The Correct Way to Iron a Shirt – edited
Orange cupboard doors stared blankly at
us. Wall tiles, stippled cream and decorated with brown flowers,
didn't say a word. There was a carpet, flatly stain resistant. And
a twin tub washing machine. And a blue plastic dish-rack.
The ironing board clattered as mother
assembled it, from vertical to horizontal. It wore two layers, like
an old lady in a twin-set. Things in our house were repaired, only
ever thrown away when deemed completely and utterly useless. Things,
not people. People were disposable. Some people were more
disposable than others.
She half-spat and half-licked her
fingers, lightly touched the iron plate and nodded in satisfaction as
her saliva buzzed against metal. “Don't ever do this,” she said,
“You might burn your hand”.
“My skin's like asbestos.”
“How will I know when it's ready?”
“Leave it on for five minutes.”
My father had lots of shirts, folded
nearly in his drawers. He never wore them. Some years back he'd
left us, mother, my sisters and me. We waited in our neat piles, his
shirts and us, but he didn't return. Every once in a while mother
emptied his drawers and laundered the contents. Maybe she thought
he'd be disappointed if everything wasn't fresh and clean. In
retrospect I think that was the problem in the first place. He
didn't mind dirty. She was a Catholic.
Mother grabbed a shirt and laid it on
on the ironing board, collar dead central, body hanging limply over
the side. “Always inside out and from the outside in,” she said,
slamming the iron down on the collar's right tip. A sudden hiss of
steam escaped from between her teeth. The board creaked. “See,”
she said, as the fabric submitted and each crinkle was forced out of
existence. I nodded at the perfect, crease free, flat horizon.
Once I'd been trained, her job became
my job. I waited for the man who never came home, ironing his shirts
religiously. 'Forgive me father for I have sinned'. It didn't
matter. He couldn't hear me. By the time I was sixteen God and my
father had become synonymously bastardised.
And so it came to pass that she died.
I inherited her ironing board, vacuum cleaner, sewing machine, yogurt
maker and pressure cooker. I'd left home many years ago, in a flurry
of of tears and recriminations, each rebellion a step further away
from the threshold. She cried when I cut all my hair off, “Your
crowning glory,” she wailed. And the day I had my nose pierced/got
a tattoo/discovered I was pregnant. “You could always get rid of
it,” she said, “You don't want to make the same mistakes I did”.
Every time I press on the board it
creaks. Slam, hiss, creak. Slam, hiss, creak. I find its little
noises comforting, like when I hear my husband's tread on the stairs
as he comes to bed, or the sound of him breathing in his sleep.
Familiarity doesn't breed contempt. Frustration and unhappiness are
the chief culprits. It's easy to abandon yourself to both.
He doesn't wear shirts that often. No
need. Mother turned her nose up when I told her what he does for a
living. “Your father was a consultant electrical engineer.” she
sneered. I couldn't quite work out exactly who her curled lip was
directed at. “I thought your private education would have prepared
you for a role as a professional's wife,” she continued. The word
'professional' sounded clammy the way she said it.
“He has a trade,” I replied.
“He works in a factory,” disgust
apparent, exasperation apparent, conclusion apparent.
“As a lathe operator. It's a highly
skilled job and good money.”
I saw a statue of a peacock once, its
tail fashioned from saw blades and its long neck from coiled bicycle
chains. “It's rusty,” mother said. She didn't understand it was
meant to be.
My husband's a good father. There's
always food on the table and clothes on the children's backs. Blue
collar/white collar, what does it matter? At least he comes home at
night. I don't think mother missed this inescapable fact, but she
seemed determined to ignore it. No point in provoking her. With
some people their mind's literally made up and you can't get inside
I touch the collar. It's warm. I'm
used to washing Jim's grubby stains and dirty underwear. This time
though 'Vanish' didn't do the trick. I can't see the lipstick mark
anymore, not in reality, but it's burned into my memory.
