The man who stumbles into the warmth of the launderette is wearing a Superman costume. Both hands are raised to his face. Blood runs between his fingers. It streams down his wrists. He pinches his nose, bends forward and wades across the floor in a stork-like fashion.
“Someone just digged me in the face,” he looks for sympathy from the young woman behind the counter but she just beckons to the blood with a stabbing motion of her hand.
“Look what you’re doing to the floor,” she says. “Jesus Christ.”
Lucy watches from the opposite side of the room. She has never seen the young woman as animated. Referred to as ‘Lady’ by the Polish owner, she can usually be found lounging across the folding table, smirking at magazines and purring to herself.
“It’s going all over the place,” the young woman says. “You’ll have to get out.”
“I’m only after walking through the door.” His voice is squeezed.
“You’ll get blood on everything.”
The man waves her away. “Is there some tissue or anything around here? It’s getting on me cape.” He begins to meander about the space.
“That’s it. I’m getting Wojciech.” She strides from behind the counter and pushes through the glass-panelled doors shoulder first.
A splash of blood lands on the linoleum to Lucy’s right. She tucks her foot behind her calf and drags her chair a couple of inches away.
“Tissue?” The man honks in her direction.
“Tissue,” Lucy sighs and reluctantly stands. She dodges the trail of blood with exaggerated steps. An elderly woman who was in the process of loading a machine is frozen in a hunched position. She grips a cardigan so tightly that her knuckles have paled.
“Nearly wet me knickers with the fright, Love,” she whispers when Lucy passes.
Rolls of blue industrial-sized paper towels are stacked at a slant behind a rubber plant with tired leaves. Dust hangs about Lucy when she disturbs them. She wraps tissue around her hand before offering the wad to the man. He presses it against his nose before taking the whole roll and unfurling wildly. His face is soon hidden behind a nest of tissue.
“Thanks,” he mumbles a number of times as she returns to her seat.
Lucy angles her chair so her back is to the man. A ball of baby-grows and bibs sit on a black refuse sack at her feet. The plan is to wash and dry her laundry as quickly as possible so her husband Graham can leave for work at a reasonable hour. He’s already hinted that it’s going to upset his flexitime. “I’ll work through my break on Thursday” was his immediate response. And before she left the house he reminded her how something called the ‘core portal’ only allows a ten hour and forty-five minute window to work up hours. Always subversive complaining with Graham, bordering on the cryptic. It’s like living with the Dungeon Master sometimes.
My first is in shift and my second is in flexible. But be warned. The beast of irregular tidings never runs far from his cave.
Lucy noticed him watching their next-door neighbour Mrs Halpin from the bedroom window this morning. The woman was transferring homemade cookies to the boot of her car. One box at a time, she’d place them in a perfect line and separate with a tidy sheet of greaseproof paper. Graham has nicknamed her Halpo. “God’s gift to grandas,” he usually jokes. But not this week. Ever since Lucy had words with her about the excessive volume on the television in the evenings Graham has dropped the nicknames.
She grabs a handful of clothes from the pile and examines each small bundle for darks before shoving into the washing machine. Most of the baby clothes are stained in various tones of brown. When pregnant, people would hint at the complications that the new arrival would bring, little knowing smiles at the mention of plans or the barest raise of an eyebrow when ‘free time’ is brought into a conversation. But they never warn about the liquid. The dripping orifices. The steady tides. The stunning explosions.
She closes the door and clicks the dial around to sixty degrees. A yellow light blinks to green and the machine breathes to life with one clean roll of the drum. Water languidly flows into the inner cavity.
“It’s all Gerry’s fault.” The man is behind her.
Lucy pretends she hasn’t heard. She reads the instructions tacked to the machine with a look of magnified concentration. Scribbled notes are pinned to a noticeboard on the wall. Items wanted, lost or found. Wallets, jewellery, people.
“I said that Gerry’s to blame for this.” The legs on the chair whine as he moves closer. “I didn’t even want to collect up that end.”
Lucy closes her eyes and inhales deeply.
“Can you hear me, Missus?”
“Collect what,” she exhales. “What are you saying?”
“Money. Charity. If I had me bucket I’d show you but Gerry has that. He took it, ye know, after the assault.”
