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Monday, 30 May 2011

NOT EVERYONE IS BACK IN BUSINESS


There’s a house in Rocklea, in Brisbane’s south-west, about 12km from the city centre. It’s home to a very dear friend. It’s a post-war home, reminiscent of many in the area when Salisbury was the epicentre of the 1950s industrial boom.

It has three bedrooms, one of which has been converted for use as a beauty spa. The renovated kitchen boasts an open plan dining area. The quaint bathroom gleams with sparkling tiles and a new loo. There’s a covered patio for long Sunday barbeques, a garden full of fruit trees and a fledgling olive plant. There’s two water tanks, two dogs, and a whole bunch of happiness.

Well, there used to be.

On Thursday, 13 January, flood waters went through the roof of this home. Literally. The beautifully renovated kitchen was invaded by the insidious water that held Brisbane hostage. The disgusting muck surged down the toilet, in between the walls and through the cracks in the polished wood floors. It carted the water tanks away, ripped up the fruit trees and disintegrated the doors and walls.

What was left was a heaving, rancid mess – utterly uninhabitable, unthinkably ruined, devastatingly lost. It wasn’t a home anymore, it was a dump. A wasteland of memories, happiness and sunshine days.

But it was still her home. And that’s the hardest part of all the horror that was the Brisbane floods. It’s still her home even though it is not fit for a wild animal to prowl through during the night.

My dear friend learnt the hard way, as did many many Brisbane home-owners, that insurance cover doesn’t always mean insurance cover . The scoundrels who run these agencies nit-picked fine print to death and managed to invent several meanings for flooding.

Silly me, I always thought flooding was a result of too much water coming down and the rivers and dams not being able to process it quickly enough, so therefore our homes, parks and streets were filled with water.

Apparently not. Whatever caused the flood, they said they’d only cover for the other reasons. Oh, and then said premiums would need to rise to cover their costs. Huh? Isn’t that what insurance is all about. What would I know, I’m just a writer and a home-owner. Mmmm.

So my dear friend lives day by day, battling tears, despair and adversity in an attempt to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that her gorgeous home has become. Little by little she saves up to get some new doors, or to fix the plumbing or to get a new stove. But it’s not fast enough.

It’s now over four months since those dark January days that stopped our city. And for all the lauding on the media that Brisbane is “back in business”, let’s not for a second forget that many people are not anywhere near opening their doors for business, let alone even having a proper door that you can open in the first place.

Just today, I took a drive around the streets of Rocklea, in that little residential pocket off Marshall Road near the McDonald’s. It was an old stomping ground of mine some years ago and holds some very fond memories.

Homes now lay vacant, their doors and windows wide open in surrender. The flood waters won the battle, and they also won the war. Dirty exterior markings brag how high the water rose. The air is putrid with resignation and anguish. A few brave souls soldier on, gamely employing construction crews to right the wrongs. Or simply to jack their home as high as council will allow.


But for many it is just too much. They’ve walked away. Tenants and owners alike. The “for sale” signs are plentiful, as are “for lease” signs. The warm camaraderie that I always knew to exist is still present, just in a very decreased number.

The place I called home all those years ago has been gutted. No longer is there the kitchen where I lovingly prepared my daughter’s meals. Nor the street-facing room where I concocted blogs and columns, and proudly started a small business. I didn’t need a doorway to pass between rooms anymore.

All I could see was the claw foot bath. Not even the nastiest of flood waters was going to move that sucker!

So people, all I ask, is that you spare a thought, and maybe a prayer, for some of our folk who actually aren’t back in business or on the road to recovery. Our folk who still live in rented accommodation because they can’t face the muck that awaits them back home. Or haven’t left the security of mum and dad’s to sort out the mess that once was their home.

Or the brave ones, like my friend, who have no other option than to live in the remnants of their own castle and who each day, try to make a little bit of a difference.

