London, Spring 1963
‘Garlic should be the same size as an ’azelnut in its shell,’ said Mme Wilson in her strong French accent. She was looking at a collection of pale, curved shapes on a plate in front of her that could have been toenail clippings given both their appearance and Mme Wilson’s look of utter disgust. Lizzie regarded the despised items. She had no experience of garlic. It was one of the things her father regarded as ‘foreign muck’ and so had no place in her family kitchen. And yet just then, Lizzie was grateful for her father’s fondness for ‘good plain cooking’, for without it she wouldn’t have been sent to London to do a cookery course.
So here she was, in a rather cramped basement in Pimlico, with nine other girls, being lectured by a Frenchwoman who, if first impressions were anything to go by, was fairly terrifying. Almost everyone was wearing a white buttoned-up overall covered by a white bibbed apron, as specified in the prospectus. Mme Wilson had moved on to olive oil and the outrageous fact that you had to buy it in chemist’s shops. Lizzie gathered this meant that olive oil had another function, apart from use as a cure for earache. Mme Wilson seemed to despise most ingredients available in England, and Lizzie couldn’t help wondering how she managed to live here when it was obviously a culinary desert.
She surreptitiously studied her fellow pupils, hoping that at least one of them would turn out to be friendly, otherwise her time in London might be lonely. Most of them seemed to be very aristocratic, with smooth white skin, their glossy hair in elegant chignons, fat ponytails or discreetly backcombed so it rose smoothly from their foreheads and ended in perfect ‘flick-ups’, a style she had never managed to achieve herself. Under their all-covering garments glimpses of cashmere and silk could be seen. They wore pearls, round their necks and in their ears. Lizzie had a string of pearls, given to her by her godmother, but they were for best, not for every day. She had to ask her mother whenever she wanted to wear them.
One of the girls was a bit different. She had ignored the white overall and instead wore a bluestriped butcher’s apron over what seemed to be a man’s dress shirt without the collar. She was wearing black cigarette pants and round-toed shoes which buttoned up across her instep. Her long hair (glossy, like the other girls) was tied up into a pile on her head. She had a thick fringe which gave her a look of Audrey Hepburn. She was wearing pearls too, but hers were much larger, twisted round her neck like a rope. Lizzie suspected they were fake, and she warmed to her. She was just as glossy and well bred as the others and yet she wasn’t as haughty. This girl was looking around the kitchen as if she didn’t quite know how she’d got there.
Another girl caught Lizzie’s attention because she was writing everything down with single-minded attention. She sometimes asked questions and, judging by Mme Wilson’s response, they seemed to be the right questions. She was obviously seriously interested in learning to cook, not filling in the time until the next social engagement which, going by the snippets of conversation Lizzie overheard, was what most of the other girls were doing. When she caught Lizzie’s eye, she smiled, shy but friendly. Lizzie began to feel more confident.
‘Now, girls, you know it is easier to cook good food if you are accustomed to eating it. However, I know that many of you are not experienced in a kitchen. You may be forbidden to enter because your cook doesn’t like people interrupting her.’ Lizzie gulped inwardly. Her mother would hire a cook for the evening if she had to entertain her father’s business colleagues but she did all of the everyday cooking herself, often helped by Lizzie. ‘Now I’m going to take you through the batterie de cuisine. Each of you will introduce yourselves, and then I will see if you know what each item is for.’ There was an inward gasp of horror as the haughty debs looked around, obviously aware of how little they knew about kitchen equipment. Lizzie was anxious herself. Her mother had a cooking set consisting of a ladle, potato masher, long fork and palette knife that hung in a set on the wall. They had been a wedding present, Lizzie knew. If she was asked about anything more complicated she might well fail and draw the opprobrium of Mme Wilson down on herself. Yet here was an opportunity to learn everyone’s names as well as a test and Lizzie paid attention. The girl in the striped apron was called Alexandra and the one who seemed to know her way round a kitchen (she identified a garlic squeezer without difficulty) was Meg, presumably short for Margaret. The others were called things like Saskia, Eleanor and Jemima. At school Lizzie’s friends had more ordinary names: Rosemary, Anne and Jane, or Elizabeth.
Lizzie was still wondering what it must be like to have the same name as a duck in a Beatrix Potter book when Mme Wilson called on her. Fortunately, Mme Wilson was holding up a cheese grater, which she could identify without difficulty. After this trial-by-egg-whisk the girls were told to get out their notebooks (Meg was ahead on this, Lizzie spotted) and write down the recipe for sardine pâté. After that they were to cook steak, and for dessert, oranges with caramel. ‘Come on,’ said the tall girl who looked like Audrey Hepburn – Alexandra – at the end of the morning session, hurrying Meg and Lizzie out of the kitchen. Meg had found herself doing the washing up and Lizzie had felt obliged to help her. ‘Follow me.’ Lizzie didn’t have a better idea and she liked the thought of getting to know this girl who didn’t seem to care much about the rules. She herself had always done what her parents had expected of her but it now appeared there were options. Alexandra obviously knew her way around Pimlico very well. A short walk, a left-hand turn and they were walking down a side street and into a small café.
