This was the first novel that I wrote back in 2001 when I first moved to Spain to live. I had written short stories before and non-fiction health books, but felt the need to bring a little romance and humour into my writing.. the result was the semi-autobiographical Just an Odd Job Girl.
About the book
At 50 Imogen had been married for over 20 years, and was living in a big house, with money to spare. Suddenly she is traded-in for a younger model, a Fast-Tracker.
Devastated, she hides away and indulges in binge eating. But then, when hope is almost gone, she meets a new friend and makes a journey to her past that helps her move on to her future.
Last time Imogen takes a look at herself in the mirror and decides a makeover is in order… whatever the cost.
Chapter Fourteen – Mayhew School for Boys and Girls.
Miss Mayhew was a rather tall, angular, woman of indeterminate age. Her grey hair was pulled into a bun at the back of her head and metal rimmed glasses perched on the end of a beaky nose. For the entire six weeks that I worked at the school, I racked my brains to discover whom it was she reminded me of. It actually came to me some years later when I was on holiday in Malta and toured the film village where they had made Popeye. I was suddenly confronted with large, cardboard cut-out of Miss Mayhew in the disguise of Olive Oyl.
The school catered to boys and girls between the ages of five and eleven. There were fifty of these children and five teachers, which I suppose, gave a really good teacher to student ratio.
All the children appeared to have double-barrelled names, and a problem with their nasal passages. Their accents even at five years old had been cultivated in a greenhouse without the benefit of any contamination by your ‘common types’ and all of them could easily have become television newsreaders. The children were weekly boarders, and my job was to cook breakfast for them each morning and assist the head cook with lunches. She would then prepare their high tea and the teachers’ suppers.
I arrived at the school on my first morning at ten o’clock, as instructed. From the next day, I would be working from six in the morning until two in the afternoon. This suited me as it gave me an opportunity to spend the rest of the day in other pursuits. As my social life at the time was absolutely dead and buried, I was not bothered about getting into bed at nine each night and catching up with my reading.
On this first morning, the school secretary, a plump, motherly woman who introduced herself as Angela, took me upstairs to the Headmistress’s study. She in no way prepared me for Miss Mayhew or her uncanny resemblance to Olive Oyl. I passed through a dark passage with low lighting, and two benches, either side of a wooden door. Angela indicated that I take a seat on one of the seats, knocked, and entered the study. I heard murmured voices and after a couple of minutes Angela reappeared and opened the door wide.
‘Miss Mayhew will see you now dear.’
She slipped past me and returned down the corridor. I entered and found myself standing on a dark red carpet in front of a very large and imposing desk. The thin figure uncoiled itself from behind this monstrosity, and I can only imagine the terror she would have inspired in a five-year-old summoned to this dark and forbidding lair.
‘Good morning, I am Imogen Baxter your temporary cook.’
I stretched out my hand politely. Miss Mayhew looked at it as if it contained enough germs to start an epidemic and made no effort to shake it. Don’t you feel stupid when people do that to you? I withdrew my hand and stood with it firmly by my side.
‘I am well aware of who you are Miss Baxter and please note that we do not use first names at the school. The staff and all the children are referred to by their surnames.’
This was a good start! Six weeks was beginning to look like a lifetime. What about the poor little souls who arrived here at five years of age, and had to stay for six years?
‘We do not normally employ temporary staff but our assistant cook had to go and look after her mother, who has had an operation.’ She continued, without any hint of sympathy in her voice. It obviously had been most inconvenient.
‘I am assured by your agency that you are punctual, neat and conscientious. so in this instance I have relented, but I want you to know that I will be monitoring you very closely.’
With that, she rang a hand bell on her desk and went back to her paperwork. I stood there feeling a complete idiot and was about to say something when the door opened and Angela bustled in. Gratefully, I turned around and followed her back downstairs. I didn’t like to say anything too derogatory on my first day and I bit my tongue as we crossed a windy courtyard and entered a large hall.