Late sixties, his skin is dark and contoured. Two blood-soaked lengths of rolled tissue worm from his nostrils. He introduces himself as Seán.
“It’s an Irish name,” he says.
“I know what kind of name it is.”
“Sorry. I wasn’t sure. You have a foreign look about you.”
“I’m from Ringsend.”
“Yeah,” he examines her face for a moment. “I can see that now alright.”
He stands and fiddles with a clasp at the back of his neck.
“Normally meself and Gerry look after Westmoreland Street and up by College Green. But aren’t there roadworks going on today. Something to do with the Daniel Day Luas.”
His costume is cheap and sloppy with a waning Superman print. He rolls the top part down. His bare stomach reminds Lucy of a rumpled mat.
“Gerry said we should chance the posh end. So we waltz up to Grafton Street but I swear we were only there for about a minute when some old dear comes up to me and starts going on about how that was her spot and that it had been her mission to look after it for years and that she wasn’t planning on surrendering it anytime soon. I wouldn’t mind. She isn’t even collecting for people. Dogs. And cats. And probably the odd poxy cow. I don’t trust people who put so much effort into animals. I just don’t see the point.”
He drags the costume down as far as his ankles. When he straightens Lucy instantly wishes she had been looking the other way.
His costume is cheap and sloppy with a waning Superman print. He rolls the top part down. His bare stomach reminds Lucy of a rumpled mat.
“I says to her, look, there’s plenty of room on the street for both of us. I’ll work from the card gallery right down to where your man is painting a picture of our Lord on the path. You can look after the rest. She was having none of it. Then Gerry started pulling on me arm to leave and she kept talking to her dog as if it could understand and I lost me rag. It just slipped out of me mouth, ye know. I didn’t mean it in a bad way. Jesus. I didn’t think she’d punch me in the face.”
He leans against the machine with one arm as he awkwardly pulls the costume from his left foot. A watery tattoo of a swallow swims on his upper bicep.
“I should have known she was crazy. It’s the hair you see. You can tell a lot about people from the hair.”
He kicks off the costume and throws it on the chair moments before Wojciech and his employee enter the launderette. The owner is a giant of a man who wears designer tee-shirts and tight, stonewash jeans. Some of the women turn into novices in his presence, asking questions about settings and wash times that they already know the answers to. They touch him on the shoulder and play with their hair and most probably imagine the pressure of those muscles as he takes them in the backroom, on the stairs, in the alley behind the build. Lucy has the odd weak fantasy, more of a habitual throwback to a pre-motherhood self. The majority of her yearnings involve a lengthy sleep and a room that doesn’t smell of vomit.
Furrows ripple through the man’s back as he hurries across to Wojciech. Lucy turns and lines the chair up with the face of the machine. The clothes roll lazily. After a time she becomes aware of the steady sound. It always make her think of nautical terms.
Mum told her to leave the issue with Mrs Halpin alone, advising her to move the baby into a different room. She said that Mr Behan on the opposite side seems to be a curtain twitcher and that the likes of him would have their whole life muted so as not to miss someone on the street breathing. “Or not breathing,” she added quickly after. But herself and Graham spent a small fortune on getting the box room ready for the baby, that blue wallpaper with the pattern of an inebriated looking bear, the car-shaped light fitting that’s screwed into the ceiling, those illuminous stickers of celestial bodies that Graham insisted would relax the child if he woke up in the night, the ones she now suspects keep the child awake. But so does the refilling water tank and the loose drainpipe. The sound of the air sitting in a room seems to keep him awake.
Her sister calls him a zombie-baby. Still young, she comes out with these statements without understanding that people might actually be listening to what she’s saying.
“A woman in work had one of those. She was wrecked from the lack of sleep. Apparently the baby just kept trying to get to her. It moaned constantly for food.” Arms held outward, her sister groaned the word ‘boobs’ over and over.
“How did she fix it?” Lucy asked her.
“She made her partner have a vasectomy.”
“No really. What did she do?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged.
“Nothing. I guess they just wear themselves out after a while.”
The arms of the superhero costume hang drunkenly over the side of the chair. The man is shouting. Long dark hair sprouts from his shoulders. The arse of his pants is like a deflated balloon.
