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Stories & Scripts

Source: Adults

Author: Marjorie Dobbs

Title: Onion Rings

Onion Rings

Monday morning arrived wet and cold.
Just the sort of Monday morning that makes us think "I HATE Mondays!"

Actually I was quite looking forward to this particular Monday morning because this was the morning that our new office trainee was to arrive.

I love to watch people and the way they get on - or don't. I was really intrigued to be able to watch as Mrs Wainwright, our secretary (as she still insisted upon being called) took on our new girl.

Picture this: Mrs Wainwright was a sixty-something stuffy spinster-type of person. Actually she was not a spinster. She had been married once, back in the sands of time. I had never managed to get her to enlighten me as to the circumstances, but he died, perhaps in a war, I was not sure where or how.

Still, if you can - imagine her - a spinster, glasses, tweed skirt and 'sensible' shoes, even in summer's 40 degree heat. Her brisk no-nonsense walk and brusque manner and oh-so-efficient work ethic and, yes, she still preferred shorthand to more modern recording methods. More reliable, she said. She could actually read her own shorthand, even weeks later! Amazing lady.

As I said, she insisted upon the title of secretary. None of this P.A., or assistant to the Director rubbish, even though she directly did assist the director, my Husband, in every way possible. Without her, he said, he could not go on.

Great, I thought, says volumes for me! However I did understand what he meant.

Anyway Mrs Wainwright (no, never Judy!) Had voiced her intention to retire in the next twelve months and had advised Jack that she would be willing to train her replacement if he would find someone suitable. "No college girls, please! If you want one of those, wait until I have left."

A golden opportunity, then, awaited the lucky recipient of this position.

Jack got in touch with a local recruiting agency and you would have been astounded as to how difficult it was to find such a girl.

The director of the agency pointed out that girls with the aspiration to become a P.A. Would go to college as a matter of course. We had to agree that in this day and age that was probably true, but there must be some girl out there who could not go to college for some reason or other who would love to be able to take advantage of one-to-one training with one of the world's most efficient secretaries! The director held out little hope but offered to try.

Last week we interviewed six of the worlds most hopeless looking girls you could ever come across. Actually there was a boy as well but he said (yes, he said it in so many words) that he was only there to fulfil his obligation to prove he was actively job seeking. Said he couldn't see himself in an office. Fair enough. I signed his form. I hoped that he would eventually find his dream job, he was quite personable.

Well the girl we picked, Sharelle, had orange hair, cut in one of those modern styles that look as though the lawnmower ran over them, a stud in her nostril, black lipstick and nail polish and the shortest skirt she could possibly wear and still remain decent. Decent, did I say? I didn't think our precious Mrs W was going to think so. Sharelle's only concession to Mrs W's line of thinking would be sensible shoes, if black boots qualify as sensible shoes!

Underneath all of that, though, there seemed to be a girl who had had a fairly difficult life who really wanted a chance. She seemed to me to be genuine so we offered her the job.

She seemed really delighted and promised to do her best, whatever that would mean.

I asked her if she could come to work on Monday and could she possibly come dressed a little more conservatively. I received a blank stare in reply. I wondered whether she knew what I was referring to.

Now Monday had arrived and I think that I was probably at least as excited to see how Sharelle got on with her new job as she would be herself.

I had tried to warn Mrs W that though we had found a girl, that she was a bit modern as I called it, in the hope that she would not have the vapours as soon as they met.

The clock ticked by.



Mrs Wainwright arrived. As usual she arrived in time to remove her coat and set up her desk, turn on her computer - yes, she had allowed Jack to give her a computer which she used as efficiently as anyone, even using e-mail. Only, she said, because everyone expected such things in business these days - and generally be ready to begin working on the dot of 9.00am.

At 9.03 the door opened and Sharelle shyly put her orange lawnmower head round the door, smiled sweetly (pink lipstick this time) and said, "am I late? Really sorry, the bus...."

"If you want to work here, please note that we begin WORKING at 9.00, we don't ARRIVE at 9.00..... And please remove that ridiculous wig!" Mrs W barely looked up from the document she was typing in, how did she know what the girl looked like?

"Sorry," Sharelle allowed the rest of her body to follow her head around the door. She turned to close the door and Mrs W looked over her glasses at her to take in the full picture.

The look on her face was priceless!

She said not a word.

Monday morning was great! I had a ball!

I wondered how this old battle-axe of a woman - I loved her dearly, don't get me wrong, I just could not see how this was going to work - would handle this young girl.

Anyone who has worked in an office environment knows that sometimes the day goes by in a quiet hubbub of telephone answering, mail sorting, document sorting and so forth and I was unable to watch too closely the interactions between these two most opposite of people.

Morning tea was quiet, lunch break didn't really happen at all because just at the moment we usually stop there was a major disagreement on the factory floor and Jack, Myself and Mrs W. had to go and fix it. We left Sharelle tidying some papers and I was somewhat surprised to find her still there when we returned.

Tuesday morning Sharelle arrived at 8.53.

Mrs W. Smiled a half smile and said, "so you do listen - sometimes."

Sharelle didn't smile.

Her hair was still orange.

