be, so sometimes changes are having to be made at the last minute when it turns out that there aren’t sufficient quantities of the right ingredients in stock, which helps to explain why the food isn’t always ready on time. 

 

“Also, whilst Lisa assured me that all the maids work hard, without Karen there to make sure that everyone knows exactly what has to be finished by what time and that they’ll have her to answer to if it isn’t, the work isn’t being done as efficiently as it was before. Both Lisa and Charlotte said that a lot of the problems are arising due to a lack of time because we just haven’t got enough domestic staff but, as I’ve already said, employing more domestic staff just isn’t possible at the moment.”

 

She didn’t add that morale was low because the wages offered were so much lower than those offered by the hotels in the region.  Some of the teaching staff weren’t paid the wages that they might get at a comparable school, and she didn’t want to go putting ideas into anyone’s head about asking for a pay rise.  “There’s also the question of … well, of attitudes towards the domestic staff,” she went on. 

 

“It does appear that there’s something of a lack of consideration being shown towards the domestic staff, or at least that’s how they see it.  According to Charlotte, there’s never a day goes by that the girls from at least one dormitory don’t turn up late for breakfast and at least one form doesn’t turn up late for all the other meals.  So the kitchen staff have then either to wait for everyone to arrive and consequently end up running late, or else serve the food at the proper time in which case the latecomers complain that it’s gone cold.  There’ve also been several cases of people expecting the domestic staff to clear up spillages of ink and similar mishaps, whereas beforehand they were always told to ask Karen for cloths and water and clear the mess up themselves. 

 

“Then, and this is not to be discussed with anyone else, it appears that Matron is being rather severe with the laundry maids.  She can be quite exacting, it has to be said, and apparently she’s been speaking somewhat forcefully to anyone responsible for items not cleaned and ironed to her satisfaction.

 

“When Karen was here, so Lisa said, she always stood between Matron and the maids; and no-one dared turn up late for meals or expect the maids to clear up anything that they weren’t supposed to because they knew that she’d give them short shrift if they did.  I’ve been unable to persuade Charlotte to stay on, but maybe that isn’t a bad thing.  The sort of person we need as a cook and as head of the domestic staff is someone very strong-minded – someone who’ll take control and stand no nonsense.”

 

“I’ve also decided that we should try employing someone British this time, as long as we can find someone suitable who speaks a reasonable amount of German.  All the cooks we’ve had here since Karen left have been from the local area. They don’t seem to have felt any particular affinity to the School and have been more than happy to leave to take jobs at hotels or other institutions, or even to go back to their families whilst they looked for alternative employment.  Someone British, who doesn’t know Switzerland or anyone in Switzerland, might be much more inclined to stay.  What’s more, I’m going to insist that they sign an agreement saying that they’ll stay for at least one full term.  That way, even if they decide not to remain here any longer, at least we’ll have the long summer vacation in which to make alternative arrangements.”

 

Get somebody with a forceful personality, and make sure that they couldn’t just walk out – that was how to deal with this, Hilda had decided.  That way, the problems with the domestic staff would soon be resolved. She was sure of it.

 

“I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, but how do you propose to go about recruiting someone suitable?” Jeanne de Lachennais asked doubtfully.  “You’d want to meet the person to ascertain that they had the necessary qualities, I assume; but it would hardly be practical for you to go back to Britain for the Easter holidays, just to interview potential cooks.”

 

“I’m going to ask Dollie Edwards at Carnbach to do the interviews,” Hilda explained.  “I’m sure she’ll be well able to choose exactly the sort of person we need.”

 

“I don’t believe this!” Dollie exclaimed when she received Hilda’s letter asking her to advertise for a cook/head of domestic staff for the Swiss branch of the School in some suitable publication or other, and then to conduct interviews to find somebody who met with Hilda’s requirements. As if she didn’t have enough to do running her own branch of the School. 

 

She was still smarting over the fact that, although Old Girls who’d had nothing to do with the School since the day they’d left had been invited to the coming of age celebrations the previous summer, it appeared that no-one in Switzerland had even thought of asking anyone from the Carnbach branch. Not even members of staff like herself who’d been with the school for years and years.  She was sorely tempted to show Hilda Annersley a thing or two this time.  Hilda wanted someone with a forceful personality?  Well, she’d do her best to find her someone with a forceful personality all right.

 

Encouraged by Karen, and after receiving letters from her mother and her aunt both saying that they were concerned about her health and that they hadn’t seen her for too long, Anna finally plucked up the courage to ask Joey if she could have a week off over the Easter period. The triplets would be off school and therefore at home to help Rosli with the younger children, so surely the Maynards would be able to spare her that week, she reasoned. She was hoping to be able to spend a few days in Briesau with her family and a few days in Mayrhofen with Karen.

 

It wasn’t quite so bad for Rosli, Anna thought. Rosli at least had her family and friends living nearby, so she could go to visit them when she had an afternoon off.  There was so little to do around the Gornetz Platz that all Anna could really do in her half days off was to go for a walk … and if she said that she was going for a walk then the Frau Doktor would be sure to say that she might as well take Bruno or the children or all of them with her; and it was very difficult to say no.  She thought with a slight pang of envy about her cousins who worked for Sir James and Lady Russell.  The Russells had only two children, their twin boys, living at home during term-time, and with only six children in total they used far fewer rooms that the Maynards did; yet they employed Marie, and Marie’s husband Andreas, and Rosa.

 

Then again, very few people worked for a family who had nine children (and another one due in the summer, two if it turned out to be twins again as the Maynards seemed to be hoping), and lived in a converted hotel.

 

She really did feel in need of a week away.

 

“Go to Tyrol for a week?” Joey asked, genuinely bewildered.  “But why?  I can understand that you want to see your family, but we’ll all be going to stay at Die Blumen in July or August, after the new baby’s born, so you’ll be able to see them then.  I’m sorry, Anna, but it’s out of the question for you to disappear for a week at the moment.  I can hardly start doing the cooking or the housework in my condition, can I?  There’s no way I’d be able to manage without both you and Rosli here. It’s just not feasible. You’ll be getting a holiday when we go to the Tiernsee in the summer: it’s hardly that long to wait, is it?”

 

Anna muttered something about there being laws regarding employers and workers, and Joey looked at her in utter bemusement.  “Well, of course there are laws, Anna.  If there were no laws, people would still be sending little boys up chimneys, or using children of Mike’s age to work in cotton mills or go down the mines.  That’s hardly got anything to do with you wanting to take yourself off to Tyrol for Easter, has it? I’m sorry, but the answer’s no. I just can’t spare you for a week: there’s too much to do here.  I’ll tell you what, take the afternoon off tomorrow.  I can’t say fairer than that, can I?” 

 

She was quite shocked at having heard Anna talk like that.  She was also really rather hurt by it. Laws about employers and workers?  Anna lived with them. They all counted on her. She was almost like one of the family. Talking about “laws” made it sound as if Freudesheim were some sort of factory, rather than a happy family home. 

 




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