It is a truth universally acknowledged that a backpacker in possession of an Australian working holiday visa must be in want of a job. I certainly was. I had landed in Cairns following a blissful four months travelling around South East Asia where my meagre pennies had travelled far, allowing me to dine out every evening, stay in comfortable accommodation, and live a life of (relative) indulgence. When I went to purchase a packet of M&Ms in Cairns airport and realised they were the same price as a three course meal in Indonesia, I had the crushing realisation every backpacker who does the South East Asia to Australia route has when they land Down Under – that their money is not going to travel far. The plan I made the previous year to get a job in Australia needed to be put into action. And soon.
Heading over to Australia on a Working Holiday Visa is a rite of passage for many young Brits. For those unfamiliar, the visa allows people under the age of 30 from eligible countries to work in Australia for one year. I’d known a few people who had gone over to Oz on the visa and they had assured me I would get a job easily. “All you need to do is join a recruitment agency and you’ll get a job” they told me. “Sign up and you’ll get a job the next day,” one confident friend assured. So as soon as I landed in Sydney, I emailed my CV off to every recruitment agency in the city.
None of them got back. Perturbed, I asked around as to why this might be and was told it was best to hand your CV in to the recruitment agency in person. So I printed out a pile and pounded the pavements of Sydney’s Central Business District handing the CVs in to the recruitment agencies’ reception desks. I went back to my hostel and waited. Nothing. Okay, so the recruitment agency thing didn’t seem to be working. Maybe it was best to hand my CV in to actual businesses and cut out the middleman. I did another round of pounding the pavements, handing in my CV to every shop, cafe and office in the Central Business District. One positive exchange I had was in a deli when, after I told them I had spent four years working in a deli back home, assured me they would “definitely be in touch.”. Buoyed, I went back to my hostel and waited. They didn’t get in touch.
I was starting to panic. Why was I the only person who moved to Australia on a working holiday visa who couldn’t get a job? My CV was more than satisfactory; I had a degree, office and customer service experience, and had worked as a newspaper journalist before leaving to go travelling. I desperately needed a job – Australia was expensive. I was spending as little as I possibly could but my savings were still depleting fast. Meanwhile, Paul had landed a great job at an expat magazine based in Darling Harbour. Things were looking so bleak I was even beginning to consider moving on to Melbourne to look for a job there, leaving Paul behind in Sydney.
And then a miracle happened. I got a call from a shop called The British Lolly Shop in Darling Harbour which sold imported sweets from the UK. It was one of the places I’d handed my CV into when I’d been traipsing around the city. The man on the phone told me there were two British Lolly Shops and blase, he asked me which one I’d like to work in, Darling Harbour or King’s Cross. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing: was he offering me a job? In a sweet shop? This was way better than I could have imagined; previously I had thought I would be typing names into a spreadsheet all day in a mind-numbing data entry job. I told him I would prefer King’s Cross as that’s where my hostel was located. And just like that, I had a job. And it must be true what they say, that good things come to those who wait, because it turned out to be the best job in Sydney.
The British Lolly Shop in King’s Cross was owned and managed by Pete and Sally, an Australian husband and wife. I learned from the off this job was not going to be a laid back slacker role; Pete and Sally had left careers in sales to open the shop and were ambitious and focused with high standards and a keen attention to detail. In my first visit to the shop, I was handed a script and told to memorise it. The script detailed exactly what I was to say to each customer when they walked through the door. For the first few shifts, Pete watched me to make sure I was following the script correctly and demonstrating the right attitude. And then, I was on my own.
I was in my element. The shop was a tiny square space, each inch of the walls filled with shelves of traditional British sweets. The shop was on the main strip of King’s Cross, Sydney’s most debauched neighbourhood, which was home to brothels, seedy nightclubs, and kebab shops. Prostitutes stood openly in the street. I later learned the busiest time for the shop was Friday and Saturday nights when revellers came in drunk and spent lots of money on sweets. Not everywhere on the strip was dodgy though; there were respectable places like a library, a pharmacy and an ice cream shop, and, course, our shop. But if you were in Sydney and looking to get into trouble, King’s Cross is definitely where you would head.
