Much has happened since I last dispatched my diary entry, describing our attempts to get rid of our dreadful cook, Mrs. P. Firstly, as you may remember from Part 1 of my diaries, the Head Housekeeper, the two maids and I held a secret meeting in my room on Mrs. P’s afternoon off. We decided that we would advertise for a new cook, and when we had found suitable, enthusiastic, hard working and willing applicants, we would show Her Ladyship what a grand selection of cooks was available in the employment market, and try to come to some arrangement with her to offer Mrs. P. early retirement. It is common knowledge in the household that Mrs. P has terrible varicose veins, needs a hip replacement, is 65 years of age, cannot cook to save her life, hates her job and dislikes everyone in the household staff. Surely she would accept a handsome retirement package and make her way back to wherever she was from, God almighty help them?
The matter took quite a considerable and fortuitous turn, however, when one of the housemaids came to see me very soon afterwards to say that she had been offered an interesting position in a nearby hotel, as a chambermaid, and she wanted to leave. The money, the tips, the hours and the accommodation were much more advantageous, and so, reluctantly, we accepted that she would leave us within a month.
The coast was then clear. I had a meeting with Her Ladyship upon her return from London, as the family resides there for a few days a month, and we sat down and devised a letter to a small, new employment agency based in our nearest town. I took it upon myself to steer the contents of that letter, and Her Ladyship acquiesced. We underlined the most important requirements of the position: must have excellent cookery skills. Lo and behold, just ten days after we sent the request, we got three application letters back. Her Ladyship was in London, and she asked me to take care of the matter for her. And so I did.
One of the applicants really stood out. Her name was Miss. K, and she was of Eastern European nationality, her papers to live and work in the United Kingdom were all present and correct, and she had had several years’ experience in catering and waitressing. She said she loved “preparing good, fresh, tasty dinners” and she could also bake bread and make cakes. There were two excellent reference letters stapled to her own sheet, and I glanced through them excitedly, thinking that, at some later point, I would ring up her previous employers to ensure all was verifiable. I placed her application in my in-tray, and thought that all our Christmases had arrived at once, she was such an affable and confident candidate, and so enthusiastic about joining us.
I called her for an interview myself, and she arrived at the house with a young man, who sat in his dilapidated car whilst we had our meeting in my pantry, next to the kitchen. Miss. K was exactly what we were after. She talked of the recipes of her motherland and her love of good food, preserves and pickles. She was single and said that the young man in the car was her brother, who worked at a nearby property as a gardener. Well it all seemed just splendid.
Miss. K started her employment with us, and she was a veritable triumph. Mrs.P disliked her instantly, as she obviously threatened her kingdom’s power base. The kitchen became a minor war zone, as Miss. K wanted to put her best foot forward. Mrs. P was not having any of it. She kept muttering about “foreigners” when she knew full well Miss. K was in the room, and she became extremely proprietorial about colanders, sieves, knives, bowls and tea towels. There was far too much work to be getting on with, however, and we all ignored the hostilities, for just a few weeks after Miss. K arrived, His Lordship hosted a very big event indeed.
The stately home where I work is open to the public, and the highlights of the year are the private tours for garden lovers. Throughout the seasons, in and around the grounds, there is always something new to see: snowdrops in the fields, narcissi in the lower borders, fritillaries round the herb garden borders, aconites and bluebells in the woods, hyacinths in the flower pots round the orangerie, where the camellias grow in stone urns, roses in the front topiary garden and a huge array of cutting flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables in the Victorian kitchen garden. There are many garden clubs that pay a very handsome price and book years ahead to secure a private tour with His Lordship himself. There would be coaches and taxis coming up the driveway at 10.00 a.m. and all the visitors, 60 of them, would be staying for lunch. We had to work very hard indeed in order to organise this event.
We placed several dressing room rails and several folding chairs in the front hall with wooden and padded hangers for the visitors, and there were numbered cardboard tickets, so people could leave their coats, bags and belongings whilst they were having their lunch. We polished the dining room chairs with special wood oils and we buffed up all the cutlery. We organised huge kettles, teapots, cups, plates, honey and sugar bowls for the morning, and then another table with all the coffee paraphenalia. The housekeeper, the old housemaid and Miss. K made some very delicious jam sponge cakes, chocolate biscuits and finger sandwiches and Mrs. P made rock cakes of missile consistency.
For lunch, we laid out all the long tables in the dining room, and dressed them with linens, silverware, glassware and spring flowers. Along the sides of the room we arranged a buffet setting for cold salmon, hams, new potatoes, salads, rice dishes and sausage rolls. For pudding, Miss. K had made some very attractive looking cupcakes, with swirly icing topped with some homemade candied peel. Mrs. P muttered how nobody over the age of 5 should ever be made to eat a cupcake and made several of her ususal stodgy, flavourless, unidentifiable steamed puddings, that sweated and sweltered interminably, ready several hours before they were due to be served, by which time they tasted like lime mortar.
The morning of the garden tour was extremely hectic, as all the visitors seemed to arrive at different times. Miss. K was put in charge of the rails in the hall. We served hot beverages with cake and biscuits, and then the visitors put on their wellies to go on the garden tour with His Lordship and Her Ladyship, the four dogs, the factotum boy we employ and two of the full-time gardeners. By 1.30 p.m they were all back for lunch, they deposited all their things in the hall, and filed into the dining room.
Mrs. P, as usual, was shouting at everyone in the kitchen, and we ran backwards and forwards, fetching condiments, drinks and second helpings for everyone. It seemed that we were so short staffed, I could not tell why. I did not pause for one moment to look around me. I did not see the dilapidated car that drove up the driveway and parked quietly behind the house. That evening, Mrs. P said that she had spotted it, but, by that time, of course, it was all too late.
I remember looking at my watch at 3.45 p.m, after I had served the Madeira and the teas, as His Lordship and Her Ladyship made a short speech to thank everyone for coming and telling them about the summer garden tour dates. The visitors slowly began getting up from the table and started to make their way back to the front hall, past the painting gallery. I felt a deep sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I saw them walking back into the dining room a few minutes later, asking me where I had put their belongings.
I walked with haste down the servant’s corridor, looking for Miss. K, but she was nowhere to be found. Several coats, wallets, handbags, an expensive Barbour jacket, a cashemere scarf, a Mulberry holdall, digital cameras and binoculars were all missing. I told the Housekeeper to go up to the attic servants’ quarters and see what had happened to Miss. K, that, perhaps, she had fallen ill and taken to her room without asking permission. Upon the housekeeper’s return she announced that the room was empty, the wardrobe was bare and the room had evidently been vacated in a rush.
Old fool that I am, I had been well and truly hoisted on my own petard.
To be continued.