Mavis Mwete closed her reader with a sigh of relief and heaved her considerable bulk from the desk at the Adult Education centre.
All her fellow students found these desks too small, as they shared them with the children of St Theresa’s Primary School, but for Mavis and her legs, these night classes were close to physical torture. No matter. She had expected that learning to read would be difficult and accepted the cramps in her legs as part of the mysteries of education.
But the pain was the least of it. Night after night, those little shapes that made sounds had lain inert on the page, teasing her without speaking to her.
This evening she’d made a giant step forward. The letters and the things they said had suddenly come together and when Mrs Abrahams asked her to try the words on the blackboard once again, the words had miraculously jumped out at her.
“It is a dog. It is a cat,” she read hesitantly.
“Oh, Mavis! Excellent!” Mrs Abrahams grinned with relief.
Breakthrough! Mavis was by far the oldest mature student she had ever taught and she’d begun to think that, at sixty-seven, Mavis might have left it just too late to learn to read.
“You are a star!”
The star grinned back in shy delight.
“It is a big dog.”
Warmed by her teacher’s praise and her own satisfaction, Mavis made her way home through the narrow lanes of corrugated iron shacks, muttering triumphantly “I see a cat, I see a dog. It is a big dog.”
Tomorrow, she would tell Mrs Hendricks of Number 12 that she had learned to read. This would make Mrs Hendricks very happy, as it had been her idea that Mavis should attend night school. She’d been encouraging her ever since she enrolled, but up to now, Mavis had had nothing to report.
She was still smiling as she climbed heavily into her bed and blew out the candle.
“Morning, Mavis,” said Matron, “Lovely day today, eh?”
“Yes Ma’am. Very nice day.”
Mavis was busy hanging up her coat and changing her outdoor shoes for her slippers when Matron started with the dietary instructions for the residents of Pine Hills Place.
This unnecessary ritual was played out every Monday morning without fail – unnecessary because the menu hadn’t changed in the fifteen years that Mavis had been cook there. She listened with half an ear as she assembled the breakfast things.
“Monday so, let’s see, yes, beef stew for dinner. Just make sure it’s really tender for the old ladies, eh Mavis? Tomorrow, mince meat. Make the meatballs a bit smaller than last week, the mince will go further that way. The old people don’t like so much meat anyway, it’s too heavy for their digestion.”
Given that Pine Hill Place was one of the more expensive retirement homes, Matron didn’t want to be accused of being frugal with the food. But she leaned heavily towards economy, quoting health reasons, so the residents drank skim milk, ate fruit which was discounted the day before it was sold on to a pig farmer, and were served only margarine and mixed fruit jam for their bread.
Mavis opened the freezer and took out the giant pack of stewing beef and placed it in the microwave to thaw. Then she put on the kettle for her cup of tea and waited for further instructions.
“And Mavis, when you place the order for next week, tell Mr Adams not to give us such fatty sausages. Those we had last week weren’t as good as usual.”
“Alright then, get on with it.”
Matron walked out stiffly and Mavis relaxed. She looked in the bread bin for the leftovers from the weekend and put the two loaf-ends into the toaster for her breakfast. Then she sat on the high stool next to her working counter and sipped her tea, thinking about her family.
Without a husband and children to worry about, Mavis had simply adopted the residents of Pine Hills Place as her own responsibility. She worried about them when they were ill, rejoiced with them when they were happy and it upset her to think that so many of them seemed to have no family who visited or took them out. In her opinion, old people were to be cared for and respected.
She looked in the pantry to check her supplies. She needed oil, salt and more onions. And she was low on cheese for the macaroni, her lunchtime standby for Mondays. Once breakfast was served and washed up, she’d walk to the corner shop where Mr Adams kept a book for Pine Hills Place. Matron had never allowed her handle the money but gave her a free hand to buy what she needed. Over the years Mr Adams had learned to anticipate the weekly order and Mavis never surprised him by altering a thing. He knew the daily menu as well as the residents did.
“Mavis is our treasure, a good plain cook,” Matron boasted to newcomers and their relatives, as she showed them round Mavis’ gleaming stainless steel kitchen. “She makes sure we eat tasty and very nutritious meals.”
