The Nun’s Dinner
It all started with the nun’s dinner. Margaret knew this instinctively. All she knew was that her mother was a fantastic cook, could serve a dinner for twelve on a shoestring budget, and every guest would smack their lips and say it was the best meal they had ever tasted. The term domestic goddess hadn’t been invented when her mother was in her prime, but when Margaret finally opened her own restaurant and realised she was trying to echo her mother’s talents, she appreciated what an expert her mother had been.
In those days it was somehow easier for people to be a good neighbour, because people were at home to be neighbourly. Although money was scarce, life often threw up interesting little jobs that could be tackled to earn a few pennies. Food was the main concern for the mother of a large family, with no such thing as a microwave oven, and freezers yet to be commonplace. The nun’s dinner was one such small task, causing what seemed like a small yet interesting ripple in Agnes Elliott’s domestic life.
Agnes hastily re-tied her shoelace at the end of the Sunday Service. She looked very attractive in her Sunday best costume, with her full figure, fresh complexion and brown curly hair. She walked outside and breathed deeply, preparing herself for the long day ahead and dinner to cook for twelve people. The Minister spoke to her just as she was about to cycle home.
“Mrs Elliott, I’m so glad I’ve caught you.”
“Hello, Mr McKenzie. Lovely day.”
“ I’ll come straight to the point. Duncan McFadzean approached me the other day. His sister is coming to stay with him. She has been ill, but she will be convalescent, and is coming to stay for two weeks to recuperate. Duncan has asked me if I could find someone who would go in each day about 12 or 12.30 while he’s at work with a bit of dinner for her. He can’t take any time off just now. I wondered, could you er?”
“His sister, the nun?”
“Yes. Sister Frances. Since Duncan’s wife, Kirsty died he’s all at sixes and sevens.”
“Certainly, Mr McKenzie. I’ll be pleased to.”
“You’ll be paid.”
“Even better. Are there any special requirements?”
“I don’t think so. Whatever you’re cooking for your little ones. It will be a long day for her waiting for Duncan to come home from work. I’ll get him to give you a ring, shall I? Make the arrangements?”
Agnes was sorry to hear that Sister Frances had been ill. She knew for a fact that since Kirsty died Duncan had his lunch in the staff canteen, and made himself beans on toast every evening. There would be nothing in the house for Sister Frances to make herself a decent sandwich, let alone a proper meal. A quiet life of prayer and contemplation does not prepare a person for proper cooking observed Agnes. She would see what she could do to make a tasty dinner for the nun. Phoning for a pizza was an option yet to be invented.
When Agnes arrived home, glowing from her cycle ride, and at peace after the Sunday Service, she found the house in an uproar. Her husband, Jimmy, was doing his best to sort out the children, but there seemed to be cereal everywhere in the kitchen, and three children wanted one jumper, and nobody could find any socks. Baby Elizabeth, aged 18 months, was still in her cot. By the time Agnes had organised everyone, their married daughter, Margaret, arrived with her husband, Hamish for morning coffee.
“I’ve come early to give you a hand, Mum.” Margaret’s idea of lending a hand was telling Agnes how to do things, as learned out of a magazine. She was good though, with her younger brothers and sisters. As the oldest of eight, she knew every trick in the book for getting small people to clean their teeth, or snuggle up to each other and go to sleep. None of the Elliotts needed encouragement to eat their food. If any morsel was left for too long on a plate, someone else would “help them”, and it would be gone. Nobody dared to look up at the ceiling at the suggestion of a spider, in case their best potato that they were saving for last disappeared accompanied by a fit of the giggles.
Between them, Agnes and Margaret roasted a small joint of beef, 50 potatoes, some parsnips and a Yorkshire pudding. There were carrots and a cabbage (from the garden); they made an apple crumble, and a jug of custard and a tray of little plain cakes for teatime. There was also a rice pudding in which sultanas were nearly as rare as hen’s teeth.
Sunday dinner at the Elliotts was always a celebration of life and love. There was often a maiden aunt, or lonely cousin to entertain. That meant they would have to play the FHB game. The apple crumble would be brought out to the cry of FHB! This meant Family Hold Back. As Agnes always asked the youngest first what they would like, they knew it was an instruction to ask for the rice pudding first. They would mutter a little, but knew they would be given a taste of apple crumble later! Jimmy, Ronnie (the oldest boy, and out at work) Hamish and visitors of course had first call on the apple crumble.
Afterwards Margaret and her husband, Hamish, washed up, while the two oldest boys took the younger children out and set up a game. Jimmy sat in his old sagging armchair with a cup of tea and the baby on his lap while Agnes put everything away. Then they would all take the dog for a walk, or go to the park to kick a football.
