I first met my old boss at a block party held by the woman that lived next door. Of course, he wasn’t my boss then, merely an older gent from up the road whose son I’d been trying to impress. He arrived late, gifted our host with a bottle of Moët and introduced himself as a conservative. I thought I would hate him but he took a liking to me instantly. He was an oddity. He was a highly intelligent man full of stories and conflicting ideas. You could never tell what was really true and whether or not he really believed in the ideals he would espouse but so often disagree with. We talked often, chasing trains of thought that knotted madly, butting heads in the gentlest of fashions. He liked to read my writing. I respected him.
In 2007, around my 21st birthday, I made a pair of earrings using a Reject Shop beading kit and a large pair of plyers. I was also fired from my kebab slinging job. I took my earrings and my wounded pride to my not-yet-boss’s place to show off what I’d made. I found him in the back shed, drinking coffee with his wife. She had a rough smoker’s voice and a low tolerance for bullshit. She was a hard, thin woman of very few words and it’s no stretch to say that she frightened me. She was also the first to notice my potential.
“You’ve got little hands, don’t you?”
Between puffs on their respective cigarettes, they pulled out magnifying glasses and inspected my work. It just so happens they’d been looking for a girl with ‘small hands and nimble fingers.’ I had no idea what they were on about. It had never occurred to me to ask what they did for a living. I thought they were retired, but they offered me a job on the spot. The very next day they put me to work manufacturing, testing and packaging highly specialised electrical components with no prior knowledge and no qualifications other than the fact that I had deft little fingers.
Our factory was one of several sheds on an industrial estate, second from a timber cutter and three sheds down from a wholesale adult shop. There was no cooling in summer and no heating in winter, but on very cold days his wife would put an old broken radiator by my feet. The whole estate was served by a single take-away around the corner, where it would take upwards of half an hour if you ordered a sandwich. There wasn’t anything else nearby, not even a bus route. It was nothing like I was accustomed to.
My boss had divided jobs according to his long held assumptions of what a woman should and shouldn’t be able to do. There were only five of us in that little factory. My boss and his wife, and the two guys on staff who were both a year younger than me, so when I arrived, the workload had already been divvied up according to ‘boys’’ and ‘girls’’ jobs. It was the first time as a working adult that I’d truly come across overt sexism.
I hated the girls’ jobs. They were fiddly, repetitive and menial. Of all of them, bobbin winding was the worst. You’d spend the whole day in the one spot, wrapping wire onto a spool and pressing the big red button on what was essentially a glorified sewing machine. These tightly wound wire coils were an essential component of most of our stock. We were always running out, but I noticed that even when there was nothing else to be done, the boys were never expected to help. They thought it was beneath them.
I made it a point to volunteer for the boys’ jobs. I can do it quickly became my mantra.
“But you’ll get your hands dirty…”
I can do it.
“These are dangerous materials…”
I can do it.
“You have to be strong…”
I can do it.
I bested the guys at every turn. I needed to show them I was capable, not just for me but for my boss, and I suppose, all of womankind. As I said, my boss was a smart man, but in many ways he could be an ignorant and frustrating man. There was a vast gulf between the man that ran his company and the man that was my friend. I needed him to see past the cloud of assumptions that assumed my weakness. I needed him to work past the cognitive dissonance that split me into to two roles – girl and apprentice – and to reconcile those roles with the person whose stories he’d read, whose ideas he’d respected, and whose company he’d enjoyed.
I noticed a subtle change in the attitudes of most of the men who’d come into our factory in the year I worked there. I believe they had come to respect me. They’d stopped pigeonholing me and had begun to recognise me as a whole person, in all my complexity. I hope this new perspective transferred to all of the women in their lives. Small victories.
As for my boss, I miss him. I moved out of town, and in the end, I worked so well that I worked myself out of a job. There were no more orders to be filled and I had to move on. It’s stayed with me though, that little factory. It’s there in my stories, in the way my female characters are always making things; in the way I tend to explore relationships in small, isolated communities. My boss is there too. He was there in my short-listed story, Marnie and the Old Man. He’s in my novel in progress. He’s there, again and again, the old man that is now a symbol to me; the mentor, the philosopher, the frustrating best friend.
Melia Donk lives in Central Victoria and spends her days writing things, mostly her first novel. Occasionally, she travels to Melbourne to work on her PhD in Screen Studies. She has two cats and drinks far too much green tea.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.