At the Launderette
by Sarah Barr
Carole had just put two loads of washing on when the boy slouched in through the launderette door, a plastic sack slung over his shoulder. He sat down awkwardly in an orange chair and stared at the machines. He tugged his black hood down over his forehead.
There were just the two of them in the room. The attendant was in the cubby-hole at the back, eating her sandwiches and reading a newspaper.
The youth didn’t seem in any hurry to do his washing. What was he waiting for?
From where she was sitting, she could see little of his face, but his hunched body, ripped denims, looped chains and dirty trainers said to her, ‘Keep away, I’m nasty, I’m trouble.’ Don’t worry, Carole thought, I won’t be going anywhere near you. She moved to the other end of the row of chairs and wrote a ‘to pack’ list.
Perhaps it hadn’t been such a brilliant idea to come to the launderette, the sort of place she hadn’t stepped into since she was a student, but their machine at home was broken and they were off on holiday the next day.
‘Just take the clothes dirty,’ Adrian had said as she stuffed shirts, socks, pyjamas, bras and pants into bags. ‘Pete and Lily are sure to have a washing-machine.’
‘Adrian,’ she’d shrieked, ‘we’re not going all the way to Australia with suitcases of dirty washing. What sort of first impression would that make with Lily?’ First impressions were so important.
‘Mm, I see what you mean,’ he’d agreed soothingly, and had driven her to the launderette.
What with their son Peter’s emigration to the other side of the world, his new relationship, and the prospect of a long-haul flight, she was about as stressed as she could be.
But then she did have to speak to the hooded youth. As she piled her husband’s clothes into the dryer, she realised one of his cotton socks was missing, probably flattened against the inside of the washing machine. This was the washer that the youth was now opening for his own clothes, having sat silently in the chair for half an hour.
‘Excuse me, ‘ Carole said, ‘I think-‘ He turned towards her, his mouth set in a thin line. His green eyes stared out at her from under the black hood as if he had never before seen a middle-aged woman in sweater, skirt and lilac anorak. ‘-somewhere in there might be a sock.’ She felt herself go beetroot as she fished around in the drum.
He was watching her as she retrieved Adrian’s beige sock. ‘Thanks.’
He waited till she went over to the dryers. Then he opened his dustbin bag up very close to the machine. He seemed to be piling in his washing furtively, so that she couldn’t see the garments, even if she wanted to.
Suddenly he was standing in front of her. ‘Got any change?’ His manner seemed threatening.
‘Y- Yes, maybe.’ Oh no, her handbag was out of reach on a far chair and what’s more, gaping open, just asking to be rifled through or snatched. She was relieved to see the wallet still there. ‘How much would you like?’
He pulled a torn fiver out of his pocket. ‘Cheers,’ he mumbled when she handed him the coins. Each of his knuckles sported a tattoo. His finger nails were bitten right down, the cuticles ragged and red.
He put his wash on and then slumped back down into the chair, head bowed, hands fidgeting.
Carole couldn’t help thinking of all the reasons why someone might bring clothes and put them on the hottest wash in the launderette. To remove mud, fingerprints, hair, bloodstains ….
The attendant was still round the back, but presumably if anything bad happened, she’d come out to help.
It was freezing. Carole walked over to shut the door and as she passed the washers she glanced at his clothes sloshing around in the suds. All the garments were white.
Her dryer had stopped. It had definitely stopped working. She put her head round the cubby-hole door to ask for help but the attendant was asleep, snoring, feet up on the table. She didn’t like to disturb her.
Carole watched the hoody take his washing out of the machine. She watched him tenderly scoop up each item, hold it to the light, shake it softly as if it was gossamer, or finest silk, not just plain cotton. Then he folded each and placed it in the basket .
‘Seen enough?’ he snapped.
‘Baby clothes,’ she said, and then because she realised that sounded odd. ‘What lovely, white baby clothes.’
‘Lovely, white, yes,’ he repeated, as if considering her words carefully. He pushed his hood back to reveal hair that grew only patchily over his scalp.
‘You have a baby?’ she asked. She knew it was very nosy of her.
‘Had a baby,’ he replied. He lugged the washing basket over to the dryers. He looked incredibly young.
‘I, I didn’t mean to – ’
‘It’s OK, I’m used to it,’ he said, tolerantly. ‘You’ve got to thump that machine to re-start it.’ Carole did as he advised and then he continued, ‘She was ill when she was born and then she got a virus and that was that.’ He piled the nighties and babygros into a dryer. ‘I’m washing them for the last time, then I’ll take them to the charity shop. It’s hard but I’ve got to.’
‘Why don’t you keep them. You could have another baby.’
He shook his head. ‘Nah. Just seeing her little clothes cuts me and my girlfriend up. We can’t keep them.’
She thought he was going to cry. She wanted to put her arms round him, wanted to look after him as if he were her own son, but what she said was, ‘I’m sorry. I’m terribly sorry.’ He smiled sadly and they stood there, side by side, waiting for the washing to dry.
First published in ‘The Yellow Room’ issue no.2