Finally, a new short(ish) story: Holly’s first job in 1970s suburban Sydney isn’t just answering the phones, it’s dealing with a dodgy overbearing builder who wants to marry her off to his son.
“What’s a Palamar?” Rosemary squinted at the note; it had grubby fingerprints on it and smelt of garlic, clearly the work of Franco the foreman whose spelling was a phonetic reproduction of his accent.
Rhoda and I peered over her shoulder. “Palamar comming 10AM toomoro.”
“I suppose we’ll find out at ten tomorrow,” Rhoda said brightly.
“Palamar, palamar,” mused Rosemary, staring out the window into the muddy mire that was the backyard cum building site. Franco and the boys had left for the day and as usual they had simply downed tools and walked off, leaving shovels, trowels and other equipment in a still life.
Her eyes widened. “Pa-LA-mar! It’s a plumber!”
You wouldn’t believe how excited three people could get over this announcement but working with the builders was like dealing with an alien life form or translating an ancient Egyptian cuneiform. There were rare moments of brilliance in communication.
“Whassall the noise?” Patrick, Rosemary’s husband, poked his grizzled head around the doorjamb. “Win the lottery?” He had a pen stuck behind one ear and his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose.
“Just as good. I’ve translated a Franco,” Rosemary said proudly, shoving the pungent note under Pat’s nose.
Pat shook his head. “Don’t have the time, I’m doing the orders. What’s it say?”
“Gawd. Hope he puts the second dunny in real quick.”
Pat and Rosemary were having the building extended. The existing fibro house they ran their business from was being rendered in brick. There was to be a storage room out the back so the costume jewellery they sold by mail order wasn’t heaped in cartons in every room instead. They were putting a second storey on the top so they could live there and work below.
The office only had one loo. This hadn’t been a problem with only four of us working there, until the builders started.
The whole job was masterminded by one Carl Smith, who was a many of many businesses including jewellery supply and building. Carl was an Eastern European who had adopted the name Smith when he moved to Australia. He said it was so he could fit in. Pat reckoned it was to hide from the multitudes after his blood. Carl promised he’d have his boys do a superrrb job verrrry cheap on the building. It vould be a little masterrrrpiece.
Verrrry cheap meant that Carl didn’t lash out on a Portaloo for his team. Nope, they used the office loo, and it was rapidly becoming a bone of contention between Pat and Rosemary and Carl and particularly Franco.
Fat little Franco liked to use the loo at 1.30 every day. You’d smell him coming in a waft of garlic, and he’d apologetically, but not too apologetically, say, “I’m got to use toilet.” He’d be in there for an hour, exuding garlic, and singing Slavic songs out loud in between grunts. The resulting pong rendered the loo unusable until after three, even if you opened the windows and used air freshener. It seeped out from under the closed door and made Rhoda and I dry retch. Unfortunately the loo was right in the middle of the building between all our offices. There was no escape.
Rosemary had written a parody of the old song All I Do Is Dream Of You:
All I do the whole day long
Is sit and pong.
I take some pride of the smell inside
The loo when I’m done.
It smells so strong and lasts so long
It knocks you out as you walk along.
I’m got garlic, gives a great pong!
And were there more than twenty four
Hours a day
They’d be spent in sweet content
When skies are grey, when skies are blue
Morning noon and night time too,
All I do the whole day long is
Sit – and – pong!
Pat grumbled that he didn’t pay Carl to have Franco shit during working hours.
“Naturrre calls ven it calls,” Carl always said. Nature’s call was probably prompted by Franco’s choice of lunch which appeared to consistently be a raw onion and half a bottle of brandy. The boys would down tools at twelve and Franco would share the brandy with Jiri and Dak, they’d turn the cassette player on and warble tunelessly along to mournful folk songs and then do a little bricklaying before Franco would saunter inside to the loo.
When you looked at the new walls, which were rising much slower than Carl had promised, you could see the morning work and afternoon work. Bricks laid in the morning were neat and level, after-lunch brickwork had uneven mortar with splotches of the grey stuff stuck to the bricks here and there, and the bricks were laid with a mild regard for straightness. If you didn’t know about the brandy you’d think the poorly-laid rows were a deliberate feature, they occurred so regularly.
