I’ve pasted below a short story I wrote a while ago. It was runner up in a competition and was published in the ACT Writers Centre Magazine.
This story is a combination of my paternal grandmother’s personal history combined with fiction, mostly to do with the setting. The key events are as Nana related them to me. Nana, nee Florence Dockerty was born in County Durham 1908, in a place called Washington. The suburb still exists but her street isn’t there anymore. She died in Sydney 1998. She was a strong woman, tough and sometimes unforgiving. This story helped me gain insight into how she was.
It’s not speculative, but my friend Kaaron Warren called it domestic horror.
By Donna Maree Hanson
A wisp of smoke from the fire made Flo’s eyes sting. Ray, her barely two-year-old son, played with the tent pegs, his nappy smeared with mud and grass stains. ‘Leave that pet,’ she called to him. His chubby, dimpled thighs wobbled as he walked in her direction.
Flo grated the shirt against the scrubbing board. She drew it up and forced it down the rough ridges, feeling her knuckles smart and watching the thick, grey water dribble down back into the basin. Thwump, twump. Thwump, thwump!
‘Mama,’ Ray called, followed by baby coos and gurgles. ‘Toy,’ he said and sunk it into the dirt, delving out muddy clods and a stringy worm, which he held up and eyed.
A gust of a breeze sent the dozen or so tent walls in the camp flapping like the beat of many drums. A few miners lay about, sprawled in the shade, still dressed in their coal-stained clothes. The smell of the coal pits was thick in the air. She was born with the taste of coal dust in her mouth. Flo bent her head and rubbed the shirt harder against the washboard. All her life she had smelt that same soot smell, that dank, black stuff that stained everything from: clothes, hands and smiles. She spat into the grass.
‘Papa!’ Ray called.
Flo sent her gaze in the direction of her tent. He was home. The smell of stale beer and sweat wafted in her direction. Flo let the shirt slide back into the grey-black water and checked that the copper boiler had enough wood to keep it hot.
Ray leant nearer, traces of worm around his mouth and on his singlet, and chucked a twig into the flames.
‘Thank you, pet. You’re Mummy’s good boy.’ She wiped his face with her apron, while he struggled.
‘Flo!’ He grunted out her name from inside their tent. The tent flap lifted as she neared. ‘Aren’t you going to feed me?’
‘Yes…Are you going to wash yourself first?’
He looked away, his red face deepening in colour. A few miners walked past, and he nodded to them before dropping the tent flap.
Flo put Ray on the floor and went to get the metal plates and cutlery.
He was undressing, replacing his stained work shirt for a cleaner one. His hands, though, were black as soot, swollen and gnarled. ‘I hope ya got bread today. Man can’t have a meal without bread.’
‘Yes, I have half a loaf and stew.’ She heaped a large portion onto his plate and placed it on the box they used for a table.
He sat down on a crate. ‘They’ve sacked twenty more men today.’ He shuffled the stew into his mouth and wolfed down the bread.
Flo frowned. Hadn’t she left the North of England to get away from this story? She’d left one Newcastle to live in another—same name, same troubles. The poverty, the mines and the miners still filled her life. ‘You still have work, don’t you?’
He waved a hand at her. ‘Don’t start your whinging now, stupid cow.’ He gulped down the last of the stew and stood up. ‘I’m going out.’
The spoon clinked as Flo placed stew onto her chipped grey plate. She kept her gaze downcast, sat down on the bed and began to eat.
In two steps he was standing in front of her. ‘Give me a few shillings will ya?’
‘Don’t have any…’ she said quietly, concentrating on her plate.
‘Ah that’s bull. How did ya buy this?’ He waved at the remains of bread.
Flo looked up. ‘I got paid for a load of washing, but I’ve spent it all.’
She saw his skin darken. ‘I might have a loose coin,’ she said, searching her apron pocket hurriedly. She felt a few coins fall into her palm. He stepped closer, loomed over her, fist clenched.
‘Here,’ she said quickly. ‘I’ve found a few pennies.’
