The darker the better

I once
held a job at the general post office in the city, a holiday job, my first ever
job between the completion of my final year at school and the Christmas
Before they set us to sorting letters the
bosses asked us to fill out forms and swear allegiance to the queen. We were
sworn in as public servants and required to obey codes of confidentiality,
integrity and honesty.  We might see
things in the mail that we were not meant to see, or that might unsettle us or could be dangerous. We were to report to our superiors anything that
looked suspicious and for the rest we were to sort. 
Thousands of envelopes, all shapes and
sizes, spat at us from different directions and we sorted them by
postcodes.  People did not routinely
include their postcode with each address then, so it was for us to learn the area
codes of each suburb and sort accordingly.
dreamed numbers at night in my sleep and my fingers dried out for the spreading
of letters.  I was shy.  I did not speak to my fellow
workers.  All that allegiance for only
two weeks and then came Christmas Eve, my job ended and I walked out to
Flinders Street station with my first ever pay packet.  A wad of cash in a rectangular yellow
envelope with a typed out pay slip that detailed my hours and status, casual
and temporary. 
We lived in Parkdale near the sea.  On that last day I took the train home and walked into the
house, which we never locked on the premise there was nothing inside worth
stealing and called out to which ever of my sisters or brothers might be at
home, but there was no one there.  I went
outside to catch the last of the sun.
In those days, as soon as the sun brought with it a hint of heat, I made it
my business to spend at least ten minutes almost naked under it.  Ten minutes to begin with, gradually building
up the time spent in the sun to prepare my skin for its transformation from the
white of winter into the golden glow of the warm months. 
It played on my mind.  If there was ever a day when I could not get
outside into the back garden hidden from view or later to a nearby swimming
pool then I became anxious.  
I would not
be able to appear on the street in summer unless my skin was tanned.  Unlike my older sister whose skin, like our
mother’s, held an olive glow, my skin took after my father’s, pale and prone to
freckles.  At least if I followed my older
sister’s tanning instructions and spent the requisite number of minutes building
up each day then I did not burn red but instead turned to copper.  The darker the better.
Every summer the same requirement.  To spend more hours in the sun than was
available.  I did not question this need
to tan.  I did not challenge the unspoken
orthodoxy that demanded my body become a respectable brown before I could
expose any of it to public view.  It was
a given.  Others joined me in this
requirement.  Even as my mother went on
about an aunt who spent entire holidays on the beach.
‘Her skin will go wrinkly. 
She spends too much time outside.’ 
Even as I could not fathom the right amount of time to spend in the sun,
to grow into an ideal brown, not too brown or I might be mistaken for an
aboriginal and my skin would wrinkle as much as if I were an eighty year old, I
knew I still needed to get to that optimal colour.
And then slip, slop, slap came in, and with it, the fear of skin cancer and they
changed all the rules.