Pat and Rosemary were having more than second thoughts about their building work. I think they were onto their seventh or eighth.
I didn’t know the full details of the deal they had with Carl. I was the new girl, the office junior, seventeen and at my first job. My role was, along with Rhoda, to take telephone orders and mail orders, and pack and send the glittery rings, necklaces, brooches, earrings, pendants and bracelets to their new owners. For a girl who liked her jewellery it was a job sent from heaven. Rhoda and I got the pick of the seconds for free, and were the proud owners of many silvertone rings with dodgy plating, earrings missing a tiny zircon, and spurious items with scratched crystal stones. We clanked when we moved and probably weighed a kilo less when we took our jewellery off.
We could hear Pat and Carl have massive rows behind closed doors, with Rosemary’s voice shrilling occasionally above both of them. Fights about the building and fights about the quality of the jewellery Carl supplied. Carl’s products lost their tarnish quickly; the zircons chipped at the slightest excuse and we’d had to appease many angry women who returned their goods within the 60 day guarantee.
“Why do they deal with him?” I hissed to Rhoda while another World War III raged in the front office. Carl had sauntered in soon after we’d got over our delight about cracking the Palamar code.
“Must be something more sinister,” Rhoda said darkly. “Something criminal.” She licked her lips and tossed her riot of orange curls. Rhoda liked reading about gangsters and crime. She was thrilled the day she found out Carl carried a knife in his sock – he’d gone out the back and brandished it at Franco one day. “Pat’s done something wrong and Carl knows, he’s got Pat over a barrel.”
I couldn’t imagine Pat on the wrong side of the law. He was scrupulously honest. I’d seen him return money to the supermarket cashier when she’d given him too much change. Anyone else I knew would have simply pocketed it.
“Besides,” Rhoda went on, “How else could Carl afford that car? He’s a crim, you think about it, Holly.” Carl drove a very flashy, very big and very new black Mercedes.
“He’s got lots of businesses,” I pointed out, parcelling two silvertone aquamarine rings, one sized M and one sized N to Mrs M Martin. I knew one of them would be returned. Women who ordered two identical rings in different sizes would only keep the one that fitted.
“Yeah, and he’s probably borrowing from one to pay the other. One of those businesses will be a brothel. Or drugs.”
I was a very naïve seventeen and impressed by her confidence and street wisdom. Rhoda, two years older, was world-wise and mature. She lived with her boyfriend and secretly fantasised that the entry-level Yamaha bike he rode was really a Harley. Beside her I was still a schoolgirl and even worse still lived with my parents.
Rhoda took the packages to the post office, I filed the letters and phone orders, WWIII came to a truce and Carl strode angrily into my office, picked up the spare phone, dialled so fast his fingers were a blur and had a furious conversation in his own language, phone in one hand, evil-smelling black cigarette stabbing the air in the other. With his slicked-down centre-parted hair and pencil-thin moustache I could see why Rhoda thought him a crim. He looked like an old-fashioned spiv. A 20s gangster in a brown 70s suit with lapels that had their own life form.
I tried to type up more labels but Carl’s angry sputtering was offputting and I think I used more TippEx than typewriter ribbon.
Finally Carl slammed the phone down and took a deep breath. “I am verrry sorrry Mees Holly that you had to hear that.”
“I didn’t understand a single word,” I said truthfully.
“Ve have some prrrroblems vis ze building materrrials. My son, my stupid son, he has not orrrderrred ze corrrrect plumbing supplies.”
This was the first I’d heard of the son. “Your son is a builder?”
“My son is not ANYZINK at ze moment.” He stubbed out his cigarette with unnecessary viciousness and lit another, offering the pack to me. I shook my head. “He cannot get a simple orrrderrr rrrright.” Inhaling deeply, he shook his head. “But he is a good boy, he vill own all my businesses one day.” I didn’t know whether he was convincing me or himself.
Our switchboard buzzed and I gratefully turned away to answer it. “Good afternoon, Crafted Costume Jewellery.” It was another grumpy customer complaining about the performance of the plating on the silvertone zodiac bracelet, one of Carl’s lines. I soothed the customer, promised a replacement, and turned to let Carl know, politely, that his stock was not up to scratch. But he’d gone, as silently and quickly as the Cheshire Cat. Like the Cat he left something hanging in the air behind him, a horrible mix of Aramis and smoke from the black cigarettes.
