Winsome Smith loves a good story and loves sharing one even more. The author of eleven books and countless short stories and poems, she shares some of her favorites in Tales the Laundress Told. Her tales deal with the realities and fantasies of the imagination, human and otherwise.
With honesty and compassion, she writes of the strange experience of growing up.
• She takes the reader back to ancient Athens, to tell the story of a well-to-do young girl’s rebellion.
• We meet a garrulous ironing lady who shares her domestic wisdom.
• An earnest (and bossy) daughter of a minister has a few ideas of her own to share.
• She recounts the touching tale of a son who learns that he really does have the courage he needs.
• In a freefall flight of fancy, she introduces her readers to a young man with ambitions to study a distant planet known as Earth.
• Everyone who knows her wonders what on earth could have made a very serious mother get the giggles.
• A young girl boasts that she is ready for anything—but can she handle the challenge at hand?
These characters—and more—await you in Tales the Laundress Told.
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Read an Excerpt
Tales the Laundress Told
And Other Stories
By Winsome Smith
Balboa PressCopyright © 2013 Winsome Smith
All rights reserved.
There's a Good Girl
Joycey sat primly on the dining room chair, as she had been taught to do, with the little wooden box in her hands. Over in the corner, near the window, the policeman and the doctor were talking quietly, while in the bedroom, the two ladies—the fat one from over the road and Mrs. Childs from next door—were sitting with Joycey's aunty—her dead aunty.
Joycey sat very still—she was good at that. If she made no sound, the men might forget her presence and talk a little less cautiously. She clutched the box and did not move. She did not swing her legs or put her feet on the rung. Aunty had not allowed that.
"... natural causes ..." Dr. Hardy was saying. "... some heart trouble ... could have had some kind of shock or upset ..." He fussed around with his bag for a moment, and then, his voice a little louder (Joycey was right; they were forgetting her presence), said, "Did you know the woman?"
The policeman looked up from his notebook. Through her eyelashes, Joycey saw the deep grooves, like wheel ruts, that ran down his earth-coloured cheeks. "I only knew her by sight. A couple of years ago, a neighbour put in a complaint to the Child Welfare Department, but nothing could be proved. There was no evidence of neglect."
The doctor said, "Hmm," and Joycey continued to sit perfectly still; she had learned how not to disturb adults.
After a while, Mrs. Childs and the fat lady came out of the bedroom, and Mrs. Childs said to Joycey, "You all right, love?"
Mrs. Childs turned towards the fat lady. "This little girl was very brave and sensible. She was the one who rang the doctor and then ran in and got me. She didn't panic or anything. She's been terribly brave."
The fat lady gave Joycey a syrupy smile and said, "What's in the box, pet?"
"White mice," Joycey said without hesitation. If you hesitated, you were gone. She looked straight at the fat lady and opened her eyes wide. She then arranged her mouth into a brave little smile.
"There's a good girl," Mrs. Childs said. "I'll make everyone a nice cup of tea."
The two ladies walked towards the kitchen, and as they went, Joycey heard the fat one say in a murmuring voice, "Was Mrs. Watts afraid of mice?"
"Not that I know of," Mrs. Childs said.
"I just thought," the fat one said, "that if she felt the way I do about mice, and if she'd had a sudden shock, as the doctor said—"
"Shh!" Mrs. Childs warned. "We don't want that poor little mite to get the idea that she might have scared her aunty to death with her mice. Shh!"
So they were noticing the box. Joycey decided it would be a good idea to walk casually towards the back veranda. She stood up and walked through the back door with the box carefully tucked under her arm. The two men had gone back into the bedroom, and in the kitchen, Mrs. Childs was filling the electric jug.
She sat on the back step and cautiously lifted the lid off the box. In the dark, she saw something silvery and then some bright little eyes. She gazed down at the two small tree snakes. They were perfectly harmless and so pretty. She put out a finger and touched one on the head. It didn't move but lay gracefully coiled against its companion, slim and shiny and mysterious.
They had not been easy to get. Joycey had paid dearly for them, doing a boy's homework for three weeks in exchange for the snakes, box and all.