When the first day came for Agnes to take some lunch round to Sister Frances it was a very wet Monday. There were three mountains of washing yet to be tackled, and the fourth had been brought in from the garden wetter than it had been pegged out. Baby Elizabeth and toddler Bobbie would be quite happy with a boiled egg and soldiers, followed by a bowl of custard for their lunches. But it wouldn’t do for a nun, now would it? She had a couple of decent slices left from the chickens she had cooked for Sunday lunch, some tomatoes and cucumber from the greenhouse, some lettuce and of course potatoes. There were a couple of plums left from the bowlful Margaret had given her yesterday. They’ll do, she thought, with some of the bairns’ custard.
The logistics of delivery was the next hurdle to be overcome. There was nothing for it but to take the wee ones. She popped them in the big pram, pulled up the hood, placed the meal in the basket underneath and made a dash up the road.
She and Sister Frances were old acquaintances. She had often come to stay for a holiday with her brother, Duncan, when Kirsty was alive, and Agnes had had many a chat with her, albeit very brief. Regretfully there was no time for a chat today, though, with the rain. Agnes noticed how much older and more frail she was.
“I’ll collect the plate tomorrow,” was about the sum of it.
Agnes managed to find something each day that week to feed Sister Frances. The following week was half term, and there were six children at home. All day they were around unless they went out with their pals. Margaret had a day off work, and called in too to see her mother. She brought her friend, Trina with her
Elizabeth was under the kitchen table eating an apple. The others were all in the garden playing. Agnes was preparing a tray for the nun’s dinner. There were also seven plates laid out on the kitchen table with sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato, cucumber and bread and butter. In the oven was a small shepherds pie made from the remains of the Sunday roast for Jimmy, Ronnie and Sister Frances. On her tray there was also a bowl waiting for some pudding. Margaret noticed that there were also two bowls on the dresser with stewed apple, which must be for her father and Ronnie, and open next to them was a tin of mandarin oranges. It was the first tin of mandarin oranges to have crossed the threshold of the Elliott household.
On seeing Margaret and Trina, Agnes took out two more plates and removed a morsel off each plate on to them so the friends could join in for lunch. Trina was horrified.
“We’ll go, Mrs Elliott. We can’t impose on you at lunch time!”
“Nonsense! If the day ever comes when I can’t share, then Heaven help me!” she smiled at Trina to reassure her.
She opened the kitchen window and called out “Come in now and wash your hands.” She put three or four segments of oranges into the bowls on the dresser, the rest went in the nun’s bowl as children charged through the kitchen to take their places at the table. Suddenly there was a roar from Agnes.
“Who’s taken the oranges out of the nun’s dinner?” Sure enough there were only three segments left for Sister Frances. Trina had not seen any paw dip into the bowl, and eagle-eyed Margaret was away washing Bobby’s hands. The children all held out their hands for inspection.
“It wasna’ me!” was the plaintive cry all round. They were made to sit at the table and wait. The problem was what could she give sister Frances? She spotted Elizabeth under the table. In one swift, seamless movement she deftly placed her in her high chair, cut off the piece of apple with teeth marks, gave it back to her to prevent tears, and proceeded to slice the rest into the nun’s bowl. She called over the child she was most suspicious of.
“David, you can take this tray to Sister Frances. No eating anything off it, mind. I’ll check.”
“Oh! Mum!” He knew she knew, and he also knew his lunch would be very small by the time he returned. “My friends might see me! Carrying a tray! Margaret’s here. Can’t she take it?” Agnes knew she had the right punishment for her usual suspect.
“You take it. Now.”
It was with some surprise that he came back grinning.
“What’s happened?” Margaret asked him.
“She gave me 10p!” he replied, as he handed over yesterday’s plate.
At the end of the week Agnes received a most generous sum of money from Duncan McFadzean, which pleased her no end, and made her realise that she had a skill she could put to good use. So when young Bobby went to school Margaret discovered her mother working in the village school preparing school dinners. And when baby Elizabeth joined him in the infants, Agnes was promoted to being in charge. Son-in-law, Hamish held to the view that her elevation to manageress was due to her expert portion control, but husband, Jimmy, merely remarked with quiet affection that it was because she had discovered even more ways to serve windfall apples.
Now that Margaret has opened her own profitable restaurant, her husband, Hamish, believes her achievement is down to his professionalism as an accountant, but Margaret knows that there is talent needed too, and she knows exactly from where her own talent for running a happy and successful restaurant is inherited.