On every other weekend in the 1960s, I used to stay with my grandmother. She was Jessica Elizabeth, though no one called her that, she was always known as Beau. I was never told why. He was Benjamin James, and they were Ben and Beau to all and sundry.
Former darlings of the Victorian-based Moonee Ponds Racing Club, high society of Melbourne’s northern suburbs dining set and he, car salesman extraordinaire, apparently fell on hard times and he passed away not long afterwards. Nan then moved into a whole new world — she became sole owner of a haberdashery shop, a term that I’m not sure many young people would know today.
This shop of wonders was situated in Brunswick, an area that probably now teams with the café society and the glitterati. I don’t know to be honest, I’ve never been back there; but in the 1950s and ’60s, it was a derelict and scary place to be, especially for a seven-year-old girl.
The Melville Road strip shops, about a dozen in all, were joined together at the front, but a corrugated iron fence down one side of each separated the attached residences — the eaves were, at best, 40cm apart. Even on those absolute stinker summer days way back then, it was gloomy and damp walking down the concrete path to the rear shop door.
I remember so many things: heaps of dry cleaning bags and wire coat hangers. The Lay-By section covered up by a plastic shower curtain. Shelves and shelves of wool in a rainbow of colours.
In the large brass-fronted display window were things I was ‘never ever to touch’ — the ornaments. Statues of ballet dancers or fairies sitting on mushrooms. Lithe ladies in flowing robes; a ceramic robin on a branch; a ‘little boy blue’ lamp; a china spoon rest, and a tea set that was on display for so long the pattern had faded.
Also up front were the latest in Paton’s Wool knitting patterns, a fiddly array of crochet hooks and skeins of cotton, and discretely displayed above eye level was a filmy negligee, corsets, spencers, bras and many packets of stockings — with seams and without!
Nan perched on a busted step stool behind the counter during ‘quiet times’ to work out her racing bets. There was a huge cash register that rang up pounds, shillings and pence that I was ‘never to touch’ and, tucked away in an alcove, a heavy black telephone with a rotary dial displaying alphabet letters and numbers. It sat on a shelf, looking for all in the world like a prized trophy. The plaited cord always used to kink, causing Nan much grief at times. Occasionally she was doubled up trying to talk into the phone with her forehead nearly banging into the shelf, while the cord remained in very stubborn knots!
Two large pink-page phone books sat nearby, dog-eared from use, and next to those, a new-fangled item, the Teledex. This ingenious device saved much rummaging through handbags, coat pockets and the ubiquitous bottom kitchen drawer trying to find scraps of paper with people’s phone numbers scrawled upon them. Nan’s teledex was filled with her fine handwriting displaying many of her suppliers, and of course, her ‘bookies’. The phone numbers began with letters like FX and FJ.
The device itself was cleverly engineered; thick paper was slotted onto metal fingers at the top, the edges die-cut into tabs and the lot was fitted into a box with a flip-top lid. Simply move the slider to a pre-printed letter of the alphabet on the outside of the box — let’s say you’re looking for Joan Moore — so slide down to M, press the bottom button, and up pops the lid to reveal the M page with all your entries. What genius!
Nan’s teledex was not like the one we had at home. We had a lightweight olive-green plastic affair sitting on our ‘luxe telephone table’. With its sliding cream button and beige paper with ruled lines, it paled into insignificance compared to my grandmother’s walnut wood and black bakelite number with its steel slider. You could have killed someone with that heavyweight; hell, if not the teledex then definitely the phone!
If you search online for ‘teledex’ today, the top entries detail a computerised hotel phone system. If you do the same online search for images of a teledex, *ta da* the prominent entry is the olive-green plastic phone and accompanying teledex that we had at home. Seeing it again I think I miss it, well, just a little.