They’re not back in business at all.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

AS TIME GOES BY

When I first started working, it was a part time job at Big W Carindale, way back before Carindale Shopping Centre was the unsightly gangly monolith it is today. It was 1980, I was 15, and Thursday night trading had just commenced in Brisbane and shopping after dark was considered very avant garde. Oooh la la.

Silly checkout girls like me reported to an austere humourless lady called Mrs Hickey. Nothing could humour that lady. She was about as funny as a fire in a children’s home. We thought we were hilarious by referring to her as “The Hickey” but the passage of time has made me see how lame that was. She recurrently used the royal “we”, perched her spectacles on the tip of a pointed nose and sniffed in disdain a great deal.

She clearly didn’t have her spectacles on when she typed my name badge on the Dymo wheel, and for a year I was known to the Carindale public as “Brown Vowles”. Mmmmmm.

One time, she called us all to work 15 minutes early to do the 1980s version of team building. We had to answer the question, “Why do I come to work?” and she said that if anyone answered with “for the money” she would fire us on the spot.

What a stupid question. And what stupid repercussions. That was back in the days when you could fire someone on the spot. This is pre-industrial relations and no one sued their boss.

When I was at university, I left the shackles of Big W and Mrs Hickey to sell flowers out of a basket at Brisbane night spots to support my studies. Eliza’s Flower Service would load up cars with buckets of flowers and send pretty young girls out into the night to tote their wares.

First it was to the public bars, where late husbands would scrounge up $5 for a cheap bunch to take home as a peace-offering. Restaurants with cooing couples were ripe for sales, especially with my opening line, “Sir, that’s a beautiful woman you are dining with tonight and I am sure she’d really appreciate a flower.” What a crock.

At the nightclubs – hands up my generation who remember Sibyl’s in Adelaide Street, General Jackson’s under the Crest and the Underground up where that posh get-up The Barracks now is? It was at these spots that I’d be accosted in a gentlemanly way by the single boys who’d failed to score. They’d buy me the flowers, which is sweet. And even sweeter because I’d pocket the money and re-sell the flower the second his back was turned. Wouldn’t you?

When it was time to get a proper grown-up job, I found myself in the badlands of Acacia Ridge working with transport giant Linfox. Everyone smoked at their desk, everyone swore both passively and aggressively, and girls regularly got whacked on the butt.

“This pretty young thing is Bron,” was how my boss would introduce me. Where was Pru Goward when I needed her?

Kevin Bloody Wilson and Rodney Rude were making a fortune screeching profanities out of cassette tapes, and the warehouse crews blasted their obscenities as blithely as they hung the People magazine centrefolds above their desks.

We had no mobiles, faxes, modems, internet or smartphones. If we wanted to tell someone something, we picked up the phone and told them. After we’d asked them how their football game went, and how their daughter’s birthday party was. And laughed about something funny on television the night before.

If we had something a bit more formal to tell someone, we typed a letter. On a typewriter. In duplicate. For people like me, I always made a typo on the second last word, and my attempt to fix it would render a hole in the paper so I’d rip the thing out, swear out loud, and start again. Back then, swearing at a typewriter was an everyday occurrence.

Later I ended up working for one of Kerry Packer’s companies, and although by then the butt smacking and the office smoking had ceased, maternity leave entitlements hadn’t even started. After enduring a job interview that included the question, “Do you have any immediate plans to fall pregnant?” I worked for two years until I did, by chance, fall pregnant.

It was 1991, and I worked until I was 39 weeks then took as much holiday and sick leave as I could. There was no obligation by the employer to keep my job open, nor for them to pay me any form of allowance. You just hoped and prayed and did a very tight budget.

Was it better back then? Maybe not the butt-smacking and the cigarette smoking, and we may have had more challenges, but there was fewer imagined problems.

Some things haven’t changed though. At one place I worked, the service manager was getting it on with the lady who ran accounts payable (things like that still happen today), a long Friday lunch was great fun (that still happens today) and there was too much fortnight in each pay period to make the money last (yep, that sometimes happens now too!)

And I still smile everytime I walk into Big W Carindale.