A Scheduled Book Tour
My Mum, the Dinner Lady by R. B.N. Bookmark
It was April 1972, and I had settled down fairly well at St Iggy’s. The initial brawls to establish my middle ranking in the class hierarchy were over, and for the most part, I’d arrive home with my clothes and nose still intact.
The miners’ strike was in full swing, and Britain had become a cold and dark place to live.
One of our neighbours had hit upon the idea of making her own candles, a very enterprising thing to do in light of the “dark” economic situation at the time. My mum bought a few, but within minutes of them being lit, the room would smell of chip fat and other more nondescript odours of a dubious nature. We persuaded Mum not to buy any more, and the earth’s ozone layer was given a short reprieve.
One morning at school assembly, Mr. Bishop announced that the school was looking for a new dinner lady to work in the kitchen and if we knew of anyone to tell them to get in touch with the head. When I arrived home later that day, I mentioned it to Mum, as she was always going on about returning to work now we were grown up.
“If you like I’ll speak to the headmaster and book an appointment for you to come over.”
Mum couldn’t say yes fast enough, and the next day I knocked on Mr. Bishop’s door. “Come in,” said that all-too-familiar commanding deep voice.
“Hello, Ribban, what can I do for you?” His right eyebrow with the curl in it swayed ever so slightly as the rotating fan on his desk passed his face at intervals.
“Sir, you mentioned at assembly yesterday morning that the school is looking for a new dinner lady in the kitchens.”
Mr. Bishop put down his pen and looked up. “Yes, that’s correct, Ribban. We have a shortlist of potential candidates whom I intend to interview in the next few days.”
This worried me a bit because if Mum was up against competition, chances are she would lose out to someone younger and with more experience.
“Excuse me, sir, my mum is very interested in applying for the position, and she has worked for priests in Ireland previously.” His face lit up like Blackpool illuminations.
“Is that so? Now let me see,” he said, looking through his appointment book.
“Ask your mother if she can come to see me the day after tomorrow at 2:35 p.m., will you?”
“Yes, sir, my mum can come the day after tomorrow. I’ll tell her this evening. Thank you, sir.”
“Fine,” he said and proceeded to make a note of it in his appointment book. The audience had now ended, and I reversed out of his office, thinking he might look up again, but he didn’t.
“Guess what, Mum? You have an interview at the school the day after tomorrow,” I exclaimed when I got home.
“You’ve what?” She looked totally nonplussed by my good news. “An interview, you say?”
“Yes, Mum, day after tomorrow at the school.”
Before I could get the words out, she was in swirling-dervish mode while pleading, “Oh no, I haven’t a thing to wear. I must look an awful rake. Sure he’ll think, ‘What’s this eejit doing here, is it something the rag-and-bone man dropped off?’”
“Don’t be silly, Mum. Mr. Bishop sounded impressed when I mentioned you had worked for the priests—his brother is in the priesthood, you know.”
Mum was still looking worried, but after a bit of cajoling, I finally got her to come down from the ceiling and promise me she would attend the interview—even if she did look like something the cat had brought in (her words, not mine). But there was a condition: that I came to the interview with her.
“But, Mum, I’m at school. I can’t miss lessons to be with you, and 2:35 is metalwork.”
“And yer telling me you won’t miss a little bit of metalwork for your own mother?”
Oh no, I thought, she’s going to blast me with the secret weapon—a double barrel shot of all our yesterdays.
And then the barrage started.
“You know when I was your age, I would come home from school, milk the cows, dig the fields, sow the potatoes, feed the—”
“Feed no more, Mum” I said, interrupting her in mid-rant. “Mum, I’ll come with you, but don’t be disappointed if I’m unable to get leave from class. Mr. Steil, the metalwork teacher is as hard as nails when it comes to attendance.”
Too late. Mum had turned off that natural hearing aid that all women seemingly possess from birth, and my presence was expected. Nuff sedd!
It was a Wednesday, and I was in the metalwork class. The clock on the wall said 2:10 p.m. The outwardly appearance I portrayed of a pupil busily planishing a copper fruit bowl was worthy of an Oscar. Behind the calm and studious exterior, my scheming was taking shape.
Once I had formulated my plan, I walked over to Mr. Steil, who was stood in a welding booth instructing a classmate how to weld a tubular chair frame.
“Sir, may I talk to you a minute, please?”
Mr Steil retained one eye on the pupil while shifting the other on me, in such a manner even a chameleon would have stood up and applauded.
“Sir, I have an appointment in the headmaster’s office in a few minutes. May I go now, please? It shouldn’t take too long.”
Mr. Steil looked somewhat perplexed by my request. I could almost swear I saw his eye rotate in its socket as he asked, “What’s so important that you have to leave class? Can’t it wait until after?”
