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How I Discovered The Purpose Of Condoms, by Barbara Fraser

The Advertisement in our November 1954 local paper read: – Girl wanted to help with breakfast and light housework in Boarding House: 7 days, 7 am till noon...

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The Advertisement in our November 1954 local paper read: – Girl wanted to help with breakfast and light housework in Boarding House: 7 days, 7 am till noon. 

My previous school holiday jobs were lowly paid drudgery. This year I was optimistic. I’d finish early and surely the work couldn’t be much harder than chores at home. Even though I explained I could work only until the end of February, I was accepted. As a school leaver, my university studies began the following March.

 I had no idea this holiday employment would be the worst, yet most hilariously illuminating experience of my life.

The promised pay was excellent. My boss conspiratorially whispered that I was too young to bother about tax matters and would have more money if she did not deduct it. In ignorance I agreed. My father filed my claims for tax I’d paid from previous work and I’d waited months for reimbursement. This seemed a more sensible arrangement.

The boarding house was an imposing old place. A quadrangle sporting several clothes hoists lay between two parallel double story wings built out from the rear wall, and along the back fence was a single story building. It had probably once been stables. This now housed a kitchen, dining-sitting room, male and female bathrooms and a laundry. Six bedrooms, far grander than the austere outer ones, were in the main house where the owner lived. These were reserved for casual guests. I soon realized they gave legitimacy to the address.

A woman came to help so I coped with dishes, laundry and cleaning of bedrooms, even a bed bug infestation, quite well. My employer was good but experiences with some guests certainly not.

A mixed lot of male boarders had the upper outside rooms. Most did not notice me, or referred to me as ‘Girl’, usually followed by an order. In my lowly position, I quickly learnt not to expect ‘please’.

A few, when I delivered breakfast, insisted I put the tray on their bed and tried to grope me as I did. I became adept at evasive tactics and with bad offenders left their tray outside the door.

My then lack of awareness of worldly ways was laughable. On my first day, in several lower rooms, I found unusual pieces of rubbish, sticky rubber things. Imagine my horror when the older woman employee told me what they were. I’d presumed they were a type of fingerstall. Thankfully, thinking they could be infectious had handled them using rubber gloves. Sex education was very lacking at my particular school.

Some women boarders, who often slept late into the morning, occupied the eight outside ground floor rooms. Vacuuming their rooms was impossible, until well after ten am. No matter, the overtime was welcome. For the next few years I’d live on a pittance.

One such woman asked me to bring her tea and toast. Although after the scheduled breakfast time my employer didn’t mind. Soon I did this for the other women, never without very fair remuneration. I quickly found out why they were special ‘paying guests’. They all treated me with friendly regard, had a wickedly informative sense of humour and often helped with my tasks.

 Once while servicing her room, I vividly remember this woman saying that if I wanted to earn extra money she could show me how. Her rubbish always contained several of the sticky rubber things and as I now knew their purpose politely declined. Then not wanting to appear ungrateful, as she tipped extremely generously, told her my plans. She wished me well with the compliment, ‘Won’t a pretty girl like you get bored looking down microscopes all day?’

In mid February, a pair of snobbish women booked into one of the inside rooms. To me they were old, at least forty. They treated me as their personal maid, calling me in to put their clothes away and do other chores that were not part of my job. They never tipped.

On the last day of February when I delivered their breakfasts, one asked if my name was Alice. I shook my head without comment.

‘You are very lucky to have such a good job,’ she continued.

‘Why?’ I replied.

‘The owner is pleased with you. Keep working hard my girl and you might get employment in a shop.’

I can still see them sitting smugly in their beds munching on breakfasts I had helped prepare. While getting their dressing gowns from the wardrobe as they had ordered, I seethed with indignation. Not only were they poking their noses into my business but had obviously discussed me with my boss. I answered in the best voice I could muster.

‘Thank you ladies, but I couldn’t do that.’

‘Why ever not?’ the other said. Her voice expressed exasperation at young people not taking notice of their elders and betters.

I went to the door, faced them and answered, probably with an air of smugness to cover my injured feelings, ‘On Monday I begin University.’

The look on their faces was worth the nervousness it took to say it. Closing the door I caught the words – cheeky minx, and – who would have thought. Good thing I finished that afternoon. 

I’ve often wondered. Were these two women the product of their time? Was it from their upbringing that they assumed Alice was an appropriate name for a housemaid? Why presume they knew what was best for me and try to instil some ambition to improve myself?  They could have asked my plans. Not patronized me because I was young and performing basic tasks.

Then, perhaps they had noticed the men visiting the ladies who slept late into the morning. Were these two women, in a round about way, suggesting for my own good that I leave?

On the other hand, was there some hidden agenda in their proffered – friendliness? As I serviced their room when they were out, I often noticed only one bed had been disturbed. I was so very naïve. I could not understand why they would share a bed when the weather was so hot.

Little did I imagine, when I first read the advertisement that this prim young girl would, in three months: diddle the Taxman, fend off lusting men, defy gay women and consort with prostitutes in a brothel. No feelings of guilt, at benefiting from ‘immoral earnings’ in a place that then would have been illegal despite the proprietor’s ingenious façade, bothered me at all. I certainly never told my parents. What scared me more was an intimidating interview with the Taxation Department when I didn’t lodge a tax return that year. 

I gained much more than money from these encounters: a personal confidence, an awareness of life choices far different from my strict upbringing; and that stereotyping people can hurt. Over the years, whenever some young person doing menial tasks in roadhouses motels and other service venues has served me, I have tried not to repeat the attitude of those two women. These same young people may be, in a few more years, my financial advisor my proctologist or the teacher of my grandchildren.

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