Launderettes can be spare and austere but not this one. I enter a long room and before the door has swung shut behind me a woman behind the counter at the far end asks how she can help. I’m in an aisle of washing machines and tumble dryers and she is a brisk but friendly priestess behind an altar. Other customers sit waiting, phone-scrolling, unloading or folding. There is a sense of being asked to speak up love, don’t worry, I won’t bite.
“There’s been a pet accident,” I explain.
“Throw it out,” says the priestess, referring to the pet and only kidding.
“Yeah, but there’s three of them.”
There’s a bit of chat about prime suspects – was it one of our cats or the visiting whippet? – and if there’s time to do a duvet before closing time. This will be earlier than usual as it’s Boxing Day.
“Have you brought powder?”
I haven’t, but in no time she’s out front, centre stage, pouring a cup of blue-grained granules into the top of a machine and bundling in the fragrant bedding. Once it’s washed, she will personally transfer it to a vacant drier.
An hour or so later, I’m back for the closing tumbles. By now, the priestess has a sidekick – elderly, chatty, teeth missing from both upper and lower decks. Both women are white with old-fashioned London accents. There are now five or six fellow patrons. All of them are black men. One of them, heading for a machine with an unzipped rucksack, drops socks and some of his fistful of pound coins.
“You don’t really want to do this washing, do you?” says the sidekick, teasing, as I retrieve a coin that’s rolled under a bench. Another black man comes in. He and the coin-dropper exchange greetings and bump fists. Apart from them, all the guys are alone and seem unconnected, though perhaps they have domestic set-ups in common. London’s launderette population isn’t what it was, what with washers and tumblers being standard features of most households – just not all. It’s the not all that help to keep the remaining ones going.
Five minutes to go and someone else comes in from the gathering darkness of the street: a white man wearing a brown overcoat and a burgundy fedora. Flushed and beaming, he booms down the aisle: “I got my yellow scarf!”
“Oooh, that’s nice!”
There’s been some build-up to this moment, you can tell.
“She got it for me!”
Right on cue, in walks “she”, also white and wrapped up warm and with a throwback floral headscarf.
“I got it for him!” she confirms from behind the man’s eyeline, projecting faces that hint at complicity with the two women.
They’d love to stay all day, but they are out for walk. The priestess and her assistant are looking forward to an evening of bingo. My duvet is toasty dry. I throw it over my shoulder, nodding the other customers goodbye.
John Vane writes word sketches of London. Follow John on Twitter.
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