In the early 1980s a job move took me to new accommodation in a flat in Hornsey, north London. By the end of the second week it was time to wash some clothes. Trouble was, there was no washing machine in the flat. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much of anything in this flat. No TV or radio. No stereo. A tiny two-ring hob in a poky kitchenette. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation, either. The only other occupant – the flat’s owner – was a humourless, vegetarian teetotaller. My small room contained an ancient wooden-framed single bed that made such an alarming series of creaks and groans every time I shifted position that the noise would wake me up. I ended up sleeping on the floor.
Two weeks later I’d be out of there, moving to a much more lively flat on the edge of Clapham Common. Sex, drugs, booze and noisy parties all awaited.
But right now I needed my clothes washed. So I stuffed them all into a heavy duty plastic sack and hauled it to Turnpike Lane, the local high street, where I quickly found a launderette.
I opened the door to an uncharacteristically empty shop. In my experience of using these places when living in other flats around London, your typical launderette would be full up on a Saturday. There’d be people chatting, smoking, reading magazines and lifting great baskets of steaming laundry from one machine to another. Everyone would know what to do and the order in which to do it. Crucially, they’d also have the right change for the different types of coin-operated machinery.
I never had the right change. Nor could I face the prospect of dumbly sitting there while the machines slowly did their stuff. I could conceivably zip off to the pub to while away the time, but harboured the fear that I’d come back to find I had missed the end of the washing machine cycle, and an irate customer had angrily dumped all my clothes in a tangled heap.
So I always opted for a service wash, where the attendant – typically a harried, no-nonsense, chain-smoking woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a floral garment made from some electrically-charged synthetic fibre – would for a nominal fee do all the heavy lifting for you. Hopefully without spending too long judging the general state of your smalls.
There was just such an attendant there in the Turnpike Lane launderette. I approach her with my sack of dirty clothes.
“Hi! Do you do service washes here?” She looks at me while she considers the question. You should know the answer to this instinctively, I think.
“Yes, love,” she says eventually. “Yes we do. You want that little lot washed, do you?” She nods at the sack.
“Yes please, that would be great.” I hand the sack over. “How long will it take, do you reckon?” She gives the sack a once-over. “Couple of hours?”
“Great,” I say. She starts to turn away, then stops.
“What, are you going to wait for it?” Well, no. That would defeat the whole time-saving purpose of a service wash. It would also be a bit odd, sitting there watching while someone you didn’t know washed your clothes.
“No no, I was waiting for a ticket. You know.” Back when people used launderettes, you needed a ticket for a service wash. Otherwise anyone could walk in and claim your washing as their own. Or there could be a bag mix-up and you’d get home to find you’d picked up the clothes of a petite 25-year-old PA. So they’d give you a ticket, normally one of those cheaply-printed tear-off raffle ticket affairs.
“Oh right. A ticket.” She puts the sack down and heads off into her little office at the back. I hear what sounds like heavy wooden furniture being scraped across the floor. I turn to have a look around. No one else has come into the shop. Curiously, none of the machines seems to be in action. All I can hear is the steady drone of the traffic outside. Eventually the attendant emerges from the office. But she doesn’t have a ticket. Instead, she’s dragging an enormous pair of old-fashioned wooden step ladders. She plonks it in front of me, extends the legs outwards, rocks the assembly back and forth to ensure it’s stable and begins slowly climbing up.
I follow her progress. When she gets to about the third step, she reaches up and pushes at a ceiling tile. It moves a little. She gets both hands to it and slides it fully out of the way. Then she climbs up on the next step, and the next, until she’s in a position to climb off the top of the ladders and into a black space above the ceiling. She disappears from view.
I stare at the darkly forbidding aperture. The seconds tick by. Anyone glancing in through the window would see a 20-something man standing motionless in front of a pair of tall stepladders in an otherwise deserted launderette. My mouth starts to feel a little dry. The sounds of more objects being moved around reaches me from above. There’s a muffled thump. At least something’s happening up there, I think.
Eventually a leg appears, its foot searching tentacle-like for the uppermost step of the ladder. It makes contact. The attendant slowly descends a few steps, stops to replace the little trapdoor in the ceiling, then makes it all the way back to terra firma. Plumes of dust fly from her crackling nylon housecoat type thing as she brushes herself down. She reaches into a pocket and hands me the ticket.
It’s the customary raffle ticket. I look at the number. It reads ‘1’.