For Grace Fryer
Mandy Beaumont’s debut novel The Furies is out now. Her short story collection Wild, Fearless Chests was shortlisted for the Richell Prize, organised by the Emerging Writers’ Festival and Hachette Australia. It was also shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award, and won the Moth International Short Story Award. Mandy teaches creative writing at Griffith University, and is a researcher in writing philosophical fiction at RMIT.
Grace stands naked, her hands aching as she takes pins out of her hair, places each one on the bedside table. The brightest of blue-green veins floats under her translucent skin, and her silver wedding ring, now worn around her neck, acts as a timekeeper, as a kaleidoscope of memory in the morning light. She smooths her hair down with her fingers, places her best dress over her head and feels it fall down over her burning chest. Out the window she can see her neighbour’s chimney – the woman’s old bones, she suspects, tougher than hers are now for the oncoming winter.
Three years ago, Grace had worn the same dress and left the house just before nightfall, joining twelve other women whose husbands had gone to war, at a long wooden table in a factory near her home. With their backs hunched over, the women sat licking the ends of small brushes to a fine point, painting the faces of watches a luminous green – their collective sound a soft humming, a reason for belonging. Together, the women talked about what would happen when their husbands returned, about children that were yet to be real. The youngest of the women passed around a piece of paper with the name of the girl she was certain she would have. Two years later Grace would receive a knock on the door and be told that her husband was never coming home, his body lying in a muddied field, never to be seen again.
As the women sat together, men in aprons and gloves – the ones not called to fight – placed jars of luminous green radium on the long table, smiling down at them as the old foreman paced the room and kept repeating – lick, lick, lick, we need fine lines on these watch faces ladies. The women reached for the jars, their skin beginning to glow as a collective light against the imagined hostile landscapes in which their husbands now stood. Grace whispered down the length of the table that the depth of luminous light coming from their mouths would certainly give away which one of them had worked the quickest. And, as their shift ended and the morning light shone through the factory windows, the women walked out together into the pink new-day sky, a breathtaking group to the onlookers on the street.
As weeks passed, the men in the factory began to wait for the women at the gates each morning, holding packages of hard-to-get sweets in their hands. The women would touch perfume to their necks, rub their pearly white teeth with what was left in their jars. As Grace accepted sweets, she hid her wedding ring and thought about how she had started to forget her husband’s smell, how she had taken to hanging all his shirts like curtains in their home, hoping that the morning breeze would somehow bring him to her.
One night at the long wooden table, Grace told the other women that her teeth hadn’t stopped aching since she had eaten those sweets, that she felt as if her gums were a burning fire. Edith leaned over the table and whispered that she didn’t like sweets, in fact had never eaten them, but her teeth were also a throbbing ache. She said that yesterday morning she had seen men in the tearoom reading the newspaper – a picture of Marie Curie on its front page, the scientist’s hands burned from a “deadly discovery” called radium. Bright green and glowing. Used in ointments, in hair products and drunk as a tonic for weight loss. A deadly thing, and now all over the women’s mouths, their hands, their torsos. Now shining on the faces of clocks sitting on the long wooden table and all over the country.
Days later, as the women sat at the table, their teeth aching, they whispered to each other – why didn’t they wear aprons like the men did? Why didn’t the foreman, now pacing behind them and not saying a word, ever hand them their pay? (Just by the door ladies, ready for you to take.) Grace looked up as he moved behind her. She turned, asked if he had seen the newspaper article of Marie Curie, if he thought that her radium could kill them. He stopped. Stood still. Moved closer behind her. His fists pressing down on her shoulders. His weight, she was certain, breaking small bones in her body. In her eardrums the sound of organs shifting to collapse. The women stopped working, stood up, looked him straight in the eyes. There’s nothing to fear ladies. His hands lifting from Grace’s shoulders. Nothing. His pacing resuming. Now, Lick. Lick. Lick. His betrayal a forgone conclusion.
