“The school is her very life, I believe” – Hilda discussing Karen with Joey.
I hope that this works, because the domestic staff must have worked harder than anyone else at the Chalet School and, especially in the Swiss books, no-one really seemed to appreciate everything they did … and I thought that Karen, who had to supervise all the rest of the domestic work as well as cooking lots of delicious meals and providing refreshments at all hours, definitely deserved more than for the school to be “her very life” …
(The first part is set during Excitements at the Chalet School.)
Sometimes distance couldn’t be measured in feet and inches or in metres and centimetres. The relatively short walk from the kitchen to the staffroom might have been a million miles. Karen, queen of her own domain, respected, adored and feared in equal measure by the rest of the domestic staff, felt as shy and uncomfortable as the youngest new girl in this Easter term as she knocked reluctantly on the staffroom door. The world of the Chalet School kitchen might not be an exciting one but it was her world, as the domestic staff’s quarters were her home and the young maids of whom she was in charge were the nearest she was ever likely to have to children of her own. The kitchen was said to be a cosy place in this cold weather: a stove was kept lit in there at all times, a light that never went out. Sometimes it seemed to symbolise the fact that the work that needed to be done to keep the school running was never-ending.
Venturing to other parts of school when bidden was an accepted part of Karen’s life, but venturing there unbidden was like stepping out of the world in which she belonged; and that was something that she’d vowed, on the day that she’d started working alongside her dear friend Marie Pfeifen in the kitchen of the Chalet School at Briesau, never to do again. She’d learned her lesson and she’d never forgotten it. She tried not to think back to those golden days of youth and hope and love now. It did no good to dwell on the past. She was well aware that, as far as everyone else at the school was concerned, she wanted nothing more from life but to ensure that the meals she provided met with everyone’s approval and that the cleaning, washing, ironing and other domestic duties were done always to the high standards that she herself expected. Let them think that. It was what she wanted them to think.
It was Nancy Wilmot who opened the door. “Karen!” she said in surprise. Nobody had rung the bell to summon a member of the domestic staff, as far as she knew. “Is anything wrong?”
“If you please, Fraulein Wilmot,” Karen said, reminding herself that she was after all here on legitimate business, “I am looking for Frau Mieders. I need to know which ingredients the young ladies will be needing for their domestic science lessons next week, so that I may add them to the list of items to be ordered for the kitchen.”
Karen had known Nancy Wilmot, as she had known most of the teaching staff, for many years, in this case since Nancy had been a pupil at the school herself; but she never allowed herself to question the fact that she was expected to address the younger woman as “Fraulein Wilmot” whilst being called by her first name in return. The only title that anyone ever afforded her was “Cook”. Cook Karen, who made stuffed veal, apple tart, coffee, lemonade, cakes, picnic lunches and everything else that was consumed by the inhabitants of the Chalet School. She wasn’t unhappy with her role as cook and head of the domestic staff: she’d been trained from her earliest years to cook, even if she’d harboured dreams of cooking in the kitchens of the great palace of a king or emperor rather than in those of a school, Sometimes, though, she couldn’t help thinking about how different her life might have been if events had taken another turn all those years ago.
Frau Mieders, sitting in a comfortable chair at the far end of the room, spied Karen, put aside her knitting and hastened to the door. “Karen, I do apologise!” she exclaimed. “I was supposed to tell you what I needed for my lessons next week, but it completely slipped my mind in the excitement of this afternoon. Do come in, and I will make the list for you now.”
Karen felt completely out of place as she followed the domestic science mistress into the staffroom, where the good lady proceeded to make out a list of the items required. In a different environment, she and Frau Mieders might have been friends, they being the only two Austrian women at the school; but one of them was a member of the upstairs staff and the other was a member of the downstairs staff, and that made for a gap that was unbridgeable in the world of the Chalet School.
“You will never guess what we have been discussing at Freudesheim this afternoon,” Frau Mieders said as she handed over the completed list. “Imagine, it will be twenty- one years in April since our dear school was founded. I must confess that I had no idea about it until dear Joey, Frau Doktor Maynard I should say, mentioned it this afternoon. This is the year that the school comes of age. Twenty -one years since Lady Russell took that first chalet on the shores of the Tiernsee and the Chalet School came into being!”
