Chapter 6

Work Experience


To realise our work ambitions in our chosen field of expertise, all it took for us high school students was a compulsory one-day work experience programme where we visited a workplace of our choice to bask in the knowledge-glow of the successful. We would attain real-world insight and find inspiration to study hard and reach our goals.

Not me. At fifteen years old I had no idea what I wanted to be.

For work experience day my mind went straight to a bakery that sold everything.

Cream-filled long donuts had chocolate or pink icing or dusted with icing sugar, filled with whipped cream to splitting, and finished with a thumb of raspberry jam.

Custard squares were inch-thick squares of custard set between two sheets of flaky pastry with a thin layer of white icing drizzled with chocolate.

I imagined eating lolly cake, crushed malt biscuits combined with soft marshmallow-like lollies compressed with too much melted butter, shaped into a log and cut into thick wedges.

Caramel slices were a sickly sweet treat starting with a shortbread biscuit base, a middle layer of caramel filling and thick hard-set chocolate top.

My bakery had lamingtons, sponge cake squares soaked in a centimetre of raspberry or chocolate flavoured liquid then rolled in desiccated coconut, sliced through the middle and filled with whipped cream.
Then there were apple turnovers and custard twists, Sally Lunns and carrot cake, and this was only the sweet stuff.

The bakery’s hot display cases were full of greasy delights: sausage rolls, mini quiches, savouries and, my most coveted bakery item of all, steak and cheese pies. I craved the baked flaky pastry pockets filled with steak, gravy and cheese then sealed with a pastry crust.

Why I chose the bakery for work experience day wasn’t because I was fat or my ambition was to own a bakery, manage a bakery, work as a chef or learn customer services; it was because I was an attention seeker. I remember the laughs I got telling friends and classmates I would go to the bakery and eat all the pies.

At home over the white round laminate family dinner table, I shared my work-experience day plans with Mum and Dad. These were received with blank stares and no comment. Dad looked down at his dinner plate smiling to himself, his arm habitually wrapped around it as if someone might steal it while eating; I knew he was imagining what he would eat at the bakery.

My teacher never advised me to reconsider my choice by suggesting a workplace aligned to my unique skills. She said nothing. I could only conclude from people in positions of guidance I had made a good choice or work experience day didn’t demand the gravitas originally inferred in the classroom.

Work experience day fell into place. I phoned the bakery and blurted to the manager, “I’m a high school student and we are having a work experience day and I was wondering if I could come and spend a day with you to see what it is like to work at a bakery.”

“Sure,” the manager said after a long pause, and the phone line fell silent. She did not ask any follow-up questions. I asked if a particular day was acceptable, she said it was. Arrangements were made. I would eat at the bakery.

I arrived at 9am without lunch and awkwardly stood inside the bakery’s front door taking in the delicious and exciting scene.

Two middle-aged ladies served a continuous stream of customers; they slid filled rolls, custard squares and sandwiches into little white bags. Some customers ate while they paid, and the cabinets were emptying quickly. It was a slightly frantic scene. I stared into the cabinets and selected a chocolate icing cream-filled donut for later. Because it was busy, I didn’t want to disturb the ladies, but I couldn’t wait to start.

When the customers thinned out I stepped forward and introduced myself over the counter: “Hi, I’m here for work experience day.”

The first middle-aged counter woman dressed in a white smock paused. She looked sad with permanent lines around her down-turned mouth. “Yes, Cynthia said you were coming today,” she sighed, and looked at me for a long time. “Come on.”

Tilting her head to the right, Mrs Sad Face gave a violent backwards swing signalling to the back of the shop. “Wait over there,” she said, directing me to the vicinity of a large chest freezer two metres behind her. I walked though and leant on the freezer awaiting instruction.

Another twenty minutes passed while the ladies served customers.

“So, you’re here for work experience,” said Mrs Sad Face, telling me what I already knew.

“Yes,” I said, to confirm I knew I was there for work experience day.

The other, smaller woman stepped forward, I thought she would introduce herself but instead she said nothing and looked me up and down. Mrs Quiet wore the same white smock and dismissive attitude.
Mrs Sad Face directed me to restock the serviettes on the countertops, then I refilled the cabinets with food from a nearby fridge, and swept the floor.

