Washing Day by Elizabeth Tan
What Kate misses the most these days is the ‘vintage inspired’ smock dress she bought from ASOS. It had the appearance of being made up of several different cuts of material, like a patchwork, but it was actually all just one piece of fabric, a simulated bricolage of floral prints in pink, indigo, blue – but predominantly red, so she wore it to the Lunar New Year gathering the last time she went home. The waistline sat a bit higher than in a regular dress – just below her bust – which had a welcome obfuscating effect on the rest of her body, transforming the slack geography of her torso into a floaty hypothetical world, inscrutable to tactless relatives. She could wear the dress with black tights in cold weather, with Doc Martens, with flats, with high heels; its lightness was ideal for both the dry heat of Australia and the humidity of Singapore. And: it had pockets.
Sometimes, even now, she reaches into her wardrobe to find it – perhaps, all this time, it was just a prank between the wardrobe and the washing machine – and she won’t find it, won’t find it in her jungle of a clothes rack either, or in the laundry hamper, and she’ll feel the tight hand of grief, followed by a swipe of admonishment. They’re just clothes.
It happened in the year that Kate turned thirty. She had just returned from her second ever Booty Burn class, glazed with sweat and embarrassment. When she peeled off her crop top and workout pants she discovered that the elastic had scored red lines into her skin, as if she were an animal in a butcher’s diagram. After taking a shower and wriggling into sweatpants and t-shirt, she bundled up the crop top and workout pants together with the rest of the clothes in the laundry hamper (separating the ‘vintage inspired’ smock dress into its own mesh bag), piled everything into the washing machine, and clicked the dial to a gentle warm cycle.
It’s not that the women at the Booty Burn class were mean or snobby – no, nothing like that. It’s not that they were intimidating – although, Kate was intimidated: by thighs that were tauter and longer than hers, neatly parcelled abdomens, shapely curled brackets of collarbones. And sitting there on the polished studio floor before class began, trying to tell herself that these women weren’t trying to be thin and beautiful at her, she realised that the itching nervous silence wasn’t just emanating from her. During the class, the women lunged, flexed, curled, stretched – gazes fixed and earnest – balanced on private cliffs of worry, projected back to them in the mirrored studio wall.
And it’s not like Vanessa, the Booty Burn instructor, was mean or snobby either. She was younger than most of the women in the class, probably only a few years out of high school. She looked the part of a fitness instructor, with her turquoise workout pants and white singlet knotted at the midriff, but her voice was light, rising above the frantic fitness music not with volume but more in the way of the glassy notes of a harp. She kept saying things like honour your body, and breathe through it, and if it’s available to you, take it to a jump.
This last phrase Kate found interesting. If it’s available to you, peel your heels off the floor. If it’s available to you, extend your legs to a full plank. If this is not available to you today, come down to your forearms or knees. She wondered if she could begin to think of her daily efforts as dependent on the shifting availabilities of her body. She massaged the red lines intersecting her torso and tried to love and understand and honour her body into something less conspicuous, something to carry without apology.
She was still pondering this idea when the washing machine carolled its end-of-cycle song. She slid the laundry basket from the shelf, unfolded its legs, set it down beside the machine. The countdown display was blinking 00.00. She lifted the lid.
Would she have heard it, if she’d listened closely?
Perhaps, as it accelerated towards the final spin, the machine groaned with less effort than usual; perhaps, the timbre of its hum was mischievously lighter. Perhaps, as the last pirouettes forfeited momentum, a careful listener would have noticed the absence of damp clothes slapping against the drum.
Or perhaps, the crucial moment occurred at some other time, in-between the washing machine’s bright waking-up notes and the inhale of the lifted lid. Maybe as water filled the chamber, maybe as the agitator made its first twists, maybe as the suds were purged before the rinse cycle. Maybe it happened gradually – first one sock, then a pair of briefs, then a singlet, then a blouse. Pantyhose slurped up like a noodle, one leg at a time; the last percussive grasp of a zipper, a button, the Working With Children ID badge she neglected to unfasten from her work shirt.
Or perhaps there was no way of knowing, no way of catching on before it was too late. Perhaps it was a Schrödinger-esque paradox: the clothes were simultaneously swirling like fish in the gut of the machine, and they were swirling somewhere else.
It was unclear who should have been in charge of investigating the anomaly. At first, people were phoning the police, suspecting theft or trickery. Manufacturers’ helplines swelled with calls. Newsfeeds rippled with perplexed status updates, snapshots of washing machines standing empty and gapemouthed. And then – once the trend became clear – videos captured on mobile phones.
It was always the case, even with the frontloaders, that you could never discern the exact moment when the clothes disappeared.
By the time the Physics department of the University of Sydney became the official hub of investigative efforts, a whole day had elapsed. No one could replicate the results of the previous day. Clothes went in, clothes came out. No matter the variation: warm or cold water, spin or no spin, Whirlpool, LG, Fisher & Paykel. The anomaly was limited to that single day, in this single country. The opportunity to study the anomaly was gone.
