This story was written when I reached Norwich in 1990 and was a habitue of three different laundrettes equidistant from my house. I could write a whole book of incidents that have happened to me in laundrettes in my life. The setting though is in the Midlands town I had just left, but the concept of using pop songs to work magic went back to my days as a sixth form student cycling back and forth to college. I think perhaps if I had not got so wrapped up in magic realist dreams in my teenage years and some faith that a wonderful romance was simply going to happen to me then I might have actually had a proper teenage life and thus a proper foundation for what has followed. This story suggests, however, that even after three years of failure, even in trying to kill myself, I was still overly wrapped up in these fantasies.
Norwich was a very different place. It was less fast-paced and had a literary feel to it. Authors would be invited to speak at the Cinema City cinema and I sat behind the author Malcolm Bradbury (he taught at the university at that time) once in that cinema just watching an ordinary movie. I got some of my old stuff in some of the numerous amateur magazines of varying quality that seemed to be around in sizeable number in the town. Norwich was not Oxford, but it was not bad and had lovely tea rooms in which to gather in a clique as if I was a student in 19th century Vienna and to have nice teas with my 'agony nieces', women who I often fancied severely but who seemed just to want to tell me all about the problems they were having with their boyfriends. To stop me feeling emasculated I joined a snooker club, a wonderful though large, hidden away place that was always quiet when I went there. Norwich also has good second-hand bookshops and pubs and I do not know how I got anything done there. I was a lodger and then house-shared, first with a horrible landlady then in a freezing house, but this was a time of lots of writing as the next few stories show.
“Sure plays a mean pinball...”
Alec sat in the laundrette flicking through the old magazine. He glanced up at his washing tumbling back and forth in the foamy water. He remembered when he used to come back in the early Sixties, in the first few months after leaving home. It was not far from his parents’ house or the hospital where he had been born. Nothing round here seemed to get replaced, it just looked greyer and more knocked.
Carelessly he reached out his foot to the puddle of water that had formed at the base of the aged washing machine. Imperceptibly it began to shrink and the floor dried. The change was barely noticeable but far faster than it would have evaporated.
Anyone looking at him sitting there would have seen a young man, whether he was in his twenties or thirties was difficult to determine. Sometimes there seemed to be hints of age in his appearance and his action. Sometimes he seemed to be full of youth. His hair was light brown and cut very short, his clothes were heavy and durable. There was a constant sense of tranquillity about him.
As the machine clicked onto a fast spin his thoughts wandered onto Karen. He looked forward to seeing her later, but he knew the end was coming, a few months off probably. She was coming too close. He had ended things so many times before that now it was almost clinical, he had cut out the pain that he felt. Sitting here reminded him of the women back in those days of the early Seventies. Those had been busy times. He glanced around the few women in the room almost wondering whether his thoughts had brought them here. None of the faces stirred up any memories. Most of them were probably middle-aged mothers by now, maybe even had grandchildren. He had always been careful, right from the start, concerned not to burden the next generation with what he was.
Over the past couple of decades he had wandered back here, though his circle had widened and now he encompassed the continent in his journeying. He had been back just a few months past at his father’s death. He always sensed that, as he had felt his sister’s death in that car. He pushed the thoughts from his mind and fingered the magazine he held, it felt as if it had been around the fifty-six thousandth off the press, maybe a hundred less. As the cycle finished he tossed it aside.
He opened the machine and bundled the washing into the plastic basket and staggered with it across the room to the drying machines. He opened a large circular glass door and dumped the wet clothes into the hot drum. His humanity was what it was about. He had encapsulated his skills in little phrases, snatches of songs and incidental fingertip movements. What was the purpose? Everyone said that about life. He could make life easier but sought to make it harder, make it human, to keep himself human. He looked to the ritual of life, its vital monotony. The more he diverged from the normal run of things the more it worried him. Sometimes he would stand in the dark sensing from his mother’s movements in the house across the street. Sometimes he lay awake wishing he did not have to leave the woman beside him. Sometimes he yearned to wake and find himself back in his childhood room, the victim of some vivid dream, yet able to get up and get on with a normal life.
He gazed aimlessly into the spinning machine, the clothes thumping incessantly as they dropped from the side of the revolving drum. None of this fitted the standard C of E ideas that had sat in the background of his thinking and that of those around him in his childhood. The Oriental views more accepting of his sort (he knew there must be others) seemed out of their depth in explaining life in these terraced streets of all these towns, that lacked the vitality and colour necessary to produce the peculiar, the extraordinary, the strange. He believed in nothing, but of anyone he knew there was more.
Alec walked steadily across the park, his clothes folded, semi- dry and steaming in the large green bag on his back. It was quiet here, with only the sound of distant traffic. He looked casually at the jobless punks slumped nearby on a bench. He had been right through the real punk era over a decade and a half back. These were just washed up elements. They rose slowly and walked determinedly to intercept him on the path. He could not feel alarmed though he knew what was to happen. He let his bag drop to the floor. There were five of them, the two women barely distinguishable from their comrades. All wore frayed army surplus and scuffed boots. They seemed surprised by his apparent challenge but with numbers in their favour kept their ground. Alec stood calmly and mumbled a brief line he knew well from an old song. He appeared to flick dust from his jacket collar towards the group. He paused before reaching down for his bag. He walked off the path around the group of static figures, he would be home by the time they came to. Nothing too obvious, nothing too strong. Then he heard footsteps on the tarmac behind him, and turned. She stopped just in front of her four lifeless friends. Alec noticed the familiar faint glow at her fingertips.
“Don’t think you’re something special.” She sneered, but her voice was unable to conceal her enthusiasm and excitement. Alec braced himself.