She wondered why she was so fascinated with snakes. Aunty would never have approved—not that there was much she did approve of anyway. The shape of them reminded Joycey of the long, thin leather belt that hung on a nail behind the kitchen door, which had bitten into her legs so often, leaving snakelike welts of a finger's width on her skin.
Perhaps it was just the having of them that was so thrilling. To know there was a box of snakes under your bed in that neat, respectable house, and to have a secret, just one secret, was so thrilling that for the four days she had owned them, she often had to clutch her hands together to stop them from clapping with joy.
Yes, it was probably not the snakes themselves; it was just the having of them.
Hearing movements inside the house, she quickly replaced the lid and put the box on the veranda beside her, with her hand on the top.
The policeman came out onto the veranda and sat on the step beside her.
"You feeling okay, Joycey?" he asked.
She arranged her mouth into that brave little smile again and said, "Yes."
"You must have got a fright when your aunty collapsed," he said.
"Yes, she fell out of the chair. Mrs. Childs had to ring you to help pick her up."
"Have you seen your aunty have a heart attack before?"
"Did you know she had a bad heart?"
"I think so." She had heard it so often. My heart ... bringing up a child at my age is too much ... the worry of it all. Yes, Joycey had heard about it, but there was nothing remarkable about that. It was just one of the many things that troubled Aunty. Every day it was something: money, the younger generation, dishonest tradesmen, the weather, her health. Which was the biggest worry was hard to tell.
The policeman looked at her kindly. "Tell me, have you got any other relatives? Got anyone to live with?"
"Yes, my brother. He's twenty-one. He's married, and he's with a road show. I know I can live with them." Yes, she knew; she had stacks of letters from them. "I couldn't live with them because Aunty had custody." It was a funny word. When Joycey was small, it had reminded her of banana custard.
"Well, you were a good girl for getting help," said the policeman. "Tell me, what were you doing when your aunty had the attack? Were you in the room with her?"
"Yes, I was in the dining room."
"What were you doing?"
"Were you playing or reading a book or doing some homework?"
"No, just standing there."
"Well, actually I was fixing the venetians."
"Fixing the venetians?"
"Yes, Aunty was hot, so she asked me to open the window and tilt the venetians a bit to let some air in. After I did that, she sort of got a bad pain and fell forward."
"Well, we won't talk about it anymore. We'll find somewhere for you to stay tonight. Come on, Mrs. Childs has made a nice cup of tea for us all." He stood up, but before going into the kitchen, he said, "What have you got in the box?"
"Just mice," Joycey said, keeping her eyes on his face and her hand on the box lid.
The policeman wasn't really listening. He patted her on the head and walked into the kitchen.
Joycey let out a little breath. That had been an awkward moment. She wished she didn't have to tell everyone it was mice. Of course she would have to let the snakes go. She would take them up to the hill later and drop them out of the box, and then they would be free. They would wriggle happily away into the grass. They would be joyously free.
She didn't like telling people she had mice because that caused no sensation. What she had said to Aunty had been much more satisfactory. With amusement and fear and elation, she relived those minutes as the teacups rattled in the kitchen and the grown-up voices drifted across the verandah.
It had been a hot morning, hot with before-storm oppression. Joycey washed the breakfast dishes because Aunty was feeling the heat. Then Joycey went in to make her bed and tidy her room. She took too long about it, because she wasted time sitting on the floor, looking at the snakes in their box.
A shadow appeared at the bedroom doorway. "Whatever on earth have you been doing, child? It doesn't take half an hour to make a bed. I need things from down the street. Tell me this instant what you've got in that box. I declare, I've never seen such a sly, secretive—"
Something made Joycey do it.
"Rattlesnakes," she announced.
Joycey lifted the lid and thrust the box towards Aunty. "Rattlesnakes! Take a look!"
Then what a sensation! Aunty ran backwards, yes backwards down the hall, uttering a shuddery cry. Curious as to what Aunty would do, Joycey followed her, the open box in her hand.