After several weeks when the routine had settled somewhat I suddenly realised that Sharelle's hair was a softer, more auburn colour. Her skirts were a little longer and her lips and nails were a subdued dusky pink. She wore a little makeup which made her almost pretty. The stud in her nostril was still there and she wore similar delicate studs in her ears.

Morning tea had become a time of conversation and brain picking. I noticed that Sharelle's questions were intelligent and insightful.

I sat back and watched as over time the two stories emerged. I was astounded to hear the similarities between these two people whom I had assumed could not have been more different.

Mrs W said it was like taking a slice of onion.

When you meet someone for the first time all you see is the brown outer skin. If you remove it there is another underneath. Then a tough onion ring, then more layers, one after another until you get to the inner core of the onion.

It seemed that Mrs W was once the same age as Sharelle.

Though that sounds an obvious statement, somehow it seemed to me to be something of a revelation.

She had begun work in 1954 at age 16. Actually it had been three months before her 16th birthday. She had said that she was 16 because that had been the age that had been advertised as being required for the position.

She had 'borrowed' her older sister's clothes, stockings, shoes and lipstick.
Her inexperience in applying these had made her look, as she recalled, like a clown.
The owner of the factory had reported to her Father, who had thrashed her with his belt. Her sister had refused to speak to her for weeks as she had also been punished, though less severely, for allowing her sister to use this deception

Oddly and inexplicably she still was offered a position, though not the one she had wanted.
She swept floors, ran errands and had been made to work extremely hard. Perhaps it had been a part of the punishment and she suspected that her father had had something to do with the situation.

She resolved to work her way out of that drudgery and put aside some of her pay to enable her to go to night classes to learn shorthand and typing in an effort to climb out of that pit.

It was one evening at the night class that she had met her Charles. Charles Wainwright.

Of course, it was a different world back then, as she reminded Sharelle.
One didn't wear whatever one wanted. One did not do whatever one wanted. One certainly did not date whomever one wanted, especially not if he happened to be the bank manager's son and you a mere sweeper-up and errand girl!

Charles had been at the class to pick up a cousin of his who was doing the same course. He wouldn't speak to her, of course. None of them would. They were all far above her 'class'. In a country that prided itself upon treating people equally it was quite evident that this only applied when it suited the citizens at the time. One soon found out where one stood when one tried to step out of one's place!

Her studies paid off eventually when she passed the final examination with credit. She applied for a position as secretary at Charles' father's bank. She beat stiff opposition with her practical tests and the supervisor had to grudgingly offer her the job because her shorthand and typing speeds were far above the rest of the applicants and she was second to none for accuracy.

She worked there unnoticed by Charles for several years until finally she herself became supervisor over what was known as the typing pool. Sharelle was intrigued by this term and Mrs W had to explain what a tying pool was. Sharelle giggled, "I visualise a whole lot of fish with typewriters!"

Slowly and imperceptibly he had begun to notice her and they very gradually built a friendship and then something of a romance, though it was kept very quiet.

Charles went off to Vietnam eventually and she was left watching the news every night on her little black and white television set until the day her boss, Charles' father, announced that he would be leaving the bank and there would be a new manager in charge. The reason for the sudden departure, he had said, was to retire to the country so that his wife could recover from the loss of their only son in the jungles of Vietnam!

Mrs W never wavered in her duties, never letting on to anyone that her heart had turned to stone with that announcement.

She resigned from her position the next week, served her month's notice and then went to another bank in another city with her good references and took on the name of Mrs Wainwright.

So she was a spinster after all!

She lived for her work. Had no hobbies except a little needlecraft. No pets, no family and almost no friends. Eventually she had applied for work in our office and apart from her collection of impeccable references we knew very little about our Mrs Wainwright.

This little tale goes some way to explain, then, why she took on this little misfit of a girl in order to train her to have all the same work ethics that she had herself.

Sharelle was from one of those modern families with two Mothers and two Fathers, a step of each. There were siblings by the thousand, or so it seemed when she spoke of them. There was no money, no discipline, plenty of junk food, alcohol and perhaps even a few drugs, too.

She had skipped school whenever it suited her to roam the streets with her friends.

However her intelligence was obvious and it was a real pity that this intelligence had not been better utilised to give her the kind of life she obviously deserved. Only a week or two after she began working with us the police called around to discuss with her an accusation of shoplifting. She was broken hearted and begged us to give her another chance.

She admitted to the offence and said that at that time she felt there was little chance of ever amounting to anything and that she thought that was to be her life forever. If so she might as well stop fighting it and live life to the best of her ability. If that meant stealing then so be it. She even thought of running away to the city and going on the 'game', as she called it.

Jack and I were horrified, but Mrs W seemed to understand. She said there were many young people who could have done better who land in that situation through no fault of their own, simply because they think that's all life has to offer. I suspected she knew more than she was letting on in that regard.

So, very slowly Mrs W educated our little Sharelle.

True to her word she retired the next year, though she always kept in touch and would call in to visit us often. We seemed to have become the family she missed out on, especially Sharelle, who blossomed into a beautiful young woman.

When our son, Mark, took a fancy to Sharelle and they began to date I could only wistfully think of our Mrs W and her lost love.

I never did find out what her real name was.

She died last year and left her little nest egg of a few thousand dollars to Sharelle - the daughter she never had.


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