Cash And Calico
South Bowenfels, Canberra
When Eleanor Hughes reached the sophisticated age of fifteen in 1948, she presented herself at MacIntosh’s Emporium, the local department store. Two salesgirl positions were on offer, one in Shoes and one in Dress Materials.
The store manager, a fatherly gentleman called Mr Blake, suggested the Shoes department but Eleanor cringed at the idea. She could not possibly kneel in front of a customer to help them try on shoes. It was so humble and submissive. She intended to be a woman of the world and could not see how smelling other people’s feet all day would lead her along that path. As she loved fashion, she chose Dress Materials.
On her first day she arrived wearing a freshly ironed white blouse and black skirt, as required by the store and was immediately introduced to Miss Kerslake, manager of Dress Materials. Miss Kerslake was tiny, blonde, Pomeranian-snappy and had already reached the ancient age of forty.
As she showed Eleanor how to write out dockets in the docket book she said, “I’m only telling you this once, so remember it.” She also said, “Press hard with the pencil so the writing will go through the carbon paper.”
She showed Eleanor how to write,
2 yds cotton poplin @ 4/- per yard with 8/- entered in the money column.
She then demonstrated how to put the docket, with the customer’s cash into the little canister. She pulled a handle and the canister flew along a line up to the cashiers’ office which was an eyrie high up in the building’s domed ceiling.
Eleanor knew this shop well. Each department such as Hardware, Grocery, Haberdashery and Accessories had a long counter with willing shop assistants standing ready to be helpful. There was a Confectionary counter near the front door and a Shoe Department at the back near the downstairs office. Each counter had its cylindrical contraption for the cashiers’ canisters and there were wires extending to the ceiling. It would seem that counter attendants were not capable of, or trusted with, counting out change.
Between Dress Materials and Haberdashery there were large tables on which were placed bolts of material being held upright by metal stands. This was convenient as customers could buy fabrics then go straight across to Haberdashery to buy needles, pins and sewing cottons. All very efficient Miss Kerslake pointed out to Eleanor. Every sentence she spoke seemed to have ‘and don’t you forget it’ hovering silently at the end.
On her first morning Eleanor was kept busy tidying up the bolts of fabrics. There were sturdy cotton materials and flimsy laces. There were satins and tulles for evening dresses and warm corduroys and velvets for everyday wear. In the afternoon she was behind the counter and served her first customer.
A plump matron demanded of her, ‘Where’s the calico?’ Among the velveteens and laces Eleanor had not seen any calico. She was not really sure what it was.
Of course the sensible thing to do was ask, so she approached Miss Kerslake and repeated the woman’s question, ‘Where’s the calico?’
Miss Kerslake’s mouth twisted a little as she said, ‘There’s a bolt of unbleached calico on the end of the counter. If you’ll look.’
Eleanor looked, as told, and located the material. She then asked the customer how much she wanted.
‘If it’s thirty six inch I want four and three quarter yards. If its fifty four inch I want four yards. If it’s seventy two inch I want three and three quarter yards.’
Not having the slightest idea how wide the material was, Eleanor again nervously approached Miss Kerslake who was measuring out a length of green velveteen for another customer.
Again the twisted mouth along with an exasperated glare. ‘If you’ll look, there’s a little label at the end of the bolt, telling you the width.’
Eleanor located the little label and discovered the calico was thirty six inches wide and she informed the customer. This lady seemed to have no more manners than Miss Kerslake because she said sternly to Eleanor. ‘Four and three quarter yards, I told ya.’
Measuring out four yards was easy because yards were clearly marked on the measuring tape fixed to the counter. Three quarters was harder. How many inches were in three quarters of a yard? Eleanor attempted some quick mental arithmetic. Thirty six inches in a yard. How many fours in thirty six? Nervous and trembling while the customer tapped her foot, Eleanor silently said her four times table. Oh yes, four nines were thirty six. Then multiply nine by three and you get twenty seven. Three quarters of a yard had to be twenty seven inches. But was that right? Her father, a carpenter, had always said, ‘Measure twice. Cut once.’
She pushed the already measured four yards aside and hesitated before proceeding to measure the next twenty seven inches.
‘You haven’t got time to stand there in a dream,’ declared Miss Kerslake. ‘You’ve measured out your four yards. Cut it off and don’t keep the customer waiting.’
‘But,’ Eleanor began, wanting to say that the customer wanted another three quarters of a yard. She was too late. Miss Kerslake took up the scissors and cut off the four yards.
‘Write out the docket, girl, as I showed you then put it with the cash in the canister.’
The customer resembled an angry cockatoo, seeming to ruffle her feathers as she screeched, ‘I wanted four and three quarter yards, all in one piece, not in two bits. I’m taking my custom elsewhere.’ She stormed out of the shop.
Miss Kerslake’s fury reached such heights that Eleanor hid behind a bolt of floral cotton poplin and shed a few tears. From where she stood she could see the Shoes Department. In the Shoe Department there was no measuring, no mental arithmetic and no cutting. Furthermore Eleanor could buy the most fashionable high heels at a 10% discount.
She then marched straight to the manager’s office and asked for a transfer to another department. She also discovered that as the customers were always required to wear socks or stockings there were no smelly feet.
Bio: Winsome Smith has written many stories, articles and poems. Her latest book Tales the Laundress Told is available on Amazon and Balboapress.com