I am twelve, going on thirteen when I land my first holiday job. It happens by mistake and with guilt laden subterfuge I seize the opportunity. The story begins with my friend coming over to practice singing and to tell me she will lie about her age to get a job.
She is fifteen. Her birthday is early in the year and mine is late so in fact she is going on sixteen and I have a week until my thirteenth birthday. How we became friends I cannot recall but I can guess it was our common love of music. She never admitted our age difference so it must have embarrassed her. I didn’t care. What is age anyway?
I should explain that in our neighbourhood, most of the kids went to the local school but I went to the Convent in the city. Consequently, I didn’t know the local kids my age. Instead I mixed with other Convent girls who lived in the neighbourhood, all older than me but they became my cohort. Having grown up with older siblings I was comfortable with older friends.
On this particular Saturday she came over early. We were to practice her songs for she hoped to get a spot singing in the folk club the next day. The folk club’s clientele was the Bob Dylan-emulating trendsetters of the hippy era; long haired, bead-hung, fringed jacketed older teenagers and young adults. I wasn’t out of place in their company and loved the dim smoky atmosphere, the stucco walls and red gingham table cloths, the raffia covered Chianti bottles and red concrete floor.
We always practice at my house because hers is a riot of Irishness, loud and busting with mocking children. Except for my brother, my older siblings have left home, one to become a teacher the other a Jesuit. My other brother was never home and my mother worked long hours leaving us to fend for ourselves.
It gave me freedom as well as responsibility that allowed me to get into trouble and out of it. I hated Mum knowing anything I did, in case she didn’t approve. I hated to let her down so it was better if she remained ignorant. I hated to have my freedom curtailed because of something as inconsequential as age or convention. Besides if she knew half of what I got up to she would worry herself into a migraine.
This morning when my friend knocks, I open the front door to her excited face as she waggles a rolled up Rhodesian Herald in my face.
‘I’m going for a job,’ she says.
‘Are you allowed,’ I say surprised her family would let her leave school?
She looks puzzled for a moment and then her face clears. ‘Ag no man, it a holiday job, just for the Christmas hols.’
Immediately envious I say ‘where?’
‘OK Bazaar,’ she says pushing passed me into the house.
We walk into the back room, a sort of box room between my Mum’s bedroom and my brothers’ bedroom, only accessible through one or the other. Growing up in our family it was always the most desirable room to have because it wasn’t shared and thus was allocated to the eldest child. Now with only two children left at home my brother has the biggest room which he had once shared with our eldest brother. I have graduated from my Mum’s room to the much coveted box room.
My friend flings herself onto my bed and unrolls the paper to show me the job advertisement.
‘But it says you have to be seventeen and at college. Look the commencement date starts a week before school breaks-up.’
‘Ja but that’s okay because I can miss the last week of school. No one notices if you aren’t there on the last few days. My Dad says it’s okay.’
‘But you aren’t old enough.’
‘They don’t know that. She grins and says I am going to the interviews this afternoon. They start at twelve.’
‘I thought we were going to the pictures.’
‘Ja we are but we can go to the interview first. You can wait for me and then we’ll go.’
We catch a bus to the place where the interviews are to be held. It is an inner city building and we go up in a lift. The place smells of commerce and authority and I hang back as she alights on the designated floor.
‘Come-on,’ she says impatient now.
She is dressed-up and wears her older sister’s lipstick and high-heels. I feel like a poor cousin in my hand-me-downs but dutifully I tag along behind her. The hallway outside the office is choked with young men and women lined up waiting their turn to be interviewed. She fills out a form, stating her age is seventeen and we join the queue, the last to arrive.
The day wears on. The movie start-time passes. We wait with the last half dozen applicants. At last, a seat is vacant. I leaf through a national geographic magazine, angry with my friend for ruining my Saturday, mean mouthed about missing the movie. Unable to do anything but wait.
‘We should have come earlier,’ she fidgets. ‘I’m too late and all the jobs will be gone.’
It’s your fault for taking so long getting dressed I think but say nothing, my concentration buried in the magazine pictures.
Eventually it’s her turn and I remain alone in the hall. I come to the end of the magazine and look around. There’s nothing to read of remote interest. A man comes out of a doorway and goes through another. He glances at me and smiles. I smile back self-conscious at his acknowledgement of my existence and fidget with my fingers.
A minute later a woman comes to the doorway he just entered. ‘I didn’t know there was anyone else waiting’ she says. ‘Come along now, we’re closing.’
She goes back through the door leaving me open mouthed with indecision. I hear her voice float through the doorway and it sounds cross with me for dallying.
I get up and walk hesitantly to the door. She is riffling through papers. ‘I can’t find your application,’ she says.
The man stands at an office door waiting and gestures to me. I open my mouth to protest that I am not here for the interview when he says to the woman, ‘don’t worry about the application.’
He gestures again and I follow him. He is much less scary than she is. The door closes behind me and he says ‘take a seat.’
He sits behind a desk and pulls a sheaf of papers towards him.
‘Name’ he says.
I say my name.
‘I’m still at school.’
‘Oh these jobs were intended for college students. Never mind. What school?’