The windows weere almost totally obscured by condensation and the noise of the steam from the coffee machine was loud and disconcerting. The machine was about the same size as a car and sounded as if it was about to explode. But as no one seemed remotely bothered, Lizzie followed the others inside.
The moment the girls entered, the man behind the counter, who was buttering bread and baguettes, came out. ‘Bella!’ he said to Alexandra, hugging her and kissing her soundly on the cheek. ‘Where you been? We’ve missed you! Maria! Alessandra is here!’ A woman, her black hair in a bun, a slightly grubby apron covering her clothes, appeared from the kitchen and kissed Alexandra for even longer. Then she said, ‘Sit! Sit! Are these your friends? Welcome! Now – coffee! Food! You must eat!’ It took a little while for the three of them to be herded into a booth and shortly afterwards three foam-covered cups of coffee arrived. Lizzie wasn’t sure about coffee. She made it for her parents when they had dinner parties but she didn’t like it much herself. ‘Capuccinos,’ said Alexandra, ‘they’re lovely but you’ll need sugar. Lots of sugar.’ There were large wrapped lumps of sugar on the saucers and she started unwrapping hers. The other two did likewise and, copying their new friend and gang leader, put in both lumps of sugar and, when the sugar had found its way through the foam, began to stir. ‘Oh my goodness, that’s delicious!’ said Lizzie, having taken a sip.
‘I didn’t know coffee could taste like that.’ ‘It’s not like any coffee I’ve ever had before,’ said Meg. ‘I’ve known Maria and Franco for years,’ said Alexandra. ‘They taught me about coffee.’ She paused. ‘I had an Italian nanny for a short time. She used to bring me in here when I was a child.’ ‘Sorry to have to point this out,’ said Meg, ‘but you can’t be very old now.’ Alexandra laughed, not offended by this. ‘I’m nineteen, so at least twelve years older than I was when I first came.’ ‘Did you always have nannies?’ asked Lizzie. ‘Always.’ Alexandra took another sip and sighed in satisfaction. ‘I’m an orphan. But don’t feel sorry for me! I never really knew my parents and have managed perfectly well without them.’ ‘Goodness,’ said Meg. ‘I can’t imagine what that must be like. My mother and I are very close.’ Alexandra shrugged. ‘It’s what you’re used to, I suppose. I had nannies, then I went to boarding school and in the holidays, if I didn’t stay with my stuffy relations, I had governesses or companions or whatever they liked to be called. My relations only care about my money.’ Lizzie nearly choked. She had been brought up to respect her relations although her Aunt Gina had proved to be a bit of a surprise when she met her last evening. She wasn’t sure her father would approve of Gina! ‘I am – or will be – quite rich,’ said Alexandra, as if it was a bit of a nuisance, ‘but I’m not due to inherit until I’m twenty-five. It was arranged like that to keep the fortune hunters at bay.
My goodness,’ said Lizzie, weakly. ‘My relations – and I have a lot of them – take a very personal interest in my fortune. I think they’re intending to find a cousin to marry me when the time comes who’s not so closely related that we’d have strange children but who’ll keep the money in the family.’ ‘My mother’s very keen on me getting married,’ said Lizzie. ‘It’s why I’m on this course, so I can learn to cook and other housewifely skills and be more marriageable. Although I don’t have to have fortune hunters kept away.’ ‘Has your mother got anyone in mind?’ asked Meg, who seemed to find this very odd. ‘I think so,’ said Lizzie. ‘Not that they’d make me marry him, but I think I met him when I was about six and his parents are friends of my parents although they’ve moved away since.’ ‘And you don’t mind?’ asked Alexandra and Meg, more or less at the same time. Lizzie shrugged. ‘To be honest, I mostly go along with what my parents want but I’d never marry someone I didn’t love.’ ‘But you do have your hair done at the same hairdresser as your mother?’ asked Alexandra. ‘Can you tell?’ said Lizzie, patting her hair.
