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Some Practical Experience
(Extract from the book by Monica Dickens "One Pair of Hands". Abridged)
I think Miss Cattermole* refrained from telling the agency what she thought of me, for they rang me up a few days later and offered me another job. This time it was a Mrs. Robertson, who wanted someone twice a week to do washing and ironing and odd jobs. As I had already assured the agency that I was thoroughly domesticated in every way, I didn't feel like admitting that I was the world's worst ironer.
* Miss Cattermole is the name of the lady who was the first to hire Monica through a job agency.
They gave me the address, and I went along there. The porter of the flats let me in, as Mrs. Robertson was out, but she had left a note for me, and a pile of washing on the bathroom floor. I sorted it out, and it was not attractive. It consisted mainly of several grubby and rather ragged pairs of corsets and a great many small pairs of men's socks and stockings in a horrid condition of stickiness.
I made a huge bowl of soap suds, and dropped the more nauseating articles in with my eyes shut. I washed and rinsed and squeezed for about an hour and a half. There was no one but me to answer the telephone, which always rang when I was covered in soap to the elbow. I accepted a bridge party for the owner of the corsets, and a day's golfing for the wearer of the socks, but did not feel in a position to give an opinion on the state of cousin Mary's health.
I had just finished hanging out the clothes, and had wandered into the drawing-room to see what sort of books they had, when I heard a latch key in the door. I flew back to the bathroom, and was discovered diligently tweaking out the fingers of gloves when Mrs. Robertson walked in. She was horrified to see that I had not hung the stockings up by the heels, and told me so with a charming frankness. However, she still wanted me to come back the next day to iron the things I had washed.
I returned the next day and scorched Mrs. Robertson's best camisole. She was more than frank in her annoyance over this trifling mishap and it made me nervous. The climax came when I dropped the electric iron on the floor and it gave off a terrific burst of blue sparks. I supposed it had fused. It ended by her paying me at the rate of a shilling an hour for the time I had put in, and a tacit agreement being formed between us that I should never appear again.
I was still undaunted, however, and I told myself that there are so many people in the world that it doesn't matter if one doesn't hit it off with one or two of them.21 pinned my faith in the woman in the agency,3 and went and had a heart-to-heart talk with her.
'What I want is something where I'll really get a chance to get some practical experience,' I told her.
'Well, we have one or two people asking for cook-generals,' she said. 'You might go and see this Miss Faulkener, at Chelsea. She wants someone to do the work of a very small flat,4 and cook dinner at night, and sometimes lunch.'
I went off, full of hope and very excited, to Miss Faulkener's flat. A sharp-featured maid opened the door.
'You come after the job?'5
'Yes,' I whispered humbly. I gave her my name and she let me in reluctantly. On a sofa in front of a coal fire, groomed to the last eyebrow,6 sat my prospective employer. She looked an amusing woman, and it would be marvellous to have the run of a kitchen to mess in to my heart's content.7 It was all fixed up.
I went to bed early, with the cook's alarm clock at my side, but in spite of that I didn't sleep well. Its strident note terrified me right out of bed into the damp chill of a November morning.8 I bolted down some coffee and rushed off, clutching my overalls and aprons, and, arriving in good time, let myself in, feeling like an old hand. I took myself off to the kitchen. It was looking rather inhumanely neat, and was distinctly cold. There was no boiler as it was a flat, and a small refrigerator stood in one corner. I hung my coat behind the door, put on the overall, and, rolling up my sleeves, prepared to attack the drawing-room fire. I found the wood and coal, but I couldn't see what Mrs. Baker* had used to collect ash in. However, I found a wooden box which I thought would do, and took the coal along the passage in that. I hadn't laid a fire since my girl-guide days,9 but it seemed quite simple, and I took the ashes out to the dustbin, leaving a little trail of cinders behind me from a broken comer of the box. The trouble about housework is that whatever you do seems to lead to another job to do or a mess to clear up. I put my hand against the wall while I was bending down to sweep up the cinders and made a huge grubby mark on the beautiful cream-coloured paint. I rubbed at it gingerly with a soapy cloth and the dirt came off all right, but an even laiger stain remained, paler than the rest of the paint, and with a hard, grimy outline. I didn't dare wash it any more, and debated moving the grandfather clock over to hide it. However, it was now a quarter past nine, so I had to leave it to its fate10 and pray that Miss Faulkener wouldn't notice.
* Mrs. Baker is the name of the former cook-general
I had dusted the living-room, swept all the dirt down the passage and into the kitchen, and gone through the usual tedious business of chasing it about, trying to get it into the dustpan before her bell and back-door bell rang at the same moment. The back door was the nearest, so I opened it on a man who said 'Grosher'.11
'Do you mean orders?'
He went on up the outside stairs whistling, and I rushed to the bedroom, wiping my hands on my overall before going in.
'Good morning, Monica, I hope you're getting on all right. I just want to talk about food.'
We fixed the courses,12 and I rushed back to the kitchen.
It didn't occur to me in those days to wash up as I went along, not that I would have had time,13 as cooking took me quite twice as long as it should. I kept doing things wrong and having to rush to cookery books for help, and everything I wanted at a moment's notice had always disappeared.
Every saucepan in the place was dirty; the sink was piled high with them. On the floor lay the plates and dishes that couldn't be squeezed on to the table or dresser, already cluttered up with peelings, pudding basins, and dirty little bits of butter.
I started listlessly on the washing-up. At eleven o'clock I was still at it and my back and head were aching in unison. The washing-up was finished, but the stove was in a hideous mess.
Miss Faulkener came in to get some glasses and was horrified to see me still there.
'Goodness, Monica, I thought you'd gone hours ago. Run off now, anyway; you can leave that till tomorrow.'
She wafted back to the drawing-room and I thought: 'If it was you, you'd be thinking of how depressing it will be tomorrow morning to arrive at crack of dawn and find things filthy. People may think that by telling you to leave a thing till the next day it will get done magically, all by itself overnight. But no, that is not so, in fact quite the reverse, in all probability it will become a mess of an even greater magnitude."4
At last I had finished. I arrived home in a sort of coma. My mother helped me to undress and brought me hot milk, and as I burrowed into the yielding familiarity of my own dear bed, my last thought was thankfulness that I was a "Daily" and not a "Liver-in".15
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