This was true, but a seven-day cycle of good plain cooking for fifteen years will jade even the least fussy palate and most Pine Hills Place residents kept food in their rooms to console themselves.
Of all the old ladies, Mrs Hendricks was Mavis’ favourite. She had only been in residence for three months and seemed to find it difficult to make friends. She spent a lot of her time in her room, reading, or tending the strip of garden outside her small room and Mavis always stopped on her way home to exchange pleasantries with her. She also brought her small packets of dried uboqhofrom the township herbalist. This was strictly a secret between Mavis and Mrs Hendricks. Matron dished out pain capsules for arthritis but Mavis knew that finely chopped uboqholeaves, mixed with sheep fat, was the only thing for pain in the joints. She rendered down the fatty bits of the mutton and saved them for Mrs Hendricks who was grateful for the attention, but backed up the sheep fat mixture with the capsules, just in case.
This afternoon, Mavis was bursting with her news.
“Look ma’am, reading now!” she beamed and brought out her reader.
“Oh Mavis, really? That’s wonderful! Read something for me,” she exclaimed.
“It is a big dog. I see the dog. It is a fat cat. I see the big fat cat.” She read slowly, enunciating each letter.
“That’s very good. Oh Mavis, I am so proud of you! Keep it up.”
“Yes ma’am. Am working hard with reading. Bye bye now.”
She turned to go but Mrs Hendricks kept her back, wanting to exchange triumphs.
“Look at these, Mavis, aren’t they beautiful?” Mrs Hendricks pointed to some budding carnations tied to stakes. “They’ll be open just in time for my daughter’s visit next month. She loves flowers but of course she can’t have a garden in her flat.”
Mavis knew all about Helen, the clever daughter who lived in the big city and worked for a glossy magazine. Her job was very important and her days were busy, and it was understood by both woman that Helen couldn’t spare the time to visit her mother more than once every couple of months. Success comes with a price, no matter who has to pay it.
“She will like those too much, Ma’am. Very nice smell.”
“Oh, I forgot, some more magazines for you.”
Mrs Hendricks disappeared into her room and came out with a bundle of glossies. One of the perks of having a daughter in publishing was the parcel of free magazines that arrived in the post every month. Youth and Beauty. Pizzazz. Now! Career Gal.. The Gourmet. Money Sense…. Mrs Hendricks regularly passed these on to Mavis after only a cursory glance at them.
Mavis carried them home, carefully tore out the illustrated pages and used them to wallpaper the interior of her room. The paper was definitely an improvement on newsprint which is what most of the people of the township used for insulation, as it was thicker and withstood the wind better. Also the coloured pictures brightened things up. She preferred pictures of food.
Mavis hummed as she mixed a glue of flour and water and slopped it on the uneven walls, pressing the pages firmly against the previous month’s editions.
Suddenly she stopped.
“Top” she murmured, startled. The heavy black letters were spread across the pages above a picture of stew bubbling in a pot. “Tell.”
That was as far as she got, but she felt strangely excited. Her walls were one giant reader. All she had to do was learn the sounds they said.
That evening she presented Mrs Abrahams with a list of words written in a straggly hand.
“Can you tell me what these are saying?” she asked softly.
“Mmm, let’s see. This is very nicely written Mavis,” said her teacher encouragingly .
“ It says chefs… their ….. secrets. And what’s this? Oh..Ragout D’abattis da Volaille..that’s French for chicken stew.” Mrs Abrahams had not wasted her year in France as an au pair.
That wonderful looking food was just chicken stew? She had to read the rest. And a chef?
“What is this chef? Like a chief?
“No, it’s just a fancy name for good cook,” laughed Mrs Abrahams. “Like you. You’re a chef, except chefs are usually men.”
“I am a good plain cook,” said Mavis.
That night Mavis lit the candle and held it close to the wall.
“Top chefs tell their secrets, something, something, something. One chicken….”
She was stuck. Strange short sounds blocked her path. Oz. Gm. Kg.She wrote them down for Mrs Abrahams to decipher for her the following night. For good measure she wrote every word on the page onto her exercise book, and went to sleep exhausted.
