I was a very young Mum when I got a job for six weeks working with the night nurse at an old folks home. There were two of us and not very much to do, so the other nurse delightfully, arrived each night with her blanket and her pillow, set up the drugs trolley, changed any dressings, helped me with anything heavy, collected the laundry, folded it in front of TV, then stretched out full length on one of the couches in the day room, and went to sleep until the first rounds at 6.00 am.
I did not mind really, I had 32 old ladies and gentlemen all to myself. I had a full house every night. So I would push my evening trolley around, and doled out cups of hot cocoa from enormous stainless steel jugs and the sleeping pills or a glass of sherry. I turned off lights, said good nights and tweaked blankets as I went around.
None of these people were sick you understand, they were just old. In my book old is not an illness. Some of them were a little surprised when I made the offer of a sherry or a sedative (never both). I always checked and noted the charts as to who was allowed sherry and who was not. Any unused pills were charted as untaken and returned to the bottles. And one or two ladies did look surprised, proceeded to hide their surprise and then said yes please, the sherry dear and don’t be mean with the pouring.
Now a sedative will knock you out for the whole night, and then leaves you groggy for hours upon waking, sometimes you will need toileting and turning in the night if you are sedated and not everyone really needs a sedative. And these old people had worked hard all their lives, held all manner of jobs, raised children, worked on farms and survived through wars. They were used to being independent and getting up EARLY. A sedative will stop that. And as my sherries spread in popularity and the snores from the nurse in the front room got deeper, I began to get early morning visitors. Really early morning.
After settling the oldies, I would do the cleaning then between my corridor walks I would work my way through Cooks List. Prepping all the vegetables for lunch the next day, starting the soups for the dinner, baking, peeling apples for apple sauce, defrosting the meat, writing up the order book, all that kind of thing. It was a large kitchen, warm not cavernous like some of the older ones I had worked in, it felt like a regular kitchen. It had windows above the counters, two ovens, huge mixers and herbs on the sill, lots of counter space, and a really big walk in chiller.
It started as a bell, at 4 in the morning. Instead of buzzers all the residents had been given little tinkly bells, some were china, some were brass, cows bells, they all had a bell. Buzzers were for emergencies. Could I have a cup of tea sweetheart. And I began to toddle back and forth with trays of tea. Soon as they became more confident, they would appear at the kitchen door and not wanting to bother me, could they make their own cup of tea? Seeing as how I was so busy and sorry dear but you always make it too weak, though we do appreciate you trying dear. I would hear the ‘we’ then look past the smiling blue blue eyes, it was usually Mrs Lilac (I have changed the names so that no-one gets in trouble) and see two or three other even older sherry ladies lurking out in the corridor. After a few nights of this I reorganised a space on one of the counters with all the makings for a cup of tea. So they could just pop in and out.
Then they began to loiter, drinking their tea in the kitchen watching me work. Then the tea pots were too big and they were not familiar with these T baggie thingies dear so I began to bring my own silver tea pot from home that was just the right size. (I am sure you remember the tea pot story ). They loved to hear that story, they got to own the story of the day I melted my mothers silver tea pot and the ensuing drama. As each new lady joined the circle of night visitors they would tell it all over again. They were thrilled to pour their tea out of my mothers heat dented silver tea pot with its legs melted off and its collapsed lid. Then a tea cosy appeared to cover it. Then a tea caddy with good strong tea leaves in it appeared each night in the tea corner. Then they were bringing their own cups: I hope you don’t mind dear but your cups are just so fat dear. I love a good cup.
I worked five nights a week, for six weeks and a little routine developed. Once everyone was settled in for the night (meaning Nursey with the blanket) I would drag a table and chairs out of the gloomy dining room and set them up outside the double kitchen doors. There would be a few midnight visitors and in the early morning my other ladies would begin to whisper out of their rooms, like tall shadows leaking out of the darkened corridors, touching their fingers along the walls for comfort. They would sit around their table with another pot of tea, watching for the sunrise through the kitchen windows. They began to raid my cookies as they came out of the oven. Those are for afternoon tea Mrs Lilac. I would say. I know dear, yes I do know. I will let them cool a little. Her lovely long hands lined with raised veins and bruises and fragile nails, rings running loose and twinkly around her fingers, reaching for hot cookies.
