Prisoners of the Home, Inc.
A short story
by

Dr Robert Rich

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   Oh, I do hate ironing! And why do Tim's trousers always concertina in the crotch? The washing basket is an endless fount, and it's all so useless! I mean, ironing is totally unnecessary. Why do you need to eliminate the wrinkles of washing? Why can't it be like with torn knees in jeans, you know, a sign of extreme poverty becoming high fashion? They should make the un-ironed look fashionable.

   What I'd really like to do is to crash in bed for an hour or so, while Timminy is having his afternoon nap. Or read a book. No, I don't have the energy for that, but maybe an idiot magazine would be nice.

   The trouble is, the ironing has mounted up, because I can't do it while the little tyke is around. He pulls himself up with one hand on the rickety ironing table, and hunts the electric cord as it whips backwards and forwards. He knows what 'No!' means forbidden is fun. And his little face gets exactly Tim's look of mulish determination.

   So, it's easiest to get the ironing done while Timminy is asleep.

   It's funny, I remember when I was seven, and Mum let me iron my own hankies, it was a thrill and an achievement. But now I'm 27, it's 'Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.' Got to iron it too.

   Oh God, three more shirts and two pairs of pants to go, then my pink blouse. I hope Timminy stays asleep long enough. Or maybe I hope he wakes up, to give me an excuse to stop.

   Just think, two short years ago I was with people all day, and yearning for solitude! Well, nothing's worse than having your wish come true. My current soulmate for ten hours a day, five days a week is 14 months old, and delightful, but scarcely somone to have an intelligent conversation with! It's a pity that the part time job at the bank disappeared when the bank did. Well, it's a fillip to the ego to know that I could do a job a computer now mucks up on a regular basis!

   Oh no, Susie's started crying! Better give her the titty before she wakes big brother!

***

   The house is filled with delicious dinner smells, when Timminy screams "Daddy!" and rapidly crawls towards the front door.

   "Timminy, stop!" I shout, rushing after him. Once the door had banged into his head, on another occasion it scraped over his fingers. But this time, he is yards away when the door swings open, and the love of our life drags himself through.

   One weary leg is grabbed, then snot gets rubbed over the knee of the trousers. Oh well, that's what Mother is for.

   Tim drops his bag, his face changes from droop to delight, and he swings Timminy high overhead. He carries his son to his daughter in her cot, giving me a kiss on the way. "Oh, great to be home!" he says, meaning it.

   While I dish up, he tells me of his day. "I spent three bloody hours in this roof-space, crawling around, looking for the short. At last, the breathing mask got too claustrophobic, and I took it off." Big grin. The breathing mask is my fault: I nag him about safety precautions. I don't want fiberglass in his lungs. "So, I detected this AWFUL smell. Found the electrocuted rat, full of maggots, his nose still touching the wire he'd chewed through, sort of jammed in the conduit."

   "Have a good appetite!" I say, putting it in front of him. We laugh, and Timminy laughs with us.

   Once the kids are in bed, we cuddle up on the sofa, the TV ignored. "I'm so lucky to have you and those two mites to come home to." Tim says. "I'd go crazy otherwise."

   "It's good to be appreciated."

   He kisses me, then sighs. "I just wish I could be here more. I know I'm lucky to have a job at all, but Jacko is such a bastard to work for, and it's stress, stress, stress all day."

   "I'd love you to be here. For much of the day, I feel I'm on a desert island. I don't know how single mothers cope."

   "Look, Jill, you're doing the most important job in the world!"

   "Yeah, that's why it has such high status, great pay, excellent conditions. Hey, everybody salute, she is a HOUSEWIFE!"

   "She is a MOTHER. It's what you do now that determines what our kids will be like later."

   "My husband the philosopher!"

   "Well, it's true."

   Of course it is. Just the same, I'd willingly trade places with him, rotten boss, rotten rat and all.

***

   Tim is off to work, and all I want to do is to go back to bed. Why am I so tired all the time? It's that endless vista of washing and dishes, tidying and cooking, breast feeding the rug rat and entertaining the ankle biter, and all in solitude. I'm sure people were not designed to be alone all day.

   I've just finished bathing the baby when the phone rings. It's a telemarketer wanting to sell me some rubbish I don't need. I feel sorry for the young voice, she probably gets paid on commission only, it must be disheartening, but she gives me an idea.

   Am I the only prisoner of the home? What about all those single mothers? I have a lovely man coming home every evening, he is with me on the weekends. If I ache for company, a single mother must be going crazy for it. And almost everybody has a telephone. Can I telemarket a Prisoners of the Home society?

