I have always loved laundrettes. I have never not believed in ghosts. But I could have quite easily passed through a whole life, an eventful one, without ever having reason to bring these two minor facts together.
As a matter of fact, my life, up until the time I am about to relate, had not been particularly adventurous or remarkable. I had been abroad and I had come back. Whilst abroad, nothing unusual had happened. Any story I might have told - of drinking, poverty, mistranslation - my contemporaries would have been able to top. Most of them went off after university to teach English in newly-liberated Eastern Europe, Prague being particularly popular. I followed the much more conservative route to Italy.
After coming back, I did several more uninteresting things before I eventually found myself, closing in on thirty, living in Ealing, in an old pre-Victorian house, across the street from the Launderama ‘coin operated laundry and dry cleaning centre’. Despite being rather dull, or perhaps because of it, my English jobs have always paid quite well. (I author technical manuals and occasional ‘anonymous’ erotic novel.) And so, although I was living opposite the Launderama, I had decided to buy - for the first time in my life - a washer-dryer.
White goods are another of my loves; and I spent a long time, last summer, going from shop to shop, inquiring as to the advantages of this model over that. Eventually, like the bourgeois I was rapidly becoming, I deferred to the Greater Wisdom of Which - buying one at least £200 more than I had any reason to. It was a Zanussi Jetsystem FJ 1093. The workmen delivered, but left me to fit it myself. This I did quite happily. Crouching, as I did, half-crushed against the flaky skirting-board, jeans picking up floor-fluff by the kilo, I felt that I was getting to know my Zanussi, communing with it, earning its respect.
When I finally had it up and running, I spent two weeks washing my clothes on an almost daily basis. I didn’t feel too guilty about this, environment-wise, as the thing had a special programme for minutely-sized loads. To say I spent many happy hours watching the suds surge and the pants pirouette would be to commit self-parody - but probably wouldn’t be as far from the truth as I might like you to think. I’m sure I sent the warranty off with indecently keen promptness. I’m sure I spent much longer than was healthy reading the manual. I’m sure I was far more houseproud of the interior of my Zanussi than I ever was of the inside of my toilet.
But the all-round improvement in my life that this particular purchase brought about had also one quite unforeseen side-effect.
The house - of which the one-bedroom flat I was buying formed the first floor - stood, as I’ve said, diagonally opposite the Launderama; but, what’s more, the room I had chosen for my study looked directly out across a medium-busy road towards this wonderful laundrette.
I haven’t explained why I’ve always loved laundrettes, and perhaps I should. Most of all, it’s the light inside them. This isn’t true of all laundrettes, of course - and I do love them all, however dingy they might be - but my particular favourites are those dazzlingly fluorescent cubes that give you an artificial light-bath the moment you step inside. It almost feels unnecessary, after this, to put ones clothes into a machine; surely such luminous purification has already removed all unwanted stains, vaporised any unpleasant odours and generally freshened your whole wardrobe?
After the light, I love the smell, the smells - that air-bath of stale cleanliness, the hygiene of other people, the odour of wool and acrylic and cotton and silk that have been made very wet and very dry within a short space of time.
There’s also the smell of all the individual powders that people have used - dominated by the laundrette’s own chosen cheapo brand (available to the forgetful in cupfuls from a 1950s-style vending-machine on the far wall), but modulated by everyone else’s brand: sugary Daz, Aryan Persil, plasticy Bold, inscrutable Cyclon.