“I won’t scare the customers. What’s there to be scared of? They’ll be coming in their bleedin’ droves my friend, talking about the bloodied and assaulted man. I used to run a launderette meself. Eighteen years. One thing they love more than the smell of the warm linen is a good natter. You mark my words.”
Wojciech looks to the ceiling with semi-closed eyes. He then moves to the back room and grabs a mop.
“We had the biggest launderette in north Dublin. And fair enough, it was mostly the single businessman toward the end, ye know, getting a bunch of shirts cleaned at a time. But for years we’d have whole families coming in. Local businesses. Every newly arrived immigrant in the area. You name a nationality and we’ve had them.”
“Mozambique?” The young woman asks.
“We’ve had Africans. Plenty of them.”
“How about Wyoming?” Lucy asks from her seat.
“Wyoming? What are you? A bleedin’ atlas.”
They have created a spider goat in Wyoming. Lucy read a piece about it in the Sunday paper while up in her parent’s house. Her father was babbling to the child in some invented language while her mother warned about the implications of not speaking properly to babies. The article painted a picture of the dismal basement where Dr Frankenstein carried out his heinous experiments before comparing to the modern lab in which a molecular biologist has genetically implanted the genes of a spider into a goat so that the produced milk will be laced with silk. Tests are being carried out on human skin too with the hope that someday it can be modified to a strength that surpasses Kevlar. The people of the future will be bulletproof like superheroes.
“If DNA dictates everything about us then how can we be accountable for our actions,” she said to her father.
“You shouldn’t be minding things like that,” he said. “They’re only trying to sell papers.”
But it was mentioned again a few days later on Blue Peter. She watched with the weight of her child on her shoulder, the warmth of his head against her cheek. And she thought how experiences and upbringing has little to do with how a person will turn out. If everything boils down to genetics there is no such thing as decisions. Your future has already been decided for you. Graham was created clumsy. Her mother was built to resent her father. Mrs Halpin was born to prefer a television volume so loud as to vibrate through the walls. It doesn’t matter that she has three kids, all grown up and all driving the kind of car that screams ‘I’ve got a good job’. It has nothing to do with remembering what it’s like to have a small child in the house, the feeling that the air around you might shatter at any given second. It’s all down to genetics.
“Shush,” she thinks. Even now, a mile away from her home. “Mustn’t wake the baby.”
The man takes the chair next to her and begins to rub soap flakes into a blood stain at the front of the costume. His hand rotates in quick, tight circles. The drum of the washing machine rolls slowly. The water washes against the glass like the waves of a trapped ocean.
The semi-naked man informs Lucy he is married.
“Thirty-four years,” he says with the tone of someone who is surprised by his own achievement. He tells her about his three daughters and presses palm against his chest on revealing that their only son Harry took his own life some years before.
“I used to have this dream when they were babies, ye know. I was suspended a couple of feet off the ground and there was a kind of comfortable warmth all around me. I liked to think that the kids were having the exact same dream when they were sleeping. Funny, I always remember those times as being like Christmas. Or what you imagine Christmas is supposed to be like in any case.”
It is a miracle, isn’t it? Having a child. People express it to her all the time. “A gift from God,” they say. “Blessed to have a fine healthy baby.” But a couple of weeks back Graham quipped how becoming a parent is similar to starting your life over again but with a small whale strapped to your back. And she wondered if there was truth in this statement for him or whether the incessant apprehension is hers alone. Perpetually attuned to shifts in the atmosphere. On standby for the next stubborn feed or lengthy bout of crying. Waiting for the monster to jump out of the wardrobe.
She doesn’t mean he’s a monster. It would be difficult for her to say exactly what she means. How can you openly admit to those moments when you are almost afraid to be alone with your son? Who can you talk to about the times where it feels as if you are holding someone else’s child?
The health nurse suggested that a low, monotonous noise might drown out distractions and help with his sleep. Lucy tested the theory out with a hair dryer and nearly set a blanket on fire. After that, she tried the washing machine and it helped in that it dampened the cries somewhat. A problem soon developed with the drum, forcing her to seek out a launderette. The appliance has been fixed twice since then and is currently in need of another repair. But if it had not broken that first time she might never have found this place with its graffiti-stained front, squeezed on both sides by vacant units. She may never have ghosted past the bunch of addicts on the pathway, instinctively hugging her washing closer to her chest only to watch them from within the launderette and think how there must be some sense of liberation in giving up on the everyday. A kite free from its owner, driven by nothing but a cruel wind.
