Shorts For Christmas

Shorts For Christmas
Twelve short stories with a Christmas theme
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Washday Back Then

Strange what thoughts strike you at Christmas.

I’m watching Shrek for the umpteenth time, glass of whisky in hand, slumped in my favourite leather armchair. Apart from the television, the house is silent, my wife and our two grown-up sons having decided to take a stroll round the village to walk off a stomach-filling lunch.

The house is rarely this quiet. I’m a freelance writer who works from home, and there is always the sound of some domestic activity. Quite often it’s the washing machine in the utility, swishing and swooshing, whirring and spinning.

Not today. Today the Tin Man is having a well-earned rest.

My mind drifts back to the days of my youth, and it strikes me how domestic life was so very different then. Daily patterns were fixed, immutable, and comfortingly predictable. Monday was always washday. Never Tuesday, Wednesday or any other day. Always a Monday. A habit as unchangeable as the seasons, stitched into the genes of generations of women.

Our Mam was the exception. She didn’t do any washing. For some reason Grandma never delegated the responsibility for this particular weekly chore to her. Perhaps she didn’t quite trust Mam to do the job right. Or perhaps Mam, the youngest of four children, had convinced her that washing would ruin her beautifully tended hands. After all, she was training to be a hairdresser, and wouldn’t everyone notice them?

In the fifties it wasn’t as simple as bunging a pile of dirties into the gaping stainless steel maw of some eco-designed, foreign-built, two hundred and fifty alternate programmes megabeast. Washing then was a back-breaking process, guaranteed to develop arm musculature that Venus Williams would envy.

Ah, women just ain’t what they use to be.

An idea occurs to me. Like an itch, I have to scratch it. I turn off Shrek and go upstairs to my office. Turn on the laptop and google to see if any domestic scribe has documented the process of washing before the advent of the all-powerful washing machine. Google draws a blank. Hmm. Interesting.

The internal light bulb flashes on. What if I was to write a ten-step guide that the woman of yesteryear might have referred to in her time of need?

I open up a new Word document. Fingers hover over the keyboard.

Here we go.


Step 1: Drag out galvanised dolly-tub from place of residence. This is unmistakeable as it’s the size of a beer barrel, and like a beer barrel, far too heavy to lift. Roll it on its fat metal waist and stand upright outside the back door, hole upwards, ready to be filled with hot water. You may find it is necessary to make an unexpected number of journeys from the water heater located in your kitchen, as the capacity of the most heaters (like many households you will not have the luxury of hot water directly on tap) is sufficient only to supply a fraction of the hot water required.

Step 2: Take first pile of washing and cram as much into previously mentioned tub as possible, remembering to allow sufficient room for the milking-stool-on-a-broomstick contraption called a dolly, dolly-legs, dolly-pegs, peggy, or maiden, depending on where you come from.

Step3: Vigorously attack partly soaked washing with bar of carbolic soap. Inhale the pungent, disinfectant smell of this remarkably versatile creation, evocative of the very essence of cleanliness. Household tip: Carbolic soap can also be used for cleaning surfaces, steps, and floors. Simply cut pieces from one huge block and label them according to purpose. Remember not to mix them up. There is nothing more off-putting for a man to put on a beautifully clean white shirt only to find it peppered with splinters.

Step 4: Continue to assault washing with dolly until it begs for forgiveness.

Step 5: Rub washing up and down on washboard as if your very life depends on it, but taking care not to damage same. You may not know it (how could you?) but that washboard will be invaluable years later as the centrepiece in some bizarre musical ritual called Skiffle.

Step 6: Remove washing, roll tub on its side, expel cloudy red lukewarm water, being careful to avoid soaking feet in the process. Refill with cold water, reinsert washing, attack once more with dolly. By now, your washing should be screaming for absolution. Ignore this. Its worst nightmare is yet to come.

Step 7: Drop in the Dolly Blue. Note: This mysterious little blue bag also goes under the names of stone blue, fig blue, or thumb blue. Its purpose is to disguise any hint of yellow in your washing and give them that ‘whiter than white’ look.

Yeah, right.

Step 8: Take out washing, roll tub on its side, expel cloudy grey cold water, again being careful to avoid soaking feet in the process. Repeat this step to remove all vestiges of carbolic. You may have to do this many times until the result is to your satisfaction. Don’t be too fussy. Like every other day Monday has only twenty-four hours.

Step 9: You are almost there! Take sopping washing and subject to the pleasures of the mangle. A word of warning: This is arguably the most pleasurable of your household chores but unequivocally the most dangerous. Whilst chatting away to her neighbour, many an unwary innocent has gasped in horror as the thumb of her right hand (or left – we do not wish to be accused of prejudice in the issue of dexterity) slowly disappears between the crushing jaws of that mighty beast. This is particularly dangerous if you have entrusted the turning of the mangle’s handle to an over-enthusiastic child.

Step 10: Try to take laminations out of washing in a vain attempt to return to previous shape. In winter, a tyre lever can be used for this purpose. If you don’t happen to possess one, the time until the next washday can be profitably spent doing other household chores whilst waiting for washing to dry.

As a final note, we recommend the best time for washing is between the first week in June and the last week in August. For the remainder of the year we suggest you find someone with a new-fangled gadget called, jokingly a washing machine, although we do believe they will never catch on.


The front door slams and my wife calls up to me.

‘Martin, are you upstairs?’

‘Yes, love, just doing a spot of writing. Why?’

‘I thought I’d do some washing whilst the boys are here. Got anything that needs doing?’

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