Grace and Edith found the youngest of the women, Mae, alone in her bedroom the next morning, their worry when she hadn’t turned up for work bringing them there. With her head between pillows and her jaw swollen, three bloody teeth swam in a bowl beside her. Mae groaned, her mouth opening to them and showing once-white cotton wool wrapped around the end of her tongue. Spit. Made gurgling noises as her gums bled down into her throat. Spit, Spit. Spit. A doctor is on his way.
The two women sat with Mae as the doctor arrived and placed his palm over her jaw, felt it lifting from her mouth. Feel. Hold. Push – an abscess running across the bottom of her jawline. Mae’s fingers hanging like twigs as she gasped for air and cried for her husband so far away.
The next night at the long wooden table, Grace’s wrists ached. At midnight a message arrived from Mae’s doctor – A strange infection moved fast. To the tissue in her throat. To her jugular veins. Her mouth flooding with blood. Nothing could have been done to save her. The room was quiet as she handed the letter to the other women. That night, there were bloodstains on the bathroom sinks, there were women kneading their chests with their fists, there were fingernails all over the factory floor. There was a collective aching. There was knowing what this was.
The women stood together at Mae’s funeral. The coffin passed them, and Mae’s mother screamed out thick black mourning. The pastor said they suspected the young woman died of syphilis. The women felt their shared anger build – as Mollie held a handkerchief to her jaw to absorb seeping pus (she would pick small sections of her jawbone out of her mouth in a month), as Katherine leaned against the pulpit with a sore knee (she would die a year later from a pelvic tumor “larger than two footballs”), as Edna held Grace’s hand (in two weeks she won’t turn up for work. When Grace and Edith go to her house, her sobbing mother will answer the door), as Grace coughed heavily and felt blood rise in the back of her throat. A tooth loosens. A metallic taste. Rise. When the last mourner left, the women stood under an oak tree talking. A jaw moved sideways, a hip throbbed. Grace told the women that her father has helped workers before, that he knows the fight, the challenge, the readiness to riot. The women told her they are ready. The women are a fury in the making.
Grace arrived at her parents’ home at dusk. Her mother cried. Her father held her on his valiant chest. She told them of limbs breaking, of fingers loosening, a toe bending backwards. The foreman standing over them, telling them it’s all going to be okay – It’s all in your heads ladies. Lick. Lick. Lick. That night as she lay in her childhood bed and listened to her father’s snores, she knew there were broken promises and lies in his dreams, the lies of those bosses who once decided his worth. His knees once resting on concrete as he worked binding copper.
The next morning, her father, full of his once-loud accord, sat in his leather chair holding the newspaper with Marie Curie staring up at him. Grace watched him run his hands over the places she once crawled, where his voice once rose in anger to those men trying to determine his future, his worth, to those who asked for his yielding consent. Her father led the charge once. Strike. Made it better. Strike. Led the fight. Rise.
There was a knock on the door, the slapping of backs, a doctor’s leather bag beside her. There was her mother pulling the curtains across and turning off the lights. Grace floated in the room as a brilliant apparition. She is lips floating as a hole to nowhere, she is the stench of pus now coming from the backs of her knees, her elbows, her groin. She is the blood building behind her ears. And, there is the sound of the doctor’s regret – A state of serious decay; perhaps ointments may help at least soothe her. He asks her – How many of the women have died, got infections, spat out teeth? So many, the broken bones of women as a formation of ruins, a collection of breaking hearts as a certain future. Lick. Lick. Lick.
Her father’s falling tears turned Curie’s face into a mass of black on his lap, his right hand beat on the arm of the chair as the rhythm of wild storming. She could taste the copper of blood on her lips, watched her father rise and walk out the back door.
She stood in the kitchen and listened to his howls in the backyard. She knew that he remembered – the last protestor leaving town, the poor, the quiet, those standing fearful like his daughter is now. Their silence the great triumph of others. This country’s glory an amalgam of gold and crystals set in the hands of only the few. Fine white heat built in his wrists. Bright brilliance under moonlight.
A week later, Grace and her father stood at the door of the clock factory; saw women bandaged, noses bleeding, a bright green light soaring up from the centre of the long wooden table as their not-yet‑known collective power. Edith looked up and saw them both. With her head leaning against the wall for support, she listened to them and agreed to bring the women to the bus stop later. A waiting confluence. A brewing assemblage of the nearly marred. A handshake solidarity.
