February 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Open market

By Cate Kennedy
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Once Kevin Rudd’s $10.4-billion bonus found its way into Australians’ bank accounts, malls and mega-marts across the land were reportedly swamped with eager spenders in the days leading up to Christmas. Sure, we grasped the implications of the global economic crisis, but we were also prepared to demonstrate our consumer confidence in the way we like best: buying stuff.

On the day itself, most of us took a breather. “Christmas Day is the eye of the retail storm,” Scott Driscoll of the Retailers’ Association said sagely, about one of the very few days of the year that most traders stay closed, steeling themselves for the Boxing Day onslaught.

But what do people buy on Christmas Day, given the chance? At 5.15 on Christmas morning, Heather, who copped the early shift at my local independent supermarket (“Open from 6.00 am to 8.30 pm!”), was busy skewering floppy raw chooks onto the rotisserie and stacking raw potato cakes into the wire basket over the deep fryer. She lugged in 250 newspapers and flipped on the lights above the bain-marie. Takeaway food? On Christmas Day? You’d be amazed, apparently, how many mid-morning passers-by on the way to Mum’s or Aunty Lorna’s crave a quick hot dog, or the store’s any-three-for-$2 dim-sim and potato-cake deal. And 250 newspapers? Who’s got time to read one on Christmas day?

Heather and another staff member, Leanne, had spent Christmas Eve preparing six buckets of coleslaw, three of potato salad and three of pasta salad. “I guess because we make them here they look sort of homemade, compared to the big supermarket chains,” Leanne explained. “And we don’t turn off the deep fryer till 7 pm. Most people drop in for just what you’d expect, though: last-minute cartons of cream or custard, alcohol, and ice. Oh, and batteries. We sell a truckload of batteries.”

By 6 am Heather had the pies and bacon-and-egg rolls stacked and ready to go. The first customer walked in at 6.03. It was a bloke, and he bought a newspaper. The second customer, a few minutes later, did the same. Until 7.30 they were all blokes, all buying newspapers, ice, cigarettes or milk. After 9 am, when the bottle shop opened, they would add beer to their purchases, Leanne declared confidently.

The first woman to enter, at 7.35, raced distractedly through the aisles and headed to the register, before remembering something else and hurrying back. This happened again, and then again. She bought salad dressing, tin foil, spring onions, bread and chips. Then she reconsidered, and ran back to change the chips for pretzels. “More upmarket, pretzels,” Leanne observed. “You can tell by their body language the women are already flustered, and trying to think of everything they have to do.”

She laughed, eyebrows raised, as another man strolled in to buy smokes and a paper. “If I were to sum it up,” she said, “I’d say the women are here buying cooking accessories, and the blokes are here buying reading and calming accessories.” She gave another peal of laughter. “Except the bloke who came in mid-morning and bought a pack of condoms off me. I thought, well, he’s having a merry Christmas!”

Nine staff members worked on split shifts throughout the day, including two juniors. They were all women. One of the juniors, Tegan, clocked on at 7 am after a big night out with friends and only two-and-a-half hours’ sleep. “She started cutting up the ham quite happily, but needed a bit of a sit-down in the office at about 9 am,” Leanne said. “Two-and-a-half hours’ sleep! That’s dedication.”

The staff didn’t have time for any celebrations during the day; they were constantly busy serving customers and refilling the rapidly emptying shelves. They did get together for a staff party a week before Christmas, when the bosses from the big smoke took them out to dinner. “They wined and dined us, and we did our best to rise to the occasion – but, well, we were all pretty tired,” Leanne recalled. “The two juniors couldn’t come, unfortunately: one was busy with exams and one was having her wisdom teeth out. She still topped her school in her final-year exams, though – it’s great, isn’t it? Dux of her college, and still held down a part-time job here. We’re all pretty proud of our little duxie.”

Heather’s husband came in briefly. She’d left long before he woke up, and he wanted to wish her a merry Christmas.

Leanne worked flat-out, a model of efficiency as she restocked the cigarette shelves with carton after carton, and topped up the dog-food tins. “It’s like, after days of celebrating leading up to Christmas, people suddenly remember their pets and have an attack of the guilts,” she said, grinning. “That’s the only food you’ll see the fellas buying: pet food.”

Some serious quantities of wine and beer started moving mid-morning, just as Leanne predicted, along with bags of ice, milk and the ubiquitous roast chickens (45 sold by 11.30 am). A lot more men, it seemed from the queues, were going to be spending their day reading the paper and cracking a few stubbies, only now they were pausing on the way out to scoop up, with their free hand, the boxes of Cadbury Roses chocolates, plum puddings and brandy snaps stacked by the aptly named Impulse Bar.

Trading hours for alcohol ended at 1 pm, causing a last rush on slabs and white wine. Packets of replacement batteries were running out the door in the white-knuckled grip of parents, whose relief at finding them was palpable. They approached the register like pilgrims carrying the Holy Grail.

At 4 pm, Leanne clocked off wearily to go home and start preparing prawn cocktails and a roast turkey for her family. “I tell you, by the time I walk in my own front door I hardly say a word to my husband. I’m smiled out. I’m like, Merry bloody Christmas.”

Jo took over and handled, with impassive aplomb, the stressed and vociferous customers who wanted to buy alcohol and were under the impression that there were extended trading hours on Christmas Day. “I tell them: You’ve been misinformed,” she said calmly. “The pub up the road opens its bottle shop at 4, anyway – it’s not as if anyone’s going to die of thirst.”

The three staff members remaining, as the afternoon wore on, continued to greet customers, slid more fried food into paper bags (note to Mr Rudd: consider a dim-sim-led economic-recovery package), and sold the very last carton of brandy custard. They used every quiet moment to tidy and restock the shelves yet again, before it was time to start cleaning up. Boxing Day would be busy, because the big supermarket up the road was going to close early and they would need to be ready to take up the slack. They emptied the bain-marie and wiped it clean, turned off the oil in the deep fryer, mopped and swept, carted in the sign from the nearby intersection, and got the floats ready for the next day.

The very last customer came to the register at 8.29 on the knocker, just as they were about to lock the door. He bought strawberries, lettuce and tomatoes, and a bottle of cola.

Oh, and a newspaper.

Cate Kennedy
Cate Kennedy is the author of Dark Roots and The World Beneath. She writes poetry, short stories and novels, and has written for the New Yorker.

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