At the back of the hall were two doors. Angela held open the right hand one and waved me through. I entered a gleaming, stainless steel, kitchen filled with the sound of clanging pots and the rumble of a food processor.
‘Cook will be here in a moment she is just in the store room I expect.’ With that Angela bustled back through the door and I was left standing in the middle of the kitchen.
I didn’t have long to wait, as a swing door banged against the back wall and a round little figure appeared. Dressed in white from top to toe, with a hat perched on the back of her head, stood the cook. She was puffing and red faced and obviously in a state about something.
‘Are you my assistant?’ she demanded in a shrill voice.
I nodded hurriedly not wishing to incur her wrath on my first day.
‘Good! Get the bloody kettle on. I’m parched.’
She grinned from ear to ear. ‘Bet you could use something a bit stronger having met the boss, but tea it will have to be.’
What a relief, I smiled weakly and looked around for the kettle. Within minutes, we were sitting in the little staff room at the back of the kitchen and I was filled in on the ins and outs of the school, Miss Mayhew and the staff. Jessie Brown had been cook at the school for ten years and said in that time Miss Mayhew had never called her anything but Brown. She thought we sounded a bit like a double-act – ‘Baxter and Brown’ – and she said that she was looking forward to working with an outsider for a few weeks.
We returned to the kitchen and Jessie handed me a set of whites that had to be worn at all times. I went back into the staff room and changed into my new attire. My hair was tied back and tucked into my round white cap. Catching sight of myself in the mirror, I decided that it was definitely not the most flattering outfit I had ever owned. I went back into the kitchen, rolled up my sleeves and asked Jessie for my instructions.
She took me through the week’s menus for the children and staff, and the first thing I noticed was that there was no meat on the menu. When I questioned Jessie about this she shrugged her shoulders and told me that Miss Mayhew had been a vegetarian all her life and insisted that the children were too. Jessie was in no doubt that the children all indulged in carnivorous activities during the weekends at home with their parents, who apparently made no objection to their offspring’s Monday to Friday eating habits.
Personally, I did not think that it was particularly healthy for children of this age to be deprived of a complete food group but Jessie, sensing my unease, assured me that she made sure that they all had a balanced diet.
‘Don’t worry love. They get plenty of good food, and they love my sauces and the special cakes I make for their tea.’
Somewhat reassured, I began to help prepare lunch. On the menu today was vegetable pie, mashed potatoes and peas, with treacle sponge and custard for dessert. I have to admit that Jessie was a very good cook, and soon appetising smells were filling the kitchen. Before I knew it, it was time for the children to come in for lunch. Jessie went and pinned back the two doors into the kitchen against the wall and came and joined me behind the serving counter.
‘I like to make sure that children get a plate of food, so we serve each of them from behind here.’ She explained.
‘When I first came here ten years ago, portions were put on each table of ten. But I discovered that the older children were taking the best bits, and leaving the younger children with very little.’
I realised that this little woman was very much in charge of her kitchen, and I bet even old Mayhew thought twice about crossing her. There was no more time for reflection as the thunder of a hundred feet pounded across the dining room floor. A line of children appeared in the doorway, held back by an older boy of about eleven.
‘Okay wait your turn there, Brown will give the word when she’s ready.’
Every word clearly enunciated and definitely delivered with a stiff upper lip. I am sure that is where the expression comes from. Have you ever tried to talk and keep your top lip completely still? You too can sound like a 1960s radio announcer, or a member of the aristocracy.
Anyway, there is this line of fifty children and fifteen staff. Ten teachers and five matrons who looked after the children after school hours. They stood patiently and I have never seen so many children so well behaved, it simply didn’t seem natural. It lasted for about five seconds.
‘Come and get it!’
I nearly jumped out of my skin as Jessie roared into life beside me. There was a stampede as the children rushed in, grabbed a plate and held it up to have their lunch served. There was no nonsense about not eating vegetables or anything else on offer. Everyone got a healthy portion on his or her plates and they trotted off to sit at one of the ten tables laid out in the dining room. I had expected that the children would have to eat in silence, but it was mayhem, with laughter and talking, and I could see through one of the doors that plates were being cleaned enthusiastically.