Aunty ran into the dining room. "I'll kill you for this. I've forbidden you to keep animals here. But snakes! Snakes!"
"Rattlesnakes," Joycey repeated calmly, enjoying this.
Later, after Joycey had promised to get rid of them, everything quieted down.
"I'll have to take them a long way away, up the hill," she said. The fun was over. Aunty sat on the chair in the dining room, and Joycey put the box on the dining room table. "I'll go up the hill now and set them free." In her heart, she felt a chill of fear. This was the worst thing she had ever done. She thought of the strap behind the kitchen door.
"There's really no need to be afraid of them—at the moment," she continued conversationally. It was really quite amazing that Aunty had been too startled to remember that Australia doesn't have rattlesnakes. "We learned all about them at school. You're not really in danger unless they rattle their tails. It's when you hear that rattle that you know they're going to strike."
"For goodness sake, get a move on," Aunty said, still talking in that funny, shuddery voice. "Get them out of here this instant!"
Joycey lifted the box off the table. It was quiet in the room—quiet and sort of scary. She wished she didn't have to face the consequences when she returned from the hill. A thought came to her mind.
"Isn't it hot?" she said. "Before I go with the rattlesnakes, I'll just let some air in." Aunty was sitting with her back to the window, flapping at her face with a handkerchief. Joycey lifted the box and walked towards the window. It was very quiet.
The voices came muffled from the kitchen. Joycey stepped across the veranda and into the dining room. She would try it once more, for the satisfaction and the feeling of power. She would make that sound once more.
She put the box on the floor behind Aunty's empty chair and then, putting her hands under the venetians, she pushed up the window, just a bit. Then she took hold of the venetian cord. Now if there was just enough breeze ... not too much—carefully she tilted, then it happened, the way it had earlier. The breeze caught a slat of the blind and shook it. The slat fluttered and flapped and then set up a long, sustained vibration. It was a quick rattling, sounding just like ...
With a gentle smile, Joycey closed the window.
The Colour of Happiness
Morning sun slipped through the sleep-out window and, like a warm hand, touched Cassie's face. It reminded her of happiness. For some reason she had woken with a feeling of joyous expectation, but she couldn't remember why. It wasn't a gift or a birthday party. It was something to do with roses.
For a while she lay in bed trying to remember what it was she had to be happy about. In the early morning the house was always peaceful—there were no shouting adults, no squabbling brothers or crying baby, just the gently warm sun and now that joy hiding in her thoughts.
A little later, when Cassie was standing before the wardrobe mirror combing her lank string-coloured hair and looking with distaste at her sullen, freckled face, it came to her what the happiness was. While rummaging through a chest of drawers she had found an old dress of her mother's, and her mother said she could have it. The dress had actually been drifting about the household for years, but Cassie had never seen it before, and somehow it seemed to have a special meaning.
She dropped the comb and ran to the chest of drawers, which stood in the lounge room. She heard the clatter in the kitchen and the flushing of taps in the bathroom as the rest of the family began their day. From the bottom drawer, jammed with old pullovers and tangled knitting wool and straying socks, she pulled out the dress and hurried back to her sleep-out bedroom to admire it.
It fell on to the bed in a tumble of flimsy floating nylon fabric. With butterfly movements Cassie spread the delicate material and stepped back to admire it. From a tiny waist the skirt billowed out, kept bouffant with its own stitched-in petticoat. It had puffed sleeves and a small fly-away collar. Cassie marvelled that her mother had been small enough at seventeen to fit into it.
It was the colour Cassie loved most about it. The orangey pink was the same as her favourite roses. In the barren expanse of fibro and cement of the housing estate some residents made attempts at gardening, and although no tree broke the monotony of cottages and telegraph poles, occasion gallant roses dared bloom. There were roses of all shades, from deep velvet red to golden yellow but Cassie loved the orange ones best. They were the same colour as this dress, and it seemed to Cassie that that must be the colour of happiness.
"Cassie!" Her mother's voice summoned her to the kitchen for breakfast.