Next day the Palamar didn’t turn up but Carl’s son did. A shy, slightly stammering guy with unfashionable short-back-and-sides dark hair and gold-framed glasses knocked on the door and introduced himself as Bruce Smith. He had the faintest hint of his father’s accent.
“I’m here to see Pat and Rosemary.” He fiddled with his tie.
Grandly I announced him on the intercom and then tried to make polite conversation while we waited for Pat’s door to open.
It seemed that Carl had the monopoly on words in that family. Bruce was so monosyllabic I gave up after a bit and pretended to be sorting orders, leaving him sitting on our awful stripey orange and brown sofa flicking through jewellery catalogues.
“Are the zodiac bracelets really that bad?” He said suddenly. I jumped.
“Er, yes. The plating starts to flake off after a month or two. They’re rubbish,” I said, warming to my topic. “We’ve had so many returned that we don’t make any profit on them.” Then I realised it was probably the bosses’ job to tell him that and clammed up again. After another minute of uncomfortable silence Pat’s door opened; with a sigh of relief Bruce went into his office and with a sigh of relief I rolled a sheet of letterhead into the typewriter and started typing our standard response to a complaint letter.
“Who’s that?” whispered Rhoda, bringing me a cup of tea. She’d been watching from her office and I could imagine her ears straining to hear what was going on.
“Carl’s son. Bruce.”
“Bruce!” She hooted. “I bet he wasn’t born Bruce! Told you his dad’s a crim, they’ve had to change their names ‘cos they’re hiding.”
With Bruce there was no WWIII. After ten minutes he reappeared, his sallow skin a bit paler than before, nodded a goodbye to Rhoda and I who were drinking tea and (hastily) talking about work, and closed the door quietly behind him.
Pat thumped into the hall. “Put a flea in his ear,” he said with satisfaction, rubbing his hands. “Useless git. Anyway, Rosie me love, the new dunny should be fitted tomorrow.”
“No more Franco,” sighed Rosemary happily.
But of course it didn’t happen, Franco still “I’m got”ted his way in and stank the place out, Carl and Pat had more rows and Rhoda was ever more suspicious. It took three weeks to get the Palamar, who shared brandy and onions and songs, to fit the plumbing and the new toilet and another week to fix it so it worked instead of spewing water into the foundations.
Watching the Palamar at work was a nice diversion for the builders. Franco drank brandy while the younger, fitter Jiri and Dak played cards or lazed around getting browner. Rhoda and I would look at them from the window and tease each other as to which was the most muscly. It didn’t occur to the guys to work on other parts of the building site unless Carl or Bruce told them to.
The rows must have been getting to Carl because now he was sending Bruce in more often to deal with Pat and Rosemary. The poor guy, I felt a bit sorry for him. Between his shouty father and my shouty boss it was a wonder he had any hearing left.
He’d sit in the reception area reading the same catalogues he’d read the day before, flicking the pages, wrinkling the corners and looking anxiously down the hall to Patrick’s door with his too-pale blue eyes.
We had stilted conversations; one about the pot plant that valiantly struggled under a layer of dust next to my typewriter. I did dust and water it, but the brick dust crept in everywhere, and telling Bruce that made him even glummer. Another about cars, because I’d noticed Bruce was now driving a slightly newer second-hand Mercedes. My older brother had always been a petrolhead and cars were something I could talk about quite confidently so the Merc filled a gap for ten minutes. We talked about the news, the weather, any topic except the building or the jewellery business, so by the time Bruce got to see Pat he was slightly more cheerful.
The walls around the house grew slowly, very slowly, in their layers of neat and untidy. It seemed every day now Bruce was there inspecting things and trying hopelessly to persuade the builders not to drink at lunchtime.
“I’m got to have brrrandy for my stomach!” we heard Franco yell in protest before stomping off to stink up the new loo.
We hadn’t seen Carl for a placid month, then he was back, his sallow skin tanned to nut-brown. He dripped blokey jewellery that was definitely solid 18ct; none of his own cheap plated stuff. Ashing his cigarette into that poor dusty pot plant, he told me he’d been on a buying trip to Europe.
