By Zoe Fowler
Mount Morris Park West, New York City, 1908.
A bundle of pale bronze onions, a bunch of emerald parsley, a brown paper bag spilling bright green peas, two gnarled winter carrots almost as thick as a baby’s arm and, sitting there on a plate as though roosting on a nest of eggs, a large feathered chicken with her broken neck dangling drunkenly to one side of her body. Mrs. Flaherty had not brought these things into her kitchen and, now they were here, she wanted nothing to do with them.
It was the English girl’s fault. None of the other servants had ever made a fuss about Mrs. Flaherty’s cooking – they had all come and gone and the only one remaining was what slanty-eyed moon-faced Russian wench and Anya couldn’t use the English language well enough to ruffle Mrs. Flaherty’s feathers. There had been one time, Mrs. Flaherty remembered – perhaps six years ago, around the beginning of this new century – when Anya complained about something on her plate. That time, Mrs. Flaherty had put her hands on her hips, looked the girl straight in the eyes, and asked why the Russkis had so much trouble understanding healthy eating when everyone else in the world understood there were few foods as beneficial to the human constitution as the nitrogeneous proteids found in canned pork and beans. Anya had given that slight frown she made when she was struggling to understand the words of God’s own language, and Mrs. Flaherty had concluded her argument with a flourish: if the merits of canned pork and beans had not yet reached the deepest, darkest shores of Russia, she said, perhaps Anya ought to hurry home in person to tell them. After that there had been a six year long period of peace where no-one questioned Mrs. Flaherty’s cooking. Sure, there was work to be done in buying the tins and the packets, and heating up their contents and whatnot, but things had run smoothly until this young English whipper-snapper arrived in the house with her busy mouth and her face like a fallen soufflé.
First, the girl asked if the boy’s diet might be changed to include food he enjoyed.
“Enjoy?” said Mrs. Flaherty. “You’re expecting me to break my back slaving over a stove so that a boy who has only just learned to piss in a pot might enjoy his food?”
Susanna stood placidly in the kitchen doorway. “He doesn’t like the food you make,” she said, and Mrs. Flaherty had sniffed loudly.
“I haven’t the time to be worrying about what that laddy likes when I have a kitchen to run singlehandedly.” She had snatched a dish cloth from the side of the stove and begun swiping at the worktops. When Susanna left the room, Mrs. Flaherty claimed that first victory as her own.
A few nights later, the sasanach reappeared, asking if Oliver might have something different for his supper. Something different! As though Mrs. Flaherty was running a five star hotel with individualized menus for each and every guest. She folded the corner of the page in her magazine, laid it down beside her chair, drank the last mouthful of her cup of tea and then said, in the slow tone of voice she reserved for idiots, imbeciles and Russians, that the boy needed to be fed bland foods in the evening because they were scientifically proven – scientifically proven, mind – to dampen the animalistic instincts which might otherwise disturb a young boy’s sleep. The governess blushed and murmured that the boy was surely too young for such things, but Mrs. Flaherty continued: had Susanna thought to thank her, she asked, for the moral goodness of the food? For the fact that her careful choices of diet and menu reduced the number of sheets the governess needed to launder each week? Susanna’s damaged right cheek glowed a darker shade of red, and Mrs. Flaherty waited for her to leave the room in embarrassment. But instead, the English girl turned to face Mrs. Flaherty and suggested the cook might want to experiment with foods which not only had scientific benefits but which also tasted good.
“Am I not having enough work to do without bending over backwards to suit the boy’s every whim?” Mrs. Flaherty raised her voice to a volume which would have frightened a lesser opponent, but Susanna did not flinch. She waited until the cook paused for breath, and then said, quietly, that she did not think the boy should be fed on gruel.
“Not just gruel! Not any old gruel!” shouted Mrs. Flaherty. She wrenched open the cupboard doors and hurled packet after packet of Graham crackers across the room. The governess did not flinch when a packet skimmed past her left ear and hit the wall behind her.
“I make Cracker gruel,” shouted Mrs. Flaherty. “Not the kind of stuff you English serve your paupers. First, I carefully moisten the Graham cracker crumbs with freshly boiled water, then I add just a sprinkle of salt. Susanna, even you cannot be ignorant of the nutritious value of Graham crackers.”