The fist unclenched. She dropped them into the calloused, dirty palm.
‘Give me your apron.’
Once her gain, her body grew rigid. ‘No!’ she said, voice firm and low.
He reached around her large, pregnant belly to grab for the ties. She tried to dodge away. Next, she was laid out on the bed, her face stinging from the backhander he’d dealt her. Ray was wailing and clinging to her foot. Using her elbows, she groggily edged herself into a sitting position. The tent was darkening as the sun set. He was gone. Her torn apron lay in shreds, slowly engulfed by the growing shadows.
She reached for the lantern and shook it to see if there was kerosene in it. It swished in the metal tank. Shakily, she lit it. ‘There now, Ray. Don’t you be crying.’ Her hand touched lightly on her son’s blonde hair. ‘There be worst things in life.’
She straightened her clothes and prepared a small portion of stew and a crust of bread to take to her friend Meg. Rumour had it Meg felt poorly, but Flo knew better. She supposed she should mind her own business but she couldn’t help herself.
Outside Meg’s tent, with Ray clinging to her skirts, she called out. ‘Are you home, Meg?’
A rustling and a faint, ‘Yes.’
Flo didn’t wait to be invited in. She drew back the tent flap and went inside. Meg hung back in the darkest part of the tent, partially hidden by boxes. ‘Oh it’s you.’
‘I’ve bought you a little something. Not much.’
Meg was pale, wrung out, her eyes darkened hollows. Flo put the meal on a crate and stood back. ‘Did he hurt you bad?’
Meg drew on a robe and came to take the dish of food. Her movements were jerky, frightened. Her thin fingers clung to the plate. ‘Not so bad this time. I’m a terrible wife.’
Flo cast her gaze around the shabby tent. All of Meg’s belongings were tumbled together. ‘You try your best. I’ve got some work to do,’ she said, trying to smile.
‘Yes…’ Meg said, smiling and showing her missing tooth. ‘Thanks for the food. I’ll drop the plate back later.’
Flo stepped back, bringing Ray with her through the tent flap. She went back to work, re-filling the boiler with water from the creek with small bucketfuls. She had an hour or so before the sun set. At the woodpile, Ray straddled a log while she chopped kindling. By the time the water was boiling, she had cleaned the muck from Mrs Jenkins’ nappies and they were ready for the wash. By morning they would be boiled and ready to rinse.
‘Flo,’ called Boyo from a few tents down. ‘I’ve left a pile for you. The widower asks if you would starch his shirt.’ The young miner smiled, a white flash in a darkened face.
‘Ta luv,’ she said and waved back, watching his lean and dark body.
The nappies bubbled, sending the smell of soda over her while she stirred them with a long stick. Satisfied that they were cleaning well, she went over to her basin perched on tree stump. It was cooler now. The sun had set. She scrubbed the shirts, grinding them down the washboard, twisting the grey water from them till her the muscles in her arms burned and her jaw clenched. All her life she’d been perfecting her twist. Her hands were accustomed to washing, so thick now, but agile.
In the morning, she gazed at the white shirts and sheets, drying in the sun. The sight filled her with a sense of completion, of satisfaction. And she would be paid.
After lunch, she headed to town to Mrs Jenkins’ house. Ray clutched her skirts and plodded along beside her. He tottered now and then and Flo had to stop and steady him, wiping gravel from his knees. She balanced the laundry basket on her hip. It was a long walk past fields with rotting fences, twisted wire and thin cows. The sun was bright and hot. It filled her vision with a red haze, colouring everything. She squinted and drew down her scarf to shield her eyes.
Ray was dressed in his best clothes; knee breeches, tough shoes and a small white shirt Flo had sewed herself. She touched her own rouged lips, hoping she looked presentable.
Up ahead were houses. ‘Come on, Ray, let’s look at our place.’
The old weatherboard bungalow needed painting. Its faded, red, tin roof nearly a dirty brown colour. The veranda had a few rotten planks and others were missing. The yard was overgrown but generous. There was plenty of room for vegetables, carrots, turnips, beetroot and rhubarb. One day she would grow them.