Soon it was: I hope you don’t mind Cecilia dear, but we thought maybe we could just whip up a quick batch of cookies ourselves. Would that be alright? I mean yours are good but Miss Jo was a cooking teacher for fifty odd years dear and she does make lovely oatmeal cookies. So they are taking turns making cookies and then cakes in the night. Getting up earlier and earlier. Jostling and laughing in the softest voices, their reflections moving about in the dark night windows. Pouring and sifting and stirring. You go and check if nurse is still asleep dear we are fine. We will have some dishes for you soon. Oh Cecilia, I might just help you with this stock for the soup dear. Taking the spoon: watch now dear.
Well you all better be back in bed by 6.00 and pretending to be fast asleep. I would say. Oh we will dear, don’t you worry, I just wanted to make that chocolate cake that my old Alfred, god rest his soul, used to be so partial too. And those dear little club sandwiches, we will wrap them in wet towels and they will be perfect for morning tea. And you know how Myrtle worries in the night about getting the mutton done for the shearers, a little sandwich in the night settles her dear. She is just a wee bit confused sometimes. We will just sneak one out for her with a cup of tea, why don’t you take that down to her dear and oh I might just sneak one for myself. Do you want a club sandwich Dorothy. It is the bread dear. You have to have the thinnest bread.
You understand now don’t you, it took me a while. It was the kitchen they were visiting, not me. Their own kitchens had been their own kingdoms for all those years. Then they had lost their kitchens. So very gently and very cleverly I was moved aside and they took over mine.
One night, as I sat at the table in the corridor peeling apples and watching my bright group of old women, their hair in plaits or curlers, their nighties and cardigans and worn dressing gowns in layers, the bows of their aprons tied firmly into the small of their backs. Bony bare ankles peeping out from worn slippers, hands kneading and whisking and slamming the stove door. Necks stretched to see. You know you are going to get me into trouble, I said to the ladies showing me how to peel apples. I have children to feed you know. We know dear and I am sure they are such dear wee children too.
I hear a squeak of wheels coming down the dark corridor and there is Old Miss Poppy who usually walks very slowly with a cane, being pushed in a wheelchair by The Elder Miss Mabel. In Miss Poppy’s lap she holds a package wrapped in brown paper. She has The Tongue! Elder Miss Mabel announced and Old Miss Poppy smiled and bobbed her head as she was blithely wheeled past me and into my crowded kitchen at some ridiculously early hour of the morning. Tongue? what tongue?I choked. Why dear a cows tongue Mrs Lilac said and smiled. I do miss tongue, called back Miss Poppy.
The next morning, when all the furniture had been put away. The cookies were all in jars, the apple sauce steaming in its crock and the oatmeal soaking in warm water. The windows were pushed open to invite in the cool early sunshine and all my ladies were safely back in their beds. I told Cook, as she took off her jacket, hung it on a hook and reached for her kitchen shoes, that there was a large cow’s tongue, cooked, peeled and cooling in the walk-in chiller. I waited apprehensively. She looked at me and smiled as she struggled to tie her apron about her Rubenesque girth.
Oh, Lovely. Holding my eyes for just a shade too long. Then smiled. Good. She nodded. Well, you know dear, she said. You have a week left of nights, don’t you? You see I am taking a month off in a fortnight. Now, Matron is quite impressed with all the cooking, those soups are so good and your cakes dear. Very good. Her eyelid fluttered into what looked suspiciously like a wink. I think Matron is going to ask you to fill in as Cook for the month I am away. I know the residents will be pleased.
But you do go through rather a lot of aprons dear, you need to think of the laundry…