‘Ah my daughter goes to the Convent but she’s in kindergarten. You wouldn’t know her.’
I shake my head.
‘The Convent have a commercial course don’t they?’
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Good.’ He scribbles something on the paper.
I hesitate. I can’t tell him my age he’ll be furious with me. I should have spoken up sooner. I say ‘sixteen.’ That way I can get out without the job and without him being mad with me.
‘Okay sixteen is a bit younger than we anticipated. When is your birthday?’
Without thinking I say ‘next Saturday,’ after all it’s true.
He writes something on the form and asks, ‘have you ever worked a holiday job before?’
‘No,’ I shake my head.
‘Good,’ he says smiling at me again. ‘That’s all I need, I think. We’ve run badly over time. Thank you for coming in. Successful applicants will be listed in the paper at the beginning of November.’
He stands up and it’s time for me to go. I can’t believe this is happening to me and I leave, my head in a daze. My friend is in the hallway looking furious.
‘Where have you been’ she says, turning to stomp off towards the lift.
I follow, excited by the prospect of a job and fearful of being caught out in my lie. When we are downstairs in the street I tell her. Instead of being amused and excited as I think she will be, she rounds on me in fury.
‘If you get a job and I don’t, I will tell them how old you are.’ She doesn’t speak to me again on the bus ride home.
Over the intervening weeks, I forget all about the prospect of a job. I will never be selected anyway so I put it from my mind. I tell my friend about my interview and how brief it was and she is satisfied that I am right, my prospects are poor. Her interview took twice as long and probed much deeper into her character and grades. It cheers her and she resumes our friendship.
We don’t get the newspaper in our house, it costs money my mother can ill afford so I don’t see the list of names when it comes out, but my friend does. Her surname is further along the alphabet than mine and for a moment she decides she will never speak to me again. Then she spots her name and all is forgiven. She races over to tell me the news, happy we will start the job together but I’m worried and don’t share her enthusiasm. How do I tell my mother?
The days pass and still I keep my secret. I don’t know what to do so I do nothing. The weeks pass. Eventually it’s Saturday and on Monday, I am expected to report to the staff entrance of the department store, to be trained as a shop assistant for the Christmas sales. I contemplate the risk of not turning up at school but knowing my luck, they will ring my mother.
On the Sunday Mum and I walk home together from church. She has a loaf in her hand, still warm from the bakery, and she glances at me worriedly.
‘What’s wrong Gilly,’ she asks.
‘There’s something wrong,’ she says. ‘Usually I can’t wrest the bread from you and here I am carrying it.’
It’s been a tradition in our family that we buy hot bread from the bakery on Sundays after church and Mum lets me pick the scab of crust off one end, to eat on the way home. I am usually starving by the time Mass is over because in those days we fasted for three hours before communion. Naturally, we would have eaten nothing since the previous night. Today I have lost my appetite.
I take my courage in hand and confess. As expected, she is horrified.
‘You can’t do it. You are not of legal age,’ she says and that’s that. Her mouth is a thin line of resolution. I can see my dreams of wealth vanishing in that line and I beg.
‘Please Mum. Please. I will get paid a pound a day and Saturday. Six pounds a week.’ It is a fortune to me.
She softens, seeing my disappointment. ‘Social Welfare will be on to me, she says. It’s illegal, you are under age.’
‘But they won’t know,’ I say.
‘You have school all week. If you don’t go to school they will know.’
‘School breaks-up on Thursday and no one goes on the last day so I will only miss three days. We don’t do anything important in the last week anyway. Please Mum.’
She walks in silence a moment her head bowed and I follow. The path narrows between long grass and I remember walking along this path every Sunday since I was five. It is the time I love best. My brothers rode their bikes to church and my sister is so much older I don’t remember her accompanying us, although she must have at times.
In the winter, I would walk with my cold hands tucked around my Mum’s arm, buried in her warmth. Often the grass was covered in black frost and my breath would puff out in white clouds. It was a time we talked and I had her to myself.
The pathway reaches the road crossing and she stands on the pavement waiting for a passing car, then she clasps my hand to cross. It’s a funny gesture and one she has done for as long as I remember even though I have been old enough to cross roads by myself since my first year at school.
Across the road she drops my hand and says, ‘what will I say, if the school telephones to ask where you are?’
Exultant I say, ‘you can tell them I’m at school because that’s where you expect me to be. I will leave to catch the bus at the same time every morning. Nothing will be different except I won’t go to school I will go to work. You don’t have to know that. I’ll take all the blame and say I didn’t tell you.’
She falls silent again and we walk home. When we reach the driveway she says. ‘I will deny any knowledge of this, do you understand.’
‘Yes.’ I hold my breath but she says nothing more and I know I am free to go to work on Monday.
A week later I receive my first pay-packet with six pounds. I am rich beyond my wildest imagination. Mum holds out her hand.
‘What,’ I ask.
‘Three pounds for board and lodging,’ she says.
Stunned for a second, I stare. I never thought of that but then, three pounds a week is still a wealth I never expected, so I hand it over cheerfully. It is my first holiday job and after that I fight to find a job every holiday, never wanting to go without again.