Alexandra nodded. ‘It’s quite an old-fashioned style,’ she said. ‘And now I can see what you’re wearing under your overalls, your clothes were probably chosen by your mother too. Lizzie exhaled. ‘The thing is, I don’t think it’s worth fighting about things you don’t really care about.’ She looked at Alexandra’s shirt and slacks with envy. ‘My mother has been planning my wedding day since I was tiny. I reckon if I was marrying a man I really loved I wouldn’t care about the day all that much. And she does. I am their only child, after all.’ ‘I’m an only child too,’ said Meg. ‘But I don’t think my mother has given my wedding day a thought.’ She paused. ‘Mind you, she works so it’s different for her.’ ‘Your mother goes out to work?’ said Lizzie, curious and a little intrigued.‘Well, she stays in to work really,’ said Meg. ‘Until recently anyway. She used to be a cook-housekeeper for an old man. He was lovely. We live in his flat. He always said he’d make sure we could stay in the flat after he died, but somehow his nieces made sure this won’t happen. Luckily, he had a really nice solicitor who’s arranged it so we can stay for three months – well, it’s been two months now. It’s why I’m on this course. I want to start earning as soon as possible.’
‘Goodness me!’ said Alexandra. ‘But in my experience relations always do that. Whenever anyone dies there’s always an ugly fight for the money, even if they have quite a lot already.’ ‘And when I’ve done this course and got my certificate I’m going to cook directors’ lunches,’ Meg went on. ‘And if I can, I’ll do catering in the evenings or something similar.’ ‘Why have two jobs?’ asked Lizzie. ‘I want to earn enough to get a deposit on a flat for my mother,’ Meg said. ‘She’ll quite likely get another live-in job but we both feel we want something that’s ours. If we get a flat, we can rent it out if Mum doesn’t live in it.’ ‘My mother would have a fit if I even thought about having two jobs,’ said Lizzie. ‘My parents will expect me to do something until I meet Mr Right, but it won’t really be for the money.’ Meg shrugged and Lizzie worried that she might have offended her. ‘My mother was widowed young. She’s always had to work,’ she said. ‘My mother only does voluntary work,’ said Lizzie. ‘And I think she only does it for the social life.’ She thought about the coffee mornings and cake sales where women got together and talked about each other until the subject of their conversation appeared and they switched to another poor woman. She’d done enough assisting at these events to know what they were like.
‘Let’s have something to eat,’ said Alexandra. ‘I know we tasted what we made today but it was only a taste and I’m hungry. It’s flower arranging this afternoon, isn’t it? I really wanted to do a course that only focused on cooking rather than doing different things in the afternoon, but this was the one people thought I should go on.’ Lizzie nodded. ‘I quite like the thought of flower arranging. I’ve done lots of that. And I like dressmaking. But the thought of French conversation terrifies me!’
‘You’ve done flower arranging for your mother?’ Meg said. Lizzie nodded. Her mother always roped her in if there were church flowers to be done. Lizzie tended to complain a lot but actually she enjoyed it and was considered to be quite good. ‘But I hardly know any French,’ she said, in case her friends thought she was claiming to be good at everything. ‘I’ve never been abroad.’ ‘I don’t know any French or about flower arranging,’ said Meg. She looked at Alexandra. ‘Is the food here likely to be expensive?’ Alexandra shook her head. ‘It’s very reasonable and the toasted cheese sandwiches are really filling. I may be an heiress but I know all about watching the pennies so the pounds can take care of themselves.’
‘How come?’ asked Meg. Alexandra shrugged. ‘I’ll tell you one day. It’s quite boring really.’ Lizzie had the impression there was quite a lot about Alexandra she wasn’t ready to tell them. In the end, they weren’t allowed to pay for the cheese sandwiches, or the coffee, and Lizzie and Meg felt as much part of the family of the café owner as Alexandra was. They walked back to the cookery school, which was in the basement of a delicatessen. ‘I’m quite looking forward to learning about other things, apart from cooking,’ said Lizzie. ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to be any good at it. I might have a chance with flowers or dressmaking. That’s my hobby.’ At least she was confident in her needlecraft. She used to embroider tray cloths for her mother, add lace to handkerchiefs, and other fancy but basically fairly useless things. But she’d always made clothes for her dolls and, although her mother discouraged it, she also made things for herself. ‘I like dressmaking,’ said Alexandra. ‘It’s easy if you have plenty of space. And you have a sewing machine.’ Lizzie yearned for access to a sewing machine; she’d left hers with her parents. ‘Do you make your own clothes?’ she asked, keen to know about Alexandra’s rather strange garments. ‘Kind of. I mostly adapt stuff.’ She frowned slightly. ‘My life sounds really weird now I’m talking about it to other people. Although of course it’s normal for me.’
Lizzie opened her mouth to ask another question and then closed it again. How could this glossy, aristocratic girl, who had told them she was rich, possibly need to save money? She shrugged and walked on. She’d find out soon enough, she was sure.