AILEEN lent against the twin-tub machine and listened to the syncopated swish of the water in the tub. The machine’s low vibration and steady rhythm did not comfort her.
With her thin frame braced against the tub she prepared to transfer the sodden undergarments across to the spin tub. If she were careful she might stay dry. But her mind was elsewhere.
The cool wind made her shiver in her wet apron and work-day frock as she stood at the line with the spun clothes. A good breeze on washing day had once been gratifying.
Hanging the laundered items used to give her the satisfaction of a job well done. She’d pull out the rag from her apron pocket and wipe firmly the length of the lines. Each time the rag was black with grubby soot, the legacy of living in this steel city. But to see the clean items neatly aligned and flapping in the breeze later was her reward.
Today however, her fingers dragged the rag weakly over the lines, and she shoved it back into her pocket without a glance. Then she moved wearily along the line – shaking and pegging, shaking and pegging.
Next she returned to the laundry, grabbed the end of the hose and began topping up the washing water for the next round. A strong soapy smell rose as the hot water plunged in. Eventually she returned to the line to peg again, and by 11 the line displayed the product of her labours.
Without even surveying her handiwork she returned to the house to fill the kettle. Then she readied the pot for a cup of tea. Through the open window came the sound of the pegged washing thrashing and snapping in the wind.
At the kitchen table she poured the tea and stared out through the kitchen window, down the hill towards Mayfield. The air was hazy with smoke. Still, she knew the voracious furnaces that kept this town alive blazed somewhere below.
The day 18 years earlier that Jack had ridden his bicycle around to her parents’ house in Islington came to her. Aileen had met Jack the previous Saturday at a dance. She’d come with another boy, so all Jack could do was to watch her from his spot by the drink station. Every time she’d looked over the other boy’s shoulder as they danced, she’d met Jack’s adoring gaze. She smiled at him through the other dancers.
Her father had come out to the back room after hearing his knock at the door that day.
“There’s a young man come visiting, lass,” he’d said. Her insides lurching wildly, she tidied her hair and went out to the verandah.
He was cocky as anything, she’d thought at the time. Dismounting from his bicycle, his grey eyes sparkled roguishly up at her. His smile was wide and confident.
“So, this is where you’ve been hiding, Aileen. If only I’d known!”
Aileen felt the blush rise up to her face.
“Well, you know now,” she’d said, surprised by her own boldness.
From that day Aileen and Jack had been an item. Never any doubt about it.
He finished his apprenticeship at the steelworks and became a fully fledged worker. After the wedding they’d taken a little workers cottage near her parents’ home but moved on to somewhere less cramped in Georgetown when their first-born arrived.
At the kitchen table now she absently fingered her wedding ring. Her hands bore the evidence of many washing days: skin rough and red, the knuckles thick.
Boiler-making was a skilled craft, she remembered Jack saying, his pride evident. His entire working life had revolved around the steelworks, but Aileen had always worried about the high-pressure equipment, the welding apparatus, and other things she didn’t understand. They sent chills rippling down her spine when she thought of them.
Jack stopped telling her the details of his day. But he did bring home a bottle of rosé the day he made foreman.
By the time they had been married 10 years they managed to purchase their own car, a second-hand Holden. Jack still rode his bicycle down to the steelworks, though, and left the car for Aileen. He was a good husband, she reflected, as she rose to check on the drying wash.
It had been another washing day, just over a month ago, when the police vehicle had pulled up in front of their house. Unable to move, she had watched from the front window as two policemen strode slowly up the path, adjusting their uniforms and squaring their shoulders.
“Morning, ma’am. Mrs John Fitchett?” one of them had said, after her shaking hands had finally pulled back the front door. She couldn’t speak, yet they continued.
“We’re so sorry, Mrs Fitchett. There’s been an accident.”
Someone cried out somewhere. All those horrific thoughts flashed again: explosion … fire … collapse … screaming.
Later one of the officers sat with her on the couch.
“We could use your telephone to call someone for you, Mrs Fitchett. You shouldn’t be alone now.”
She looked at him. “What happened?” Something drove her to hear it all.
“It wasn’t anybody’s fault, not that we can see at present. His bicycle hit a pothole and threw him into the path of a vehicle just outside the BHP.”
“I don’t understand,’ she said. “The bicycle …?”
Her memories of Jack always came back to that bicycle. Jack, grinning with confidence. Jack, the dutiful breadwinner. Jack, the thoughtful husband. Jack and his goddamn bicycle.
Aileen carried the fresh washing into the kitchen and raised it to her face. She breathed in the smell of fresh laundry, and remembered where once there had been the smell of Jack.