I know, Karen thought. Believe me, I of all people know that twenty- one years have passed since then. Twenty- one years since that evening when he told me that the vacant chalet at Briesau was to be let to an English lady who was to turn it into a private school. How distressed he was, how disappointed. He had wanted so much for Herr Braun to let the chalet to someone who would generate business and employment for the people around the lake. I remember his exact words: I remember every word that he ever said to me and I to him. I know only too well that it was twenty-one years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.
“Miss Annersley, Miss Wilson, Mademoiselle de Lachennais and I have been over to Freudesheim for afternoon tea,” Frau Mieders explained. “Frau Doktor Maynard thought it fitting that we four should discuss with her the plans to celebrate the occasion, since we are all, as she put it, foundation stones of the school.”
Karen bent her head, to hide the distress that, despite herself, she couldn’t help feeling. What was she? She had been at the school since its earliest years: was she not entitled to be classed amongst its “foundation stones”? She wondered if Lady Russell or Frau Doktor Maynard or any of the “upstairs” staff ever stopped to think how hard she and her staff worked? The school would not grind to a halt if it were to go without maths lessons or games, for example, for a few days; yet such things were seen as being essential and it was the work that the domestic staff did, the work without which the school would be unable to manage, that seemed so often to be taken for granted.
Every day, long before the school rising bell went, the domestic staff were hard at work. Gaudenz and the lads who worked with him were attending to the fires, whilst Karen and the maids were ensuring that breakfast for all the pupils and the teaching and administrative staff was ready and waiting by 7:30 a.m.. Most of the cleaning had to be done either early in the morning or late in the evening, for those were the only times of day at which the classrooms, the staffroom, the studies, the hall, the splasheries and the corridors were not in use. Then there were the other meals of the day to prepare, not to mention the endless laundry and ironing – and woe betide the maids if any mark, however minute, remained on any piece of laundry or if any item of clothing or bedding wasn’t ironed to Matron Lloyd’s exacting standards. Then there were the bathrooms and the staff bedrooms to be cleaned and the shopping for provisions and cleaning materials to be done, not to mention finding time to eat their own meals; and she, Karen, had to organise and supervise it all in addition to carrying out her duties as cook. There was also the general maintenance of the buildings and the furniture and equipment for Gaudenz and his assistants to deal with, not to mention the upkeep of the grounds and outdoor sports facilities in all weather conditions. There was always so much to be done: given that that was the case, it was a good job that not one of the domestic staff had ever shirked from a hard day’s work in their lives.
This was Karen’s life and it’d been her life since she’d been a young girl in her native Tyrol. She’d been born in Briesau and she’d thought that she would live her entire life there, but then the Anschluss had come and the school had closed. She hadn’t had to think hard about whether or not to follow the school: the Nazi occupation of Austria had met with little resistance and she’d known that she was powerless against the new regime, but she’d had no intention of staying there and living under it. She tried not to think back over that difficult, terrifying journey that she and Anna Pfeifen had made together across Europe to reach England, but she remembered the relief they’d felt on arriving there at last. Then, instead of finding safety after risking life and limb to flee Nazi-occupied Austria, she’d found herself interned as an enemy alien. Once she’d been released and come back to the school, she’d worked even harder than she’d done before: trying to provide adequate and nutritious meals on wartime rations had been the greatest challenge she’d ever faced in her working life but she’d done it. When the new finishing branch had opened in Switzerland she’d been persuaded to move there with it, and then when the rest of the school had followed it she’d been asked to move to the new premises at the Gornetz Platz and take charge of all domestic matters there.
She’d been with the Chalet School almost every step of its way, but it had clearly never occurred to Joey Maynard to include her in the party invited to discuss the coming of age celebrations. Probably she should take that as a compliment. Probably it would have been wrong had it been otherwise; for surely the mark of a good servant, and that for which they should strive, was that they should, as far as possible, go unnoticed.
“It is intended that the girls should go in groups to visit Briesau as part of the events taking place to mark the occasion,” Frau Mieders continued. “Frau Doktor Maynard plans to escort one of the parties herself. They are to stay at the Kron Prinz Karl.”
Suddenly Karen felt as if something had exploded inside her head and everything in the room had become distant. They are to stay at the Kron Prinz Karl. How long was it since she’d heard the name of that hotel spoken out loud? She longed to get up and run away, as far away as she could, to be alone with her thoughts; but Frau Mieders was still speaking. “It is still owned by the Brauns,” she was saying. “Good Herr Braun and his dear wife Frau Braun. They were always such lovely people.”
