Edie had only just made it along the driveway and out onto the footpath, but already her bunions were rubbing against the sides of her shoes. Each step was like having a knife plunged into her foot, then twisted. Well that was one good thing about retirement, she thought. At least she’d be able to put her feet up. It was probably the only good thing.
The fastener factory where she worked was down the hill, out on the highway. Edie lived close enough that she could be spooning up her Weeties when the first whistle blew and still be at her post ready to go by the second whistle. But she’d never done that. Not once in twenty-five years. She was always in nice and early so she had time for a cuppa and a good natter with the girls before the machinery started whirring and clanking.
Dot was waiting down the hill a bit, where the road kinked around to follow the curve of the railway line.
‘Oh Edie, ya last day,’ Dot caught her in a hug so tight the air hissed out from Edie’s belly. ‘Ya lucky ducky.’
Yeah, lucky me, thought Edie. She held up her basket, peeling back a corner of the tea towel cover. ‘I’ve got fruitcake for smoko.’
‘Yum!’ Dot smacked her lips, then threaded her arm through Edie’s and the two of them scuttled down the hill. With their matching blue curls, ruby lips and eyebrows pencilled high up their foreheads, they could have been sisters.
They picked up Betty just over the railway line and Glenys outside the post office, then walked down to the highway, arms linked, four abreast, taking up the entire footpath. Walking arm in arm with her best mates, Edie’s bunions didn’t hurt so much. Instead what was hurting was the tight lump in her chest because most of their chatter was about how it was Edie’s last day and how lucky she was to be escaping the drudgery of work. Lucky, lucky, lucky.
Sheila was waiting for them in the tearoom. ‘Perfect timing,’ she said, pulling one of her hand-crocheted tea cosies over the teapot. ‘Ya must’ve heard the kettle whistlin’.’ She clanked the teapot onto the bench and threw her arms around Edie. ‘Last day, ya lucky duck.’ Edie got a mouthful of blue curls. She pulled away and popped her basket on the bench. ‘I brought fruitcake for smoko.’
‘Fruitcake for the fruitcakes,’ giggled Dot.
‘Management ain’t gettin’ none,’ said Sheila and they all erupted in wild cackling.
Edie watched Sheila pour the tea, the bloated leaves collecting in the strainer like fish in a net. Around her, the girls were catching up with the millions of things that had happened in their lives in the fifteen hours since they’d seen each other, all talking at once.
‘Me grandkids came over, little terrors …’
‘Had to mow the lawn meself. Been naggin’ Morrie for weeks but …’
‘Spent two hours on the phone to Aunty Myrtle. Me ears’re still hurtin’.’
Usually Edie joined in with their whingeing, but that day she let their chatter wash over her, her mind already on next Monday, the first official day of her retirement, when she’d be stuck at home with her John. Then she’d really have something to moan about.
John had retired just on two years ago. He’d been crossing the days off on his calendar, counting down, for years beforehand. Mr Pacifist who fought against every day of work at the Government Aircraft Factory. In retirement he’d become Mr Layabout, sleeping ‘til ten, then slouching in a deckchair reading or setting up his easel and painting … actually she wasn’t sure what he did all day while she was at work. All she knew was that when she got home she was greeted by a pile of dishes in the sink and a trail of dirt and breadcrumbs across the floor. All she knew was that, as of next week, she’d be stuck there with him and the girls would still be down here, chatting and laughing and thinking she was the lucky one.
When she was at work, John was a character, larger than life in his grossness and incompetence. Her anecdotes always had the girls in hysterics: his attempt to paint her that made it look like she had three boobs; his reroofing the garage which ended with him falling through onto the bonnet of the Toyota and then a trip to emergency; his snoring, loud enough to set the dogs barking three streets away. But in real life John was not a cartoon character. He was her husband and she’d done a pretty good job of ignoring him for the last thirty-five years, which hadn’t been so hard while she was busy raising Jane, and then working. But now they were about to be home together, all day, every day. That was no longer a joke. That was a grim, nightmarish reality.
Edie was already at her post when the second whistle blew. This was her favourite part of the work day, when the machines sprang to life, moaning and groaning like they’d been woken from a sound sleep. The shuddering of the factory floor soothed her aching bunions. She took a deep breath, savouring the familiar smell of grease and sweat.
The boxes started marching down the conveyer belt, building up speed. Edie stood ready, shoulder-to-shoulder with Dot and Pam, while Sheila and Betty and some other woman with a wog name, waited on the other side. The girls’ hands started moving, so fast they were just blurs, snatching up the little boxes, twenty-four small boxes packed into one big box, then lid folded over and taped in one smooth motion. The little blue and white boxes felt as dear to Edie as the girls she worked alongside. The slogan ‘Bound to be safe’ was printed on the lids, just below the company logo. Safe, that was how work made her feel—the factory, the girls, the boxes.