‘Where is Miss Mayhew?’ I asked, puzzled that the austere woman was not in the dining-room keeping control.
‘She always has a tray in her study with a salad at lunchtime.’ Jessie smiled smugly.
‘We came to an agreement, when I said I would take care of the cooking, that this dining room and kitchen would be my responsibility, and provided I don’t serve meat, she leaves me alone.’
I quite frankly found it difficult to believe, and it was obvious to Jessie.
‘You won’t have found out yet, but Mary Mayhew is my daughter.’
I gaped at Jessie, and she laughed.
‘I was married in the war to a young pilot. He was killed just before I had Mary. I remarried twenty years ago to my Bill, but I like to keep close to Mary and this works very well.’
So that was how Jessie got away with so much. It just goes to show that you can easily misread situations, and I wondered what else I would discover in the next few weeks.
We had no more time for idle chatter, as the monitor for each table was bringing back the empty plates, and sliding them through a special hatch in the wall onto a counter next to a large dish-washing machine. They then came into the kitchen and collected pudding. They each brought with them the youngest member of their table who proudly carried back the china jug of custard. There were oohs… and aahs… as the treacle pudding, already sliced, was placed on the table. The monitors had the job of serving up this course and I could see from where I was standing that they were scrupulously fair.
By two, I had finished my clearing up duties and I left for home. Jessie was going to cook breakfasts with me for the first few days and I was glad of her help. On the menu the next morning was porridge and beans on toast. If there is one thing I have never been able to cook it is porridge and I was going to have to produce it for sixty people tomorrow morning.
Funnily enough, I was quite looking forward to it.
Apart from a couple of mishaps over the next six weeks, I learnt some valuable life lessons.
For one thing, I can now cook sixty fried eggs at a time, along with sixty pieces of toast. I can cook porridge without burning it, and I can scramble a hundred eggs at a time. Jessie was a good teacher, and endlessly patient with the children. After a time I forgot their accents and rather mature ways and realised that they were still children. The youngest of them were only five, and homesick for their mothers. Sometimes I stayed behind to help with the teas and often two or three young assistants would be helping Jessie make scones, cake or flapjacks.
Not once did I see Miss Mayhew in the dining room or the kitchen, but I know that Jessie went up to her study each afternoon with a plate of cakes and a pot of tea. I never got to know Miss Mayhew, and to this day, I cannot see any resemblance between her and Jessie. It’s a strange world.
One thing that did make me chuckle was the spaghetti incident. We were having pasta and tomato sauce for lunch, and an enormous pot of water was duly brought to the boil and ten packets of spaghetti emptied into it. When the spaghetti was cooked, it took two of us to lift the pot and take it over to the draining board. A catering sized colander was placed into the sink and the pot tipped over carefully until the spaghetti had drained out with the water.
On this particular occasion, Jessie had been called out to the dining room to sort out a dispute between the two boys putting water jugs around the tables. It was my first week and my first pasta lunch but Jessie had gone over the process with me and I was ready. Being a strong girl, I thought that I could manage to get the pot over to the sink by myself and drain off the spaghetti into the colander.
I struggled gingerly across the floor with my scalding burden and laid it on the drainer. Grabbing both handles I tipped it carefully, and watched the boiling water and the spaghetti slide into the sink and into the waiting colander. By the time that I had established that I had forgotten to put the colander in the sink, most of the pot of pasta had disappeared down the large plug-hole. There was no way that I could prevent the slippery mass from gushing out of the pot as it hung suspended over the sink and I watched in growing horror as lunch went down the drain.
Jessie came back into the kitchen just as I managed to right the pot and turn towards her. I put my hands up to my mouth and stared at her. She walked up to the sink and looked down at the one or two strands of spaghetti that lingered arrogantly on the lip of the plug-hole.
‘Looks like instant mash potato for lunch then.’ With a pat on my arm, she hurried off to the storeroom and appeared with a large tin of potato powder.
