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‘Can phone 15 be put through to 19 please?’

‘Just putting you through now,’ I said in my raw, Aussie accent.

People knew us as the tarts of the town – wearing ridiculous layers

of makeup; reapplying our lipstick every second call, just in case it

had smudged on the transmitter… not that it mattered, as we worked

throughout the day in a room surrounded by women. I grabbed the

worn, wire cord and placed it into slot 19.

My job, rather basic, but better than nothing, didn’t require much

beyond answering the phone to people who wanted to be connected

to others. Warrnambool during the 1950s was a small town; everyone

knew everything about everybody, I’d even started recognising

people’s voices and phone numbers.

Another call came through, interrupting my thoughts and giving

me a quick, sharp fright. ‘Hi there, may phone 34 be put through to

23 please?’ Phone 34 was Jane’s boyfriend. Jane was a staff member

here doing telephony and she ensured everyone knew which line he

was on just in case he ever called. ‘Just putting you through now’, I

said curiously. I’d never been asked to connect someone to phone 23

before, maybe they were new to town. There was no secret that

sitting in front of phone calls accessible to me sparked much

temptation to listen in, despite the fact it was strictly prohibited. I

wasn’t sure what went through the other telephonists’ minds, but for

me, I was desperate to know what conversations those connected

lines were having. Instead of disconnecting myself from the call and

making the line available to the next person, I listened in, my heart

rate fast.

‘Maggie, how are you settling in? I haven’t got the chance to

arrange a time to meet and catch up on the years we’ve missed

together, but now that work’s under control and Jane on full-time,

there should be an opportunity.’ Hearing these words would

generally put someone off listening to any more out of shock and

horror, but the curiosity in me seemed to dominate and I sat in

silence waiting for her reply.

‘Hello James, I’m settling in just fine. The town is very small and

I can tell everyone knows each other by the way a passerby interacts

with each other. Yes, I would like to see you, it has been far too long.’

I had finally heard enough. I turned off the line and tilted my head

in Jane’s direction, innocent of knowing the words I had just heard.

I didn’t know whether to tell her what I’d heard or not as we weren’t

Telephonist Of

The Town

Julia Rigg