One by one the women arrived after work, catching sight of each other as ghosts in daylight hours. Edith said that it felt like her insides were crumbling, that she is sure that one leg is now shorter than the other. Inez swayed back and forth to take the pressure off her ankles. And together they talked, becoming loud under the sun’s ascent. Together they listened as Grace’s father said – You have been lied to. Together they lowered their heads as he held up a picture of Mae. They clenched their fists as he told them – Together you can rise to power, be the voice of Mae who is now unable to speak. They are the fight, the challenge, the scream. Fight.
There were – groups of women at the factory manager’s door. There were – brushes dropped each time someone coughed. There was – Mae’s name pasted to the factory walls. There were – letters to newspapers, to doctors, demands that the bosses meet them. Men no longer waited for them at the gates, but words like WHORE and SLUT were etched into their long table. A hallway grope. Rotten eggs in a handbag. Shifts down from five to two. A new woman took the seat Grace once sat in, while across town Grace’s mother massaged her daughter’s jaw to stop the pain.
One afternoon Edith is taken to the hospital, her insides dissolving like sweet honeycomb under water. That same day, Grace receives a letter. The bosses will meet. Two days later, ten women stand before three men in suits. (Please sit – No thanks, we all prefer to stand). The men tell them they are crazy, that radium is safe, that no-one will ever believe you, so much time on your hands with your husbands gone. Ten women move forward with their hands on their hips. We’re not shutting up until you fix this, until we are heard. Their voices hold space, hold strong, hold on. They are certain they hear the sighs of other working women across the nation. They hold hands, walk out of the factory together. Strike. Strike. Strike.
In two months, four women die. In six months, newspaper reporters take pictures of Grace through her bedroom window. Radio announcers repeat her name over and over again. In two years, three more women die. Newspapers show pictures of women with sunken noses, toothless grins, arms bending behind their breaking backs. Grace and the women never go back to work. Another month on and more women working with radium come forward – become a force together, a mighty cry across the land. Rise. Rise. Rise. The women hold the line. The women rise together in vivid colour. And in her bed, Grace writes to her husband knowing that she will never receive his reply, and listens as a lawyer tells her father in the loungeroom that he will take on their case. Always believe women, Grace whispers into her pillow, always. She cries as a letter from Edith arrives – they have amputated her legs. A month on and a court date is set, her father tells her, smiling.
Grace stands naked in her bedroom on the morning of the first court hearing, her hands aching as she takes pins out of her hair, places each one on the bedside table. The brightest of blue-green veins floats under her translucent skin, and her silver wedding ring – now worn around her neck – acts as a timekeeper, as a kaleidoscope of memory in the morning light. Grace smells the old woman next door’s fire burning in the cold air.
All day Grace and Edith sit in the courtroom listening to men arguing their fate. They feel the weight of a legion of women on their chests. As the weeks pass, Grace is told that Pearl dies, that Margaret falls and doesn’t get back up, that Charlotte’s husband convinces her that she contracted syphilis from shaking another man’s hand years ago at the factory. Around the country women limp as they walk to the shops, and the first man loses his jaw. One day the lawyers sit in a room alone with Grace and Edith and ask them if they will settle out of court. Grace stands, her hands clenched at her side – Only if we change the laws to protect the women that will come after us. Only if you pay working wages to the women who are hurting now. Bright, light, light, light – she demands a promise for a better working life. The men sigh, the men abide. The men say yes.
Now, months later in her dying bed, Grace’s father sits with her, his love breaking over her short‑breathed chest. The brightest of deep green veins floats in her translucent skin as he reads her handwritten letters from women thanking her for all she has done – For us, for them, for all those women to come. Her silver wedding ring is a kaleidoscope of hope in the morning light. Her breath shortens. Prisms of colour rise from her. Her hands hold onto her father as she lifts to the ceiling, as she becomes a wild light, a rich blaze, forever remembered bright brilliance. Rise.
Published in ed#654