With you, maybe, Karen thought. With you who were of the middle classes as they and their precious friends and family were. If you only knew …but no, I was the one who was at fault. I was the one who forgot my place. But what is it that people say? ‘Tis better to have loved and lost …
“They had two sons,” Frau Mieders reminisced. “Neither one of them was working at the hotel when we left the Tyrol, though. The elder son’s name was Kurt. He and his wife lived in Innsbruck: their daughter Gretchen was a pupil at the school for a while. The younger son … ah, there was some mystery about him. He left suddenly: it was said that he’d gone away to stay with relatives but he never came back. I forget his name now: ach, what was it? What was his name?”
“Rudi,” Karen said abruptly. “His name was Rudi.”
“Rudi!” Frau Mieders said. “So it was. I always thought him a fine young man, always so kind and considerate, always so ready to help anyone. Indeed, most people spoke well of him, as I recall, yet sadly it seemed that he and his parents could not work together in harmony. What a good memory you have, Karen.”
Too good, Karen thought. Too good.
Later, alone in her room, Karen found herself unable to sleep. She didn’t know if she could bear to hear all the girls and the upstairs staff speaking of Tyrol, of the hotel and of the Brauns. It was too much.
She would make raspberry fluff for Abendessen tomorrow. And she would make a little too much. It was a particular favourite with the Maynard twins and she would say that she was taking the extra to Freudesheim so that it would not go to waste. In those long-ago days in Tyrol, she and Marie had often prepared a little too much food, so that they might take the excess to those families around the lake who had been so badly in need of it. They had felt a little guilty about it; but the food had made so much difference to its recipients, especially in the winter months, whereas they had known that the small extra cost would make but little difference to Miss Bettany and Mademoiselle Lepattre. Karen had always been a little fearful about the consequences should they be caught, though. Having been dismissed from one job, she had known that she could not afford to be dismissed from another.
It was different now. The Gornetz Platz was so much more prosperous than 1930s Briesau had been. Now, if she made a little too much, it was usually only to give her an excuse to pay a visit to Anna. She had grown up with all the Pfeifens. Anna might be a few years her junior but once they had both outgrown childhood that had ceased to matter. She could talk to Anna about anything. She would tell Anna all that Frau Mieders had said, and Anna would understand.
Anna answered the door and beamed when she saw Karen standing there. “Come through to the kitchen,” she said. “I’ve only got Cecil with me: Rosli’s taken the older children and Bruno for a walk.”
Karen followed her friend into the kitchen, feeling better already. She didn’t know what she’d do without Anna. Pleasant though most of the other domestic staff at the school were, she’d never formed as close a friendship with any of them as she had with Anna. Perhaps it was because she didn’t have the shared history with them that she had with her old friend, nor even the bond that came from having the same background. Other than Gaudenz and his wife Lisa, they were all considerably younger than she was; and every one of them was Swiss born and bred, and all strictly Protestant as were the majority of people in this canton dominated by the city of Berne. She knew that sometimes they found her Tyrolean accent difficult to understand, and many a time when she unthinkingly used words of her own dialect she was greeted by nothing but a blank look in return. As for the teaching and administrative staff, they would no more consider socialising with her than she would with them. Thank goodness for Anna. The two of them would always be there for each other, in good times and in bad.
Cecil, whom Anna had left sitting securely in her high chair, crowed with delight when she saw Karen and lifted out her arms to be picked up. Karen placed her basket down, lifted the little girl out and sat down at the kitchen table with Cecil on her knee, whilst Anna filled two mugs with coffee and placed a few lemon biscuits on a plate.
“Is Frau Doktor Maynard not at home?” Karen asked. The house was unusually quiet.
“She’s upstairs, having a lie down,” Anna said. Seeing the look on Karen’s face, she hastily added “It’s just a headache!”
“I thought you were going to say something else then,” Karen laughed. “Cecil is ten months old now, isn’t she? I thought that perhaps the quads that everyone keeps being threatened with might be on the way!”
Anna shuddered. “Don’t even say such things! Rosli and I are hoping to have Cecil out of nappies before the Frau Doktor presents us with any more babies to look after. In fact, if she starts talking about having any more in the near future, I shall be helping myself to Herr Doktor Maynard’s sedatives and slipping them into his evening coffee to make sure that he falls asleep before they get chance to do anything about it!”
