The Rocket Laundry
Latrine duty was dirty work, two of us hauling a vat into which a dozen
buckets had been slopped. We radiated stench. It was a pleasure though
to visit Elkes, whose laundry was by the latrines. He was a remarkable
man, able to quote passages on subjects from the Civil War to the Suez
Canal. Elkes knew a lot about wine; you could taste the flavours he
described. It took you right away from the stinking business of
slopping out for a prison camp fed on rice and dirty water.
Elkes was in charge of an oil drum, a whalloping beast that shook and
screeched and bellowed steam as he boiled up shorts and singlets and,
god help him, such socks as survived the daily trek to the fields and
back to cut rubber from the trees or whatever work the Japs had
assigned to us that day. Elkes used lye taken from the ashes in the
camp's kitchen. His Rocket Laundry killed the lice and lessened the
risk of infection. We couldn't have done without it. As for his
wine-tasting stories, they were more sustaining than the rice, a feast
of colour and taste.
'Harvest festival fruits ripened in a basket of willow branches.
Sunshine through a stained-glass window onto a starched altar cloth.
Blackberries steeped in russet oak under a short-crust of crumbling
sugar. Red plums spitting sharply on your tongue…'
Transported in this fashion one afternoon all three of us failed to
notice that the Rocket Laundry was on the blink. Elkes had over-filled
it, stuffing in a blanket we were re-using as a shroud, the trouble
being if you buried a wrapped body someone was bound to dig it up and
sell the covering for cigarettes or food.
Elkes was boiling the blanket on top of the usual load. To start with
everything was chugging along nicely, the drum thumping, brothing up a
storm. Then the thing started taking off from the ground, I'm talking a
good foot or more, steam forcing a fissure in one side, firing a filthy
arc of boiling water that hit Elkes in the left leg and sent him over,
kicking the drum as he went.
We tried to catch him, but we were too slow. He took the full weight of
the Rocket Laundry in the chest, no time to scream poor sod before our
shorts and singlets found his face.
We're trying to solder the drum. We can't function without the laundry.
I miss the wine-tastings, but there was no sense in giving Elkes a
funeral different to anyone else's; we stripped his clothes and used
the hinged coffin, communal grave. A horrible thing, but needful.
The Japs watched us as we worked, and of course we thanked them for
letting us bury our dead.
fiction appears in SmokeLong
Quarterly, The Fish Anthology, Prick of the Spindle, The Best of
Every Day Fiction, and in the
Crime Writers' Association
anthology, MO: Crimes of
Practice. A column about the
experiences of her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese,
was published in the Spring 09 edition of Foto8 Magazine.
To link to this story directly: http://wigleaf.com/200908rocket.htm
Photo detail on main page courtesy
of Chris [:]-).
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