“Haff you effer been to Europe?” He stabbed the cigarette out and I could almost hear the plant scream in protest.
“No. I’ve been to Melbourne,” I said cheerfully.
“You must go to Europe. It vould complete yourrr education.” He lit another cigarette. “So, Mees Parker, I haff not seen you for a month. Haff you a boyfrrrriend yet?”
He smiled at me, his little eyes even tinier as they crinkled up at the corners.
There was something creepy about that look . It ran from my pageboy-bob hair down my striped a-line dress to my cork-heeled wedges. It was assessing me. I felt a hot flush creep up my neck.
“No, I’m not looking,” I said shortly, twirling another letterhead around the drum of the typewriter.
“Brrrrruce tells me you are nice girl, you talk viss him.”
Creepy suddenly seemed too tame a word. I tried not to shudder. Over his shoulder I could see Rhoda and Rosemary killing themselves trying not to laugh out loud.
“I talk with all our visitors,” I said politely.
“Brrruce is building his own house. It vill haff thrrree bathrooms.” More ash on the plant.
“That’s a lot of dunnies to clean.” I typed in the date with clumsy figures and reached for the TippEx.
“He can afford a cleaner. He vill be lonely man living in ze big house all by himself. Five bedrrrooms it vill have.”
“He could advertise for a flatmate. Or even four flatmates to fill up those extra bedrooms,” I suggested, putting a big white blob over the date. “Lots of people do, have a look in the Herald on Saturdays.”
“He vould like a vife.”
“The Herald has personal ads too.”
Rosemary was nearly choking and vanished from sight. Rhoda was wiping her eyes. Fine friends they were, leaving me to entertain Carl and, second-hand, themselves.
Carl chuckled. “Ahh, Mees Holly, you arrre a funny girrrl. You haff spirrrit, I like zat. Herrre. Frrrom Eurrrope, a leetle souvenirrr I peeked just forrr you.” And he reached into his pocket and pulled out what must have been his latest line in sparkly cheap bracelets. I hadn’t seen it in the catalogue. Crystals from Romania perhaps? He threw it on my desk and sauntered towards Pat’s door.
I held it up to the light. The quality was better than usual. Decent crystals this time, pale lilac set in silver. They looked lovely through the loupe, the light refracting through them in a rainbow when the sun caught them.
Rosemary had composed herself and watched me examine the stones. “His quality’s improved,” I said happily. “Wonder what we can sell these for?”
She turned the bracelet this way and that, saying nothing, then grabbed the loupe. Her lips, normally full and covered smoothly with gingery lipstick, narrowed then parted into a sardonic smile. “Quite a lot. They’re real bloody amethysts. He must like you.”
I ran and hid in the loo so I didn’t have to see Carl on his way out. I left the bracelet on my desk and wished he’d take it back with him.
Of course, it didn’t take long for Pat, Rosemary and Rhoda to start teasing me about Bruce. By the time I emerged from the loo Carl had gone, the bracelet was still there and so was an envelope with my name on it in careful capital letters.
I opened it suspiciously. Not one of Rosemary’s best efforts, but given the time frame she’d done well, tried to imitate posh copperplate script, and she’d caught Carl’s speech pattern to a t:
“Dear Mees Holly Parker
Carl Smith requests the pleasure of your company at ze vedding of
Bruce, his only son.
Zere vill be plenty of BRANDY, and ONIONS,and SINGINK and LOTS OF CRYINK on this happy occasion ven Bruce marries and I become yourr farzer in law. You vill leeve happily effer after in Bruce’s big house vis five bedrooms and three bathrooms. Zat is an order.”
I read it out loud, accent and all, and started giggling. In fact I couldn’t stop and was nearly, in fact, cryink by the time the others had stopped spying on me and had joined in.
“What am I going to do with this bracelet?” I said finally, gulping and gasping for breath.
“If you don’t want it, I’ll have it,” Rhoda said with a little hint of jealousy.
“Ah, but you’ll have Bruce as well,” Rosemary said wickedly. “And Carl.”
“I’ll have to hand it back next time he’s in,” I decided, “And say it’s too posh a souvenir. See if he’s got a tea towel instead.”
