At The Launderette

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.

Sarah Barr

First published in ‘The Yellow Room’ issue no.2

Themes Emerge

Continuing with the idea of theme – I believe that this emerges during the course of writing. I rarely start out with the idea of writing about a theme. I start with an image, an overheard conversation, a person, a place, an emotion. But as I write I become aware of what the story or poem is really about. Then I work to strengthen this with tone, image, repetition, plot and character development.

One way of strengthening a theme is to have two threads or stories running alongside each other within the one whole story, and I do this a lot in my writing.

Themes make themselves known in echoes and reverberations in a story, poem or sequence of stories and poems. Settings can strengthen themes, for example the hotel setting in Ali Smith’s novel, ‘Hotel World’.

In my short story, ‘At the Launderette’, which won one of the Yellow Room competitions and was published in issue 2, I explore themes of prejudice and loss. But I started the story with a visit to our local launderette to remind myself of some of the characteristics of this place (I used them as a student but now only if my washing machine’s broken!).

You don’t need to explain your theme to your readers – they should be able to uncover it for themselves. The title of your story, poem or sequence may give a clue! I’m thinking of ‘Persuasion’ or ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen.

Theme and Voice seem to be linked – both develop through writing and through developing the confidence to say how we see the world.

As I say in an article in the May edition of ‘Writers Forum’: ‘I don’t think we need to worry that our writing will just be imitation, If we are true to our own way of seeing the world, this will inevitably shine through. The more we write, the more distinctive our voice will become.’

At the Museum

Yesterday after blue sky and sunshine I was caught in hail and a tropical downpour (weather!). I dashed for cover into Priest’s House Museum in the Square in Wimborne. What an interesting collection of second-hand books they now have for sale, in aid of the museum.

Sheltering there reminded me that I often find inspiration for writing in a museum or art gallery. It doesn’t have to be the British Museum or one of the Tate galleries though I love visiting these. It can be your local places. Take your notebook when you visit. Find one thing or one picture that interests you. Describe this in as much detail as you can in note form. Write everything that occurs to you including your own thoughts, feelings and the memories that this thing or picture stirs up. Then you could repeat this process with one more thing/picture. When you get home, see if you can start writing a fictional story or a piece of life-writing or a poem that somehow combines or includes both of the things or pictures that inspired you. For example, you might imagine the person who once used this pewter goblet, ancient sewing machine or wore those amber beads. Perhaps the painting you chose seems to tell a story which you could continue. I hope this exercise opens up some good ideas for your writing.


As I drove through the New Forest today everywhere looked particularly vivid – the brilliant heather and gorse, the sculptures of fallen trees and branches, the emerging pale green leaves. I was thinking about one of the subjects we discussed this morning in the small novel-writing group I’m part of. We all seem to be addressing the nature of ‘Identity’ in our fiction just now. It’s strange how themes emerge and I suppose that all sorts of themes potentially underlie what we write. But we only pick up on some of them. That’s one of the reasons that readers are so important for writers. Readers can see aspects of our writing that seem to be hidden from us, or perhaps it’s that these subjects are so close to our hearts, so part of our identity, that we don’t think they are remarkable. If you are lucky enough to have someone who will read your work and give thoughtful comments, ask them what they think the underlying themes are.

Moving on from this idea, I think that as writers we also need to read. As I say in the May edition of ‘Writers’ Forum’: ‘When beginning to write it can be helpful to copy the style or subject-matter of an established writer. To start with, we are learning our craft by copying.’ I was interviewed, along with three other writers, by Matthew Small for the Motivation section of this monthly magazine (see pp 48-49). ‘We can get ideas for plots, characters and settings from other writers. We can rework these and make something completely new.’

More on these topics soon.