Mrs Z at Vintage Bernina

I first met Mrs Z sometime around 1981, or maybe it was 82. She was the ‘needlework teacher’ at a large and boisterous co-ed school in Lancashire.
Walking down a corridor I opened a door for her. That small courtesy seemed to mean a lot and it was reported back to my father.
She was German, about 5 foot in her heels and she smoked cafe creme cigars. Her very deep and loud German voice could be heard at the furthest corner of even the longest corridor. And I’m pretty sure that the whole school – kids, staff, head and even the P.E. teacher were absolutely terrified of her. Despite her diminutive size, even the tallest and roughest of boy would stand aside as she marched imperiously through the school.
“Alahn, vonderful to see you again”. She’d say, and then, ‘How is your fahrter’. This of course always caused much merriment and even she would chuckle, which sounded a bit like the gurgling and chocking sound a toilet makes after it’s been flushed and starts to refill.
Mrs Z had a soft spot for my father, possibly because he was the only man she knew who could out-smoke her. Dad would smoke 80 – 100 Benson & Hedges cigarettes every day and then two or three pipe-fulls of St Bruno Rough Cut after dinner.
They don’t make them like him, or her, anymore.
She always wore a very smart Chanel or Christian Dior style suit and heavy brogues, the type with a strap and a thick 2 inch cutaway, or Cuban heel – you know the sort I mean. Also her stockings, I imagine they were silk, were usually the colour of Bisto gravy.
She was….magnificent.
In those days we used to collect the sewing machines from dozens of schools at the end of every July so we could service and repair them over the summer holidays. The teachers, meanwhile, would be sunning themselves in Torremolinos, or Bognor or at home on the gin & mogadon. In Mrs Z’s case it was St. Tropez – I imagined.
One day, at work, I was handed the telephone. My father took all the calls as I was considered too young to answer a telephone call from a customer – Good God, the very idea!
Anyway, the phone call was from Mrs Z and she explained that she was leaving well before the end of term to visit her sick mother in Germany and would I mind collecting her sewing machines in her absence, as usual. I said I would and hung up feeling quite sad that I wouldn’t see her until the new term began in September.

So it was that I arrived at the school one day in late July about 30 odd years ago. Term had ended and, as ever, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. I eventually found a cleaner polishing the parquet in the assembly hall. I explained I’d called to collect the sewing machines and was duly given directions to the staff room where I was assured I’d find the caretaker, and his team.
I knocked and then pushed open the door to the staff room and there before me were around seven or eight men sprawled over pushed-together chairs and tables – one chap was completely fast asleep. The rest were puffing away on fags, reading newspapers and drinking tea. Jimmy Young was waffling away on the radio. I spotted the oldest looking of the group and explained I’d called to collect the sewing machines, all 40 odd of them, for repair and service. One of the younger element advised me to, ahem, eff-off and a few of the others encouraged me to do the same. The older chap advised me to call back in September, they were all too busy and it would be better when the school re-opened, ‘for that kind of thing, son’. They all returned to puffing away, reading papers and slurping their tea.
‘OK’, I said. ‘I’ll call back in September’. ‘ But would you mind informing Mrs Z that I called as arranged and you sent me away’. A sounder of slumbering warthogs warming themselves in the late afternoon sun and catching sight of a hungry lion could not have jumped to their trotters quicker than the caretaker – and his team – at the mention of Mrs Z’s name. A fight almost broke out about who had the keys and I was soon chasing after the group as we raced down stairs, round corners, up stairs (why are there always so many bloody stairs!) and along corridors to reach Mrs Z’s room in record time. There was soon a chain of men stretching from the needlework classroom to my van outside, each man handing the other a sewing machine. I left with the caretakers best wishes and his best to Mrs Z.

© Alan Bamber 2016