“In his country a tea towel is probably a symbol of betrothal,” mocked Rosemary. “Seriously, Holly, he gave it to you as a souvenir. He didn’t ask you to go out with his son as a condition of accepting the gift. Take it – it’s much nicer than the other crap he flogs to us.”
“But Bruce?” I wailed, heading back into hysteria. “What’s he said to Bruce about me? Is that why Bruce has been talking to me? Because his awful dad has picked me out as a wife for him? This is 1979! I wouldn’t marry him if he was the last bloke on earth!” I had a vision of poor old cowed Bruce with his unfashionable hair and pale cod eyes, shovelled into a morning suit his father had chosen for him, pushed down the aisle to marry a spirited young virgin with childbearing hips (aka Mees Holly) in a meringue wedding dress also presumably chosen by Carl and groaned.
While my workmates howled with laughter and I stomped around to put the bracelet in my bag – waste not want not and it WAS better than the crappy costume jewellery – I noticed a movement outside the window. A flicker of someone running down the drive.
I heard a car start up. It sounded very like a second-hand Mercedes.
Still chuckling, Rosemary went to put the kettle on, Rhoda read the invitation again, Pat went to phone one of the suppliers and I tried to type letters but couldn’t concentrate. I felt too guilty about that running anonymous figure and the car starting up.
It was probably one of the builders, I told myself. Maybe Franco heard there was a special on brandy down at the bottlo. Or Jiri was off to the TAB again to waste his pay on horses that never finished first.
But I knew it was Bruce.
To my horror, he showed up the next day with a bunch of flowers in his hand; expensive, too, not the kind you buy at service stations. A big lush bunch of stocks, which smelled divine. I wanted to run but Rhoda was blocking the doorway, pretending to talk to Rosemary in the next room. It was a very quiet conversation; I could hear the stalks forming on their ears.
“Holly.” Bruce cleared his throat. “I’ve got something to say to you.”
Oh God. I was going to be sick. I wished I hadn’t had the cream bun for morning tea. I could feel it rising up my throat.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for my father’s behaviour,” he said haltingly. “He had no right to – to insinuate that you and I – er – that I should – um . Anyway, he won’t be choosing any wife for me. I’m sorry you were embarrassed. I value our professional friendship,” he continued more formally, “and hope that this week’s episode doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable in my company.”
The cream bun went back down and I accepted the flowers with red cheeks. The poor guy, he’d heard the lot yesterday. I felt like locking myself in the loo again and this time flushing myself down it.
“I’m sorry too…you may have overheard some things I said in the heat of the moment,” I began, thinking of the ‘last bloke on earth’ bit and glad I hadn’t said out loud what I was thinking about cod eyes and meringue dresses.
Bruce made one of those very European shrugging motions that convey about six sentences in one fluid movement. “I’ve heard a lot worse,” he said with a crooked grin. “You think you’re the first girl Dad’s lined up for me? He’s been trying to marry me off for ten years.”
There was a movement beyond the window and I instinctively turned to see who was outside. Jiri sauntered past the window in his short shorts and sleeveless shirt, all muscly and wiry and tanned, head down and apparently counting a large wad of winnings. Wonders will never cease, I thought.
When I turned back Bruce was watching Jiri with an expression that lit up his sallow face. It took innocent little me a second to figure out that look and what it meant, and I knew then why he’d never marry any girl his Dad picked out for him.
After that the building work ran smoothly. Bruce was on site most days to oversee, and I wondered whether he was overseeing Jiri or the brickwork, but kept my thoughts to myself.
Carl didn’t call in so much – perhaps he’d found another young woman who’d make a suitable daughter-in-law.
The second storey rose, had a roof on, and flooring installed. The Palamar came back to install the upstairs bathroom and managed to install the shower where the loo was supposed to be, but a lot of shouting, a bottle of brandy and a singalong had the problem solved.
The only dark cloud on the horizon was the council man who came to approve the building as it neared completion. It wasn’t the same man who had approved it at other times in its overlong construction and its deviation from the original plans. And there, it seemed, was the mystery of why Pat dealt with Carl.