“For good towels you need to have balls,” the man says. He removes the costume from the dryer, pinches the shoulders and drapes it across the chair.
“Put a couple of tennis balls in with your towels the next time you’re drying and they’ll come out as fluffy as a sheep’s arse.”
“I don’t have any tennis balls.”
“Get some,” he nods. “Bring them.” The cape is examined. “Not bad for ten minutes work, what?” He shows her front and back. “Jaysus, imagine a world without the launderette. I know it sounds apocalyptic and all but if it wasn’t for the duvet these places would be finished.” He hooks his left foot into the leg of the costume and stretches the material upward. Lucy supports him by grabbing his elbow.
“Thanks, Love,” he says and she suddenly wonders if a day will ever come when her son has to help her like this. The door opens and the flow of cool air is quickly followed by a man with a white bucket in each hand. His runners are distended and worn and his duffle coat is frayed at the sleeves. The deformed headpiece of a Chewbacca costume bobbles on his shoulders as he moves.
“I’ve been looking for you for a good half hour.” His words are muffled.
“Jesus Gerry. Can’t you see that I’m nearly done.”
“I thought you’d be lying in a gutter somewhere.”
“That’s a bit dramatic now, isn’t it.”
“I told you we should have just gone to Talbot Street. Hurry yourself along.” He drops one of the buckets beside his friend and moves to the window. Hands deep in pockets he quietly stares out onto the pathway.
Seán inches closer to Lucy. “He never said anything about Talbot Street,” he hisses.
Lucy lifts the bucket. It is light. A few coins skid along the bottom.
“What are you collecting for?” She asks. “Me bleedin’ sanity,” Seán mutters, tangling with the upper part of the costume. One of his feet skid on the linoleum and he shoulders a machine.
“Hey. Watch the merchandise,” Wojciech shouts from behind the counter.
“Relax the kacks, would ye. They’d be practically throwing each other into the washing machines when I ran my place. In any ways, I’m a paying customer.” He takes the bucket from Lucy and nods seriously. “When we lost Harry my Maeve sits me down and she says that if you look at a jar of jam from the outside you can’t tell if a bit of butter might have got into it. It’s only when you open the jar that you can see mould in the jam. Well, that’s what I’m collecting for. The jam.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“That’s because you’re not listening. You haven’t listened to a word I said since I came in here.”
“I don’t even know what to say to that.”
“Maeve would explain it better. She’s the talker. I’m just the collector. An eight-year affair with me bucket.”
“Eight years,” Lucy repeats softly. She looks toward the exit. A strange brown tar-like substance overruns the grouting on the tiles nearest the door. The linoleum is gradually peeling away like the skin of a stubborn orange. When she looks back to the man he is frowning at the bucket. She prevents his departure by touching him on the shoulder, moves to her coat and returns with a handful of loose change.
It’s only when you open the jar that you can see mould in the jam.
“You’re very kind,” he says as she drops it onto the lid of the bucket. The first few coins slide down the slope of the lid, through the slot and thunk to the bottom. The rest collect at the base of the lid.
“Something’s stopping them,” Seán says and slides his finger along the slot. The remaining coins fall to the bottom when he removes the obstruction, a thin electronic component.
“That’s mine,” Lucy reaches out to take it but he brings it close to his face.
“This is off a washing machine, isn’t it,” he says.
“It fell off yesterday morning.”
“Looks like a temperature sensor.” He twists it between thumb and index finger. “Strange that a sensor would just fall off. I mean, you normally have to remove the bottom panel and even then you’d have to give it a good yank.” He places it in her palm and she closes her fingers over it tightly.
“Bloody modern machines,” he shakes his head.
Gerry shuffles out the door and his friend follows. Seán’s cape sweeps behind as he leans into the wind.
The air hums with the sound of spinning. Lucy’s machine gurgles as water drains from the drum. She bends forward so her face is mirrored in the washing machine door. It reminds her of early diving gear, those bolted copper helmets with the round viewing holes. She briefly thinks it strange how in all her previous visits to this launderette she never once noticed her reflection in that circular glass door.