School dinner time. When presenting these three words to many people, I am faced with screwed up faces, turned up noses and groans.With rotten memories of sloppy mashed potatoes, sloppy cabbage and even sloppier custard, it seems to me that the most bitter of memories about school dinners relate to the taste and consistency of the food rather than the actual lunchtime experience.Up until my high school years school dinners were, for me, a pleasant experience. These involved the most wonderful roast potatoes I have ever experienced. In fact, I often stayed behind after lunchtime to sweep the dining room hall in order to relieve the dinner ladies of any leftovers. Not only was my school dinner time a delightful culinary experience, it was an orderly and fun social experience thanks to the notorious Mrs Hutchinson aka Mrs H to the kids.
“Se-con-ds”, her voice would echo across the dining hall, “Stand in a line now, no pushing.”
Those roast potatoes were worth standing as rigid as a board and in an orderly line for.Myself and my peers knew what was at stake should we defy Mrs H – those fluffy white potatoes nestled inside a crispy golden oily shell and coated in salt. Golden crispy joy. Primary school for me was like a little community where everyone got on. In fact, Hopefield primary school was at the time the crème de la crème of new open plan schooling. There was no social stigmatisation of the kids receiving free school meals because their parents were on benefits, we just stood in a separate line with our orange cardboard tickets.
“Orange tickets first”, Mrs H would insist. Who would have thought that benefit children would be the top of the EAT FIRST hierarchy of primary school dinners. Perhaps that was just the way it was, or perhaps it was a fingers up to Margaret Thatcher and her cut backs to free school meal entitlement.
Secondary school was a whole new and alien experience for me. I have one memory and one memory only of high school dinners, this was due to the fact that I only went to the school cafeteria once. It blew my mind. There I was, armed with my free school meal ticket, cream I think it was, and no idea what to do. There was children everywhere, no order and no Mrs H to keep us organised. There was a long shiny silver counter with container upon container of reddish coloured food that all looked overcooked. The tops of the containers were an even darker red. Everything looked thick and lumpy, and the smell… After being growled at and bumped forward along the front of the counter I ran out of choice, my last option was chips, limp and under-cooked oven chips that stuck in your throat after swallowing. Unlike Hopefield Primary school, they weren’t even salted. I ate my chips with my fingers because once I had sat down, I was too embarrassed to get back up for cutlery. I felt every eye on me as I stared at my plate willing the chips to disappear.
“I cannae eat in that place, the food’s boggin,” I moaned at my Mum on my return home from school.
“It cannae be that bad, yer sister ate there for four years afore you started.”
I got my own way though and didn’t go back. Therefore, from my second day at secondary school, I either went home for lunch, or to Aunty Nan’s, more often the latter as Mum was more likely to make it on time for me if I was there. My memories of lunch time at Aunty Nan’s are strange because my memories are in sepia. I can’t remember John or Marion being there or Debbie but I’m sure they were at some point, Christine was likely behind the meat counter in Templetons. Without a doubt though,when I arrived at Nan’s, there, sitting on Uncle Ronald’s armchair to the left of the gas fire was Papa Chic. Dressed as usual in his suit trousers and sky blue viscose polo neck jumper he would be engrossed in The Sullivan’s.
He would look up and grunt something or other but his eyes would wander back to the TV which sat diagonally across from him in the corner of the room. I would sit opposite looking away from the TV show that seemed too old fashioned for my taste, I was a neighbours kind of girl who incidentally was having serious crushes on both Scott Robinson and Charlene at the time but that is another story and I am regressing. Facing me was a brown unit filled with family photo’s.
“Do you want a drink of Cremola Foam Kurst?” I remember Aunty Nan wandering into the living-room from the kitchen.
“Aye, what kind is it?”
“Raspberry, yer Ma will be here the noo, she went to Crawfords to get you chips and a pie.”
Aunty Nan always made my juice extra strong with a nice big foam head on top that still swirled around and around when I put it too my lips.
“Hows yer second day at the high school gon hen?”
“Alright, a hink it’ll be alright,” I loved Aunty Nan, she was older than Mum with short curly hair and friendly eyes, she always smiled showing her false teeth and was renowned for her giant belches, I guess I took that trait of her.
Mum would wander in ten minutes late with four carrier bags from Templeton’s and a bag from Crawford’s.
“Hiya doll, ye been here long? Sorry am late, a bumped into Jean fi Clan House who wis sayin yer new blazer will be in next week, then I had tae stand fir oors in a queue at Crawfords ’cause the chips wurnae ready, Gee yer wee ma a kiss.”
I was given two steaming white paper bags, one contained a pie, the best Scotch pie ever invented, crispy and soft with a soft meaty filling that had a little kick, the pie had barely any grease pouring out when you bit into it. The chips came in a cone shaped cardboard container and were fat and soggy with vinegar. They were so good you had to suck the paper afterwards.
Mum and Nan rarely left the kitchen, they busied themselves chatting and drinking tea while surrounded with plume of cigarette smoke and Nan expertly twiddled the knob on the pressure cooker that hissed and released the smell of boiled rabbit.
“Hiv ye been tae the store tae piy yer club?”
“Naw, I hud to gi ma last fiver tae Grannie Cairns, Wiz due her fi last week.”
Fragments of conversation drifted through with the fag reek.
Papa got up and put on his suit jacket to the theme tune of The Sullivans.
“Were ye gone Da?” Mum asked.
“Tae the Chase tae see Gordon, cheerio hen,” her ruffled my hair.
“See ye later Papa.”
Neighbours would be starting as I got my school bag, I would hesitate to watch Charlene step through a window, it was only then I would head out the back door.
“Aye, seeyelater hen.”
“I’ll walk roond tae the vennel wi Kurst, I need tae nip to Buchanan’s for fags then get up the road,”Mum lit another cigarette and lifted her Templeton’s shopping bags, “I’ll meet you later Nan, at the top o the coal road.”
It was only an hour but not long enough.