On that morning of her last day, she found herself remembering her very first day, forever ago. She recalled how impossible it all felt, how fast those little boxes whizzed towards her, passing right by while she was still wrestling to assemble the big box. She remembered the heat in her cheeks as the women around her packed three, four, five big boxes to every one of hers. In her haste she’d dropped a little box and it’d burst open, spilling a hundred wire fasteners onto the concrete. And then there’d been tears spilling down her face, but one of the older ladies had put her arm around her and said, ‘Never mind love, we all start once. You’ll be an expert in no time.’
And, although it’d seemed impossible at first, it was true. Within weeks she was folding and packing and taping just as fast as the women around her. Soon she was able to work automatically, like she was part of the churning machinery, and could join in with the banter that filled the empty space between the humming and grinding of cogs and pistons.
Oh how they talked! This was different from the chatter on the way to work and in the tearoom. Their work chatter was a game, with the unspoken aim of making the foreman blush. The poor guy was young enough to be Edie’s son and was a terrible blusher, his pasty jock skin turning the same shade as the women’s lipstick. The more he blushed, the saucier they became.
‘Last night me John pulled out his little pecker …’
‘I popped me head over the fence to say hello to me neighbour and there he was by the pool in the nuddy … ’
‘That daughter of mine, little tart, got a different bloke every week. I asked fer her secret and she said …’
Giggles rolled along the conveyer belt even faster than the boxes. They giggled so much that it didn’t feel like work at all; more like a day out with friends. Except you didn’t have to compulsorily retire from days out with friends when you hit sixty.
At smoko Edie carved the fruitcake into chunks and the girls all grabbed a piece, even though most of them were watching their figures. She carried the plate over to where the men sat smoking, some playing cards, others bending over The Sun News-Pictorial. Edie noticed one of the wog women down the far end of the bench eyeing off the plate, but she didn’t offer her any cake. They were all yabbering away in some foreign language, Italian or Greek or something, waving their hands as they spoke. It wasn’t like they made any effort to fit in.
‘So how ya gunna spend ya days in retirement?’ Sheila asked.
‘Oh you know, gardenin’, cookin’ …’ Edie munched on her chunk of cake. Not bad, could’ve done with a tad more sugar.
‘I’m only six months behind ya, Edie,’ said Dot. ‘I can’t wait ta spend time with me grandkids.’
‘Grandkids, yeah.’ A sultana had wedged itself between her bottom gum and her false teeth, grating as she chewed.
Edie’s daughter Jane had already been pestering her about the grandkids. ‘You’ll be able to have them over more when you retire,’ she’d said. ‘Every school holidays.’ Edie shuddered at the thought. A few hours with those noisy brats was enough—too much—for her. The last time they’d come over she’d spent hours afterwards scouring their finger marks off doors and hoovering the carpet where they’d trampled dirt. It wasn’t like they actually came to talk to her or see how she was going. They spent the whole time sitting on the floor playing some silly game that went beep and ding and ding and beep until her ears rang. Simon, that annoying game was called. They’d tried to explain it to her, told it was a new-fangled version of Simon Says where you had to copy the patterns that the machine beeped out. Young people and their newfangled technology! What was wrong with the old version of Simon Says where you say, ‘Simon says shut up’ or ‘Simon says go outside and play real quiet’?
That silly Simon game couldn’t have been too much fun because by the end of it those two ratbags were wrestling on the floor, the big one on top of the little one, both snatching hair and poking eyes. Simon hadn’t been able to resolve that one. No, Edie had had to rely on the old technology of the wooden spoon. That’d whipped those two monsters into line pretty quick smart.
‘Magazines, girls,’ said Dot, pulling a bundle of mags from her bag and fanning them across the bench. All the good ones: Women’s Day; Women’s Weekly (the English one!); New Idea. The girls shrieked, heads bumping as they leaned into the pictures.
‘Poor Princess Margaret, gettin’ a divorce …’
‘Look at this John Travolta fella, it’s a wonder he can dance in those tight pants …’
‘Aye, you can see everythin’ …’
On the other side of the tearoom, the men hunched over the newspaper talking politics. The women mostly avoided talking about serious stuff. On the rare occasions politics came up, Edie just regurgitated things she’d heard John spouting on about. She couldn’t rely on John for much, but she could rely on him to have an opinion about every bleeding thing.
In the afternoon a new load of rags arrived. Edie could hardly believe it when Cassie from the office poked her head around the door and yelled, ‘Ragbags.’ What a treat on her last day! The girls dropped their boxes and swarmed out the door, all elbows and laughs. Edie elbowed her way along with them, but she wasn’t laughing. Ragbag days were her favourite days. And this was her last ragbag day. Ever. Retirement was just a lonely string of empty days, stretching all the way to the cemetery.