“Sir,” I said. “It’s the new dinner lady. I have been asked to report to head’s office and assist with the interview. Sorry, sir, I’m sure we won’t be long.”
Could I lie my way into heaven? Well, this was the moment of truth.
“Clive, turn the torch off. That chair leg is all wonky and will have to be done again,” ordered Mr. Steil, momentarily shifting both eyes on the pupil before focusing them on me.
“Ribban, run along if you must to head’s office. I have a lot to do right now, but be sure I will speak to head about this in case you’re being untruthful, OK?”
“Yes, sir, I promise it is the truth. Must go, sir, head’s waiting,” I said, taking off my metalwork apron and heading for the exit.
Mum had arrived shortly before 2:15 and announced herself to the headmaster’s secretary, who recognised her from their previous meeting.
“Headmaster will see you,” said the secretary, opening the door to his office. She had just started to close it behind Mum when I turned up breathless, with oily hands and covered in copper filings.
Mum whispered, “Where on earth have you been, and would you look at the state of you? Why didn’t you put some clean clothes on and at least wash your hands? Sure what kind of a family have I brought up,” she sighed as the door shut.
“Mrs. Bookmark, nice to meet you again. Please take a seat.” Headmaster was very polite—still no handshakes, mind, but a totally different atmosphere from their first meeting.
His congenial manner changed when he noticed my presence in the room.
“Ribban, are you not supposed to be in class?” asked Mr. Bishop, his menacing eyebrows displaying more movement than a flock of triffids on heat.
“Sir, Mr. Steil gave me leave to be here.” My reply was devoid of wit. I was all schemed out.
My answer was greeted by a motionless expression before he turned his attention back to Mum. “Once again, it is very nice to see you, Mrs. Bookmark.”
Mum sat, nervously fixing her Tatter Jack clothes, as she called them. “It was nice of you to see me,” she told Mr. Bishop as he sat reclining in his swivel chair, reaching for a notepad.
“Mrs. Bookmark, I believe you are interested in the vacant dinner lady position here at the school, is that right?”
“Oh, it is,” replied Mum. “The kids are grown up, and I’d like to get back to work, even if it is only for a few hours a week, to earn a little money.”
“I understand perfectly,” said the headmaster, pausing a second to wipe the clearly visible dandruff flake that was hanging from his curly eyebrow and slightly obscuring his vision.
“So tell me, Mrs. Bookmark, what work experience have you had? For example, have you worked in a large kitchen catering for two hundred people before?”
“Well, now,” said Mum, revving up to tell her life story. “Before I came to England, I used to cook the meals for the priests at Ballinafad College in County Mayo, and I never had any complaints—sure you can’t say mass on an empty stomach! If I hadn’t come to England, I tell ye I’d still be there now cooking for the young priests. Anyway, then I come here to England.”
“Mrs. Bookmark, my brother is a bishop in North Manchester, and as a family we are devoted to the Catholic Church.” The headmaster was obviously warming to Mum and her past connections with clergy.
“Well, you know, I thought as soon as I met you, that feller’s a churchgoer, and your brother is a bishop too. Aw, God love him.” Mum was obviously impressed that headmaster’s brother was a bishop. The thought of having a bishop around for tea would be one up on the neighbours. I could imagine seeing Mum waving good-bye to the bishop after he had stayed for tea and fig rolls. Him then waving back while wiping the biscuit crumbs from around his mouth. Mum looking over to the neighbours with arms folded, saying, “Beat that if you can.”
“Every Sunday the family and myself go to the Holy Name Catholic Church for Mass. It’s not easy, you know—kids nowadays have no respect for the church at all.”
Mr. Bishop sat there nodding his head in full agreement as Mum continued.
“Well I did a lot of cleaning for the Jews when I first came over, lovely people they were, and after that, well, the kids came along, and sure I’ve been tied to the stove ever since.”
“Mrs. Bookmark.” The headmaster looked intently into Mum’s eyes, hardly acknowledging the fact I was stood next to her. “Mrs. Bookmark, I’d like to offer you the job of dinner lady at the school, starting wage at £15 a week, starting next Monday. Would that be agreeable to you?”
Mum looked at him, not quite knowing what to say. Swallowing the untold bits of her life story she never had time to recount for headmaster, she replied, “That will be grand, £15 a week. I’ll be able to get myself some new clothes instead of looking like a scarecrow,” she said while adjusting her elastic stockings that were starting to sag at the ankles.
Mr. Bishop stood up, showed Mum to the door, shook her warmly by the hand, and thanked her very much for accepting the job.
I felt a hand on my shoulder as I was about to follow Mum out the door.