It was a shock, one of those sudden
clenching shocks, when everything goes quiet except for the sound of
blood pumping in your ears. I didn't know. Didn't even suspect.
Crouched by the washing machine I felt my throat tighten, as if the
discovery threatened to suffocate me. Did she curl her fingers
around the back of his neck? Rest her head against his shoulder?
Hear his words rattling through his chest, all deep and musical
behind those ribs? My ribs. My husband.
I suppressed the urge to vomit.
Practicality not sentimentality. We have two beautiful daughters, a
mortgage, a life together. What's he playing at? My head whirled
like one of those wheels on a television quiz show. Clack, clack,
clack. Red segment; 'I'll kill him' Yellow segment; 'Stand by your
man'. Green segment; 'Why me?'. blue segment, orange segment, white
Mother said “All men are dogs”.
Jane, who'd lived at Greenham Common in the 80s, said “All men are
rapists”. She smoked cigars and I'm pretty sure she was a lesbian.
My sister said “The secret to a happy marriage is good sex”.
That seemed obvious enough, until she found a business card for a
strip club in her husband's trouser pocket. She leaned against a
wall as her legs buckled.
The cuffs should be ironed the same way
as the collar; inside out and outside in. My husband has this style
about him. He wears sleeve garters. Doesn't like anything flapping.
I flap a lot. “Neurotic,” he calls me. I bet [i]she's[/i] cool
and collected, uses lip-liner, a vast array of hair products and has
her legs waxed at a salon. I shave mine in the bath and then spend
ten minutes cleaning the scummy tide mark. I haven't been to the
hairdressers in years.
Slam, hiss, creak. Slam, hiss, creak.
And I wonder what he does with his
hands. Does he guide her through a crowd, his fingers resting
lightly on the small of her back? When he touches her does she let
him know it's welcome? With a smile? A gentle relaxation? And
where else does he put his hands? On her neck? Her breasts? Her
Before father left, when I was small,
we used to sit on the sofa with me tucked under his arm. I didn't
mind watching the final scores. I thought it was a special big man
code. “Apple of his bloody eye,” mother said through her twisted
mouth, “Daddy's little chicken wing. Daddy's little flowerpot.
Well where is he now?” I cried in front of her triumph.
Slam, hiss, creak. Slam, hiss, creak.
I fold each sleeve at the seam.
There's a stray thread. I want to bite it off with my teeth, but I
could pull the stitching by accident. Along with everything else,
mother left me her needlework box. It's red plastic, the type lots
of men using for storing their fishing tackle. An ugly thing.
Various reels of cotton sit snugly in a compartmentalised black tray.
She chose these, meticulously. Her hands worked with the crochet
needles too. I've forgotten how. The darning wool is of no use
either. Where are the scissors? I can't find them. I imagine my
eldest daughter has taken them. She steals everything, borrows and
doesn't return. “Where's the hairbrush? … my moisturiser? ….
that box of chocolates? … your father's affection?
Before she was born he was mine. By
the time she was one it dawned on me I had to share. The way he
treats her, as if the sun rises and sets with her smile. And she has
his eyes, his sense of humour, his manual dexterity. She has
The shirt is lying face up on the
board, its arms spread in mute apology. The stray thread curls at me
like a pubic hair on a fresh made made bed. Our bed? He wouldn't.
Would he? Slam, hiss, creak, slam, hiss, creak. He couldn't. Slam,
hiss, creak, slam, hiss, creak. Not in a million years. Slam, hiss
creak. Something turns in my stomach. It's a baby at night, trying
to find its thumb with its soft, clean mouth. I can hear it snuffle,
the sound of baby-gro toweling against against fluffy cotton. That's
how an idea starts; small, almost imperceptible, but then two things
connect, or don't connect, and it coughs into life. At first it's
just a couple of splutters. It could go either way. A moment of
silence. You listen with bated breath. There it is again, more
throaty this time, a forceful blast propelling the cry into your
consciousness. And it's not just your ears that respond. Your whole
body's alive to the interruption. The baby's woken up. It's
demanding your attention.
