The laundry floor is cold, even through her socks, but she can’t put her shoes back on. Not now. She could get another pair of socks, or the slip-on flip-flops, but if she leaves, she won’t come back and she has already offered. A gift of five ironed shirts.
‘It’s a present,’ she has promised, ‘not a precedent’ and the joke gets better as she relives it in her mind.
The iron ticks itself warm and the collar is first. It makes her think of her mother and wonder why did she teach me to iron, but not to sew?
The part after the collar, what’s that called? She reaches for the word. Is that the yoke? If she had learnt to sew, she would know. Collar, yoke (if that’s what it is), cuffs, then sleeves.
You need to set the sleeves up carefully. It’s quite a trick, isn’t it, flattening down the seams and not doubling up the fold. No tramlines. They are her mother’s words. When the shirts are striped, as many of them are, the fold might still be crisp, but it never lines up right. It makes a satisfying job less so.
The heat of the shirt on her hand, the creak of the board, the kink of the cord, these are the things that have always been.
And the sigh of the iron when you rest it on its base.
Was that asbestos, that piece of grey at the end of her mother’s ironing board?
The shirt is back on its hanger, hooked over the laundry door. She begins again. Collar, yoke, cuffs then sleeves. It depends where you are in life, whether ironing is the cold of Monday morning or the warmth of Sunday night.
When she has finished the shirts, she does the handkerchiefs because they are there and because she likes the smell of cotton warmed by an iron. Handkerchiefs don’t take long.
She does the handkerchiefs in squares, because it’s squares for a man. Grandma taught her that. Squares for a man. And triangles for girls.
And when Grandma packed the bag at the end of the holidays, she put in the knickers, the bathers, the shorts, all clean, and the handkerchiefs. Ironed. Triangles for girls. Grandma said I wonder what your mother will think about that. Did she lift her eyebrow or sniff after she spoke? Triangles for girls. Because it was the same voice she would use to say it’s hard for mothers, mothers lose their sons.
And it depends where you are in life. Sometimes ironing is a gift to someone else. And sometimes a gift to yourself.