My summer job is a love story. Just, not one where anyone loved me

This article is part of The Age’s My First Job series, where Age writers and columnists share their humorous, poignant tales of finding their feet and receiving their first paychecks.

The story of my first summer job is a love story. Just, not one where anyone loved me.

It was the early 2000s and the gig was at Australia’s second-most-famous coffee chain. The place was off in the way that the second-most-famous anything tends to be. That offness was probably why they hired me a few months before I turned 14. The other reason was my sister.

Given my sister was the favourite, I thought I would be a natural.
Given my sister was the favourite, I thought I would be a natural.Credit: iStock

Older than me by almost a decade, my sister was their shining star. Just out of teens herself, flush with all the confidence and beauty that brings, she ruled our food court location like a benevolent queen. The girls gazed at her shiny brown hair, spray of freckles, boyfriend with a car and wanted to be her. The boys listened to her easy laugh – delivered through straight, braces-free teeth – and wished they had a car themselves.

I’d never known my sister to really drink coffee, but somehow growing up in our Nescafe Blend 43 house she’d become an expert in the tastes and whims of suburban epicureans. She could whip up a Tim Tam Chiller, Mocha Mudslide and Irish Nut latte while effortlessly carving and microwaving a slab of banana bread.

I assume those predinatural skills were front of management’s mind when she asked if they’d bend child labour laws to give her kid sister a summer job. They probably thought they’d hit the jackpot and discovered a Solange to their Beyonce. Unfortunately, I was more a Jamie Lynn to her Britney.

I was 13 years old at my first shift and evidence why children shouldn’t work in coffee shops. In those days, my experience with cafe culture didn’t extend past Farmers Union Iced Coffees and looking back, I don’t think it’s really fair to expect professionalism from someone who hasn’t even got their period yet.

Even without my sister’s legendary overture, I would have been a major disappointment. Recounting my failures now, it’s hard to know where to start. There were the endless wrong orders that caused chaos for the baristas. The total inability to manage money that kept us late every night as some poor 16-year-old tried to balance the till. Oh, and of course, the multiple times I tripped over the mop bucket causing all work to stop while we scrambled to stop fetid cleaning water from flooding the dining area.

In regular circumstances this shared hell would be short-lived. I’d be swiftly fired and everyone would return to life as it should be. Sadly for everyone, these were not regular circumstances. I hated the job and the staff hated me, but we were all cursed to remain bound together by management’s love for my sister. They didn’t have the heart to fire the sibling of their golden girl and I didn’t want to let down my worshiped kin by quitting. So we all trudged on and on and on, usually through a pool of mop water I’d just spilled.

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I’m not sure if my sister was really aware of the suffering going on in her name. Clashing high school and uni schedules meant we rarely worked together. Although when we did, I was blessed with snatches of what a non-traumatic summer job could feel like. She’d patiently help me put through orders and warm up sausage rolls. Other staff would affectionately tease me, glancing over to check she witnessed their good will. And when we were done I’d be gifted a lift home in her boyfriend’s car, waving out the window at my enemies waiting for the bus.

Eventually, an actual adult noticed what was going on and put an end to this purgatory. My mum said I was too young to balance work and school, so at the end of summer I quit. The only person happier than me was the manager. She didn’t even make me finish my last shift.

For years after I left, the smell of fresh coffee would make my stomach churn. I’ll forever look at teenage baristas with aching sympathy. And while I would still do anything for my sister, I hope that doesn’t ever involve having to make another poor soul a Tim Tam Slam.

Wendy Syfret is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.

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