Her tartan shawl. Her Totoro socks.
Four pairs of her favourite underwear, a discontinued boyleg style from Target, with the lace waistbands that didn’t pinch the skin around her stomach and hips.
A green tunic top that flared slightly into a handkerchief hemline, long enough to cover her bottom.
A flesh-coloured bra with cups that were just the right shape and height that they could nestle invisibly underneath a spaghetti-strap top.
A pair of jeggings that she acquired before jeggings became popular – more like denim tights – that forewent the insulting fake pockets and were thick enough to hide underwear seams.
A black office skirt. A grey t-shirt.
A hoodie with thumbholes in the sleeves.
A dress printed with bees.
Denim shorts made soft by years of wear.
A week after the anomaly she was back at Booty Burn class, constantly pulling down on her tank top in case her panty lines were showing (another thing she didn’t have to worry about with those boyleg briefs surrendered to the anomaly).
Before the class started, there was some chatter amongst the women about their missing laundry. Miranda had lost all of her good bed linen. Amy, her most comfortable pair of maternity trousers. The navy blue formal shirt with square gold buttons that Karen bought for her husband. Glenda’s daughter’s favourite Star Wars pyjamas. At Heidi’s children’s school, the principal had relaxed the dress rules for students on account of all the school uniforms that vanished in the wash. ‘It’s the same at my kids’ school,’ said Una, and then burst into tears, because, ‘It’ll cost so much to replace those uniforms. Even the secondhand ones aren’t cheap. And they just grow out of them. They just grow out of them.’ Francine, luckily, did her washing on a weekday, but, ‘My boyfriend couldn’t resist giving it a go, and now he has to replace all his jocks.’
Kate listened, but could not bring herself to join in. It was somehow not available to her, to speak, standing there in her hurriedly purchased workout pants, stiff and new. Though she was sure these women would understand – they would – the strange heartbreak of it all.
The day after the anomaly, her mother had called from Singapore. ‘Katie, did you read the email I sent you? Don’t wash your clothes, okay? Did you read the email?’
Yes, she did, but it was too late – and besides, the anomaly was over. People were doing their laundry just fine now.
‘Okay, but be careful! Don’t wash anything important. Try putting a few things first, like towels, but not your good ones, just one or two things at a time like that, okay? Do you need me to send clothes? If you want, I send clothes? Do you have enough panties? Don’t buy, I can send things.’
She told her mother that the clothes she missed the most were irreplaceable. Like the dress she wore at Lunar New Year, remember.
‘Ah, don’t worry – you’ll find other dresses.’
At work, Kate’s breath would stall in her throat if she saw a child scrunch away their jacket or lunchbox or favourite stuffed toy into their backpack. Something about the darkness of the backpack’s depths, the finality of the zipper’s joined teeth. As if one could now never be sure whether a vessel can be trusted to guard the things that it holds.
‘Bellybutton to spine,’ Vanessa reminded the class. ‘Work from your core.’
There were theories, of course. A dirty alliance between whitegoods manufacturers and the fashion industry. A bizarre punishment meted out by the Water Corporation to people who activated their sprinklers on the wrong days. A stunt engineered by Facebook, maybe even by Mark Zuckerberg himself.
The academics tasked with the investigation examined all the available footage, made house visits, placed pushpins on maps. But what was the true scope of data that they were meant to collect? What else could possibly be relevant? Should they have looked at the position of the moon on the date of the anomaly, or the UV index? Wind conditions? Multiply the date by pi? Should they have hunted for a butterfly on the exact opposite side of the globe, reprogramming the universe with the binary beats of its wings?
The Prime Minister made an awkward lunge for relatability – the day of the anomaly was laundry day in his household, too – but all he got for his trouble was public interest in who does the laundry at The Lodge, and how did the PM divide household chores before he moved into The Lodge, and has the PM ever done a load of laundry himself?
Certain corners of the internet nurtured a theory that it was all a feminist conspiracy, some petulant and humiliating revenge against hardworking husbands and fathers. Their workshirts and footy jerseys were hostages to an organised temper tantrum, and they’ll turn up in time once the wives and girlfriends unknot their knickers and accept that this is just the way things are, not being sexist or anything, but women are just better at stuff like this; ’course, bit of a mixed message, the women hiding their own clothes too, but maybe it’s a ploy to update their wardrobes, you know how they are.
You’ll find other dresses. But what Kate’s mother doesn’t appreciate is that Kate’s wardrobe is full of other dresses – dresses that Kate has grown out of but can’t let go of, dresses that changed size or shape in the wash, dresses worn only once. Dresses with elastic waists that constantly wriggle up underneath her breasts, dresses with straps that fall off her shoulders, dresses that exact an overbearing grip on her upper arms. Dresses with gaping V-necks, dresses rendered tacky from pilling, dresses with vexed button holes. Dresses that haven’t kept their promises. Dresses that, like ex-lovers, she feels foolish for ever feeling worthy of.