The following week Mavis confounded Mr Adams by showing him a hand written shopping list.
“What’s this,” he grumbled. “ Chicken necks, okay those I have. Chicken wings…chicken giblets…. yes. Garlic? Since when do you use garlic, Mavis?”
“Since today. Mr Adams.”
“Bouquet garni? What’s this?”
“I don’t know Mr Adams. It’s for chicken stew.”
“Bouquet garni is a whole lot of fresh herbs tied together,” said a red- haired woman standing next to her. “Marjoram, oregano, thyme, stuff like that. You leave them in while you’re cooking, then take them out before you serve the food. Or you can use the dried herbs and put them in a little bag.”
“Dried herbs I got,” said Mr Adams, rummaging around at the back of the shop. Mavis rubbed the tiny dried leaves between her thumb and forefinger and sniffed deeply. An odd but pleasing smell.
“Duck fat? No duck fat. Nobody ever asks me for duck fat.”
Even the red haired lady was stumped, but not for long.
“Try chicken schmaltz, ” she said. “You’ve got some in your deep freeze, Mr Adams, from Passover. How different can it be? Chicken, duck. All the same.”
Mavis noted with approval that the big packets of necks and giblets cost a lot less than the usual chicken cuts. She was sure Matron would be happy.
Mavis propped the recipe up on the cupboard and proceeded to make Ragout D’abattis da Volaille. Like most illiterate people, she had an excellent memory and remembered the instructions in order, as Mrs Abrahams had read them out to her.
Heat the fat in the pan until very hot. Place wings and necks in pan until golden brown. Pour in wine.
The wine. Mavis knew where Matron kept the bottle of celebratory leftovers. Before washing the glasses after every birthday party or Christmas dinner, she was instructed to pour the dregs into a common bottle. Mavis had often noticed it was mysteriously empty soon afterwards, but the Pine Hill Place residents found enough excuses for a bottle of champagne or sherry to keep the leftover bottle quite full. She poured in a generous helping and put the bottle back behind the broom cupboard.
Thinly sliced onions. Chopped ham. Baby carrots.
Bouquet garni. She stuffed a big spoonful of each herb into the corner of a kitchen cloth and tied it firmly, dropping it into the simmering pot.
When the gong went for dinner, twenty gentlewomen of advanced years slowly made their way to the dining room.
“Gwen, what is that marvellous smell?”
It was Wednesday, so it must be chicken. Mrs Harrison of Number Three stood perfectly still, sniffing rapturously.
“Oh, that aroma takes me back. Before we had the children, Andrew and I did a wonderful cycling tour of the Loire Valley and the restaurants used to smell just like that. I’d forgotten how good French food was.”
Dinner was a great success. After looking askance at the chicken giblets to begin with, the residents tentatively sniffed at the unfamiliar stew, then forked in small mouthfuls to test the new dish. This was followed by long moments of blissful silence while the residents finished their meal, picking at the chicken necks and sucking appreciatively. They wiped their plates with their bread rolls so as not to miss a drop of the delicious gravy.
Matron stalked into the kitchen after dinner, her face grim.
“Mavis, what on earth was that stew you made today? How could you give our ladies chicken necks and all those bits of offal?”
Before Matron could carry on, Mrs Harrison burst into the kitchen.
“Oh Mavis, I just wanted to congratulate you! That was quite the best meal I have eaten in the six years I’ve been here!” she exclaimed. “Have you been sending her to cookery classes, Matron?”
“Er, no.” Matron was puzzled.
“That was a French country dish, I’m sure of it,” bubbled Mrs Harrison. “Those subtle herbs! And there was definitely wine in the sauce, wasn’t there Mavis?”
“It was just chicken stew,.” said Mavis.
“Well, my congratulations anyway.” said Mrs Harrison. “Now I’m going upstairs to find my old photograph album, I’ve got a picture of me and my late husband having lunch outside one of those little French bistros. I must show you.
Matron looked hard at Mavis.
“ Sausages tomorrow, remember,” she said.
Low on the wall in her room, Mavis spotted a picture of a blue china dish, with pieces of what looked like pork sausage nestling on a bed of golden rice. She squatted with difficulty and peered at the words.