“Ribban, where are you going now?” he asked, making his disgruntled demeanor plainly evident once Mum was out of sight.
“Sir, I’m going back to Mr. Steil’s class.”
“OK,” said headmaster, “We’ll speak about this later.” Now I’m for it. Shit street, here I come!
Mr. Steil’s class was just finishing by the time I came back, and everyone was putting away their stuff.
“Sorry, sir, hope I didn’t miss too much,” I said, trying to appease the look of displeasure upon Mr. Steil’s face when I returned.
“We won’t make a habit of this—will we?” he said sharply.
“No, sir, that was my last interview. I’m happy to say the lady got the job.”
Later that evening when I came home, Mum was busy getting supper ready.
“You know I start on Monday?” she said as if I wasn’t even in the room during her interview.
“Sure he was a nice man really, not at all like the devil of a feller who was there the first time,” Mum said with a straight face.
“But Mum—that was the same fellow!”
“Ah, now, it might and it might not be, but he was a lovely man—and his brother is a priest. Well now, I tell a lie sure he is a bishop. Did you know that?”
And then all of a sudden she remembered me being there.
“And as for you, I never seen you look so filthy. Sure to God it’s a wonder I got the job at all the way you looked,” she said, looking up to the kitchen ceiling as if the good Lord was hanging from the lampshade listening to every word.
“Yes, Mum, glad to be of service. I’ll remember to wash my hands next time.” I sighed as I wearily sat myself at the dinner table.
“Ribban, I would like a word with you,” said the headmaster the following day. “Come to my office after your last class of the day.”
Oh dear, I thought, now I am in for it. A few raps from Polyphemus in front of the whole school. My fate hung in the wings, and my mood was of morbid anticipation throughout that day.
“I have an appointment with the headmaster,” I told his secretary.
“Go in,” she said. “He is expecting you!”
Oh, bollocks, was my first thought as I quietly knocked on his door…maybe if I knocked extremely quietly, he wouldn’t hear me and nobody would be any the wiser?
“Enter,” came the voice, and plan B bit the dust there and then.
“Ribban, shut the door behind you, please,” said the headmaster. “We need to talk.”
I stood in front of his desk. He was sat with an empty cup of tea in front of him and one partially nibbled custard cream biscuit balancing precariously on the side of the saucer.
“I spoke to Mr. Steil about the other day. He told me you were assisting at an interview, the interview I had with your mother—is that correct?”
I was on the spot, and there was no other way than to come clean about the events of that day. My repertoire of excuses was depleted. I felt like a fart in aertex underwear—there was nowhere to hide.
“Yes, sir, that is correct. My mum needed the job but couldn’t face coming here alone and needed someone with her.”
My eyes looked down at the orange (well it looked orange to me) fitted carpet so as to avert the headmaster’s gaze. “Sir, I did not lie. It’s just that I was conservative in my use of the truth. It happens all the time at Westminster and nobody raises an eyebrow.”
Mr. Bishop’s left eyebrow tweaked upward a fraction—had my eyebrow comment made the hole I was standing in even deeper?
“Ribban,” said headmaster, “I appreciate your concern for your mother. It is most commendable. But my concern is for the school and the education of its pupils. This is not a ‘please yourself, leave when you like’ institution—there are rules, and these rules must be abided by. Do you understand?”
It was all beginning to sound like the lead-up to my public engagement. “On stage for one night only—an evening with Ribban Bookmark and Polyphemus.”
I stood with gaze ever more transfixed on the orange carpet, awaiting my fate.
“I spoke to Mr. Steil as I just mentioned,” said the headmaster. “I do not expect to have this conversation again at a future date. Go home and I will see you tomorrow. Good evening, Ribban.” And those were the headmaster’s parting words.
I walked out of the office not quite fathoming what had just happened. Was I going to be acquainted with Polyphemus? Had I been reprimanded? Were there to be consequences, and what form would they take?
We had metalwork classes twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, and it was not until the following Monday I met Mr. Steil again.
I was stood hammering away at my copper fruit bowl as usual when he stood behind and, looking at my creation, commented, “It’s coming along nicely, that. The school is having an open house in a few weeks, and we will be exhibiting some of the things we make. If it’s ready in time, I would like to exhibit your fruit bowl.”
“Sir, it would be my pleasure to have it exhibited, but could I have it back afterward, because I’m making this to order, as at the moment Mum’s scraping by without a fruit bowl. She always says that a nice fruit bowl is the sign of a good home.”
“Very well, Ribban. I’m sure it will look very nice—oh, by the way, I spoke to Mr. Bishop last week.”
“Yes, sir, he did mention it.”
But that which followed I was totally unprepared for.
