Extraordinarily Ordinary Working Life of Kristine Philipp

Article | Issue: Feb 2024

Girl Friday: A job title used in 1970s workplaces for a junior administration assistant or receptionist. Common synonyms include junior office chick, shit-kicker, donkey worker, general dogsbody or gofer (go for this, go for that).

KRISTINE PHILIPP’s memoir Girl Friday: An Extraordinarily Ordinary Working Life is her funny and moving memoir about women at work, pay inequality and the alienating nature of the 21st century workforce.

Read on for an extract …

CHAPTER 1

Girl Friday

It’s 1975, I am 15 and starting my first office job. I lied about my age to get the position. Gussied up in high-waist baggies, satin shirt tucked in, sequined cardigan, cork-wedge sandals stacked high, with eye shadow, mascara and lippy, I pass for 16.

I type like a demon on an Olivetti manual typewriter, head down bum up for three hours straight. I begin to shake my left leg under the solid wooden desk. Noon is lunchtime. I need to wee but I am already nervous about keeping the job, so I keep hitting those qwerty keys hard, returning the typewriter carriage on the ding! Just one more paragraph of this business letter, I think, my first on the job and one of thousands I will copy type over almost four decades in office work.

I keep on typing, distracted by the clock ticking into my lunch break, buttocks squeezed tight, hanging on hard like I have to at home, competing for one dunny in a household of nine.

I squeeze my legs together as the final words hit the letterhead and the carbon paper inks the blue and green bank copy sheets rolled in behind: ‘Yours faithfully …’ I can feel the warm wee start to seep into my undies.

The short, heavy-set old chain-smoking accounts manager looks over his horn-rimmed glasses at me. ‘Time to go to lunch Kristine. Quick, or there’ll be no sandwiches left across the road.’ He taps the ash off a cigarette and returns to his reconciliation.

‘Okay Mr Baker, nearly finished,’ I say, pained face turning red. I’m paralysed, glued to the leather wheelie office chair. Any movement will release the urine flood. I am busting. But I’ve left it way too late. The golden stream seeps down my trouser legs, trickling into my platform sandals. Miraculously, there is no telltale puddle beneath me.

I sit and wait till the wet dries and the office is deserted before I take a late lunch. Pretending nothing at all has happened, I walk across the office to clean myself with paper towels in the female toilets. In a cubicle I cry like a kid on the first day at school, stained but dry by the time I head home at five in my long denim coat.

It was a tough commute in peak hour in the middle of Melbourne’s Antarctic winter. A tram down Bridge Road, a red rattler train from Flinders Street Station, smoking Winfield Blues, then pedalling my bicycle in the dark against bone-chiller winds, streaming icy tears, from Huntingdale Station up North Road hill.

I’m home in time to hear Mum yelling that tea’s ready, then one of the kids asking what we’re having, and Mum mocking back, ‘Bread and duck under the table!’ before the chorus echoes her stock reply. Coming back together, we sit down at the blue marbled laminate kitchen table with its faded gingham cross-stitched tablecloth.

It’s Mum’s payday so there is plenty of good tucker on this occasion: lamb roast with mint sauce, baked pumpkin and potatoes, peas and carrots, tinned peaches and vanilla ice-cream for dessert. One little brother (number seven), five big sisters, me (number six) and Mum chow down, elbow to elbow, gabbling and giggling in our closeness.

‘Mum, I started that job today. And I only have to work one day a week,’ I say.

‘Which job is that, love?’

‘The one at the Jag car company in Richmond – you  know …’

‘Good on you. Are you sure it’s only one day a week?’

‘Yes, they told me I’m a Girl Friday,’ I say with a hint of indignation.

 

***************************************************

 

The whole family bursts out laughing and explains my new full-time job title to me, and my heart sinks below my asphalt-scarred knees. I only took the job because I thought I only had to work on Fridays.

A month into fourth form, year ten, Mum said I had to get a job. She had finally left Dad the year I started high school, and we went with her. I was to pay my way, with half my wages going to Mum for board, just like all of my big sisters were already doing and my little brother was destined to do.

There had been a couple of running-in-the-corridor incidents at Oakleigh High, so I was happy to scarper with an incomplete commercial course and some touch-typing skills under my belt. Our two-bob-snob headmistress Miss Dyer told us commercial girls that we’d all end up working behind a counter at Coles. Once I paid for fares, board, lunches, clothes, shoes and ciggies I was $10 worse off than the dole, but I didn’t mind leaving school one bit. I was dreaming of an independent income, my wonderful life ahead, and a new pair of high-waist Staggers jeans like number five sister, who had three pairs she wouldn’t lend me.

