By gerard oosterman
The ‘old biddies from hell’ milk-bar was just around the corner from where the primary school was situated in East Balmain. It dated from pre-war, either the first 1914-1918 or the second 1940-1945. It would not have mattered, the service was the same as that Sunday arrival at Fremantle 1956, when all those dapper migrants in suits and white shirts sauntered off-board to get their first taste of Australia after the long five week ship journey from Europe. To be seen as helpful was grovelling to the Gov’nr and those old shop’s milk-bar traditions such as the one my dad tried to buy lamingtons from in Fremantle 1956 had passed on their sullen services across the Nullarbor and survived well into the 1980’s at East Balmain. To enter the shop for a packet of ciggies was risky and such a downer, that the only rightful response was to immediately light up in the shop and blow the first lungful towards the old hags and make a run for it.
The kids who had no option but to sometimes order the school lunch there soon also learnt to give as much as they were receiving. The shop and its owners showed their contempt for kids and adults by selling the minimum of goods and with such vehement reluctance, that only the foolhardy and the most determined would enter. They refused to display what they were selling. The shopwindow’s only items on display were a yellowed packet of Bex powders and a Camel cigarettes poster with goggled US fighter pilots lighting up, stuck on a piece of ancient vitrage hanging there to obscure any view into the shop… The flies were old and spiders spun webs to keep a balance between the different species but would prefer only the freshest and largest. Inside the glass counter with chrome edges and sloping menacingly towards the customer, there were live flies (but no webs) zooming in onto lamingtons and custard tarts sprinkled with cinnamon. One of the old girls was doubled over with osteoporosis; the other one in charge of sandwich making, had a permanent dripping nose which she kept on wiping on her left arm which was inside a raglan sleeved cardigan, while taking the Edgell pre-sliced beetroot out of its tin and placing it with gnarled fingers onto the pre-buttered Tiptop.
The relationship between schoolkids, customers and shop owners was symbiotic but that’s all, nothing more, nothing less. This is why the business was stagnant and had been for many, many years. They each accepted the exchange of money for the goods as an almost necessary evil. Our neighbours’ daughter told the old ladies to get fucked and was hence banned. There were standards to uphold. The owners of the shop were totally unconcerned though. Sick as!
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