‘Don’t like the stuff, but it’s great for emergencies.’ She put the tin down and began to boil some water in two large saucepans.
‘Hope you have a good strong arm,’ she said, as she reached to a rack of utensils on the wall and handed me a giant whisk.
‘You get to make it, not me.’
That was all she said, and over the next six weeks, I never saw her lose her temper with the children or me. She did sometimes get a little hot under the collar and flushed, like the first day I saw her, but usually it was because she spent her entire time rushing around making sure that everyone was fed well.
At the end of my six weeks, I again felt sorry to be moving on. On the last day I was summoned to Miss Mayhew’s study and uninviting though the prospect seemed, I went upstairs and through the gloomy corridor. I knocked on the door and was told to enter. Miss Mayhew seemed to be wearing the exact same outfit that she had worn six weeks ago and again she greeted me from behind her large desk. This time she invited me to sit down, which I did slightly nervously. She had said at the beginning she would be keeping an eye on me and I wondered if there was any other misdemeanour other than losing all the spaghetti that she had discovered.
‘I understand from Brown that you have been very helpful and I wanted you to know that I have reported that fact to your agency.’
Surprise, surprise, but why could she not have referred to Jessie as her mother. A thin hand stretched across the table and I saw a bar of chocolate being pushed towards me.
‘It’s my favourite.’ I swear that she almost smiled.
‘Mine too,’ I uttered, astonished that we actually had something in common.
‘Well I won’t keep you. I am sure that you wish to get on.’
So, I was dismissed. I muttered my thanks and left the office, clasping my bar of chocolate in my hand. Well it takes all sorts as they say.
During the previous couple of weeks, I had been checking out the advertisements in the some of the catering magazines. I felt like a change, and perhaps this time I would look at something a little more permanent. Peter had tried to contact me twice, recently, and although I still thought about him a great deal, I felt that perhaps some distance between us would be a good idea. One advertisement in particular had caught my eye. It was for an assistant manager in a Victorian hotel in Cornwall. They had asked for details of past experience and a current photograph, and I had sent a letter containing these, just last week.
When I got back to my digs that afternoon a reply was waiting for me. Without even an interview they had accepted me for the season, beginning at Easter, and included travel instructions for my journey. They told me that the cost of this would be reimbursed on my arrival, and they expected a letter, by return, confirming my acceptance.
Here we go again.
* * *
However, before reminiscing further, it was time for bed in the here and now.
I was due to see Andrew tomorrow, at midday, and I planned my outfit in my head as I drifted off to sleep. I wondered what his reaction would be to the make-over that I had treated myself to. With that happy thought, I slept, dreaming of spaghetti and treacle pudding.
©Sally Georgina Cronin – Just an Odd Job Girl
Next time – a Cornish hotel beckons with some interesting staff in residence.
One of the recent reviews for the book
Jacquie Biggar January 4th 2022
After devoting her life to her family, Imogen is replaced by a younger woman (a fast-tracker) after twenty years of marriage and must overcome her self-doubt to move on to the next stage of her life.
Just an Odd Job Girl is a highly entertaining story of a fifty-year-old’s voyage into a working world she thought herself ill-equipped to handle until a new friend shows her just how much she truly has to offer.
There are many laugh-out-loud moments as Imogen relives her past vocations, everything from a nebulous job on the docks to a dentist’s assistant, a job in a funeral home, a restaurant manager, and more. It soon becomes obvious that Imogen is a Jack of all Trades and an asset to any employer.
Many wives and mothers of the era were stay-at-home caretakers for their families. They set aside career aspirations to make a safe and loving home for their children- often at the price of their own sense of value. Then the kids leave home, husbands become restless, and suddenly, the wife is left to absorb the loss and find her way to a new beginning. Not easy for anyone.
This is a highly entertaining read told by a wonderful storyteller. I especially enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek humor and the delightful ending- a well-deserved 5 star read!
You can find my other books and their recent reviews: Sally’s books and reviews 2022