Footscray, some time in the mid-1950s. Winter. Shoppers swarm Barkly Street. It is a Saturday morning. The shops close at midday. The butchers are auctioning trays of meat to clear the window before closing for the weekend. "Tray of topside - at least five pounds – who’ll give me ten shillings? I’ll throw in a couple of shanks. Madam?"
Women press closer to the counter, kicking through the sawdust on the butcher shop floor. They wear coats against the winter chill, buttoned at the neck or right through. Sturdy shoes. Hair pinned back. Gloves. Lipstick.
Look closer. Nearly all are carrying a compact item that expands as they place their paper-wrapped parcels inside. Yes. A string bag. They buy them for a shilling at the Coles variety store around the corner in Paisley Street and they last forever. The fancier ones had round handles and they carried home as much shopping as you could heft and then you hung it on the inside of the back door until next time.
Midday. The shop doors bang shut. Car engines cough and start. Shoppers melt away into the weekend. Some are on foot, some stop at the corner to wait for the ancient, wheezing, tram-green M&MTB bus that lurches around the corner; and then up they climb, string bags full of weekend dinners and teas, and the bus roars off in a cloud of diesel towards Geelong Road, crunching its gears.
2009. A lounge room. A vast armchair under a glowing standard lamp next to an overloaded side table, on which sits a stack of books, a half-read newspaper, a pair of spectacles and a purring grey cat. In the armchair a woman - old, round, comfortable - is almost dozing. But not quite. Her grandson is reading aloud a magazine item (Bon Appetit, April 2009, p. 44) he thinks might be of interest to her.
"Look Grandma," he began. " 'The super eco shopping bag'. That's the headline. 'Knitter extraordinaire Tracy Hachler wanted a reusable market tote that is environmentally friendly and would fold up to fit in a purse'. "
He paused. Grandma’s eyebrow was raised in a what-on-earth-was-all-that-about kind of way. He continued. " 'And for this eco-conscious fashionista' ... "
Grandma’s eyebrow went up to another level, if that was possible. He glanced at her. "Oh, it’s just a cliché that journalists use," he explained, probably unnecessarily. "To make the subject of their article sound more interesting. You see the '–ista' suffix everywhere now. It’s just the same as '–ist', meaning practitioner, but the extra 'a' gives it a kind of super-edginess."
"Let’s hope the trend doesn’t catch on with dentists and chiropodists," the grandmother replied with just a hint of something in her eyes, something approaching faint irony.
Her grandson continued. " ... 'it also had to be stylish'," he read.
"Of course," Grandma interjected. "God forbid anything be plainly utilitarian." The cat got up, stretched, arched its back and sat down again in between the books and the newspaper, without touching either.
" 'It’s super-durable because Hachler has meticulously double-woven six-ply hemp yarn on the side and bottom seams to create extra support.' "
"I’m glad," said Grandma, without a hint of sarcasm. "I had visions of apples and potatoes rolling all over the bus."
" 'With this smart shopping bag, being green has never been more chic.' "
No interjection this time, but something like a snort came from Grandma's general direction. Then, "Is that all?" she asked.
"Almost," replied the grandson. "Just the price at the end. $75."