The sides of a shirt, so mother
advised, are ironed different ways up. The buttons have to be
facing, so as not to crimple the fabric. It's important to skirt the
edge of each one, each issue, each problem.
“Even at your sister's wedding.”
I knew what was coming next.
“In the garden.”
Why this persistence with truth?
“Against the silver birch.”
Where my childish swing had swung. “I
don't want to know mother. I just don't want to know.” I put my
hands over my ears but I could still hear her.
“Do you know how it was for me?”
“I had over a hundred guests …”
She wasn't going to stop.
“And my husband, your father …”
She spat the words out like olive pips,
like snake venom, like …
“Was fucking one of them up against a
Slam, hiss, creak, slam, hiss, creak,
slam, hiss, creak, slamhisscreak.
She said the 'F' word.
I light a cigarette with shaking hands.
Does [i]she[/i] even know about me? My
name? The kids' names? Has he shown her that picture in his wallet?
Has she been through his wallet? His pockets? Why did I stop doing
that? I shouldn't have stopped doing that. Last time that's how I
found out. He admitted it straight away, apologised profusely, but
there were reasons. I'd been busy with the children, suffering from
post natal depression. He was lonely. We'd grown apart.
“Your father was a pig. A pig and a
liar.” I remembered the visit to Brookes' farm when I was eleven.
The herdsman told us that pigs, anatomically, are the closest
creatures to humans. I'd been sickened by their penis length and
width and violence. I preferred the dog. His was less threatening.
We called it his 'lipstick'. Mother's teeth were stained with
harshly applied lipstick. “Please,” I begged, “I don't need to
The other side, where the button holes
are, is ironed inside out to preserve the seam. A straight edge is
everything as far as appearance goes.
Slam, hiss, creak. Slam, hiss, creak,
squirt – to soften the dried-in creases and dampen their reticence.
He explained it away so sensibly. We
went to marriage guidance. Our friends were supportive. I still
couldn't overcome the sickening sensation though. It was like being
locked in a waltzer with an evil carnie at my back. “Alright,” I
said, but the word got swallowed down and and vomited up. It sounded
strangled. Half dead.
Mother saw everything from where she
was standing, which was a small place, a spotlit circle on a black
stage. I think she'd spent so long looking into the footlights that
she was blinded by glaring reality. Every time I tried to tackle her
it was as if I was shining a torch in her face. People don't like
that. Problems can be halved and shared but they don't like the
truth staring them in the face.
The back of a shirt comes in two parts,
a lined shoulder piece and the main panel. Starting at the
shoulders. Always inside out and outside in.
I thought I knew him. That first
Christmas – I was already pregnant by then. We spent the day in
bed watching old videos and eating Turkish delight. He said I had to
keep my strength up. I don't think he cares now. “Capable,” I
heard him say last Christmas at the works party. I wonder whether
[i]she's[/i] capable and [i]what[/i] she's capable of.
Slam, hiss, creak.
I feel hot.
Slam, hiss, creak.
Slam, hiss, creak.
I don't want him to leave, with a
hurriedly packed holdall and not so much as even a backward glance.
I'm couldn't cope with seeing my daughters crying every time his
favourite TV programme comes on, or when they spy some irrelevant
item he's forgotten, just like them.
Pushing the shoulders of a coat-hanger
through the sleeves of his shirt I hang it on the doorknob. If his
body was inside it now I'd want him to be kneeling, begging
forgiveness, promising never to do it again. I hear his key in the
lock. The front door opens. He shouts a cheery “Hello”. That
particular door will shut, seal us in for the night. I need to make
sure others remain open. [i]She[/i] won't know this. It will be her
mistake. She doesn't know him, or me, or the correct way to iron a
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