My Coal Iron
At the age of nine, I left home for boarding school. Everything I took with me was brand new, including a sparkling coal iron. Although the dormitory had power, there weren’t enough electricity sockets to meet students’ needs. So, electric irons and in fact anything electric were banned. The coal iron was a most interesting metal contraption, with a hidden aperture designed to hold a fistful of black coal beneath the hinged lid. My iron’s sparkle didn’t last long. The dormitory matron said we could only store irons in the school shed, a wooden shack with no doors or windows, which left them open to the elements and rust.
To get a coal iron going was a complicated affair. After filling the receptacle halfway with coal, you added newspapers and then topped it up with more coal. Once lit, you wanted the newspapers to burn with enough intensity to heat the coal until it glowed. Sometimes you helped the process along by fanning the coal. It took quite a while and vigilant fanning, for the iron plate to heat evenly and that was the easy part. It required diligence to keep your freshly laundered uniforms pristine as you ironed. If you weren't
careful, little bits of soot would fall out of the air holes at the sides of the base and soil your laundry.
But I had bigger problems than that. Before long, I lost most of my belongings, including my iron. Senior girls who conveniently left their irons at home to reduce the amount of baggage they lugged to school commandeered other girls’ irons. Although my mum had painted my initials on the wooden handle, I shared my initials with several other girls and had no way of proving which iron belonged to me. Plus, the other girls were not averse to using their physical size to assert their ownership.
I resorted to bartering with other girls so they could lend me theirs, happily trading food items, especially my jar of Marmite, since I detested the stuff. Once I ran out of things to trade, I took to pressing my uniforms by folding them carefully and placing them between my mattress and my bunk-bed’s springs. The springs left a hexagonal indentation all over my uniforms, but at least I didn’t have to worry about the kerfuffle of ironing any longer. All in all, my experiences at boarding school taught me to be resilient and innovative, skills that have stayed with me ever since.
Pop back next week for Part 4 in this series.