‘Ey! Bea! Beatrice!’ Beatrice turned to see her friend Carmela, who was running to catch up with her. She stopped and waited to exchange a quick peck on both cheeks before they stepped together into the ornate wooden doorway that was the entrance of Ricki Reed.
‘Ciao, Carmela’ said Beatrice, ‘Come va?’
Carmela turned up her mouth in reply and tisked in the Italian short-hand for bad news. ‘My little one, Luigino, didn’t let us sleep all night. Mariano was really pissed off.’ Carmela pressed the black lift button and they stood side by side, glancing up, willing the lift to come quickly.
‘Mamma, mia; you poor thing!’ Beatrice muttered in sympathy. ‘And, so…?’
Carmela was shaking her head in disgust. ‘And so, it was a really shit night…’, she trailed off momentarily as if unsure whether to share the details but then continued. ‘At first Mariano made me get out of bed to quieten him down. Its not fair, you know: I work too, and its always me…Then, when there was no stopping Luigino’s crying, he got up to try to settle him, and the baby briefly settled….’ She stopped again as the lift wheezed and rattled to a stop in front of them. Beatrice pushed open the cage door of the lift and Carmela slid back the wooden lift door then pressed the button for the 3rd floor, closing off both doors in the reverse order. Once the lift jolted upwards, she resumed.
‘Then’, she lowered her voice although it was just the two of them, elevating her pitch, ‘he wanted to…. you know…’ Carmela paused while she pulled a face and made circles with her head, rolling her eyes like she was dizzy or drunk, ‘fuck’, she continued in a whisper, ‘so he could relax and get back to sleep himself…. His majesty!’ She shook her head, more slowly now, but she had the beginning of a smile on her face. ‘And then’, she continued, ‘when Luigino started whimpering again, Mariano started swearing and threw the alarm clock at the wall!’ Carmela paused again, slowly puffing air out of her cheeks. ‘That really did it’, she added. ‘Luigino got a fright and started screeching; my mother woke up and came knocking at our bedroom door to see if we were alright, so the three of them were screaming in the middle of the night! What else could I do?’, Carmela asked rhetorically before continuing: ‘I got out of bed again and took Luigino into the front room and I rocked him to sleep in my arms. All night, I barely shut my eyes…’
Beatrice looked into Carmela’s face and noticed how she was wiping her eyes. She knew it was frustrating to be woken in the night. All her cousins and paesani talked about feeling exhausted from the strain of learning to live in this different culture, learning to speak English along the way, and missing the family left behind. The push and pull of work, survival, family and children sat on top of this and had most of them on some kind of edge. She was unsurprised to hear that Carmela’s husband had gotten angry and violent. It was impossible not to be angry, sometimes, under this unrelenting pressure. And she also thought that Carmela’s story was different to what happened for her, at home, with Federico. She knew that Carmela had enjoyed the sex with her husband. Carmela spoke about Mariano as a good man whom she loved.
Beatrice felt a heaviness gathering low in her abdomen, like a sickness she had been feeling for years that affected her appetite and made her look gaunt. She looked away from Carmela and brought her gaze to her feet, which she couldn’t see. Inhabiting her safe mind-space – the empty, foggy, inner room, where she could see nothing and tell herself everything that was the truth of her life without feeling its unbearable pain, she remembered she didn’t love Federico anymore. She reminded herself that she couldn’t love him since her realization back in Italy that he would always be angry, jealous and unhappy. Here, she knew that they would fight, despite all her best efforts not to engage, and that periodically he would work himself into the frenzy that would end in blows. She knew here that she had stopped enjoying sex with Federico since then and that she barely went through the motions of sex, just to keep him quiet and to keep the peace.
As the lift arrived at the third floor, Beatrice and Carmela stopped talking and quietly worked in unison to push open and close the lift door and cage, then headed to the front desk, where the factory office assistant, Glenda, clocked their cards. ‘Good morning, girls!’ said Glenda brightly, as she looked up from her desk filled with employee cards. ‘How are we today?’ she asked without encouraging any reply. She turned the wheel on her stamp to match the time on the wall clock, stamped the cards at 7:30 and then turned the cards over to them to sign.
Their time for sharing had ended and their work time had started. Each woman signed her card, moving quickly past the desk to the recessed doorway that lead to the factory entrance and walked past the cutting and finishing tables. As ever, the factory was brightly lit with hanging fluorescent lights and it was hard to tell what time it was or what the weather was doing outside. Work had started some time ago for others in the factory. The cutters were laying paper patterns on the multiple layers of cloth laid earlier on the long cutting tables, and the three women on the overlock machines, whose work was essential to preparing the pieces that would be bundled up for the plain-stitch machinists, had fabrics flying out from under the feet of their machines. Every morning, the overlockers buzzed out a frantic mechanical concert in a high-pitched thrum that set the tone and tempo for the seamstresses arriving later, to the tune of ‘sit down quick and get to work now’. All the seamstresses had arrived by now: a couple of seamstresses had already started their machines; others were untying their bundles of fabric to work out what had to be done and a few more were in the women’s change room. Some were intensely focused on their work, while others called out a greeting, gave a smile, or made a wolf-whistle to Beatrice and Carmela as they walked along the outside aisle of the plain-stitch machines, towards the change room. Here they changed into comfortable work shoes and their own personally made dust-coats, locked their handbags in their lockers and then went to their designated machines.
The first task there was to reach into the calico bag suspended on a metal frame next to their machine. This was where the forelady or one of the cutters dumped the bundles of cut fabric tied with a remnant – the piecework that constituted the daily labour for the seamstresses and their livelihood. Although Beatrice sat directly in front of Carmela, they would have no more to say to each other until the lunch siren rang, when they would congregate in the lunchroom. Even then, they may not return to any intimate conversation. On any given day, there were at least thirty others there. At least half of all the seamstresses were Italians, with only a sprinkling of Australian and other nationalities, and there were an even smaller number of men – the cutters, machine technicians or the owner-managers. In the lunchroom, speaking anything other than English was frowned on. If the women had a confidence to share, they would go to the toilets, while smoking, standing against a hand basin, or sitting on the two-person wooden bench in there. Or they would wait until the end-of-day siren, speaking sotto voce in the change room and beyond into the lift, perhaps extending the conversation outside, to the tram stop or station, sometimes cackling with humour and enjoyment, sometimes weeping and whispering in a cracked voice.