Authors: Bethan Roberts
|The Good Plain Cook|
|Profile Books (2008)|
When local girl Kitty Allen answers an advertisement looking for a "good plain cook," she has no idea what she's getting herself into. As the temperature rises through the long, hot summer, the dream begins to fall apart.
Loosely based on a summer in the life of Peggy Guggenheim,
The Good Plain Cook
is beautifully written, gently funny, and genuinely touching.
lives in Brighton in the south of England. Her debut novel
was critically acclaimed.
Bethan Roberts was born in Oxford and brought up in nearby Abingdon. She has MAs from Sussex and Chichester universities and teaches creative writing at Chichester and for the Open University. Roberts was awarded a Jerwood/Arvon Young Writers' Prize for her debut novel, The Pools.
was born in Oxford and brought up in nearby Abingdon. She has MAs from Sussex and Chichester universities and teaches creative
writing at Chichester and for the Open University. She was awarded a Jerwood/ Arvon Young Writers’ Prize for
The Good Plain
is her second novel.
The Good Plain Cook
‘Delicious… Gorgeously written, full of teasing observations about love, class and cookery’ Kate Saunders,
‘Vividly drawn and affecting… fine touches of subtlety and humour’ Sophie Davies,
‘Roberts judiciously balances Ellen’s delicious outré flamboyance with a beautifully observed portrait of her tolerant, bemused
cook. Roberts has said it was her intention to “put the below-stairs girl centre stage”. She has succeeded admirably’ Eithne
‘A subtly witty study of class tensions and general human folly… Roberts writes an understated, suggestive prose that achieves
maximum comic impact with deceptively slight materials… One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the way in which the surface
comedy is underpinned by a darker narrative seam’ Elizabeth Lowry,
‘One of this summer’s purest pleasures… Bethan Roberts is a clever, confident young writer who enjoys herself hugely, producing
a perfectly proportioned story of love, inadequate cooking, cultural confusion and complex characters in domestic difficulties’
‘Excellent... Has plenty to say about sex and class and says it with subtle wit and concision’ John O’Connell,
Books of the Year
‘A complex anatomy of a murder,
brilliantly evokes the sickening recognition of a wasteful death. Bethan Roberts is a fearless writer whose first novel raises
questions about fate and responsibility that remain with the reader long after the last page has been turned. A compelling
debut’ Louise Welsh
‘A wonderfully self-assured debut… There is a forbidding feeling throughout the novel – an almost audible hum of misgiving
coming off the pages. Superb’ Ruth Atkins, Booksellers’ Choice,
‘An unsettling and disturbing tale of awakening sexuality and predatory parents’ Patricia Duncker
Turn for Bethan Roberts’ account of researching
The Good Plain Cook
, on being published for the first time, and for the two opening chapters of her critically acclaimed debut novel,
... The Good Plain Cook ...
First published in Great Britain in 2008 by
an imprint of Profile Books Ltd
3A Exmouth House
London EC1R 0JH
This eBook edition first published in 2009
Copyright © Bethan Roberts, 2008
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, dead or alive, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Designed and typeset by Sue Lamble
This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced,
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strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised
distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s
and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
For the good, lovely Hugh and in memory of Evelyn Dix
Surely there could be no more fitting medium of individual expression for women than fashioning something of loveliness.
The Big Book of Needlecraft (c.1935)
– Good plain cook to perform domestic duties
for artistic household. Room and board included. Broad
outlook essential. Apply Mrs E. Steinberg, Willow Cottage,
It was the third time since breakfast that Kitty had read the notice she’d cut from the
Hants and Sussex Herald
. Folding the slip of paper back into the pocket of her raincoat, which she’d belted tightly because her waist – as her sister
Lou often pointed out – was her best feature, she walked along the slippery grass verge towards her interview at Willow Cottage.
Beneath her blue beret, the ends of her hair were beginning to kink in the mist of spring drizzle.
Lou had told her that the cottage was now in the ownership of an American woman, and that she lived with a man who was, apparently,
a poet – not that you’d think it to look at him; he was quite young, and didn’t have a beard. No one was sure if the poet
was the American woman’s husband or not. ‘No one else will answer that advert, knowing who
is,’ Lou had said. ‘And I’ll bet they want one person to do it all: cooking and skivvying both.’ But Kitty had had enough
of living with her sister, despite all the modern comforts laid on at 60 Woodbury Avenue, and so she’d written, not mentioning
that she’d no experience as a cook. At the last minute, she’d added the words,
I have a
She turned into the lane which led to the gravel driveway. The cottage was just off the main road out of Harting and was the
largest in the village. Through the dripping beech hedge, she caught glimpses of the place. It was red brick, and had exposed
beams, like many in the village, but the front door was crimson, with a long stained-glass panel of all colours, much brighter
and swirlier than anything Kitty had seen in church, and obviously new. There was a large garage at the end of the drive,
from which a loud
noise was coming. Kitty recognised the sound: there’d been an electricity generator at the Macklows’ too, where she’d worked
as a kitchen maid after leaving school.
