SHE lay on the cool lino floor under the table, watching her grandmother sewing her new dress for the party. Thick swollen ankles pressed out their rhythm on the treadle as she stitched on the little lace collar. Meg’s heart ticked along with the clock on the sideboard, as the Singer whirred softly in the thick December heat. She closed her eyes, the dream of tomorrow’s steelworks party thrumming in her blood.
At last, the knock-off whistle wailed in the distance. The screen door snapped at her heels as she sprinted outside to wait for Pop. Eyes straining, she watched the men streaming like ants through the gates – homeward. Some split off from the trail towards the pub. Nan did not approve, insisting Pop should be a “temper man” but he said he wouldn’t take a pledge. Like she wouldn’t take her dose of castor oil, Meg supposed.
She could see Pop riding near the front of the stream now, battered Gladstone between his rusty handlebars. Sometimes she was allowed to help him unpack his bag: a gust of leathery tobacco, a newspaper, thermos. Then she’d feed the chooks his scraps. His best little helper.
Pop! He swept past her, round the house, brakes squealing, gliding into the shed. But he hadn’t grounded his boot before she launched herself at him, bringing the whole lot down in a mighty crash. Meg stopped breathing: the air seemed to suck and warp. Small hairs on the back of her neck fizzed.
“Bloody hell Margaret! Watch what you’re doing you stupid girl!” Pop roared, his grimy hand lashing out at her. “Get to buggery!”
At the shouting, Nan flew out the back door to rescue the child from any more than a sharp backhander across the ear. She whisked her through the house and out the front door.
“Go home now Meg.” Nan’s eyes darted over her shoulder, but the child’s whimper brought her to her knees. She hugged her quickly, wiping her teary face.
“You can’t get in his way after work, Meg. You have to watch out! Off you go home.” The door closed firmly behind her. At home, her mother patted her head sympathetically, but her father was firm: apologise to Pop or there'd be no party tomorrow.
“You just have to look out for men”, her mother said to the hiccupping child.
Saturday was even hotter. Houses sagged shoulder to shoulder, exhausted. Tin roofs shimmered and pinged. The air was suffocating in the bus as it swept through the streets to the picnic ground, gathering flocks of shrill children and families. Meg sat close to Nan, bare legs stuck on the sweaty seat, subdued.
The bus grumbled over the train tracks towards the oval near the works. Dust swirled through the windows, the air thick and sulphurous. With a swish the doors opened and everyone spilled out onto a tired strip of grass. Beyond, shady Moreton Bay fig trees beckoned the quick.
Soon the women sat in hot clumps, fanning as they fretted about the weather while babies grizzled on old blankets. Thirsty men in their Sunday best congregated around the keg by the stairs, smoking earnestly. The talk eddied around rumours of mass layoffs in the new year: the plant was closing, demand was down, competition from Japan. They were used to such wild talk, but still worried.
Heedless children climbed the splintery fence, while tall boys beat out a satisfying thunder on tin panels or played footy in the shadows of tomorrowland. Ragged lines formed beside canvas bins, fuming with dry ice, where men doled out lurid ice blocks. Sticky mouths streaked with soot.
The tannoy echoed incoherently off the belching chimney stacks behind the grandstand. Breath of the Beast, Pop called it. Men toiled to feed the ill-tempered furnaces that spewed back contempt in a rain of sparks. Molten streams coursed through the entrails before being thumped into submission, sirens screaming: faster! safer! Accidents happened, terribly. But they were steel men, Pop said, hard men, working every shift offered: no work, no pay.
The children shouted ecstatically when Father Christmas arrived. They crowded onto narrow benches where Meg was squeezed up against one of the big boys. Fascinated, she watched his dirty hands rummage in a tin for a smoke, just like Pop, licking the edge with his tongue. Smoke veiled his face.
Suddenly she was slipping off her seat. A greasy paw latched onto her leg to steady her. Heart racing, she regained her balanced but the grip intensified, sliding under her dress, hard fingers pressing into her thigh. Her head whipped up, wide eyed, an acrid searing in her nostrils. Her dress was burnt! Meg’s face crumpled, her wail rising above the din.
Other hands pushed her aside. A scuffle of fists and feet in the dust. “Get off, ya mongrel!” A burst of bright blood as Pop dragged the boy to his feet and punched him. Hard. Jeering followed as he slunk off through the gauntlet of outrage.
Nan shushed Meg’s howls and marched her away. “I’ve told you before to watch out!” she’d scolded as women tut-tutted around them. Bad news that one, they’d murmured, like his old man. Pop’s eyes scanned the buzzing mob, locking onto his wife’s defiant stare. “Men!” She needed few words to speak her mind.
The baking afternoon ground on until at last, the bus returned. Nan barely said a word on the way home. Her grip on the child’s hand was as tight as the thin line of her lips. Meg’s present from Santa, a dolly with eyes that didn’t close, trailed miserably beside her. The sky seemed bruised and sullen. They watched as lightning flashed beneath building clouds. Nan sighed impatiently, her words lost in a rumble of thunder.
“Change will be here soon, Meg.”