"Coming," Cassie answered as she lingered to look again at the dress. Her mother had often talked of the parties and dances she went to when she was young, and this dress made the stories she told seem much more real.
Again her mother's voice called her, and from the tone, Cassie knew she meant "now." Reluctantly she left her back veranda bedroom and the dress and hurried into the kitchen.
She walked into the room in time to hear the end of one of her parents' usual arguments.
"... came second last time, so she's sure to win this afternoon," her father was shouting from the laundry. He had finished breakfast and was brushing his hair before the spotted mirror that hung over the washtub.
"I just haven't got enough," his wife replied. "Forty bucks and a bit of silver is all I've got in my purse and that's got to last till next week. You know your mate's tips are never any good."
"This nag'll win today," her husband said with certainty. "A forty-buck investment will give us enough money to last us until next bloody year." Cassie heard the same kind of thing almost every day. They batted their arguments back and forth above their children's heads like a table-tennis tournament. She quickly gulped down some cereal and then went back to her room.
She was supposed to make her bed but instead picked up the dress again. As she fingered it she thought of the city nights, the extravagance of neon lights sending silver flashes onto the metal parts of shop windows, and the windows themselves filled with elegance. She thought of her mother, young and dainty, dancing in the dress and wearing little shoes with long, pointed toes and precarious, spindly heels. She imagined the swirl of the petticoat, the glitter of bracelets, and her mother's careless laughter. She knew that somewhere her mother had trophies for ballroom dancing.
The dress brought a whole era to life. It was the era of her mother's youth, but her mother must have been a different person then, surely. It was almost unbelievable that the hard, shrill woman who was Cassie's mother had once been young and as soft as the flimsy material.
She didn't want to do anything in particular with the dress. Probably she would hang it in the wardrobe and just look at it from time to time. She might occasionally get inspiration from it for her hobby of designing clothes. She picked up her exercise book of sketches and wandered out to the front yard.
The house was not old but had an air of being uncared for, as though it had been doomed from birth to being a neglected child. The family of seven jostled together in it like fiddlesticks in a cylinder. Cheap and garish bits of furniture leaned shoulder to shoulder in all the wrong rooms, as though they were lost and weren't sure where they were supposed to go. A chest of drawers and a wardrobe fought with the television set for a few square feet of the lounge room wall, and there was a bed at the L-shaped dining room end.
The family ate in the kitchen, squeezed in with the sink, stove, fridge, cupboards, and sewing machine. At meal times the baby's high chair stood in the space of the laundry door.
The little front porch was like an angry jutting chin under the open mouth of the front door. Here Cassie sat with the open exercise book on her lap. She wrote at the top of a new page, "The Summer Wardrobe of Cassie Barlow" and spent some time drawing clothes.
Her father had left for his usual Saturday morning visit to the TAB, and her brothers were playing in the backyard. The baby had been put in his bouncinette in the middle of the lounge room while Cassie's mother tried to bully the house into tidiness.
Cassie heard the front gate squeak, and she looked up to see a most beautiful woman walking down the path. She looked as though she had been cut out of a glossy page of a fashion magazine and covered with a fine layer of plastic. Her whole appearance was smooth and unwrinkled. Her burnished brown hair drifted about her shoulders while her eyelashes wafted up and down in sweeping movements like the feathered fans held by ancient Egyptian slaves. Never before had Cassie seen such sophistication.
Excerpted from Tales the Laundress Told by Winsome Smith. Copyright © 2013 by Winsome Smith. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
There's a Good Girl.................... 1
The Colour of Happiness.................... 10
The Man Who Was a King.................... 22
A Bunch of Grapes.................... 32
The Help All League.................... 40
A Fit of the Giggles.................... 51
The Challenge of '44.................... 54
The First Boy Ever.................... 65
The Discovery of Sin.................... 73
Tales the Laundress Told.................... 83
A Well-Kept Secret.................... 92
Return to Eudora Lane.................... 101
Earthlight Earthbright.................... 109
The Babysitter.................... 114
Lo, Here Is Fellowship.................... 120
The Boy, the Mouse, and Me.................... 126
Six Oranges.................... 132