Raelene Heldt, a friend of my grandmother, if she were alive today, would never be able to cope with a visit to the modern supermarket.
She would not survive a walk down the milk aisle devoted to endless varieties of milk. It would be too much for her. She’d feel cheated. Because back in her day, in India, she was known among the vendors of fruit, vegetable, meat and fish who went selling their wares from door-to-door, as ‘the mademoiselle that couldn’t be bent or twisted’.
That is, you had to bring her the genuine article, or you simply would not receive her patronage. In the Sixties, patronage was a huge thing. Some vendors would carry over an entire month of accumulated purchases.
Raelene Heldt enjoyed the patronage usually bestowed upon a duchess. She had months of accumulated debt with vendors, yet they flocked to her door to bestow their largesse upon her, and her growing family. ‘She had a way with people,’ my granny used to say. ‘Raelene gives it straight from the shoulder. If you mess with her, you get told off and never ever again enjoy her custom.’
The freshest fish, the best meat, the ripest vegetables, the juiciest fruit … they all went to Raelene first in the railway colony and only after she’d had her pick was the rest taken to be sold to other households. How did this all come about? Well, it began with the milkman, really.
Those were the times
A squat sturdy mustachioed man with strong cyclist’s calves, in his forties, he made his rounds around the colony with a huge can of milk strapped to the back carrier of his bicycle. Raelene’s house (railway quarters) happened to be located toward the end of the milkman’s run.
Once he got there, he’d give his cycle bell a vigorous ring, alight from the bike, take the bowl placed outside the Heldt door, measure a litre of milk, by which time Raelene would arrive, attired in a dressing gown. In most cases, it was just a routine business exchange.
Once the ‘cat was out of the bag’ and the milkman reduced to a gibbering, pleading heap, Raelene gave him his ultimatum: If you want to keep my custom, you’ll bring your cow with you to my door and milk it right before my eyes.
However, one day, early in this arrangement with the milkman, Raelene happened to be drinking a second cup of tea with her friend Jill Scanlon, at Jill’s place. The first cup she’d had was at her own place, after breakfast. What she saw, or tasted, in Jill’s house set the ball rolling for all future dealings with both the milkman and all the other vendors.
The milk in the cup of tea at Jill’s was so thick it gave the tea such a rich taste. ‘Show me your milk, Jill,’ ordered Raelene. Jill let her have a look. And what Raelene saw clarified things in her mind. The milkman was cheating her blind.
Now, Jill Scanlon happened to live at the very head of the colony so she got the first delivery of milk. Good, pure, thick. But by the time the milk reached Raelene’s door, it had undergone a fair bit of ‘dilution’ via the bottle of water secreted in another bag dangling from the handlebars of the milkman’s bike.
This Raelene found out about. And once the ‘cat was out of the bag’ and the milkman reduced to a gibbering, pleading heap, Raelene gave him his ultimatum: If you want to keep my custom, you’ll bring your cow with you to my door and milk it right before my eyes.
Otherwise, I’m not interested.’ And you know what? The milkman agreed. Those were, indeed, different times. And all this talk of milk was triggered from a gentle browse through a collection of poems by Ogden Nash. In one of it he writes, ‘The cow is of the bovine ilk; one end is moo the other is milk.’
— Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.