‘I wish I hadn’t got these laces.’
She is wearing trainers, fluorescent yellow and navy blue, with long, long white laces tied in loose bows. Above the trainers are crinkled, greying socks and shins marked with purple patches. I don’t think the teams of people who’d worked to design, manufacture and market those trainers imagined them on the feet of a woman in her seventies, doing her washing in the laundrette.
‘They’re a bit long. I’ll have to tuck ‘em in, sort of…’
She stoops and attempts to push the loops and strings under the tongues of her trainers. It makes her sway alarmingly – her head rocking back and forth a few inches over the floor tiles. I imagine her tumbled onto the floor, bony head hitting the ground, blood on her thin skin. Please don’t fall. I don’t think I can deal with it today. And then I feel guilty because I should’ve thought of her safety, her potential pain, not my own discomfort.
She rears up again and backs into one of the orange, plastic seats.
‘There…. Pass us one of those magazines, love.’
I offer her one– fat, glossy, curled at the corners and themed for the wrong season. ‘Burn the fat for your bikini body’. The rain is coming horizontal against the plate glass of the front window and the sky is turning from grey to navy blue. She takes the magazine. I look at the dial on my machine – the cycle will last another twenty minutes at least and I don’t think I can sit here that long. The waves of impossible are getting bigger with each frothing turn of my washing. I’m past the point where I can counter them with thoughts of anything positive. They’re just hitting me, harder and harder. And outside the cars are swishing, stopping at the lights, driving on. You’re in one of them. I think you’re in one of them now, with her maybe. You’re going to a party, the theatre, home together to cook and watch a film.
I hold the edge of my seat tighter. Life raft. The froth in the little circular window is so white that I wonder why I’m washing these clothes at all. They’re surely not dirty enough to bother. The old lady coughs – horribly loose and bubbling.
‘Lot of nonsense in there.’
She slaps the magazine onto an empty seat on the other side of her. I think I’m going to cry, maybe, or be sick, or just lie down here on the floor in the laundrette and close my eyes. But instead I look at the old lady’s wash turning alongside mine – bubbles considerably greyer than those in my machine. Then her machine starts to spin, fierce, fast, and for some reason that does it. I’m crying. Nothing dramatic, no sobbing, just tears that keep coming and spilling. I let them go. She doesn’t seem to notice. She’s rooting in her handbag, spitting delicately into a tissue, then unwrapping a mint and popping it into her mouth.
I’m not going to think about you. I’m not. I’m not going to think about the click of your front door, the lights in your kitchen that illuminate the worktops. Your hands chopping vegetables and her pouring you wine. I’m not going to think about the last time I drank wine at your table. I’m not going to think about the broken glass. I’m not going to think about the words, play them back again. I’m not going to remember the times before, when the night air was warm and you laughed and said…
‘That’s mine done. Would you mind holding the basket for me, love?’
I realise she’s talking to me, offering out one of the cracked plastic laundry baskets.
She doesn’t notice, or doesn’t comment on, my wet face. I crouch, holding out the basket as she tugs at the tangle of wet clothing in the machine. It pulls out like conjuror’s scarves, one thing gripping another. But there’s something about it that I’m not expecting. There’s something astonishing here. There’s lace and colour – plums and pinks and a suspender belt, sudden, alone. I see fishnet and satin – red. I carry the basket to the dryer for her – watch her turn the dial to low. Still, I think, this stuff is too delicate for a laundrette dryer anyway, isn’t it? I can’t say anything. What could I say? I watch her feeding the wisps and cups of lingerie into the dryer and posting in 20p pieces. She turns the dial and they start to dance in the big circle. A basque, a stocking, a bra. I can’t imagine. I don’t understand. I’m shocked out of everything in my head. I start to imagine. Grandma? Odd-job lady for some call girls? What?
The noise of the traffic is louder – someone is coming in to the laundrette. She’s Amazonian – red hair pouring down around her shoulders – perfume, the smell of too much perfume. She wraps the old lady in her arms. Her coat, a fake fur, grey, is damp from the rain. It touches the back of my hand as they rock beside me. Something feels like love in the air. I don’t know what love. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
They unload the dryer together, dropping all that confectionary underwear into a laundry bag – laughing, nudging each other and laughing again – rough, smoky laughter. I realise my machine has stopped.
They leave, the young woman carrying the bag, the older one stepping delicately across the big puddle outside the door. The lace of one of her trainers is trailing now. I sit with my back against the dryer, feeling it turn, feeling the heat, watching them go.