Out in the anteroom there was a mountain of plump bags. The girls leapt at them, ripping the plastic with their nails, releasing treasures and the musty smell of mothballs. Furrowing into the pile, the girls were no longer friends but competitors, with elbows, insults and fabric flying.
Dot had hold of the left leg of a pair of trousers and Pam had hold of the right. They were both tugging so hard their mouths twisted and their cheeks burned red.
‘I saw ‘em first,’ yelled Dot.
‘They ain’t even your size.’
There was a sharp ripping sound and the two women fell apart, facing one another from opposite sides of the room, each holding a trouser leg. Suddenly they were friends again, both bent at the waist, clutching their stomachs and hooting with laughter.
Edie held up a waistcoat, pink with glittery stripes. ‘Look at this,’ she whooped. ‘Who would toss this out?’
Sheila dug out a pair of matching trousers which she flung over to Edie. ‘Who’d wanna wear that?’
‘Me!’ Edie’s eyebrows skyrocketed up her forehead. She tucked the trousers and waistcoat under her arm. What a find! A retirement bonus.
The whistle went for the end of smoko but the girls kept clawing at the clothes. Edie found a gingham sundress with a square neck and held it against her body to check the size. Maybe if she lost a few pounds.
The second whistle blew but the girls kept on fossicking. The foreman didn’t get in their way on ragbag days, not since the shop steward sat him down with a cup of tea and a homemade Anzac (extra golden syrup) and told him if he didn’t watch it he’d have a full blown walkout on his hands.
‘You can still come back and visit on ragbag days,’ Sheila said as they walked back to their posts. Edie nodded, even though she knew it wasn’t a real invitation. There’d been this woman a year or so back. Nice girl, a Scouser too. Joy was her name. For a few months after she retired, Joy kept coming back, trying to join in, hanging around the tearoom at smoko, waiting at the factory door on Friday night saying, ‘How about we all hit the pub?’ But she was no longer one of them. Whenever she tried to join a conversation, she was always a few weeks behind the action and no one could be bothered filling her in on the backstory.
A couple of times Joy’d turned up on ragbag days. Edie hadn’t thought about that much before but now she wondered how. The girls never knew when the next consignment of rags was coming, so was it just chance, or had someone found out and tipped Joy off? Anyway, it didn’t really matter. What did matter was that Joy wasn’t welcome to share their spoils. These rags were treasures that belonged to them, the workers—the current workers. Sheila had had a quiet word to Joy and after that they’d never seen her again. Edie hadn’t even thought of her, until now, when she was beginning to understand …
After work the girls took her down the pub, the Tudor one over the other side of the highway. The fellas went too, but they did that every Friday, whereas the girls usually went home to fry up steak and chips for their good-for-nothing hubbies who most likely wouldn’t come home to eat it because they were at the pub chugging back beers.
‘We’re gunna miss ya Edie, ya lucky duck.’ Sheila hoisted her stein in the air.
‘Aye, won’t be the same without ya,’ said Dot. Edie sipped her shandy and felt her heart like a clenched fist inside her chest.
‘You’ll be so busy in ya new life, ya won’t even think ‘bout us,’ said Betty.
‘How could I forget ya?’ Edie was blinking fast. ‘You’re me best mates.’
Glenys said, ‘You’ll be so busy with all ya gardenin’ and cookin’ …’
‘And grandkids,’ said Dot.
‘Ah yeah, the grandkids.’ Edie scrunched up her mouth.
Sheila unzipped her handbag and pulled out a blue and white box, with the familiar logo across the top and beneath it their slogan ‘Bound to be safe.’ She slid the box across the table to Edie. ‘We’re fastened together for life,’ she said.
‘Bound,’ said Dot.
Edie’s hands trembled as she folded back the lid. Inside were a hundred (exactly) paperclips with a Tatts ticket and two gold studs on top. Edie picked up the earrings and cradled them in her palm. ‘They’re beautiful,’ she said. Her voice trembled as much as her hand.
‘Let me get ya another shandy,’ said Sheila, standing up and thumping Edie on the back.
Later, when Edie slipped off to the ladies’, Sheila followed and pushed a bit of paper into her hand. ‘That’s Joy’s number,’ she said. ‘You remember Joy, don’t ya?’ Edie nodded, her fingers closing tight around the scrap of paper. ‘Joy and a few of the old birds get together a bit,’ said Sheila. ‘You should look ‘em up.’
‘Thanks.’ Edie tucked the paper into her bra, pushing it down deep for safekeeping.
Sheila put an arm around her. ‘You’ll be right, love.’
Edie let her forehead fall onto her friend’s shoulder. ‘Bound to be safe,’ she said.
Image by: Annie Spratt