Is it a memory, or a nightmare? Kate, eight years old, walking home from school, to the block of HDB flats where her family lived. Someone’s bamboo washing pole had dislodged from the socket; there were clothes flattened on the footpath, as if a whole family had just melted there. ‘Not ours, please not ours,’ Kate murmured, getting closer and closer, heart sinking with each garment she recognised – her mother’s oversized Garfield sleep tee, her father’s polo shirt with the tiny palm tree print, Kate’s orange corduroy pinafore. There were two uncles playing chess on the void deck, and plenty more kids arriving home from school, so she tried to appear nonchalant as she approached the fallen pole, coming to kneel before the crumpled clothes. The clothes were dry on their exposed faces but still damp in the creases. Her mind bloomed with What Ifs:
What if the clothes have been lying here all day?
What if the pole hit someone on the way down?
What if it made a loud noise when it landed?
What if everyone came out to look at it? The grandma on the fourth floor who tended sagging pot plants? The bristly uncle who always scolded children for running? The slick-bunned businesswoman whose high-heel clip echoed through the complex as she took the elevator to level three and walked up the stairwell to level four? The twin boys who lived directly above Kate’s home who were always screaming?
What if they gathered around the fallen pole? Sifted through the clothes like they were suspiciously low-priced goods in a discount bin, picking up this garment and that garment between pinched fingers? Or what if they just walked around it, tsk-tsk-ing under their breaths? Or maybe they approached it as Kate did – not mine, please not mine – and, doused with relief at the sight of an unfamiliar shirt, a dress of the wrong size, continued briskly on their way?
Kate bundled up all the clothes and smuggled them back to the apartment. She left the pole for her father to fetch later. And she doesn’t remember ever wearing the orange pinafore after that.
It was common, following the anomaly, for people to replace their toploaders with frontloaders, just for that extra imagined security of having a window to one’s laundry. Large cardboard boxes began to appear at the childcare centre, donated by parents, and Kate and her co-workers would help the children repurpose the boxes into trucks and forts and spaceships. One child insisted that her cardboard box be turned into a washing machine.
‘Are you sure?’ Kate asked the child. ‘This box can be anything, you know. It can be a ship. A robot. A castle.’
‘Definitely a washing machine.’ The child, Sasha, gave a firm nod.
So Kate used a Stanley knife to cut a round hole in the box, and another circle around that to create a door that could pop outwards, and a smaller flap in the top corner for the powder dispenser. She attached milk bottle lids with split pins to form the dials. Sasha drew on a digital display with a felt-tip marker, and also an energy rating of five stars.
‘Shall we test it out? Should we wash some clothes?’ Kate asked once Sasha announced that it was finished.
‘I want to be clothes,’ Sasha said.
So Kate opened the door and Sasha climbed in. She pivoted around so that she was looking at Kate through the window, squatting on her haunches. Kate closed the door and poised her hand over the dials. ‘Do you want a warm wash or a cold wash?’
‘Delicate or heavy duty?’
‘Okay, I’m pressing the start button,’ Kate said. ‘What sound does a washing machine make when it’s filling up with water?’
‘Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,’ went Sasha. ‘Shhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh.’
In her own time, Sasha morphed the sound into a whom-whom-whom-whom-whom–whom-whom and shuffled around so she was side-on to the window. She placed her palms on the box floor and dipped her head and rolled over in a tight somersault, over and over again, an ecstatic blur of hair and overalls and limbs.
Over the hour of playtime, other children took turns inside Sasha’s machine. They’d climb in one, two, even three at a time, tumbling over and around each other to the hum of their kaleidoscopic onomatopoeia. The bottlecap dials began to control other things, like speed or noise or gravity or smell. Kate let herself recede into the background of their play. She watched the washing machine become another thing, and another thing, and another thing, the children’s imaginations as agile as their bodies. A washing machine can be a ticket booth. A time travel machine. An aeroplane.
A hovercraft. A bank vault.
An aquarium. An escape pod.
A doomsday weapon.
A teleportation device.
Today is washing day. Today is the fiftieth washing day since the anomaly. Kate opens the cane lid of the laundry hamper. She hooks the clasps of her bras and tucks them into a mesh bag. She checks her pockets for tissues. She turns her printed shirts inside-out. She un-concertinas her socks. She sprays the armpits of her work shirts with stain remover. She closes the lid. Wakes up the machine. Twists the dial to a gentle wash.
The countdown displays 0.51.
Entreats her approval with a steady blink.
What if, on this fiftieth time, she were to climb into the washing machine? Inhale bellybutton to spine, dip one leg first and then the other, wrap her torso around the agitator, reach up to jostle the lid until it tips shut? What if, today, it is finally available to her to do so – to make herself into the necessary shape, to be the perfect fit?
But what Kate does, instead, is push the start button. She takes the laundry basket from the shelf and hugs it to her hip. The washing machine hisses, accumulating water, seeming to grow with intensity, resolution, like an aeroplane preparing to ascend.
One minute drops from the countdown, and then another, and then another.
Kate grips the basket, and cannot turn away.