They both giggled.
“Having said which,” Anna added, “when she isn’t busy being “busy” she tends to acquire house guests, but at least they’re usually old enough not to need someone to watch them all the time.” She smiled wryly. “Little did I think that I would end up bringing up nine children without ever marrying!”
“You’re wonderful with the children,” Karen said wistfully, bouncing Cecil on her knee. Freudesheim was the only place where she felt able to indulge the softer side of her nature. The school’s failure to match the rising level of wages paid by the local hotels these days meant that its domestic section was severely understaffed. The school authorities were well aware of the problem, but their only effort towards resolving it had been to arrange for the pupils to clear the tables after meals, which did not exactly make a great difference in the general scheme of things. Under these circumstances, time was at such a premium that she just couldn’t afford for anyone to think she would tolerate any sort of slacking or timewasting; and, as a result, her temper tended to show itself rather more often than it would have done otherwise.
She smiled at Cecil. She adored babies. Once she’d had dreams of a family of her own, but when life had separated her from the man she’d loved it had denied her the chance to have children as well: she’d never wanted to marry anyone else. “Do you ever think about Tom, Anna?” she asked suddenly, thinking about the young man her friend had met during the school’s time in Armishire.
“Tom Evans?” Anna looked surprised. “Not really. Oh, he was a nice enough man, but when it came to it I couldn’t really see myself spending the rest of my life being married to him. What made you ask about Tom all of a sudden?” She took another lemon biscuit and looked at Karen with concern. “Is everything all right? You look a bit upset. Tell me what’s up.”
Karen bit her lip. “In April it will be the school’s twenty-first anniversary,” she said simply. “Frau Mieders tells me that the girls are to visit Briesau to mark the occasion. And that they are to stay at the Kron Prinz Karl.” She felt the tears starting to fall. What would Anneli and Miggi and Mechtilde and all the other maids she was responsible for keeping in order think if they could see her now - big jolly Karen, who ruled the kitchen with a rod of iron, crying on Anna’s shoulder?
“When the school was still at Briesau I learnt to live with seeing the hotel every day, and hearing everyone saying how wonderful Herr and Frau Braun were, but it was different then. Before the war I didn’t know where he was living, but at least I knew that he was living; but since the war came … oh Anna, every day I have to cope with not knowing even if he’s alive or dead. Never mind not knowing whether or not he’s married and has a family of his own: I don’t even know if he survived the war. I’ve never been brave enough to try to find out: I couldn’t face it. But now the girls are to stay at the hotel, and I understand that one of the groups is to be escorted by Frau Doktor Maynard who will surely ask the Brauns for news of their family. I couldn’t bear to find out whatever news there may be by accident, by overhearing snippets of gossip. I should have asked long ago but I could never bring myself to, but now … now I can’t go on any longer without knowing. There must be someone in Briesau who would know, or who could find out for me.”
“I could perhaps ask my mother, or my aunt, or one of my cousins,” Anna said doubtfully. “It might be easier for someone who works at the hotel to find out, though. I know that he and his parents weren’t on good terms but surely they must hear from him.”
“There is my cousin Madel,” Karen said thoughtfully. “She works in the kitchens at the Seehaus, but I think she knows some of the staff at the Kron Prinz Karl: the hotels sometimes hire each other’s staff for the evening if there’s a big function on. She doesn’t know the story – there are so few people who do - but maybe if I mentioned the school’s coming of age and said that it had made my wonder about my former employers and their family she wouldn’t think it strange that I should be asking about them.”
“Are you sure that this is a good idea?” Anna asked carefully. She knew Karen’s quick temper and didn’t want to upset her any more than she was already upset; but digging up the past so often did more harm than good. Bad news would only cause her friend bitter sorrow, and good news would only bring back memories of a time that surely couldn’t be recaptured.
Karen nodded. “My mind is made up. I will write to Madel and ask her to find out what she can.”
She drank the last of her coffee, finished her lemon biscuit and placed Cecil carefully back in the high chair. “Thank you for listening, Anna. Now, I’d better get back and finish sorting out the food for Abendessen. Luckily there are no domestic science classes today so I don’t have to worry about the meal being ruined by anything like sulphur in the cakes or garlic in the pies! Auf wiedersehen!”