   So I fly through the work, then park Timminy in his high chair with an apple cut into bits, and make a list. Let's see. The local Council used to have a social worker. I'll find out if she still has a job. Social Security, no it's Centrelink now. The Neighbourhood House. I can write a press release for the local paper. Best contact of all, the Infant Welfare sister!

   "Finished the apple, love? Good, was it? Here is a piece of paper, draw on it with this beautiful red pen!"

   He scrunches up the paper instead, and chews on the pen, but I am busy on the phone.

***

   I am terrified. Over 30 women crowd the hall, about 20 carry babies. Little kids run around, others shyly clutch their mothers. Tim has my two at home, it's hard enough to face an audience without them distracting me. How can I speak through this din? How can I speak to an audience? Me and my big mouth!

   Sitting beside me, facing them, Molly squeezes my hand. She's been the Infant Welfare sister just about forever, though now her time is strictly economically rationalised. She is here, on a Saturday, for love, not for money. She is a big woman, with a big, deep laugh. Her hair is more gray than black, but the little black moustache makes up for it. We all love her.

   Molly stands up with a wide smile, and child-shooshing noises replace the cacophony. Her voice cuts through even these. "My dear friends, thank you for coming. Now all you little angels, quiet! This lady beside me is Jill Corobino. She is responsible for getting us together. Now, darlings, Jill is terrified, she is not used to public speaking, but I know you'll all be kind to her."

   They all clap politely as I stand.

   My prepared speech is forgotten, completely gone out of my head. I open my mouth, and nothing comes out. A woman in the front row catches my eye. She is older than most of us, must be nearly 40. She smiles, and slightly nods her head.

   I speak to her. Oh, I can remember nothing of what I've said, it's all gone, all I remember is that the audience laughed when I tried to be funny, and their faces showed fellow feeling when I complained, and at the end there was such a clapping that the crowd might have been a thousand.

   I sit down, drenched in sweat.

   The older woman stands up. "May I say a few words?" she asks. Molly and I both nod. She walks forward, turns. Her voice is confident, educated.

   "Hi, I'm Mirelle O'Leary. I'm a teacher by training, but lost my job two years ago. My husband and I looked on this as our chance to have a child at last, and we did. And that's why I am here with the rest of you."

   She half turns towards me. "Jill, thank you so much for organising this! I've been quietly going crazy at home, I've gone through bouts of depression so bad that my husband came home from work, to find me in bed, the dinner not ready, breakfast dishes in the sink. I need you. We need each other. I suggest we form small groups, and each group can make a list of possible ways of cooperating. Then we'll combine our ideas."

   One of the women has a computer, and offers to set up what she calls a LETS. We work for each other, paying time with time, like barter, but you pay one person's work by helping someone entirely different.

   Five women offer child-minding, 11 baby-sitting as part of this, and people living close to each other form groups of three or four to do houseworking-bees at each other's places.

   Prisoners of the Home, Inc. is off the ground and flying.

***

   This is my first occasion as the host in our group of four. One of the girls is minding all of our kids at her home, the other two are with me for two hours, rearing to work. We strip beds, turn mattresses, vacuum everywhere, wash windows, polish the bathroom and toilet. Sally finds the stuff I've bought according to her shopping list and gets busy in the kitchen. Rhonda looks at my washing basket, and her eyes light up. "Where's your iron?" she demands.

   I give it to her with glee, and set up the board.

   "I love ironing." she says, plugging in.

   My mouth drops. "Ironing? It's my pet hate! How can you?"

   She speaks slowly, almost dreamily, in rhythm with the iron as it swishes backwards and forwards over the first shirt. "It's a form of meditation. It's repetitive, and yet requires a certain amount of concentration. Doesn't this remind you of chanting a mantra, or thinking of the sound of one hand clapping, or holding your body in a contorted Yoga position? I find it to be a restful break that empties the mind of worries, and puts me in touch with my inner self. I get a lot of the ideas for my poems while ironing."

   So I decide to learn about meditation. I'd never bothered with stuff like that before.

   Prisoners of the Home, Inc. is not only fun, and company, and mutual support, and help with the work, but also an education.

***

   Well, all that was five short years ago. Linda Myerson, our Editor, bullied me into writing 'just a short piece, 2000 words' to celebrate the occasion, and here it is!

   Susan is at school now, and this gives me almost enough time to do the work of Chairperson. As of today, we have over 10,000 members around Australia, with more joining every day. And more than 600 of them are housebound men. Hey, come to think of it, is that where 'husband' came from? We have grown internationally too, through our web site: we now have sister organisations in 16 countries!

   And all because I used to hate ironing.

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