Since I was twelve, I’d secretly hoped to be an authoress, which is what we called women writers back in the old days. Maybe it was the hairy-beary stories we told each other at night in bed, a funny recap of our day, that made me want to be a storyteller. Or maybe it was the lack of good books in my primary school library that convinced me that I too could become a writer; all I needed was paper and a pencil. While I loved Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl stories, I couldn’t relate to private-school girl adventures set in the English countryside. Their parents all seemed to be independently wealthy. The reality was, I needed to put my stories on hold and earn an independent living to afford a room of my own and bread and duck under the table. If I couldn’t write the words, I would type them. So, I became a Girl Friday.

For Mum, a cafeteria and factory worker, the possibility of her six daughters progressing to a cushy office job was a huge step up. Even so, she’d complain loudly and often that ‘not one of you girls have ever done a hard day’s work in your life!’ before slumping into her armchair and lighting up a Viscount, pen hovering over the Herald Sun crossword.

Mum often told us stories about how she was pulled out of her first year of high school at 13 by her foster mother, the old battle-axe we called Nan. Back in 1940 Nan had arranged for Mum to assist in a cake shop instead of taking up a scholarship to continue high school. There was never a time we forgot our parents’ hard starts, growing up during the post-Second World War depression era. Our future had to be better than that, but their pasts were not that far behind them. Their histories held us all back.

As number six of seven it was easy to get lost up the back of the pack, and it was hard to keep up with my big sisters. I’d wait for their new clothes to become too small or worn out. Hankering for their oversized hand-me-downs, rolling up sleeves and folding cuffs to create my own style. I don’t remember getting many new clothes as a kid. But I do remember being hungry and secretly searching the kitchen cupboards for food and finding cubes of chocolate in silver wrappers. I wasn’t the only little kid in the family lining up for the dunny after eating those chocolate-flavoured laxatives by mistake.

When we were little, Dad would take us to catch yabbies from the side of a river somewhere, with bits of meat tied to fishing line wound around cans, which we’d usually get tangled during cast-off. One time as Dad untangled our lines from an overhanging tree branch, perched flat-out on the limb face-down, his Coke-bottle glasses, slipped off his nose and plopped into the water. He cursed, and out fell his false teeth.

We wet ourselves laughing at our silly old man as he spent the rest of the afternoon knee-deep in the waterhole, sifting through the murky bottom, blindly searching for his eyes and his fangs. Magically, he found both, wiping his specs on his overalls and rinsing his plates in the creek before returning them to his mouth. Our dad was funny and lucky. We’d arrive home muddy and shivering with a bucket of nippy yabbies for tea. Mum would cook up and get us little kids, two at a time, into the bath.  He was the chaos and she was the order.

When I was a nipper growing up in the late 1960s, living deep in the sprawling outer-fringe suburbs of Melbourne, middle sister (number four) was always the boss of us three little kids. We would often ride our bikes around the local university grounds, oblivious to what this manicured place was, but we knew Mum worked in a cafeteria there, somewhere. This was around the time that married women employed by the Commonwealth Public Service were no longer forced to relinquish their paid work, forfeit their superannuation rights, or conceal their relationship status.

Playing offices was one of my favourite games, saved for scorching summer holidays and wet weekends. Boss sister would round us up in the small, middle bedroom off the lounge room. We’d wheel over the sewing machine table, whip out the green manual typewriter and roll in the copy paper Mum brought home from her work. We’d answer an old, red unplugged rotary telephone, yelling reports of black gold gushers discovered in phantom countries far away, and flick frantically through shoeboxes of filing cards titled with make-believe company names in alphabetical order: AAA Oil Men and Greasy Slick Bros. Inc.

‘Now take a letter, Miss Jones,’ the boss would bark, pacing, and us three little kids would scramble for the pen and shorthand notebook.

As the orders and dictations got completely out of hand and the laughing, shouting and screaming climaxed, the boss would sack us all and the game was over. We’d pack up just as we heard Mum thump up the hall on the warpath.

During my adult working life, I’ve often felt like I’m playing offices.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kristine Philipp, author of Girl FridayKristine Philipp is an unemployable old punk. She graduated with BA Hons in cinema-media studies in 2000, has written and performed stand-up comedy shows, and has published her creative non-fiction in journals, on the ABC online and as audio stories.

Visit the publisher’s website

Author: Kristine Philipp

Category: Biography & True Stories

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Hardie Grant Books

ISBN: 9781743799383

RRP: $36.99

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