Risotto con something. From Chef Franca something of the Villa Moroni, Milan. With a sigh she heaved herself up, fetched a pencil and her notebook and wrote down the words she didn’t know. Sauté. Stock. Saffron. Parmesan cheese. Consistency.
Mrs Abrahams was mystified but quite willing to explain what saffron was. And how you sautéed something (“Just a fancy word for fry, Mavis”)
“Risotto con Luganigheis rice with a special kind of sausage, pork, I think” she said. “This is an Italian recipe.”
Mavis nodded ponderously, storing up the new words to pass them on to Mr Adams the next day. When she opened her reader to the picture of the dog and the cat, the words seemed almost too easy. She felt as though she had passed these animals a long time ago and was on the road to more important subjects.
Mr Adams stocked plump white pork sausages from Malmesbury, and tiny packets of finely grated Parmesan cheese. Mavis opened one and sniffed it. Funny smell, not like the cheddar she was used to buying. She hoped it was the right thing.
“And butter,” she added, when Mr Adams totalled everything up.
“You never have butter,” protested Mr Adams, “You always take soft marg. Matron says it’s better for their hearts.”
“No,” said Mavis firmly, “Must be butter. What it says. Half a kilo.”
“You’ll kill them,” he grinned, “But I guess they’ll die happy.”
The Risotto con Luganighewas a triumph. Once the sausages had browned to perfection, Mavis added the wine and stock and watched as the rice absorbed the aromatic juices along with the saffron. When the golden buds of rice had swelled to bursting point she folded in the Parmesan cheese and the butter.
Just before dinner was served, Mrs Howard of Number Seven stole into the kitchen and lifted the lid of the big pot.
“Mmm, Mavis, what have you got for us today? This smells so good.” She sniffed appreciatively.
“Just sausage and rice, Mrs Howard.”
“Oh, go on with you, Mavis, this is something special again, I can tell.”
“No, Mrs Howard, it’s Thursday, just sausage.”
Mrs Howard winked at her and hurried to take her seat in the dining room.
Heads were lifted expectantly when Mavis served the food and deep inhalations of appreciation preceded the meal.
Some of the residents were known as fussy eaters and had to be encouraged to take even the daily requirements for keeping body and soul together. Old Miss de Wet who spent many of her days in the sick bay usually gave up after half a slice of toast but this time her plate was clean. Not one grain of rice was left.
“Tuscany.” She said in her high, cracked voice. “ I remember a walking tour my sister and I did together in 1962. We ate something like this at one of those little trattoria along our route. Oh, that Italian cuisine was wonderful. I’ve never tasted any food like it. Until now.” She smiled beatifically at her table companions. “I wonder if Mavis has any seconds for us?”
“Dinner was very nice today, Mavis,” conceded Matron. “Maybe a bit rich but very nice. What’s on the menu tomorrow?”
“Oh yes, Friday, of course. I hope Mr Adams has some nice fresh hake for us.”
Mavis didn’t want hake. She wanted those small crisp fish she’d seen on a page from The Gourmet, nestling on top of what looked like cooked tomatoes with green leaves decorating the edges.
The name of the dish eluded Mavis but standing on a chair to read the page above her door, she’d been able to make out quite a lot of the ingredients for herself and she could depend on Mrs Abrahams to fill in the missing bits. Coriander. Paprika. Crushed salt.
As to the fish, Mr Adams was not helpful. She hadn’t been able to bring the picture, glued to the wall as it was, and he glumly indicated the deep freeze section where he kept huge slabs of grey skinned hake and some boxes of frozen fish fingers. Mavis had to settle for her usual order of filleted hake pieces, and took them back with the other ingredients to make Sardinhas no Forno, house speciality of the chef of the Hotel Lusitano in Lisbon.
She fried the onions, tomatoes and garlic in olive oil, sliced the peppers, chopped the coriander and bay leaves, and let them all simmer together. Then she dipped the hake pieces into the coarse salt, coated them with flour and laid them on the sauce to bake.
This didn’t look anything like the picture but as it started to cook she could tell it would taste good. Mavis decided the usual chips wouldn’t look right so made another pot of rice with saffron and garlic.