Carl had paid off the original council officer to approve the building in the first place. Carl had managed to get the property rezoned to allow the residence on the top. Carl was smoothing the way left right and centre, he knew people in every council in Sydney and could get ANY building job approved, ANY. He promised to somehow persuade the new council man to approve it. And hadn’t he got the materials so cheaply? And the labour? (Cue a roar from Pat about The Labour spending an hour in the dunny each day.) The big building job in Parramatta he was also running wouldn’t notice the extra bricks, concrete and labour billed to its account. In return we would sell his crappy jewellery, at least until the current shipment ran out, which would be at least another year.
Rhoda and I learned this from another WWIII battle, where the combatants roared so loudly a closed door was no use. We heard the lot.
“So it wasn’t drugs,” Rhoda said, a little sadly.
“Just bribery and theft,” I agreed, equally sadly as I’d thought Pat and Rosemary above all that. Although I hadn’t liked the way Carl had said ‘persuade’. It seemed to promise brass knuckles.
I wondered whether Bruce knew the machinations of his Dad’s business practices and whether his Dad knew about Bruce’s sexual preferences, and decided I didn’t much care when it all came down to it. The fun had suddenly gone out of the job, the giggles about Carl and what he was up to, the planned wedding that never was.
It wasn’t the same working there after that. Rhoda and I never told our bosses we knew the story behind the building; we felt a bit uncomfortable about it but our loyalty to our bosses kept our mouths shut to everyone. When the building was finished Rhoda resigned and became a receptionist for a real estate agent. I hung around for another six months and tried to make friends with the taciturn and singularly misnamed Gabby, Rhoda’s replacement, but left to move to Melbourne with my parents and study jewellery design.
For a while I kept in touch with Pat and Rosemary but as my life was now all students and cafes and Melbourne and friends, and their letters were peppered with news about employees I’d never met, our letters were fewer and far between as the years went on. When I moved to London in my early twenties I received a news clipping in the post from Rhoda.
Carl Smith, his son Bruce and several guests on Carl’s luxurious cruiser had reportedly been killed on Christmas Eve on Sydney Harbour when the cruiser’s fuel tank exploded. Police suspected foul play as Carl Smith was apparently an underworld figure with more pies than fingers to go in them, and were pursuing people they believed could assist them with their enquiries.
Rhoda said that Pat and Rosemary had been among the guests and their bodies had been recovered. Carl had been found in enough pieces to identify him but Bruce, they believed, had been one of the people standing at the end near the fuel tanks and was, in Rhoda’s words, probably vaporised.
I re-read Rhoda’s letter and clippings and did some ‘cryink’ for Pat and Rosemary who had given me a good start in my chosen industry. Those times filled with visits from the Palamar, Franco hogging the loo, even Carl’s attempt to fit me up with his son and Rosemary’s mock wedding invitation, they were suddenly sunny days in a cold London winter.
As for Bruce, I wondered whether he ever did find the courage to come out to his Dad or even stand up to him once in a while.
I hadn’t thought about all this for years until this morning, when a well-dressed man of my own vintage or a bit older wandered into my shop.
As I’ve said, I’m a jewellery designer. I specialise in work with precious and semi-precious stones, and love working with peridot, garnet, amethyst, citrine, sapphire, tourmaline, aquamarine and other gorgeous sparklers interspersed with chunks of quartz. Some of my current collection features them set in twists of gold, silver, or for the well-heeled, platinum. Holly Parker Design has finally come of age and is sought after by celebrities, trend setters and fashion addicts. One of my big sellers is the wide cuff of silver studded with a wealth of wonderful colour or in shades of the same hue. It’s popular with both sexes and just about all ages and the man was looking over the range of cuffs which twinkled under the downlights.
Usually on a Tuesday it’s my manager who runs the place while I work in the studio in the back room, but Sandra was unwell so I was busy rearranging the displays when I felt that I was being watched.
There was something familiar; something guilty about him behind his lightly-tinted spectacles. He saw me glance at him, smiled politely and moved away from the counter and out the door.
It was only after he’d left the shop and melded into the cosmopolitan rush that is London that I registered the crooked smile and polite-but-embarrassed composure: Bruce.
But it couldn’t be – could it? So I’m sitting here, partly in Sydney in the 70s, partly in London in 2011, wondering if my memory is playing tricks, or my imagination is running overdrive, or whether it’s true and Bruce is still alive.
I think of exploding boats, and hope it’s just my imagination.
Copyright Caroline Sully 2011