The communal hall was almost deserted by then. Only the cleaners were about cleaning the tables and mopping the floor after the breakfast horde had finished the morning pillage. They had left for lectures, mostly, while a handful Martians had returned to their respective rooms to continue their “martianing”. Only one, duty bound, meandered into the communal dining hall toward the delivery area behind the kitchen.
She made some mental notes on the general conditions in the kitchen and store, paying particular attention to the cleanliness of the cooking utensils, cutlery, plates, cups and saucers. The floor had been washed and mopped with detergent and disinfectant. Good. She greeted those kitchen staff busy slicing, chopping and dicing away in preparation for lunch. They smiled and nodded in return. They were in clean uniform. Good. Sanitary and hygiene were uncompromising hard wired into her mind. No diarrhea or food poisoning on her watch. She did not want the decades of spotless history to be tainted by her laxity.
The deliveryman was already waiting impatiently beside the day’s grocery. He had unloaded them earlier beside the weighing machine. He was smoking forgetfully lost in his distant dream, gazing unseeingly afar. Her footsteps awoke him. He quickly stubbed out the cigarette and tried frantically to wave away the blue smoke hugging him. She gave him her killer stare. He got her message. Strike one.
She did a cursory check on the general conditions of the grocery delivered. She paid particular attention to the highly perishables fish and meats. She would check that the gills were bright red, eyes clear and body firm. She would also sniff for any unpleasant odour. Fish checked.
The meat must not appear limp with stale color. Fresh meats should be bright cherry red for beef and lamb and slightly pale for pork and poultry. They must also be firm and springy to touch. Meats checked.
Next she randomly picked a stem or two of the vegetables of the day. The stems and leaves must look fresh and hydrated. The presence of some residual dirt and one or two earthworms or caterpillars was of little concern. In fact, their presence unharmed was a welcome sign that little or negligible insecticide had been sprayed on the vegetable. If the vegetables were edible to those small critters then they should also be safe for human consumption. Vegetables checked.
For fruits, they must appear fresh, appealing with sweet fragrance and firm to touch. Skin should be refreshingly bright and blemish-free when fresh, and would usually turn darker and bruised over time. However, some fruits may appear fresh, even if the condition inside was otherwise. If necessary, she would randomly pick one for tasting. Fruits checked.
She would then weigh, count and check each item against the invoice, before signing off to confirm acceptance. She had to be firm and would reject any item not up to par. She was the frontline to ensure the quality and quantity of the ingredients going into the day’s menu. Four square meals, balanced and nutritious, fit for 490 undergraduates in the country’s finest daily. No compromise especially on the quality for even a single incident of food poisoning was irreparably untenable.
Unlike other halls of residence, only RH employed her own kitchen staff to whip up daily breakfast, lunch and dinner, and being steep in the traditions of renowned English halls of residence, tea for her residents. This arrangement removed the profit markups from meals prepared by 3rd party caterers and more importantly allowed for stringent quality control over every meal served.
Hence at RH, residents were only charged the actual cost of the meal served, i.e. 60 cents for breakfast, 90 cents for lunch, 40 cents for tea and $1.10 for dinner. Highly unbelievable to all non-Rhafflesians, but it was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the whole truth. So help me God.
For breakfast, a typical spread would be a sunny up egg, a scoop of baked beans and a sausage, as many slices of bread as one can eat, jam and butter to spread, and free flow of coffee, tea and milo. Sixty cents. Lunch would usually be a 3-dish fare of meat, vegetable and soup with a free helping of rice from the halal and non-halal counters. Ninety cents. Tea would be a piece of cake or seasonal pastry with free flow of coffee and tea. Forty cents. Finally dinner, 3-dish fare of meat, vegetable and soup fare with rice and supplemented by the fruit of the day. One dollar ten cents.
Menus were periodically changed to add variety and flavour. These changes were dependent on the availability of the seasonal ingredients, and the culinary skills of the cooks. Before some of you replay the broken records of whines and complains, please remember that one could only stretch a dollar that far, and not everyone’s 50 cents was the size of a bullock cart wheel. Hence, only cooks not chefs could be afforded. In any case, ketchup, chilli sauce, soya sauce and pepper were freely available and ubiquitously placed to enhance one’s meal to the personal satisfaction of every individual’s palate.
She had completed her morning task, and was satisfied with quality and quantity of the day’s grocery. She gave the grocer an approving smile. After signing off the invoices, she kept and handed a copy to the Domestic Manager for record and settlement.
That evening, together with her fellow members, they would set up their Weekly Fruits Sale. As one of the services provided, they would buy regular favourite fruits by the cartons on wholesale prices, and re-sell to residents at the same wholesale price with zero markup. Normally, they were able to retail about 10-12 pears or apples or oranges to a dollar as compared to 4 for $1 from outside retailers, an unbelievably real bargain.
Long queue would always form up long before the opening bell. They were mainly the regular fruity nuts, both healthily animated and spiritedly loud, always catching up on the latest gossips while waiting for the fruits to be sorted and checked for freshness and quality. Rotten or damaged ones were discarded, and only the good ones were sold to residents. Ten to fifteen cartons of fruits were quickly snapped up within the first 10 minutes at a frenzied velocity of some 50 fruits per minute. Warp speed, Scotty.
Apart from the food and fruits, they were the 24/7 hotline for the repair and maintenance of hot showers, ovens, stoves, irons, washing machine and any other common equipment found in the block’s common bathrooms, kitchenette and laundry room. The overall cleanliness in these common facilities was also under their oversight. They also monitored and replenished medical supplies for the block’s 1st Aid Kit regularly. And the list could go on, and I would be accused of being long winded or Cantonese “chiong hey”. The local Hokkien dialect, “Pau Sua Pau Hai” would be the most apt to describe them and their duties.
Who were these uncelebrated few, to whom so many had unknowingly owed their well beings during their sojourn at RH?
They knew what they were signing up for. And yet, they chose to join the team, and signed on with their eyes opened widely and willingly. They knew there was neither fame nor fortune in what they do. And yet, they faithfully carried out their daily duties unfailingly and faithfully. They knew there were no cheers or medals at the finish line, no standing ovation or applause. And yet, they ploughed on consistently and dependably. They operated below radar, unseen, unknown, unappreciated mostly and sometimes taken for granted, sadly. And yet, they remained steadfast altruistically till the end.
To all those who had served in the betterment of welfare and well being of Rhafflesians, I salute you. Salute!