The tenants were out so Flo let herself linger. She imagined what it would be like to live in it. The place she’d scrimped and saved for. They couldn’t afford the mortgage that’s why they lived in a tent. But her laundry money was what had made the deposit, that and what she’d managed to save from the housekeeping allowance.
Sadly, Flo shut the gate and kept walking to where the houses were larger, better kept and lived in by their owners. She knocked. The dark green painted door with squares of coloured glass opened.
Mrs Jenkins looked like a film star with her neatly, curled hair and smooth blue gown. She stood in the doorway and said, ‘Thanks, Flo,’ while Flo handed over the basked of clean nappies. Mrs Jenkins dropped some coins into Flo’s hand.
Flo, sweaty and wind swept, stared at her with admiration. Flo felt faded, used and dried up and at the same time she envied Mrs Jenkins her life, her looks, her home…
‘Nurse!’ Mrs Jenkins called over her shoulder. A few moments later, the old nurse appeared with another basket of nappies and handed them over. ‘Can you do those by tomorrow, Flo?’
‘Yes, Mrs Jenkins.’
Mrs Jenkins smiled at her. Flo balancing the old wicker basket on her hip, grabbed Ray by the collar and stepped back, returning Mrs Jenkins’ smile. She forgot there was a step.
Next, a pain enveloped her. Ray crying in her ears and Mrs Jenkins’ light perfume intermingled in her red haze. Oddly, she felt the sun. It seemed to burn through her. Wetness between her legs. Voices.
‘Can you stand, Flo? Old Jock here has the coal cart. He can take you home. But you best get the doctor to come to you.’
Flo stood, dignity in shreds as she hoisted herself onto the cart. Ray was still crying beside her and the basket of washing was perched on her other side. Lumps of coal dug into her back. ‘Thank you, Mrs Jenkins,’ she said, through watery eyes.
By the time the cart bucked and weaved down the road to the miner’s settlement, Flo’s contractions were strong and sharp. Old Jock handed her out of the cart and put Ray in with the dirty nappies and lifted the basket to his hip. ‘Hold onto me shoulder, lass, and I’ll help you get home.’
Carrying Ray and walking slowly, Jock guided her to her tent. Soot smeared, she turned to Old Jock and waited for the contraction to ease. ‘Can you fetch him?’ she asked through her pain.
Old Jock patted Ray on the head. ‘Yep. I’ll drop by the pub and send him home.’
Flo smiled best she could. She felt blood or her waters trickle down her leg as he left. When the flap dropped she sagged and fumbled for the bed. ‘Lie down with Mama, pet.’
Ray looked around bewildered, his breaches sagging by his knees. His wet and soiled nappy hung down below his buttock and snot drooled past his chin.
‘Come on…’ The next contraction seized her. She couldn’t speak and could only lie down and bear it, fearing what it meant. It was too early for her baby and it hurt.
A half hour went by. Flo had vomited into the chamber pot and it lay stinking next to her bed. Ray was asleep in his dirty nappy but she couldn’t do anything about it. The walls of the tent seemed to inhale with the next contraction.
A snap of the tent flap and he walked in and grunted. ‘What do you want you lazy cow?’
She struggled onto her elbows, the buttons of her dress half undone. ‘Doctor. Please get the doctor. Baby’s coming early.’
‘That all. You’ll live.’ He turned back to the tent opening.
‘Please, the doctor! Can you get the doctor?’ Flo hated to ask him for anything.
He faced her again, his mouth curved in a half sneer or smile. ‘Oh aye. I’ll go get him. Need to pay him though.’
She remembered her pay, felt in her pocket for the coins. ‘Here. I just got paid.’
The coins clinked as they fell into his dirty palm.
The tent flap dropped as another contraction came.
With the darkness came her second son. Alone in her tent she squeezed him out. She struggled to wrap him in a sheet. Small thing, little fingers, closed eyes. She woke with the afterbirth. Nothing for her to do, but dirty the blanket, no matter what shame it would bring.