When she banged the gong for lunch, there was no sound of shuffling feet making their way to the dining room. Puzzled, she put her head round the door. Every chair was already occupied and the residents raised their heads hopefully when they saw her carrying the enormous tray to the sideboard.
“Oh Mavis, this is delicious,” sighed Mrs Hendricks. “You know, it reminds of the meals we used to get long ago in Lourenco Marques at the Polana Hotel. You’re not from Mozambique, are you?”
Mavis was affronted. Did she look like a foreigner?
“No Ma’am, I am Xhosa,” she said stiffly. “From Cofimvaba.”
“Well this fish is just wonderful. It’s a Portuguese dish, definitely. We used to have such lovely holidays in Mozambique in the old days.”
“Did you ever go to Xai-Xai?” interrupted Mrs Dodds, who hardly spoke to anyone because she was rather deaf.
“ Why, yes. In the early days when Helen was small we used to go on boating holidays there. We had this enormous fishing boat and Jeff used to catch supper for us every night and the local men would cook them for us on an open fire. They tasted just like this. Oh, it was heaven!”
The two ladies smiled at each other nostalgically.
“It’s just fish, Ma’am.”
But Mavis was pleased to see that every scrap was eaten. Her ladies were happy.
Mavis’ cooking over the next few weeks reached the culinary heights found only in the best restaurants on the Continent.
Saturday’s bland mixed vegetable soup with several stock cubes for flavour had been replaced with Zuppa di Lenticchie alla Montanara, a thick lentil soup favoured by Chef Antonio Bastara of the Hotel Primavera in Rome. Chestnuts, which Mavis had picked up in the grounds of Pine Hill Place combined with lentils, and mixed with olive oil, bacon, bay leaves, marjoram, basil and tomato paste and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
Macaroni cheese had disappeared from the menu. Instead Fusilli alla Carbonera, redolent with garlic, ham, and Pecorino cheese, blended with thick cream and wine and seasoned with black pepper, lemon and parsley came bubbling to the tables. Even mashed potato had gone, replaced by Crocche di Patate, (“Just potato cakes, is all ” said Mavis) the pureed potato mixed with eggs, nutmeg and mozzarella cheese and fried lightly in olive oil.
When Mr Adams totalled up the cartons of cream, the imported cheeses, bottles of extra virgin olive oil and exotic spices that Mavis had put on the book he was almost afraid to present the bill. It had occurred to him that Matron might hold him responsible for her cook’s mad shopping spree and he quailed inwardly as he gave it to Mavis to put on Matron’s desk.
But Matron had been quick to notice that the change of diet at Pine Hill Place had made a noticeable difference to the atmosphere of the home and the general well being of the residents. Her old ladies were filling out a bit, there was colour in the withered cheeks and there was a feeling of increased energy about the place. People talked to each other more. The regular queue of people outside the sick bay every morning, with the usual complaints of aches and dizziness shrank to just one or two die-hards a week. She hadn’t had to call on the services of Dr van Zyl for a fortnight. This saving, plus the fact that for the first time she could increase the monthly fees without feeling a pang of guilt, off-set the increased cost of the food. Swings and roundabouts, thought Matron, ever the businesswoman, as she wrote out the cheque for Mr Adams.
“Darling, please come to lunch on Sunday,” said Mrs Hendricks, “You know we’re allowed to invite visitors then. And I can promise you a first class meal.”
Helen hesitated, recalling her last Sunday date with her mother when she had been served rather dry and stringy roast mutton and watery mashed potatoes. Then remembered she hadn’t seen her mother for nearly three months.
“Alright, Mum, I’ll come but I won’t be able to stay long,” she said. “I have so many articles to edit before Monday, it will have to be just be a quick visit. I have to stop chatting now, my other phone is ringing.”
Mrs Hendricks was grateful. When Mavis passed her door on her way home, she waylaid her.
“Mavis, what’s for dinner on Sunday?” she asked. “My daughter’s coming. I’ve told her all about your cooking. You couldn’t make that wonderful fish dish again, could you?”
‘It’s just soup, mutton, vegetables and apple pudding, Mrs Hendricks,” said Mavis comfortably. “Like always. But I will make it nice.”