Customers came and went.

By 10am I was bored.

I expected friendly and happy staff. I thought working at a bakery making and selling delicious food to hungry and appreciative people would prove enjoyable. Instead, Mrs Quiet and Mrs Sad Face oozed unhappiness and indolence, and when things quietened down they ignored me, huddling together near the cash register intimately speaking in hushed tones.

Ignored, I returned to my place at the freezer and, with boredom mounting, I wandered further into the bakery, where I discovered two guys working and, to my delight, making pies.

Growing up we see fanciful movies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz, so believe some things in life – like the creation of candy or waking up in munchkin land and finding your way home after making friends with a tinman – take place in beautiful creative magical ways to catchy music. As children we look past the impossible because we don’t know enough to know what impossible means. We believe everything is fun and wonderful and beautiful and possible.

I’m not saying that everything out the back was the opposite – that there was no music or it was a cesspit of filth with people fighting – and I’m not suggesting I thought the art of pie making would involve storks flying down from overhead dropping individual measures of pie mixture into single pie tins set atop backs of slow-moving turtles in a green-grass field lit by intense sunshine with a rainbow and winged unicorns flying while a jovial tune played with elves as background singers. I just have this memory of two hairy men in a dimly lit room with a make-shift table created from two sawhorses and a large flat wooden plank that could have been an old door. On the door-table, large pie trays were arranged in rows and the men filled pastry pockets with steak gravy poured from a twenty litre white plastic drum.

I was horrified.

It was worse than finding out marshmallow was made from pig’s hooves or that, as an adult, writing out cheques didn’t mean an endless money supply.

I suppose I had envisioned a giant stove top with an equally giant pot where a steak and gravy mixture simmered for hours until the meat became butter-soft, and throughout the day a bit of this and that was added until perfection was reached and a fanfare rang out for pie filling to begin. I expected something more auspicious and moving. Instead, I had seen something I couldn’t un-see. My reaction was denial. I told myself only this bakery made pies this way.

The men were friendlier than the counter ladies. Thinking they were doing me a favour by allowing me to spoon the pie-filling sludge into trays, they did not realise their kindness was causing irreversible damage to my psyche and shattering my love of pies beyond redemption and causing me to lose my faith in the wider bakery fraternity. The men smiled their hairy smiles and I wiped away tears while they weren’t looking.

Although bearers of bad news, the friendly pie men were fulfilling their obligations as providers of an enriching work experience day: the reality part.

Unaccustomed to four hours on my feet, I was pleased when lunch time arrived. I had to buy my lunch and because I did not feel like a pie, opted for a filled roll with salad and ham.

Sitting outside feeling sorry for myself, I watched cars come and go from the car park. If only they knew, I thought.

While the ladies spent their afternoon watching the clock and regretting their career choice, the men went home because baking took place in the morning. I spent the afternoon sweeping and snooping, observing the bakery’s less pretty side: storage areas in disorder, overflowing rubbish bins, and grease on surfaces. Even for a fifteen-year-old who didn’t do housework, I knew this place should be cleaner.

Time dragged. I felt stupid for thinking work experience day might have been any different, and foolish for expecting a fun and delicious time, finally understanding why the ladies were so miserable.

Standing at my freezer, I looked at Mrs Sad Face talking nonstop at Mrs Quiet who was looking at her feet and nodding. Mrs Sad Face absentmindedly stared across the room and our eyes met. She stared in a nothing way. Realising our connection, I channelled hate at her before looking away to take my fiftieth wander around of the bakery.

At home time, Mrs Sad Face said I could choose one free item from the sparse cabinet. The chocolate donuts had sold long ago so I chose a scabby-old custard square. The custard had dried hard around the edges and the icing hardened.

I politely lied and said thank you for the opportunity. It was a lie that turned out to be a thank you for the invaluable reality check.

Back at school I told the truth. It wasn’t a great work experience day but I knew how they made the pies and it was disgusting and that was the story that got me attention.

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