She waited, listening for the doctor, eyes glued to the wee and barely moving arms of the babe beside her.
Meg called out from the front of the tent, ‘Flo? Are you well? Just heard from my husband when he got back from the pub that there’s trouble.’
A sob broke from Flo’s throat. Meg flung open the tent flap and came in. ‘Oh, my lord, Flo. You’ve given birth!’ She dashed over bundled up the soiled blanket. Her outburst woke Ray who cried. ‘It’s too early—where’s the doctor?’
Tears leaked from Flo’s eyes. ‘I’m waiting for him. He went for the doctor but the doctor’s not come yet.’
Meg sat down, eyes wide. She hugged Ray to her as she rocked back and forth. A huge sob broke out of her. ‘My god, Flo,’ she said brokenly. ‘He’s been playing cards all night. He never went to fetch the doctor.’
Just then he walked in. ‘You out,’ he growled at Meg. With a nervous pat on Ray’s head, Meg stood up and backed out of the tent.
He turned to Flo, his eyes red and puffy, the smell of cigarette smoke and drink wafting around him like a skunk’s scent. ‘Told you you’d live. Don’t need no doctor.’
Her eyes never strayed from her child. The little arm was still now. She touched the still warm cheek.
He poured himself some cold tea and dunked a crust in it. ‘Suppose I’ll get my own breakfast then.’ The cup clinked against the tin plate.
Flo stared into space, not daring to utter neither curse nor pray.
‘Mrs Flo?’ called a familiar voice, from outside the tent. Doctor O’Malley lifted the flap and shrugged his way in. He grunted at the doctor and left, elbowing his way out.
The doctor made way for him and moved closer to Flo, sliding his glasses up the bridge of his nose. ‘What’s this I hear about you having a fall?’ the doctor said gently. Moving near to the bed, he peered at the bundled sheet and paused. ‘Are you well, Flo? Not bleeding too much?’
She shook her head.
‘Ah well, if you are sure I’ll look at your babe first.’ He reached for the little one, loosening the sheet, and touched him. His grey eyebrows drew together. ‘Mmm…well I’m sorry. If you’d sent for me earlier I could have done something to save him. Died this last half hour I think.’
Flo could bear it no longer. She barked out a wail, certain they could hear her deep in the coal pits. Then she stopped, gulped it down and held it in the pit of her stomach. Ray began to whimper. The doctor calmed him and then tended to her.
The gravediggers lowered the little coffin into the ground. Flo stood, holding Ray’s chubby hand and stared. It was sunny and hot. The gravediggers leaked sweat. Flo’s hat kept out the suns rays but her hands burnt beneath the brittle light.
To feel was to give in, to acknowledge this life and what it dealt her, would admit defeat. That she couldn’t do. She lifted her eyes from the grave and stared at a twisted gum tree leaning over the cemetery. She’d told him it was a charity funeral, but she’d used her secret cache, a buried Bushells’ tin.
Ray’s hand was warm in hers when she headed back home. More laundry waited and the copper would have boiled by now.
With a thunk, she swung Mrs Jenkins’ nappy against a rock. Another swing and it came down hard with a splat. For an hour, she beat them against the rock, wiping the sweat from her eyes, as muddy creek water pooled around her ankles. After piling the damp cloths up, she lugged them to the copper and dropped them in one by one. They sank below the bubbles and steam, disappearing into the grey.
As always, Ray was nearby. He picked up a twig and threw it into the fire. ‘Hot,’ he said and giggled.
‘Thanks Pet,’ she said softly, then turned back to her washbasin and plunged her hands into the soapy water.
The black, coal-stained trousers ground against the scrubbing board. Flo’s knuckles rubbed. He walked out of the tent. Without a glance in her direction, he shrugged and walked off. Every part of him, his red face, his fat stomach and his thinning hair, was writ upon her memory. She squeezed the trousers, wrung them like a chook’s neck as she watched him leave. Thwack! She flung them into the basket and grabbed another soot stained shirt. She dipped it in the water and then wrung it. Twisted it.