“Your cooking is always nice,” assured Mrs Hendricks. “Just look at me, I’m putting on weight because of your cooking!”
Indeed, her stick-figure shape was filling out and she looked brighter and happier than before. She and Mrs Dodds had struck up a friendship which had started with memories of holidays in Mozambique but continued through fifty years of family joys and sorrows, shared over tea in the residents lounge.
Mavis’ reading had improved faster than anyone else’s in the class, and she almost never had to ask Mrs Abrahams for help. She recognised with ease words like braise, cinnamon, mixture, saucepan, pastry while her fellow students were still stumbling over Janet likes the black dogand John sees the lazy cow. She was so far ahead that her teacher set her to read the daily newspaper on her own. Once she’d got used to the small type and narrow columns, Mavis’ world slowly expanded to include America, England and the rest of Africa. She regarded the goings-on in these countries as so much fiction, and preferred the health tips and beauty hints on the women’s pages.
But one night she turned to the classifieds and read the Jobs Offered: positions for computer operators, bookkeepers and secretaries.
Hotels and catering. Experienced Chef wanted for small hotel in Southern Suburbs. Salary R12,000 p.m. neg. plus thirteenth cheque.
Mavis raised her hand.
“What is thirteenth cheque?” she asked Mrs Abrahams.
“It means you get paid a whole extra months wages,” explained the teacher. “You usually get it at Christmas. So in December you get double your money. Very useful for buying things for the family.”
“And what means neg?”
Mrs Abrahams leaned over to see what Mavis was reading.
“It’s short for negotiable. So if you think the money they are offering you is not enough, you can discuss it and perhaps get more. Or the employer will maybe give you a car to use.”
Mavis was stunned.
Mrs Abrahams had assured her she was a chef and she knew she cooked good food. Her wages, unchanged for three years now, were R1000 a month. Matron had often told her that she’d like to be able to increase this but her hands were tied, things were so expensive.. maybe next year. Mavis had accepted this without argument and been grateful for the small cash bonus given after lunch on Christmas Day when she went home early.
The sum of twelve thousand rands was so ridiculously high that she didn’t even contemplate it for herself, and she would have no use for a company car. But inside Mavis’ ample breast, a small worm of doubt made a slow revolution.
Everyone at Pine Hills place looked forward to Sunday lunch. In honour of Helen’s visit, Mavis decided to start with Acquacotta dell’ Unbria.
Ignoringthis impossible word, she skipped to the recipe below and realised that it was simply tomato soup with onions, basil and mint, with small pieces of Italian bread dunked in olive oil floating on top, and her old favourite, Parmesan cheese, sprinkled over it. She got that started on the stove and turned her attention to the mutton.
Instead of the usual Sunday leg, which provided a paper-thin slice for everyone, she’d chosen a big packet of stewing mutton, enough to give everyone a hearty helping of Blanquette d’Agneau, the secret recipe of Master Chef Pierre Alexandre of the Pavillion in Paris. He favoured the use of bouquet garni, a stock of white wine and garlic and a final sauce made with lemon zest, double cream and egg yolks. He also served Gratin da Citrouilleto his discerning patrons, which Mavis had been pleased to find was basically pumpkin mashed with rice and cream, topped with grated Gruyere cheese and baked to a brown and aromatic perfection. This, served with those French potato cakes, which everyone seemed to enjoy, would be enough.
She was stumped for a pudding.
Nothing on the walls of her room looked like a dessert. Blood Pudding had sounded promising but one look at the ingredients told her the French people had a strange idea of sweet things, and she’d had to settle for her usual stewed apple and baked custard. But as she beat the eggs for the custard, Mavis tossed in a carton of double cream and sprinkled an inspired mixture of cinnamon and nutmeg over the top before closing the oven door.
Helen sat at the corner table with her mother, making polite conversation with their companions, Mrs Pieters and Miss Barnes, while they waited to be served. Lunch certainly smelled promising, and they caught tantalising whiffs of garlic and herbs coming from the kitchen.
Smells all right, thought Helen. Even so, she wasn’t prepared for the rich tomato soup placed in front of her, the crisp croutons of bread coated in olive oil bobbing on top between delicious strands of Parmesan cheese.