As she approached the house, Kitty noticed a woman’s round-toed shoe on the front lawn, its high heel skewed in the mud. Bending
down, she tugged it free. It was quite large for a woman’s shoe, and the sole was shiny with wear. The inside was soft cream
leather, the outside brilliant green and scuffed. She tapped it on the stones to remove some of the mud, then walked around
to the back of the house.
Squinting through the rain, Kitty could see a stream and a line of willow trees at the end of the garden, before which was
some kind of building that looked like a tiny house. Plants seemed to be everywhere, spilling over the paths without any apparent
order; the large lawn needed a cut. Amongst the daffodils, Kitty caught a glimpse of a woman’s rain-streaked backside, sculpted
She adjusted her beret, tried to comb out the ends of her hair with her fingers, and knocked at the back door.
Immediately there was a series of high yaps, and when the door opened, a little grey dog with large ears, a straggly beard
and black eyes jumped at Kitty’s legs. Kitty stooped to scratch its head. When she was very young, her father had owned a
docile Jack Russell, who’d never minded the sisters dressing him up in bonnet and bootees. The grey dog caught hold of Kitty’s
cuff and gently licked the rain from its edge.
‘Don’t mind Blotto, he gets excited with strangers.’ A tall girl of about twelve stood in the doorway, chewing a piece of
her long blonde hair. ‘Who are you and why didn’t you knock on the front door?’
Kitty straightened up and held the shoe behind her back, suddenly worried that the girl would think she was stealing. The
rain was coming down harder and she hadn’t brought her umbrella. Her beret must look flat and ridiculous by now, like a wet
lily pad on her head.
‘I’ve come about the position, Miss.’
‘Is your mother – is Madam in?’
‘Madam – Mrs Steinberg, Miss.’
The girl frowned and chewed. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, not letting the strand of hair drop from her mouth. ‘What have you
got behind your back?’
Kitty glanced down at the girl’s dirty knees. She was wearing a very short and ill-fitting tulle skirt with an orange cardigan.
‘I found it on the front lawn, Miss.’ Kitty held the shoe out to the girl, who shrugged.
‘That’s been there for ages,’ she said.
Kitty let her arm drop. ‘Have I come to the right place?’
don’t know.’ The girl bent down and scooped up the dog, which buried itself in her hair and began licking her ear.
‘There was a notice, in the
. For a plain cook, Miss.’
Rain was dripping into Kitty’s collar now. She tried to see into the kitchen, but the girl shifted and blocked Kitty’s view.
‘Ellen never said anything to me.’
‘Perhaps I’d better be going.’
The girl stared at Kitty for a moment. Her eyes were startlingly blue.
‘But then, she never tells us anything, does she, Blotto?’ She kissed the dog on his nose and was licked right up her forehead.
‘My name’s Regina, but that’s horrible so everyone calls me Geenie, and this is Blotto, he’s a miniature schnauzer, which
is a very good breed of dog.’
‘I think I’ve made a mistake.’
She’d be dripping all the way back on the bus by the time it came.
‘Geenie! Who’s there?’
‘She won’t tell me her name and she’s got your shoe.’
A tall woman came to the door. She was wearing an embroidered red jacket and wide-legged mauve slacks. Her hair waved above
her high forehead and was the colour of brown bread. She wore no jewellery. Her nose was huge; the end of it looked like a
large radish. She blinked at Kitty.
‘What’s your name, please?’
‘Allen, Madam, Kate – Kitty – Allen. I’ve come about…’
The woman stuck out a hand and Kitty met it with the shoe.
‘It’s been on the lawn for ages,’ said Geenie. ‘I wear it when I’m being Dietrich.’
The woman ignored this. ‘Is it Kate or Kitty?’
At the Macklows’ she’d been plain ‘Allen’.
‘Kitty, Madam, please.’
‘I’m Ellen Steinberg. Do come in. You could have used the front door, you know, this isn’t London, and it’s only a cottage.’
‘Get out of the way, Geenie, and let the girl through.’
Geenie ducked under Mrs Steinberg’s arm and fled, taking the dog with her.
‘You’ll have to excuse my daughter. I’m afraid she’s always been highly strung.’
Kitty followed the woman into the cottage, still gripping the sodden shoe in one hand.
. . . .
There was no fire in the sitting-room grate. Ashes floated in the air as Mrs Steinberg walked past the enormous fireplace,
dropped into a velvet armchair, and drew a fur rug across her knees. ‘Take a seat, please, Kitty.’
Kitty sat on the sofa, which was covered in a tapestry-like fabric, threaded with gold. She thought about putting the shoe
on the floor, but changed her mind and folded her hands around it in her lap. Then she looked up and noticed, above the armchair
where Mrs Steinberg was sitting, a hole in the wall. It was as big as the woman’s head, and its edges were ragged.
Mrs Steinberg twisted around and looked at the hole too, but said nothing.
