My No. 8 speech to Lilydale Toastmasters
Madam Toastmaster, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a PROP. A clothes prop. It is as much an icon of Australia’s past as the outdoor dunny, and the travelling salesman. Before the invention of the rotary clothes hoist, one of these graced every backyard.
And thereby hangs a tale, a true one, though I’ve changed the names.
Two lovely old sisters live in Healesville. We’ll call them Karen and Annie.
Annie is little, and fluffy, and even now her face is beautiful.
Karen is taller, and darker, and two years older, and altogether more formidable.
In their youth, they lived in a little country town, a fair way out of Melbourne, called Ringwood. And, after Dad died, it was just the two of them.
There were no supermarkets then, or even corner grocery stores. Shopping meant a major outing with horse and cart, taking most of a day.
And this is where the travelling salesman came in. These fellows went from house to house with their horse-drawn wagons, offering every necessity for the housewife — and if the stories and jokes can be believed, they offered the occasional luxury as well.
One day, Karen had gone to town to do the month’s shopping. Alone at home, Annie heard a knock on the front door. A young fellow stood there, his wagon behind him. Annie explained that no, they didn’t need anything, thank you, but the travelling salesman just wouldn’t go. There he stood, chattering away, and obviously unable to take his eyes from her lovely face.
She was too shy and unsure of herself to tell him to go away, but was thinking furiously while pretending to listen to his glib tongue. And when at last he worked up to the IMPROPER SUGGESTION, as she knew he would, she answered in a whisper, “Look, my sister’s inside, we can’t. But she’s due to go out in an hour or two. Why don’t you call in on your return trip. Only, come around to the back door, the neighbours are nosy.”
And when he went, she shut the door, and then anxiously waited for Karen’s return.
Sure enough, she got home before the salesman. Annie told her all about it. They unloaded the cart, cared for the horse and MADE THEIR PREPARATIONS.
At last, late in the afternoon, Annie heard a furtive knock on the back door. She looked out the kitchen window, and there he was, face aglow with anticipation. She knocked on the glass, and pointed behind him.
He turned, to behold a terrifying sight.
The dunny door sprung open. Karen leapt out, and grasped the clothes prop she’d leant against the side wall. An Amazonian Galahad, she couched her lance, and charged the wicked foe. The two prongs of her lance caught the man fair in the midriff, and DOWN HE WENT.
And thus was this innocent maiden’s virtue saved by the trusty clothes prop.
Nor was Annie the only maiden thus rescued. Another old lady, we’ll call her Ethel, has told me HER adventure with a clothes prop.
One of my kids once gave a poster to her younger sister, saying: “Teenagers! Hurry, there is little time! Change the world now, while you still know everything!”
When Ethel was 15, the word ‘teenager’ had not yet been invented. However, she did know everything, and her father was an old fool. Unfortunately, in those days, he also had all the power. Specifically, Ethel knew that she loved Johnny forever, and he loved her, and so why shouldn’t they enjoy each other? But Dad disapproved of Johnny, and quite unreasonably, thought Ethel to be too young for such things. And as a safety precaution, he moved Ethel into the top bedroom, directly above the parental lair.
Young love is never daunted. At the Church dance, Ethel whispered, “Listen, Johhno, I’ll get the pruning ladder out. Sneak into the backyard after dark, and I’ll open me window. Just like Romeo and Juliet.” For she was a scholar.
She got the ladder ready while locking the chooks away, then waited.
Some time later there was a commotion, dogs barking, hens cackling, geese honking, the rooster carrying on. Dad came out to see if it was a fox. He saw the ladder, and being a tidy soul, locked it away in the shed.
Dark came, and with it the young swain. Soundlessly he ghosted across the backyard. The dogs knew him and made no noise. But of course, the ladder was NOT THERE.
Ethel’s window slid up on well-oiled pulleys. “Hey Johnno!” she called in a shouted whisper.
“Where’s the ladder?” he asked similarly.
“Bit o’ bad luck, Dad locked it away. But tell you what, lean the clothes prop against the wall, and climb up it.”
He grabbed the long stick and leaned it against her window sill. She grasped the top end, and he started climbing, hand over hand.
He was well up, feet level with Dad’s curtained window, when SNAP! The clothes prop broke in half, dropping him into the dirt.
Dad’s window flew up, Johnny flew out of the yard, and once again, the trusty clothes prop had saved a maiden’s virtue.
Only, it didn’t save her from something else. You see, in those days, corporal punishment was the go.
Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, there you have it. The clothes prop is now obsolete, a thing of the past. But can you imagine, charging at a travelling salesman with a rotary clothes hoist?