“Yes, Ribban, I spoke to head, and he was full of praise for your assistance during the recruiting of the school’s new dinner lady. I’m afraid I did you a disservice when doubting your word.”
I was dumbfounded. This was the last thing I’d expected. Next thing you know, the teachers would be bringing me cups of tea—well, maybe not.
“Sir, that’s perfectly OK. I apologize for not putting you in the picture, but things were a little hush-hush and on a need-to-know basis,” I said with a rigid expression.
Mr. Steil looked miffed, as if he couldn’t make up his mind if I was serious or taking the mickey. Luckily for me he opted for the former of the two.
“Apologies are in order, Ribban, and I give you mine unreservedly. I shall not doubt your word again, but give me a little more warning next time, if you please.”
“No worries, sir, you can trust me.”
“One thing, though, Ribban. How and why? You are fourteen years of age and assisting the headmaster in recruiting staff?”
“It’s a long story, sir, but the day Clive learns how to weld his chair legs straight, I promise to tell you all about it.”
Mr. Steil looked pensively at me for a few seconds, no doubt making a mental note of booking Clive in for extra welding lessons.
“We have a deal, Ribban. I look forward to hearing it. Oh, by the way, Ribban,” he said just as he was about to walk away, “I have a friend who is looking for work. Do you think you can put a good word in with the headmaster for me?”
“Er, leave it with me, sir. Can’t make any promises, mind,” I said, stumbling over my words.
Mr. Steil let slip a wry smirk and winked, saying, “I’m only kidding, Ribban. Now crack on with that fruit bowl if you want it in the school exhibition.”
I wonder, did he really know the truth after all?
Note: Clive never was able to weld his chair legs straight, and he later moved on to making kung-fu throwing stars instead. Today he is a multimillionaire, with a thriving toilet paper manufacturing business. I won’t mention the brand, but I can say that it does have shooting stars printed on the wipe-side. Coincidence?
One of the advantages of having Mum work in the school kitchens was I could always count on extra helpings for my schoolmates and myself. The disadvantage was that every day Mum would bring home the leftovers from school dinner. Monday to Friday we would be eating school food night and day. Toward the end of my school days, I stopped going to school dinners—at school, that is.
Mum quickly settled into her new role as dinner lady and made many new friends at the school, not least the headmaster, Mr. Bishop.
It was 1973, and deepest, darkest Britain was still in the grip of strikes. The miners’ strike in particular seemed never ending, without a solution in sight.
But despite the gloom, we still had just enough volts in the national grid to televise the FA Cup Final on 5th May 1973, one of football’s biggest upsets, when Sunderland beat the mighty Leeds 1–0. There I was sitting in front of the TV, cup of tea in one hand and a banana sandwich in the other, watching Leeds lose. Life didn’t get much better than that.
One of the things that always touched me about the FA Cup Final back then was the rendition of “Abide with Me” sung from the stands. It always twangs my heartstrings because it is such an emotional hymn, written by the Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte shortly before his death. Nowadays on cup final day, they (the FA, I suppose) bring in some fat opera singer, standing in the middle of the pitch, surrounded by big “fuck off” sound systems. Rupturing their vocal chords and indiscriminately bursting ear drums, they assault everything I deem to be good taste—it turns me off completely, sending me double time, quick march on the Jobby Run, as the scots would probably say.
In January 1973 Great Britain (or as she was otherwise known at the time as The Sick Man of Europe) became a member of the European Economic Community. On TV we watched Prime Minister Ted Heath signing the accession treaty, and from a working-class school boy’s point of view, I could not really give a toss. It didn’t mean anything to me, nor did it seem to give promises of a better life for those of my ilk. Big biz and roly-poly politicians hobnobbing around Europe cracking open crates of champagne in some five-star posh nosh restaurant where they cut the crust off the bread and claiming it all on expenses would be the winners. Ordinary folk would be stood on the outside looking in, as usual.
Give me a cup of tea and a banana sandwich, and I could ruin the country for a fraction of the price.
After all the hoo-ha had died down, the strikes, power cuts, rising inflation, and downward spiral continued. Later in 1976, this resulted in the UK government applying for a £2.3 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, subject to extreme repayment conditions. The loan may have saved the land from bankruptcy, but the hardship it brought to the ordinary man in the street should not be underestimated, as we see later in the 1970s and the Thatcher era.
The problems of the UK paled compared to the inner turmoil I was grappling with. The looming CSE exams, my final hurdle before leaving school and possibly my last chance to carve out a future, lay waiting around yet another of life’s many corners.
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Teddy Rose Book Reviews Plus Mar 2 Kick Off & Giveaway
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Second Book to the Right Mar 9 Excerpt & Giveaway
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Urban Book Reviews Mar 14 Review & Interview
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