Tuesday, September 27, 2005

"She works hard for the money....."

'She works hard for the money........de doo de dah....and you better treat her right....' sang the insightful poetess Donna Summer on my mono, upright tape player with one speaker and inbuilt radio circa 1983. As I was driving back from swimming today, I accidentally pushed the radio button to an FM-oldies station and found myself back in time, albeit on car stereo and not at home in my room pretending to read 'A Farewell to Arms' at my desk.

It was the summer of 1984 however, that I was to find myself really understanding just how prophetic those lyrics were. I had recently turned sixteen and my parents had made it abundantly clear that it was high time I found myself a job during the summer holidays. If I insisted on forsaking the clothing bargains at Eudunda Farmers' Coop store for the snobbiness of Levi cords, the stitched-version desert boots and plastic map of Australia earrings, then I'd better find the money to fund all my fashion faux pas out of my own wallet. Or something like that. Like most teenagers, I tended to sit and wait until my parents' lips stopped moving and then automatically say, "Yeah, that's a good idea, I'll certainly look into it", and go right back to day-dreaming about pashing Pony Boy from the 'Outsiders' movie.

Unfortunately, neither Pony Boy nor my parents were so accommodating. One of the many annoyances of having an older brother was that he had already made the foray into vacation work and had arranged for me to work at the same place. Goody goody gumdrops I thought sarcastically as I sent him death-rays across the table in order to choke that smug 'Nyah nyah na na naaa you have to do it tooooo' look on his face.

The following morning, we got up at 6:15am and drove at a reluctant pace to Thompson's orchard in Mypolonga, or Mypo for short. It was still frosty at that time of the morning as I stood there shyly, shivering in my t-shirt, shorts and thongs. Rob had climbed onto the back of a tractor that took all the blokes out into the orchard to pick apricots. I was relegated to the apricot cutting shed, filled with teenage girls, wise old ladies and two scrawny boys only considered strong enough to feebly carry our trays into the sulphur sheds and out into the sunshine to dry.

"You get 90c for each tray you fill with cut and stoned apricots", Dolores, a school contemporary, told me over the din of radio 5MU.
"How many can you do a day?" I asked, preparing myself for some rarely used mental arithmetic.
"Oh, about forty." Forty,wow. That's like thirty six dollars a day - a fortune, especially at the end of a week!
"Cool. Now what am I supposed to do?"

An hour later, with my back aching and my feet hurting from the total lack of support provided by rubber thongs on a cement floor, I began to wonder if the bucks were worth it. 5MU had played Billy Joel's 'Uptown Girl' on the hour every hour, and my hands were already criss-crossed with tiny cuts from the knife used to slice through each apricot. The juice from each piece of fruit - which I'd begun to regard as a little bum that deserved to be sliced right through - would run over my hands and fill each cut with a thousand agonising tiny stings.

"Trays!" Dolores and her co-horts would shout at preposterously quick intervals. The oompah loompah twins would scurry over to carry the six trays they'd cut and stacked on top of each other. The other shed hands easily cut six to my one. Lunch time was a misery. 5MU was still blaring away on the cutting shed's tinny transistor and I was glared at by Melinda when I timidly asked if it could be turned off. "What? No way! It plays all the trendiest music." I munched my stale cheese sandwich in silence, choking on the windblown sulphur fumes and finding it difficult to shake the bread crumbs from my icky fingers.

Visiting the outdoor loo was no picnic either. Dating back to the war years, the current owners had the decency to ensure that there was a bog roll instead instead of newspaper clippings in the outhouse but did nothing to deter the huntsmen spiders leering at me from their menacing crouches on the hinges of the wooden door. Any pressing hygiene requirements were dealt with via a leaky pump tap near the irrigation system.

The half hour break was over, and it was back to those apricots. What used to be my most favourite summer fruit was now a sickeningly sticky, stinky, odious substance, only grown to cause me pain, boredom, earache (thanks, 5MU) and for time - as I understood it - to stand still. Finally it was four o'clock and time to finish the last trays, clean the knives and wait for our rides back home. Red-faced with shame, I noticed the blackboard with our names and totals: Dolores - 42. Melinda - 40. Dulcie - 50. Milly Moo - 18. Eighteen? Nine hours of slavery and agony for a mere sixteen dollars and twenty cents! I was never going to return to this hell hole again!