I quickly grew to love my job. I loved the part I played in an exchange that brought happiness; the purchase of sweets to be consumed and enjoyed. As well as sweets, I was selling nostalgia; many of the customers were British expats whose eyes would widen as they wandered around the shop spotting British treats they hadn’t seen in years. The Australians adored my thick Scottish accent. My job was the envy of the hostel I stayed in; when I walked down the stairs into the main hall wearing my blue British Lolly Shop polo shirt, I saw the other hostelers’ eyes follow me with envy; many of them were Brits who often popped across the road to the shop to get their fix of the treats back home. After I had worked in the job for a few months, sales minded Pete began to give me sweetie selling targets. I always hit them and got my bonus but selling sweets to the public wasn’t exactly a difficult task.
I got to know my regular customers. There was Winston, the distinguished gentleman who came in weekly for his Fry’s Peppermint Cream. There was the cheerful bald guy who worked in digital media and bought Jelly Babies. Much to Pete’s elation, Russell Crowe’s nanny would regularly come in and buy boxes of Yorkshire Tea for Russell’s wife. Sometimes a young girl with wild black hair came in. She was a prostitute who worked next door. She never engaged, never responded to a greeting or a smile. One time she came in with a blonde girl wearing a tracksuit. They went around the shop pointing out the sweets and whispering enthusiastically. They looked so young.
Things I learned during my time working in The British Lolly Shop: when Australians say lollies they mean all sweets, not just lollipops. So in Australia The British Lolly shop means The British Sweet Shop. I learned that British chocolate is far superior to Australian chocolate; Australian Cadbury’s is filled with stuff to stop it from melting in the heat and doesn’t taste nearly as good (all the Cadbury’s in the shop was British, Pete was always at pains to tell the customers, and blasted with air conditioning to stop it melting). I learned that in Australia, Thorntons, a ubiquitous sweet shop in the UK, is considered a luxury – it was the most expensive chocolate sold in the shop. I heard Sally describe it to one of the customers as the “creme de la creme.” To this day, whenever I think of Thorntons, I heard the words “creme de la creeeme” in my head spoken in a thick Australian accent. I learned all Irish people go mad for Tayto crisps; whenever we got them in they immediately sold out, bought up by ravenous Irish crisp lovers.
It was a happy time but it was a time that was not to last; after I’d been working in the shop for seven months, Sally began to ask me when I was thinking of moving on. They didn’t want rid of me but it was a given; I had a working holiday visa and was always going to be heading off to continue my travels. I was one of a rotation of young Brits who came in and did their stint. Paul and I had spent the last seven months staying in a very grotty (but very cheap) hostel, working as much as we could, keeping our heads down and barely spending any money. We had saved enough, added to our previous savings, to continue our travels. I handed in my notice and we prepared to leave Sydney. The rest of the world awaited.
We jetted off to Melbourne then Tasmania then New Zealand, the USA, Canada and Central America. I was young and having the time of my life and I barely looked back. It was only later my time working in a sweet shop in Sydney’s King’s Cross would pop back into my mind and every so often I would Google the shop. One day I Googled it and it wasn’t there – the shop locations listed on the website were Darling Harbour and Hunter Valley. Had Pete and Sally sold up and opened up a new store in the wine region of Hunter Valley? I had no idea and a search of the internet showed nothing. I suspect that Sydney’s lockout laws, which pretty much killed all the nightlife in King’s Cross, badly affected the shop. If this is the case, it makes me sad to think of Pete and Sally who took so much pride in building the success of their business being forced to give it up. But then again, there could be another reason they decided to sell.
I’m back in Scotland now, working in a sensible marketing job and nine years later my spell as sweet shop seller in Sydney’s red light district is a distant memory. But it’s a memory I look back on fondly and an example of one of the things I love most about travelling – about how an experience presents itself to you and you simply enjoy it without question, only realising retrospectively just how cool it was. And to this day, if there’s anything you need to know about sherbet lemons, Vimto bon bons or Yorkshire tea, I’m the person you should ask.