Born and raised in France, Pauline holds a Masters in Creative Writing with distinction from the University of Edinburgh. After living in many different countries, she now lives, works, and writes in the Scottish capital.
The Washing Cycle
There was blood on Karen’s daughter’s underwear. It had gone through the cotton and appeared on the outside of the white knickers, and dried and rendered the garment thick on the patch that had fit between Emma’s legs. Alone in the bathroom, Karen allowed herself to run the tips of her fingernails along the caked blood; her hands were reddened by the chemicals she’d been using to clean the bathroom this morning, and she felt nothing but stiffness under her fingertips. She dropped the garment back into the basket with the rest of the dirty clothes she’d picked up around the house—her daughter’s football uniform, a white top with foundation on its collar, Michael’s work shirts that he’d left on the dressing table chair—and made her way down the two flights of stairs to the basement.
Apart from the sound of the radio, which was playing some pop star’s new single from the living room, the house was quiet. Michael was at work and Emma locked up in her room. They had argued last night at dinner, Emma’s interjections the typical ones of a teenager who believes that she’s misunderstood, Michael’s the unhelpful ones of a father who spends too little time with his family to know what is actually happening. Karen had tried to calm everyone down but the conversation had still ended with the slamming of Emma’s door and Michael’s frustrated grunts. He had cleared the table and washed the dishes with barely concealed anger, gone to bed before Karen, and left for work without speaking a word to either of them.
As she passed by her daughter’s room, Karen noticed that the “Do not disturb” sign was still up on her door, the three words written across a simple sheet of paper wrinkled by the years of use. There was not a sound coming from inside—Emma must have been on her laptop listening to music through her headphones at a level that Karen knew she would probably disapprove of. Karen would try to talk to her later and offer that they order sushi and watch some TV together. Everything would be fine.
Karen’s slippers whispered against the steps that led to the basement. She balanced the basket between her hip and elbow, turned on the light, and walked up to the washing machine. The room was silent and smelled of laundry detergent and fresh linen. Another basket of clean clothes that she hadn’t yet had time to fold was sitting on the ironing board and a few of Michael’s shirts were still hanging from coat hangers waiting to be ironed. The basement was full of cardboard boxes that contained objects that they didn’t need anymore which Karen needed to sort through, and a few of Emma’s old baby clothes and toys that she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of. The shelf against the left wall was still covered in photo albums, books, and strange owl figurines that they’d got back from Michael’s mum’s house after she’d passed away which he’d promised he’d take care of a while ago, just like the humidity stains on the ceiling and the dodgy pipes that had been needing fixing for a few years now.
Karen deposited her basket on top of the washing machine and picked Emma’s underwear back up. The stain would probably never come off, she realised, and for a moment she considered just throwing them away, but she thought she should at least try. She opened the cupboard above the machine, took out a plastic box full of cleaning products, and picked out a half-empty tube of toothpaste along with an old toothbrush whose bristles had gone flat from use. She applied a thick layer of toothpaste onto the stain and starting brushing it into the fabric, just like her mother had taught her all those years ago.
She had taught her many more things, and Karen often wondered if her life would be any different if she had listened to her mother’s lessons more attentively. She would maybe not have waited such a long time to get married, would not have put her career before her family. She would maybe have listened when she began hearing people say, “you guys would make such great parents”, or when Michael’s mother started asking when they were finally going to give her grandchildren. She remembered that time when she thought that they had their lives ahead of them, and she remembered it bitterly.
The stain was already fading beneath Karen’s fingers. The minty smell of toothpaste tickled her nostrils and blood was running off the stain to lodge itself underneath her nails. Karen remembered when she was younger and had to take care of the bloodstains on her own underwear, back when she thought that having her period was a curse and hated the idea that she would have to deal with it for the rest of her life. Now she would have done anything to wake up and see blood between her legs.
They had tried to have more children. They had tried so hard Karen still didn’t understand why it hadn’t worked. Michael had always wanted a boy. He’d made a list of names he liked—names taken from old school friends, or books he’d read, or conversations he’d overheard in the streets—and Karen had found it ripped to pieces at the bottom of the bin about a year ago. When Karen was pregnant they had refused to learn the sex of the baby and had agreed on a light green for the room, but Michael had still bought a blue sleep suit with tiny anchors on the front, which lay at the bottom of the pile of Emma’s baby clothes with the price tag still attached to it. He had never been disappointed that Emma was a girl and kept telling Karen that there was still plenty of time for them to have a boy—except there wasn’t any time left now. There was no longer any blood, and there would never be another baby. There would never be a little boy.
Karen realised that she’d been brushing the fabric so hard that it had started pilling, so she set the toothbrush aside and chucked Emma’s underwear into the washing machine, where it landed with a soft thump. Her hands were trembling now, and she had to put both her hands flat on top of the machine for a moment to calm herself down. She could hear her heartbeat inside her ears and feel a lump in her throat as her eyes started to prickle, but she swallowed hard past it once, then twice, then took in a deep breath, and she felt better. Everything would be fine.
Looking out the small window at the top of the wall, she noticed for the first time that day that it was raining. It was a Saturday in mid-June, and the sun should have been shining and the streets packed with children playing, mothers reading out on their porches, and fathers tending to their cars and gardens, but instead the street was grey and empty, the sound of the drops falling onto the roofs of cars the only thing to be heard.