Something had frozen in the girl’s face, something hard as ice. “They are tasteless, Mrs. Flaherty,” she said.
“Tasteless!” Mrs. Flaherty’s heart danced a rapid jig in her chest and she collapsed back in her chair. “Tasteless? But I add margarine when I serve them.”
In fairness, neither side could claim a clear victory from that particular evening’s skirmish: it took nearly an hour for Mrs. Flaherty to scoop the spilled crackers back into the packets and to sweep up the crumbs, and, in a small act of rebellion while waiting for the next battle to begin, she began to omit the margarine from Oliver’s cracker gruel.
However, Mrs. Flaherty was sure she would win in the long run, and was, therefore, unsurprised when the girl had appeared in her kitchen that morning, apparently willing to concede defeat.
Susanna had made a cup of tea, added three sugar lumps, stirred it twice and handed it to Mrs. Flaherty before asking, very politely, if she and Oliver might help with the shopping for that day’s groceries. They would be walking through the shops and the local market anyway, said the girl, and their arms were young and strong. Mrs. Flaherty had grunted; thinking. In addition, the girl continued, it might be a useful learning experience for the boy: he could practice his manners and count out the money. Careful to express no enthusiasm, Mrs. Flaherty nodded slightly. Yes, they could help, she agreed, but she would give them a list of what she needed and they should only buy exactly what was on the list.
Shredded Whole Wheat – one box; Nestle Condensed Milk – two cans; tomato sauce – two cans; Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce – one bottle; one dozen eggs from the man with one eye on the corner of 122nd; a quarter pound of beef suet and two pairs of pig’s trotters from the second butcher shop on the left hand side after the El station; a quart of milk; two packets of Grahams Crackers; three cans of pork and beans and a small bar of Hershey’s Chocolate, which would be for the sole use of Mrs. Flaherty.
She had written the list in italics, with every i dotted and every t crossed – she would not have an English girl thinking she was unable to read and write! – and yet, here they now were and her kitchen table was piled high with things that should either have been left in someone else’s cellar or in the poultry house where they belonged.
“I dropped the list,” explained Susanna.
“While I was chasing dragons,” said the boy.
“And we tried to find it,” said Susanna.
“I chased it,” said the boy, “but the wind got it and it went under a motor car and came out the other side, but then a horse poo…”
“And we couldn’t get it back,” interrupted Susanna, and demurely lowered her eyes.
In any war there were many battles, and this did not mean Mrs. Flaherty had lost, but she eyed her kitchen table with suspicion. “What exactly are you expecting me to do with this little lot?”
“Mrs. Flaherty,” said the governess gently, “perhaps you would like a seat here, by the door, in the breeze. And here, put your feet up on this stool. Why don’t you advise us?”
“You could tell us what to do,” said the boy, “Like a colonel or a big chief… more like a big chief, really. A really big…”
The boy grinned at Susanna’s warning and the governess glared sharply at him before turning back towards Mrs. Flaherty. Her voice was respectful. “Now, Mrs. Flaherty, what would you like us to do first?”
Kate Flaherty had been cooking since she was ten years old. As a child little older than Oliver she had stood at a large pine table, not all that different from the one here, and learned to coax fluted pastry crusts from globs of lard and handfuls of flour. She’d tamed twists of dough with soft childish hands and put them to prove behind a large peat-fuelled stove far trickier to manage than this New York range. Before her breasts began to push like ripened fruit against her apron’s starched white front, she could strip a potato so its bald white body plopped into a pan by her side while the muddied coil of its skin landed neatly in a bucket at her feet. Thirty years and the noise of stripping a potato and dropping its skin into a bucket was the same: only her body had changed. Mrs. Flaherty was no longer a wee slip of a girl. She had grown, she knew, into a fine, fine figure of a woman; a little full around the middle, perhaps, but she had had no complaints.
Perhaps she would still have been cooking in that big house, midway between her Irish village and the next, if the Earl of Lorcan had not seduced her with soft words, warm hands and beads of whisky-scented sweat among the pantry’s kilner jars and copper pots. She had knelt in the cold confessional and smiled, recalling every detail, and she had refused to show any shame in the face of her parents’ rage and sorrow. Not long afterwards, Lady Lorcan arranged Kate’s passage to America on an old-fashioned sailing ship which bumped westwards towards the New York home of Lady Lorcan’s brother, whose kitchen was slightly smaller than the Earl of Lorcan’s Irish home, and whose hands were slightly colder.