“Bon appetit!” smiled her mother. “I promised you a good lunch, didn’t I? Mavis has turned into such a good cook lately, we ‘re really spoiled these days.”
Her daughter drank her soup in silence, savouring every mouthful. Was that a hint of mint? Basil? It was easily as good as the soup she’d enjoyed the previous week at The French Quarter. Quite wonderful.
The meat course was a revelation. Creamy morsels of tender mutton coated in a divine sauce…definitely lemon there but something else as well…. Conversation in the dining room faded to a pleasurable silence as twenty elderly ladies and one visitor concentrated on the sublime decadence of Mavis’ mutton stew and mashed pumpkin.
“Mum,” said Helen, sipping her after-lunch coffee in the lounge (well thishasn’t changed she thought, the same cheap instant coffee as always). “How long has Mavis been the cook here?”
“Goodness me, forever, as far as I know,” replied her mother.
“How much do you think she earns?”
“I haven’t the least idea, but I shouldn’t think it’s very much. She’s one of the old school and I can’t see her demanding a lot of money. And I can’t see Matron giving it either, she’s very mean.”
Her daughter stood up.
“I just want a word with her before I go.”
“Are you going to ask Mavis for her recipe for that mutton stew? I’m sure she’ll be glad to let you have it.”
“Not exactly,” said her daughter.
She found Mavis wiping the stainless steel counter in the kitchen, the plates already washed and put away. Sunday afternoons Mavis attended the Pentecostal Church of Zion in Africa, where she sang alto in the choir, and she didn’t want to be late.
“Mavis, that was a really good lunch,” smiled Helen. “Very, very good. How would you like to come and cook for me?”
“For you, Miss Helen? In your flat?”
“Well, no, not me, but my company,” she said. “We need someone to make special lunches for the Directors and our clients. We have a nice kitchen at the office, and you’d be able to cook anything you wanted. You’d have a free hand. My mother has been telling me what wonderful meals you can make.”
Mavis was silent. Helen took this to mean she was considering the offer and went on, ”Whatever you’re being paid here, we would pay you R100 a month more.”
Mavis looked out of the window.
“R100 a month more, at least, “ she added hastily.
“Ahhh… is negotiable.” said Mavis.
Mavis took her handbag out from the drawer where she kept it during the day and took down her coat. As if I would leave my old ladies,she thought.
“I can see you’re in a hurry to go, “ said Helen, “There’s no need to say yes or no right away. Take you time and think about it. Remember you’d only have to work five days a week and you’d just be cooking for about ten people at the most. Sometimes only four or five. And we have a tea lady who does all the washing up.”
That should clinch it, she thought, as she rejoined her mother in the residents lounge.
“Did you get what you wanted?” asked Mrs Hendricks.
“I think so,” answered Helen.
On Monday morning Matron came into the kitchen as usual, but she didn’t get a chance to review the weekly menu before Mavis spoke.
“Matron, my heart is sore.”
“Why is that?” queried Matron.
“There is someone who is wanting me to work for them.”
Matron’s mouth went dry and her stomach lurched in horror, but she answered evenly,
“And are you wanting to work for them?”
“No, Matron, but they are wanting to give me a lot of money.”
“If it’s more money you want, Mavis, of course we can arrange something,” she said in relief. “I was going to give you a raise this month anyway. Shall we say an extra fifty rand?”
“They are wanting to pay me an extra three hundred rands, ma’am.”
The blood roared in Matrons ears and she spoke with difficulty.
“Three hundred. Yes. Well, I suppose we can manage that.”
“And they are wanting to employ someone who will do the washing up for me.”
“A kitchen maid. Well, maybe we could think about that. Yes, I don’t see why not. If you can find some reliable young person to help you… ”
Mavis smiled. Her sister’s child Nomusela would be glad of the work. As good as a company car and far more useful.
“You don’t really want to leave us, do you Mavis? You’ll stay now?”
“Yes, ma’am, I am not wanting to go. I will stay,” said Mavis and turned her attention to creating Chacuti da Galinhafrom the frozen carcases of three chickens. Some coconut milk, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, garlic…
Negotiation comes easy to a top chef.