With a sigh, she focused back on sorting the clothes out. Whites into the machine, colours in the basket. She inspected a couple of Michael’s white shirts. One of them had a red stain on the front near the fourth button, certainly a dash of ketchup from the sandwich she’d prepared for him last Tuesday; the other showed a mark too, on the collar this time—a burgundy, glittery, faded smear. She had seen a few of these before on his button-ups, and Karen knew they disappeared really well with her regular stain remover. She dabbed the stains with product and threw them into the drum, where they joined Emma’s stained underwear; she added the foundation-coloured white top and a few of Michael’s tennis socks, and started a quick wash at sixty degrees. She had dealt with this before. She knew what she was doing. Everything would be fine.
As water started pouring into the machine, Karen went back up the stairs into the kitchen, bringing with her the basket of clean laundry and setting it on the dining table. She still had plenty of things left to do before Michael came home from work tonight, but he had been working on demanding cases lately and often left the office long after Karen and Emma had gone to bed. Then, in the dimness of their bedroom, Karen would watch him undress slowly, his movements languid and reluctant, and he would join her in bed, his body still fresh from outside and his breath smelling of whiskey. Karen had a feeling he always knew she wasn’t asleep, but they never talked.
They used to. They would have conversations for hours on end, at the breakfast table, in the car, in bed after Emma had fallen asleep and the house was quiet and undisturbed. He would tell her about his cases, about that article he’d read at lunch in the newspaper she’d packed in with his meal, and most importantly he would ask her about her day and pay attention when she said that she’d met with Lilian for coffee, or had a chat with Emma about a boy from her class she liked, or watched a movie that had made her cry. Now she never heard about Michael’s clients, or whom he’d gone to lunch with, or what his boss had thought of the outcome of his latest case. Now there was just silence.
The radio was still playing music in the living room, and Karen looked at the checklist in front of her. She needed to pick up Michael’s dry cleaning, go grocery shopping, and take the dog out for a walk. The house was a mess too and Michael hated coming home to a dirty place, so she would need to tidy everything up before he got back. The kitchen didn’t require much attention, but she still needed to hoover the carpet, dust the shelves, unload the dishwasher, change their bed sheets.
Just thinking about her tasks exhausted her, and Karen automatically took out a glass from the cabinet and the bottle of Côtes de Bergerac she’d opened last night and poured herself a large glass. The condensation made the liquid look hazy and the glass still showed a trace of red lipstick on the brim. She looked at the clock and failed to feel guilty for having a drink at two in the afternoon. She didn’t even mind the fact that at any time Emma could stumble down the stairs into the kitchen and walk in on her mother getting drunk in the middle of the day. Instead, she took a sip, relished the feeling of the alcohol going down her throat, and put the drink back down next to the sink with a soft click.
She was tired. She wished that Emma would come out of her room and offer her help and chat with her as they cleaned together. She wished that Michael would come home earlier tonight, have dinner with them, and finally agree to touch her body under the blankets at night. She wished that there was noise in the house, footsteps and laughter and singing, that they would start watching television together again like they used and that Michael would prepare the fish pie he was so good at making and hadn’t cooked in years.
Karen took another sip of wine, a bigger one this time that burned when she swallowed, and hesitated a minute before opening the last drawer on the left of the kitchen counter. She fumbled through broken scissors, hotel matchboxes, user guides for objects that they didn’t own anymore, until she found what she was looking for. She had put the pack of cigarettes there a long time ago and the paper had yellowed and the tobacco dried, but she couldn’t have cared less in that moment. She took a match out of one of the boxes, which they had been given at a cottage in Devon many years ago, and lit a cigarette. It was her first one in such a long time that it burned her throat and brought tears to her eyes when she took the first drag, but after a couple more she found that pleasant feeling again, the familiar hand gesture, the bitter smell. She walked up to the sink, opened the window, dropped her ashes down the drain, and relaxed against the counter.
After years of trying, Michael’s mother had suggested, in that nagging voice of hers, that things might work better if they both gave up smoking, that she had read somewhere that nicotine decreased fertility, so Karen and Michael had both worn patches and chewed gum for months with the conviction that it could only help. But it hadn’t and right now Karen resented her mother-in-law for keeping her away from her cigarettes for so long, because although Karen’s lungs were clearer now, the house was still quiet, the third room still empty, and that blue sleep suit still laying unused at the bottom of a cardboard box.
With the back of the shaky hand with which she was holding her cigarette, Karen wiped at her eyes with more strength than she had intended to, leaving a smear of black mascara on her red, irritated skin. She took a few more drags from the cigarette before putting it out against the side of the sink, and chucked the butt out of the open window. Outside, the rain had stopped.
She took a deep breath, ignored the dryness of her mouth and the way her nostrils tickled, turned around, and started sorting through the clean clothes she had brought up with her and left on the kitchen table. She made three piles, one for each of them, and then went up the stairs and put them away in their respective wardrobes. She left Emma’s in the basket outside her door, not yet willing to face her, but she knew everything would be fine.
When she was done, Karen made her way back to the basement and put the wet clothes in the dryer. Inside, amongst a heap of button-ups and isolated socks, lay a blood-stained pair of underwear.