On the ride home, I was too exhausted to think of any retorts to Rob's usual teasing. He must have sensed my disappointment because he paused long enough to say, "You'll get better at it. Just think of the money, that's what I do - it'll pay for my books, clothes and beer for uni."
"Oh no, I'm not coming back here tomorrow, no way. I'm going to find myself some more kids to babysit, that's all."

Sadly, my regulars and potentials were selfishly away, enjoying their holidays, the lucky little bastards..... Hence I was back in Mypo the next day and the day after that and the day after that and the day.... In fact, the entire apricot season which ended the last week before school started. My daily tally increased; something of which I was obscenely proud. 24, 30, 38, 41, 50, 55, 55 and my personal best of 60 (which was due to cutting the Morepark variety which are huge but nothing was going to burst my bubble). My hands were calloused yet deft and Rob and I even found the energy to head over to the high school tennis courts every evening after tea for some fairly rigorous games of tennis - there's no better training than playing against a brother one foot and two years older than you to brush up your game and it is he I have to thank for winning the Best Player/Most Games Won trophies that year.

On the last day of the season, the picking blokes and us cutting gals received our pay cheques and walked down to the river for a swim. Rob was horsing about on the old pontoon with itinerant pickers Sticks, Donger and Mud Guts and I was happy to wallow about in the muddy slime near the edge, still focused on the magical total I'd earned: 'One thousand and eleven dollars.' Oh, and my first varicose vein, thanks to standing for hours in a corrugated iron shed on a cement floor. Still, my earnings were indeed riches beyond my wildest imaginings, and I deserved every bloody cent.

In fact, I went back to Thompson's orchard for the summers of 1985, 86, 87 and 88 before starting my first real day job at the ANZ bank. Somehow they'd seen my Arts degree (majoring in English texts and Roman Art and Archaelogy) and considered that I'd have real potential as a housing loans officer. Well, an officer who also had to become a teller during the lunch hour rush. Being in a branch near Rundle Mall meant that we were regularly targeted by buskers who wanted us to count and bank the change from their guitar or didgeridoo cases or triumphant savers who'd proudly drag in their oversized Fosters beer money tins full of five cent pieces.

It always seemed to me at these times the full time tellers were out in the vault or on the phone which made it abundantly clear to me, (spoken with jealousy and contempt): a Graduate Trainee, that I was supposed to grin and bear it and serve these folk and the urine-stained winos who queued outside the branch on pension day. We didn't have a coin counter at our branch but instead had to crouch in the vault and sort it by hand. There was an unofficial plus-side to getting your hands grimy from old coins - the sucker who had to count it could also take out enough coins for a can of coke and a Mars Bar. After all, how the hell would the miserly customer know?

I stood the job for two years, during which the housing loan interest rates skyrocketed to 17.5% and I was sick and tired of being cornered by angry (and yet boring) mortgagees at parties after being naive enough to answer questions about what I did for a living.

One week after I left the bank to fly to London to become a nanny, the bank branch was robbed. Each workmate posted me the same newspaper article, and said it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened there since we'd been asked by the neighbouring OPSM shop to keep the Elton John 1970s glasses collections in our vault. Little did they know that, after closing time, we'd crack open a few cold beers and try them on. I have a great photo of my boss wearing a rhinestone encrusted US flag with his arm around me wearing a huge set of red lips. That was the most fun I'd had at a workplace since lying in the river mud dreaming of what I'd spend my apricot money on........


Anonymous said...

Over a grand from cutting apricots? wow! ALl that money to spend upon the marvellous fashions of the eighties ;)

Anonymous said...

What a marvelous, funny & nostalgic column! I only lasted for 1 day's apricot cutting. I told my Mum that they said I was too slow & not to bother coming back..!