She was a formidable figure, po-faced and dour; she blocked the entrance with her short, square frame; hands on hips. There was an almost palpable ‘don’t mess with me’ aura hanging in the ether. Through the office window I observed the new student Debs, as she evaluated the risk from a safe distance. She turned tail and backed off. I had to smile. I’d been there too, once!
Olga was on duty and they were late! Olga didn’t like lateness. She had no time for inefficiency; not that she said so, in fact Olga never said anything. In the years that I knew of her, she had never uttered a word.
Olga’s countenance lightened, albeit ever so slightly, as the dinner waggon rumbled along the corridor: “Sorry its late luv,” said the porter. He knew the rules. Olga stepped aside and allowed him to turn into the kitchen. The student, apparently thinking ‘strength in numbers,’ bravely tried to follow suite. Not a good idea, as no doubt she realised when the full force of Olga’s mighty muscle swung her around and shoved her back out: “New here luv?” asked the porter with a wide grin.
Olga was an enigma! Not much was known about her past. It was believed she was Russian and spoke no English. Why and when she was admitted to this huge old institution, unkindly known as the Mental Hospital or Lunatic Asylum, remains a mystery.
As for those who became too ill, too long ago to be sent home; for those who no longer had a home to go to; for these people, this WAS home!
Olga was most at home in HER kitchen! Olga knew the rules! Students DO NOT serve meals from the trolley. Qualified staff members DO serve meals! There was no shilly-shallying to cut corners. The trays were set on the work surface and Olga was standing by. She knew who had special dietary requirements; there was no room for error.
When the meal was over each person cleared dirty pots onto a trolley and scraped waste into a red bucket. Olga pushed the trolley into the kitchen; the slop bucket was left behind. The poor little student was far too eager to be helpful: “Olga, you’ve forgotten something sweetie,” she said, carrying the bucket into the kitchen. Olga turned, and in one co-ordinated movement, snatched the bucket, spun Debs around and frogmarched her out. She returned the bucket to where she’d left it!
After a while Sydney, a tall and incredibly lean, grey haired man began to lurk around the edges of the dining area. With a hand seemingly keeping one ear warm and another supporting the elbow, he scanned the area for the enemy. The coast was clear; he took the bucket into a corner and feasted on its contents.
Not until Olga’s kitchen sink was scrubbed and fettled, with tea pots and crockery set out for morning, did she retire to her room. Debs was bemused and bewildered. Her training syllabus didn’t mention being subservient to the ‘Kitchen Queen’ and feeding pigswill to patients: “Stick with it,” I told her. “Try to get the feel of the place. It’ll restore your faith in human nature!”
Sunday mornings were a special treat. In the main kitchen a traditional English breakfast of bacon and eggs with fried bread and tomato was cooked. Sunday’s waste was minimal! I called Debs to hang around and observe discretely. She watched as Olga took the bucket into the kitchen and opened up the breakfast waggon. A generous helping of bacon had been put on one side and kept warm. Olga emptied this into the bucket, adding buttered toast and returned it to the dining area.
Debs watched agog as Sydney went through his surveillance routine before scoffing his fry up at great speed.
“Sydney is a concentration camp survivor,” I explained. “After the war, no-one quite knows what happened to him. He was admitted here after being found in a dilapidated state, surviving on the spoils of rubbish bins.” I saw the tears coming. “Now what’s the best thing to do? Should we force Olga out of the kitchen and watch a distressed Sydney starve? Or should we learn from Olga, that sometimes, rules can be bent slightly to be replaced with a little bit of sensitivity and compassion?” She didn’t need to answer!
“Debs,” I said. “It takes the right kind of person to work here. YOU are going to be ok!”
*Based on a factual experience.
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