Kitty let her eyes wander over the rest of the room. The walls were all white, except for one which was covered in wooden
racks filled with records. The floorboards were bare, apart from a red rug in front of the hearth. The curtains were pink
and green chintz, lined with purple satin. On the mantelpiece was a large bunch of irises and daffodils, stuffed into a blue
ceramic jug. The flowers were interspersed with long blades of grass.
‘Mr Crane loves grass,’ said Mrs Steinberg.
Kitty dropped her eyes.
‘He says the grass of Sussex is the best in the world. He’s worked wonders with this place; it’s really all his doing. He’s
an absolute whiz with interiors. We’re both very keen on modernisation. But it’s still damned icy, don’t you think? And the
rooms are ridiculously small.’
The woman’s voice was strange – not as American as Kitty had imagined, and high-pitched, like a girl’s. Kitty shifted her
feet. Mrs Steinberg had hung her raincoat and hat to dry in the kitchen, but her shoes were soaked.
electricity, Kitty! A very recent addition out here in the wilderness. So it will be easy for you – in the kitchen. And music.
We’ve got plenty of music. I hope you like music?’
‘Yes, Madam,’ said Kitty, wondering what music had to do with anything.
‘Excellent. Geenie’s never been musical and Mr Crane is hopeless. He thinks brass bands are a good thing! So, you see, I need
an ally.’ She adjusted the fur rug and stretched out her feet. Her shoes were made of a soft material, gathered in a visible
seam around the sole; to Kitty, they looked like a pair of man’s slippers.
‘Every woman needs an ally in the house, don’t you think? It’s no good just having men and children. You must have dogs, too,
and other women.’
Kitty plucked at her skirt. She’d worn her best – blue boiled wool with a pleat at the side – and now it had a damp patch
on the front from the wet shoe.
‘How old are you, Kitty?’
Mrs Steinberg frowned. Kitty wasn’t sure if she was too young, or too old, for the job. At the Macklows’, all the girls had
complained about this problem: when you were young they didn’t want you because you’d no experience, but as you got older
they were reluctant to promote you for fear you’d go off and get married.
‘And what was it you did before?’
‘I’m a cleaner in the school, Madam, at the moment. But before that I did a bit of cooking for a lady in Petersfield.’ In
reality, she’d scrubbed the zinc, laid out the cook’s knives, and fetched, cleaned or carried anything she was told.
‘Are the schools here awful? The ones in London were really dreadful. Geenie was very unhappy in all of them. The English
seem to believe children can learn only through punishment.’
Kitty thought of her school, of the hours spent copying words and numbers from a blackboard, the dust that gathered in the
grooves of her desk, the teacher who used to pick the boys up by their collars and shake them. ‘I – wouldn’t like to say,
‘Can you brush hair?’
‘Because Geenie’s hair needs a lot of brushing and although I don’t expect you to be her nanny there will be times when I
may need help—’
‘Oh.’ Kitty grasped her knees. ‘I hadn’t realised…’
‘Our old nanny, Dora, left us recently. Geenie was far too attached to her, so in the end it was all to the good.’
Mrs Steinberg fixed Kitty with her grey eyes, which seemed to be smiling, even though her mouth was not. ‘So. Tell me. What
can you do?’
Kitty wanted to ask about the times when Mrs Steinberg would need help with the girl, but she’d been rehearsing her answer
to this question, so she replied, ‘I’m schooled in domestic science.’
It was what Lou had told her to say, insisting it had enough meaning without having too much. She’d read about it in one of
‘Whatever does that mean?’
A sharp heat rose up Kitty’s neck. Her mouth jumped into a smile, as it always did when she was nervous.
Mrs Steinberg laughed. ‘Do you mean you can cook and clean?’
Kitty nodded, but couldn’t seem to find enough breath for words. Her feet were numb with cold now, and she was beginning to
feel awfully hungry.
Mrs Steinberg waved a hand in the air. ‘So what can you cook?’
Kitty had prepared an answer to this as well. She’d always cooked for Mother, and had seen enough, she felt, in the year she’d
spent in the Macklow house to know what the job was. The most important thing seemed to be always to have a stockpot on the
‘Meat and vegetables both, Madam. Savouries and sweets.’
Mrs Steinberg seemed to be waiting for more.
‘I can do meat cakes, beef olives, faggots… And castle pudding, bread and butter pudding, and all of that, puddings are what
I do best, Madam.’ She could eat some bread and butter pudding now, with cold custard on it.
Mrs Steinberg’s face was blank. ‘Anything else?’
Perhaps they were vegetarians. Lou’s husband Bob said that some of these bohemians were. ‘Fruit fritters… and,
‘Nothing more… continental, Kitty?’ um…’
‘I can do cheese puffs, Madam.’
Mrs Steinberg laughed. ‘Well. Never mind. I hope you won’t mind doing some housework, too. I’m not very fussy about it, but
there’ll be a bit of sweeping and dusting now and then, keeping the place looking generally presentable.’ She twisted round
in her seat and looked again at the hole above her head. ‘It will be easier for you when Mr Crane and Arthur have finished
knocking these two rooms together, of course. One large, light, all-purpose room, that’s what we want. I don’t believe in
, do you?’