The Rocket Laundry
Sarah Hilary

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.

Sarah Hilary's 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 wartime experiences of her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in the Spring 09 edition of Foto8 Magazine. 

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Photo detail on main page courtesy of Chris [:]-).

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