In a Nutshell

I was 16; the cake factory was my fourth job since I had left school about a year and a half earlier and the first away from the rag trade. It was also the first where I worked with kids my own age. Alain Borgain had been there a week when I first started. He had come from Perth in the hope of finding fame and fortune as an actor in Melbourne. That was why we became friends, and flat mates, not long after.

At 17 Alain knew everything about everything. At the start of the year he had been the youngest person ever to be accepted into the best fine arts course in Perth, although he quit the course only a few months in because he realised that acting, rather than art, was his calling. His father was an engineer and Alain had grown up in exotic places such as South Africa and New Guinea where he and his family had always had black house servants at their beck and call, at least until the return to his mothers home town of Perth when he was 14. His mother was the barometer for all Alain's ideas of what made a woman beautiful and sophisticated. In early 1960s she had been a key member of Perth's "in crowd". She was the first to learn all the fashionable dances. The first to wear winkle picker stiletto shoes and slender line pencil skirts. I never met her of course, but she did sound like absolute perfection. Alain's advice when it came to defining my own image as a woman was not something to be scoffed at.

Lena's Cakes, owned and managed an old Polish woman who probably came to Australia as a World War Two refugee, was neither modern nor hygienic. The business had changed little since Mama Helena opened the factory in the 1950s; Mama was a short, active, sharp eyed woman who reminded me of a bantam hen. She scurried around muttering "Very expensive, very expensive." as she picked up aluminium tart trays off the floor to be recycled under the next batch of tarts.

Mama ran the factory with the assistance of her son and nephew. Her son was twice her height and at least thrice her breadth, she seemed to worship the earth that shook under Bubba's feet and was oblivious to the fact he was a complete idiot. Her nephew was the straight man in the family comedy act, he had a quiet ironic sense of humour and though Mama and Bubba probably did not realise it, he was the only thing keeping them from bankruptcy.

Like most minimum wage junior employees, our gratitude for the essential employment dried up almost as soon as we received our first paycheque. We were all incorrigible thieves; although most of the theft was a product of mutual dares. The first macadamia nuts I ever tasted were stolen from the factory storeroom.

As junior workers, our main duty was to pack tarts into boxes. The sickly aroma of the mock cream used in Neenish tarts permeated our skin, hair and clothes. It was not possible to work there and not graze on the drips of chocolate on the tray beneath the Neenish. I must have gained five kilos from drips of chocolate alone.

"Eat one more drip and you have to eat a whole tart!" Alain taunted. Even the concept made me nauseous — I never did take up the challenge.

Making Neenish tarts in the bake room was the job I most dreaded having to do. First, you spatula a glob of nasty smelling mock cream into an empty baked short crust tart pan, then dip one side in white chocolate, sometimes coloured pink, and the other in brown chocolate. This was all done manually. We did not wear disposable plastic or latex gloves; our work was done bare handed, though we did wear disposable hair nets.

The tedium of doing a job that was more suited to robots rather than human beings was the biggest enemy. Alain was most fond of a game where you had to suggest a fantasy with an unlikely celebrity, and specific quantities of three different unlikely sex aids. Alain would generally start the game like this: "Phyllis Diller, a tub of mock cream, three rolls of gaffa tape, and a lamington."

There was no scoring process, but you had to suggest it as if deadly serious. The winner was the one who came up with the most absurd combination.

"Ahh Andrew …" bemoaned Mama, "We need traps in the cool room. Rats have been eating the cakes."

"Yeah a 30 stone rat Mama — just one at that." Colin murmured under his breath so only those standing beside him could hear. Our little gang grinned at the wit. Junior employees were not allowed in the cool room — Col was referring to Bubba.

"Mmmmmmmmmm … the things I could do with Bubba, two Neenish, thr … no … five metres of nylon rope and a packet of hundreds and thousands … " mused Alain.

"Nope … for Bubba it would have to be three pavs, ten metres of nylon rope … and a tin of sardines!" conjectured Colin.

The same age as me, but behind 90 per cent of the mischief, Col was a regular little Artful Dodger. He would search out large dead cockroaches, then tastefully place them on top of jam tarts while packing them in the large cardboard bulk packs. He also instigated our printing on the inside of box lids — EAT THESE TARTS AT YOUR OWN RISK! — in big cheerful letters. Writing such a warning inside a box of tarts with a cockroach proudly displayed was redundant but extremely satisfying.

In retrospect, none of us should have been surprised at our mass retrenchment. Even though I hated the tedium — three months at Lena's Cakes provided the best minimum wage fun of my life.

 

 

cyndy kitt vogelsang 2004

 


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