I once held a job at the general post office in the city, a holiday job, my first ever job between the completion of my final year at school and the Christmas holidays.
Before they set us to sorting letters the bosses asked us to fill out forms and swear allegiance to the queen. We were sworn in as public servants and required to obey codes of confidentiality, integrity and honesty. We might see things in the mail that we were not meant to see, or that might unsettle us or could be dangerous. We were to report to our superiors anything that looked suspicious and for the rest we were to sort.
Thousands of envelopes, all shapes and sizes, spat at us from different directions and we sorted them by postcodes. People did not routinely include their postcode with each address then, so it was for us to learn the area codes of each suburb and sort accordingly.
I dreamed numbers at night in my sleep and my fingers dried out for the spreading of letters. I was shy. I did not speak to my fellow workers. All that allegiance for only two weeks and then came Christmas Eve, my job ended and I walked out to Flinders Street station with my first ever pay packet. A wad of cash in a rectangular yellow envelope with a typed out pay slip that detailed my hours and status, casual and temporary.
We lived in Parkdale near the sea. On that last day I took the train home and walked into the house, which we never locked on the premise there was nothing inside worth stealing and called out to which ever of my sisters or brothers might be at home, but there was no one there. I went outside to catch the last of the sun.
In those days, as soon as the sun brought with it a hint of heat, I made it my business to spend at least ten minutes almost naked under it. Ten minutes to begin with, gradually building up the time spent in the sun to prepare my skin for its transformation from the white of winter into the golden glow of the warm months.
It played on my mind. If there was ever a day when I could not get outside into the back garden hidden from view or later to a nearby swimming pool then I became anxious.
I would not be able to appear on the street in summer unless my skin was tanned. Unlike my older sister whose skin, like our mother’s, held an olive glow, my skin took after my father’s, pale and prone to freckles. At least if I followed my older sister’s tanning instructions and spent the requisite number of minutes building up each day then I did not burn red but instead turned to copper. The darker the better.
Every summer the same requirement. To spend more hours in the sun than was available. I did not question this need to tan. I did not challenge the unspoken orthodoxy that demanded my body become a respectable brown before I could expose any of it to public view. It was a given. Others joined me in this requirement. Even as my mother went on about an aunt who spent entire holidays on the beach.
‘Her skin will go wrinkly. She spends too much time outside.’
Even as I could not fathom the right amount of time to spend in the sun, to grow into an ideal brown, not too brown or I might be mistaken for an aboriginal and my skin would wrinkle as much as if I were an eighty year old, I knew I still needed to get to that optimal colour.
And then slip, slop, slap came in, and with it, the fear of skin cancer and they changed all the rules.