Kate had always been a quick learner: within six months of setting foot on New York soil, she could fillet each of the types of fish that made their way from the quayside to the kitchen. In a house on Fifth Avenue, she learnt the arts of coaxing soufflés to rise, remoulades to set, and how to introduce a subtle feminine whisper into a consommé Demidoff. She could make a prime rib of beef au jus salute a Choux d’Hamburg with the confidence of a German officer. In a family home on Park Avenue, Kate learned to grind corn and serve it in steaming breads the color of butter, Indian puddings rich with cinnamon and nutmeg, fragrant stuffings which she crammed into trussed chickens, capons, turkeys and strange birds for which she had no names. And the city taught her other things too: she learnt for how long she might return a gentleman’s gaze before allowing her eyes to demurely drop, how lightly her fingers might brush a shop keeper’s hand to secure the best cuts of the meat, how to capture and hold the glances of the men in each house where she worked, and how brightly her smile would need to shine during the interviews for her next job and the next and the next.
She’d had a fair run of luck, so she had, until a morning six years ago when she had risen to find the world a less rewarding place. Thirty-eight years old and out of work since the night before, and every sign telling her that the times were a-changing: that morning six years ago, she had pulled three gray hairs from her head and the handsome boy selling that day’s copy of the New York Times had flinched when she let her arm brush against his own. The advertisements for cooking positions with families who did not already know the rumors surrounding her name were few. Mrs. Hambleton, already old and dressed in lightly worn widow’s weeds, interviewed Kate in a dining room crammed with furniture. There was a long, awkward pause while Mrs. Hambleton pressed a lace handkerchief lightly to her eyes and explained she lived alone and modestly with her daughter and grandchild. Kate responded with tears of her own and conjured a story about a recently deceased husband and a fall upon hard times. The story and the tears together were enough to gain Mrs. Flaherty the job she had held ever since. No-one called her Kate anymore: it had been time to settle down.
And it had been an easy life until Susanna appeared: Mrs. Hambleton lived frugally, disliked fancy dishes, and didn’t notice whether food was shop-bought or home-made. There was no longer any need for Mrs. Flaherty to sweat and wrestle over a batch of fresh loaves when bread could be bought for a few pence on Madison Avenue, and she did not need to spend time carefully filleting sides of beef and peeling potatoes when meat could be bought ready minced and vegetables were to be found in tins. The city was a marvellous place, so it was, and she for one intended to make use of each and every one of the modern conveniences designed to save her from unnecessary labor.
But the vegetables and the chicken, fresh dead, were there now so from her chair by the open door, Mrs. Flaherty taught Oliver to peel potatoes and the girl did a serviceable job at chopping the head from the hen, plucking its feathers, and placing it in a roasting dish. Soon the kitchen was filled with smells which took Mrs. Flaherty back to the houses she had known.
Because Mrs. Hambleton was not well enough to dine, Mrs. Flaherty, Susanna and Oliver, Anya and her enormous Liverpudlian friend Carrie, ate together at the kitchen table. The chicken was moist, the vegetables well-cooked, and Oliver took great pride in explaining his crucial role in peeling and mashing the potatoes. Although reluctant to admit it to anyone other than herself, there were moments when Mrs. Flaherty enjoyed the meal. The giantess talked easily about her grandmother’s family, who had come to Liverpool from an Irish village not far from where Kate had once lived, and Anya smiled and smiled and did not trouble them all with her attempts at speaking English. The boy cleared his plate and asked for second helpings and, without saying as much, Mrs. Flaherty allowed that Susanna might have gained the upper hand. Just this once, though, just this once.
Zoe Fowler is a historical sleuth, most frequently found in obscure corners of libraries searching out treasures among the dust and cobwebs. Most recently, she read the directories for New York City for the first 8 years of the twentieth century and a collection of tourist guides published during that era. This all provides detail and flavor to her novel, Frogsbone.
After a career in academia, Zoe is relatively new to fiction writing. She has been published in See the Elephant, attended Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015, and was recently awarded a scholarship to attend the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing.