By Charles Etheridge-Nunn
To this day I don’t know where my friends or the homeless man ended up, or if there’s magic still in the laundrette. John’s parents closed it down after what happened, and I don’t blame them. I think they’re in Leeds, running a book-slash-chip-shop.
Homework Club was where it started. Casey and I were friends since primary school, and we were always going to be friends. In a stray thought, even in my youth, I’d imagine us married. She was all I’d wanted, a monster destroying Tokyo with each footstep, a hero foiling a mystery. We went on adventures even in high school and always would. Her blonde hair was slightly-singed on one bang from our previous obsession with science, which ended in disaster one week before Homework Club began.
John came later than Casey, but he was my best friend. His parents moved a lot, and tried settling down with a new business. He was tired of moving, of being the new kid, he said there was grey in his thin brown hair already. When we were paired together in Maths, it was a good opportunity to play the hero and introduce myself.
So that was the Homework Club, John, Casey and I. Sometimes we had guest stars, like Ed. We’d cheer them as they came in, like we were on a sitcom. The problem was, we’d get distracted. We’d talk to each other about television, about other kids, then by the time we got to work, the school would close. We needed a headquarters, a lair. Somewhere we could exist and do work and hang out. Mainly hang out, the work was like an excuse for being with my friends.
Finding the location was difficult. Casey’s brothers were dicks. Even now, especially now, after everything that’s happened, they’re the most dickish people in the universe. I think they won an award, but you’d not have seen the ceremony on the television, no one would turn up to accept their prizes, even if it meant walking on a red carpet and wearing fancy clothes. My place was difficult. After my parents’ ugly separation was an even uglier attempt at sticking together for the kids, like the fighting hadn’t happened. It had, and now it had evolved into a quiet beast, rumbling through the house and going into hiding when we got too close. It was more awkward than the throwing of crockery and burning of clothes.
That left John’s place. John lived above a laundrette. A magic laundrette. At least, that’s what the sign said. It was actually half laundrette, half book shop. The book shop part was something John’s dad had insisted on. Back wherever they’d come from, there were a few attempts at running a book shop, then combining it with other things, to try and make better money. Maybe John’s dad was terrible at selling books, but each of those businesses went away.
“A book shop and café,” John’s dad said. “That’s the obvious one. It’s harder than you think, especially if you have to keep reminding people it’s not a library.”
A book shop and camping equipment store wasn’t great either, “I got fed up of answering questions about why I had the latest best-sellers, but no books on camping. Didn’t they know anything?” he said.
He still insisted that everything could be made better by attaching a book shop. He had a PowerPoint presentation and everything.
“What about putting one on a swimming pool?” I said. “That wouldn’t be better, right?”
He didn’t speak to me much after that.
We still used his laundrette anyway. The book shop closed at seven and the laundrette never closed. It was a bit rash to always leave it open all the time, but we used that to our advantage. A few intense study sessions which went on until the wee hours, with only the occasional visitor and the hypnotic swirling of people’s clothes in the machines. That’s when we learned the place really was magic.
Magic’s often thought of as this big, flashy thing, but sometimes it’s something small. Something underwhelming. That’s how it happened for us. Out homework started to get done. I don’t mean that we were bad with our work and suddenly we weren’t, but it came to us faster and easier than it had before.
“I think it’s the machines,” Casey said. We were watching them again. It was like time stopped once the book store closed and all we were left with was the spinning. The endless spinning.
“I’m sure this one’s been going all night,” John said, pointing at one of the machines. It was filled with red robes, gold trim down their sides occasionally visible. “Do you remember anyone dropping them off?”
Casey and I shook are heads.
“Why not keep an eye on them?” Casey said. “Like a stake out. We’re here anyway, and the homework’s getting done.”
I would have been concerned that we didn’t learn anything, but the next day, at school, we always seemed to have absorbed the knowledge.
We started to map out the laundrette, we learned the numbers of the machines and started to record which ones were in use, peering over our school books. It made laundry more exciting, peering at the hypnotic fabric spirals covertly. Most of the time it was easy to get the details down.
“Did you get number eleven?” I asked Casey.
“Of course.” She was nearest to him. An old man, a little seedy-looking in worn patchwork trousers and some kind of washed-out poncho thing. “Eleven oh four.”
Our nights at the laundrette were getting later. It never closed and John’s dad was happy we’d be there to deal with any customers who wanted change. Not that there were many. We still had the aberrations in our timetable. Some machines were going when we entered and carried on when we left. We had no idea how clothes could last that long in the wash. All bright reds, yellows, blues and crisp whites.
Then we realised that the colours weren’t bleeding. We tested with a bundle of my clothes. My parents have a washing machine, but I got a bin bag full of different coloured clothing out of the house before they got back from work. They’d understand if their shirts, dresses, trousers all ended up with the colours bleeding into each other, this was for science, after all.
Aside from a missing sock, the clothes came out of the machines completely perfect. They were as good as new, despite their conflicting colours.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” the curly-haired woman next to us said. “I think the owner’s got some genius technology or something which stops the colour from going where it shouldn’t.”
Casey and I looked at John. He shook his head, his father wasn’t that smart.
When our grades started to go up, Ed joined us. I was resentful of him for joining us so late in the game. John and Casey were my best friends and he was just an opportunist. He didn’t get the power of the laundrette. He didn’t respect the machines.
“The red robes are blue today,” Casey said, and made a note of it.
“They still got gold on them?” I asked.
Casey was the best of us at keeping the notes. I did the homework when laundry matters took over. I’d do all the maths in the world if Casey asked. Ed watched her examine a sleeping man’s laundry. She made the list; five socks (assorted), four pairs of boxer shorts (black), shirt (loud), shirt (neat, pink), two pairs of suit trousers (brown and grey).
When the machine was done, she kept an eye on what he left with, if it was at all the same.
“She’s a freak,” Ed said. “Does she have OCD?”
John and I both glared at him.
“Do you want the work to get done?” John said. Ed nodded. “Then don’t disrespect us, don’t disrespect the laundrette.”
They both looked to Casey and I for support. Of course, we sided with John. After a swift meeting by the soap powder dispenser we decided to have Ed back if there was a big test coming up. Other than that he wasn’t allowed to have the magic of the laundrette. He agreed, but he didn’t understand, not really.
Casey and I watched clothes spin in one of the machines one evening, while John was in the upstairs toilet. He liked not having to use the one the customers had to have.
“I’m sure I haven’t seen that sock before,” she said, and made a note.
“We’ve been looking at it for five minutes. We have to have seen everything there.”
Casey darted from her seat and stared through the glass. “I think I see a new hat. One of those ones with bobbles hanging down from the sides.”
“Do you want to go out some time?” I asked. “Away from the laundrette?”
“It was just there,” she hadn’t noticed. Maybe I picked the wrong time. I only really saw her here and at school. There was only the laundrette and the school. Sometimes there was the book shop, and John had been offered a Saturday job there by his dad. With him there, we had reasons to be with the clothes for six days. We made notes of the customers, always pleased, always amazed. Our homework and the restocking of the shop, all done without any effort. Our own little magic.
The next spell I wanted to work was a love spell, though. I decided the laundrette wouldn’t provide for all of my needs. We still had to get food, we still needed sleep sometimes. I was pleased. If it did all things for all of us, then why would we need each other? Why could Casey need me?
“Tube socks,” she said. “Grey and yellow. Ew. Also I think someone’s put one of those fabric bags from the supermarket in, too.”
“They get dirty,” John said.
As my world was getting smaller, just Casey and the laundrette, John was getting less necessary. He was the gatekeeper to the laundrette. Our neon heaven. I could imagine Casey and I having kids and bringing them here, each one with their lists.
I looked up from the homework, done already, of course. Casey had moved back to the plastic chairs, bolted to the ground. Her legs were off the floor, her arms wrapped around her knees, drawn close to her. John nodded at me, then at the door. A homeless man stood there, or at least, he looked like he was homeless. He had ragged trousers, a torn, dirty dark blue t-shirt, bright red sandals, a long beard and hair which caught on the door when he first closed it. He freed it, then sat at the plastic chairs, looking at the machines.
We felt awkward having a mute interloper sharing in our activity. We felt like voyeurs. Casey, John and I silently agreed to leave the place, mainly through nods and frowns. Whoever he was, he could sleep it off, whatever, we were done for the day.
The chip shop was five minutes away, so John decided to go all out and buy us all food. He was the only one with a job. Casey and I probably could have worked in the shop, but it’d get in the way of the laundry. I made sure I was more dedicated than John, although no one was better at cataloguing the patterns of the laundrette than Casey.
“Maybe,” she said, “when I’m done, I’ll put the lists together and they’ll make a pattern. Maybe they’ll say something, like the word of God.”
“When’ll it be finished?” John said.
“Don’t know,” Casey said, and ate a mouthful of chips so that she didn’t have to elaborate.
“Should we go back?” I asked.
Casey nodded, and we started our way back. There was a collective sigh of relief when the homeless man wasn’t there. We didn’t like to share. Three was uncomfortable enough.
We looked at the seats, at the floor, for any sign of him, in case he’d left something or found a way to take the magic.
“It’s still here,” Casey said. “I know it is.”
I looked at one of the machines. It was open, empty but for a pair of bright red sandals.
“Do you think he left them for us?” I asked.
“Maybe they’re an offering to the laundrette?” Casey said.
I took them out and looked inside. “It’s empty, but I think it goes back further than the others.”
I put my hand in and couldn’t feel the back. There was the feeling of wind and the sound of distant rumbling. It might have been the other machines, though.
“How far back does it go?” Casey asked.
There was no satisfactory answer. The three of us spent the rest of the evening looking at the open door. Casey made a note of which machine it was, then we went on our way, plans forming.
“You know,” I said, “We could run tests.”
Casey was intrigued. “Like what?”
“We should put something in there. I don’t know what, litter maybe. One of the boxes with the soap powder in.”
“Litter? You’re not throwing junk in the machines. Who knows what you’d do to them.”
My solution was easy. There was a pile of stray socks and things which had been found in the machines. We started to pick apart the pile. It was hard to believe we’d not looked at it before, the rainbow jeans, the tattered blue t-shirt, the red/gold robes, more odd socks than I’d ever seen in my life.
We each took an armful of the stray clothes and stood by the door.
“How are we going to do this?” Casey asked.
John smiled and threw a sock into the machine. It vanished from sight. We looked inside and couldn’t see it hidden amongst the rungs.
“Has this one always been empty?” I asked.
“I guess it couldn’t hold anything,” Casey said. “Not for a wash at least. It all just goes to… wherever the socks go.”
“I’m so pleased we did this with other people’s clothes.”
John nodded and said, “Yeah, but we’re not just watching the laundry now. We’re part of it.”
I threw in a loud shirt. Again, it slid out of view and vanished. We started to follow suit with the rest of the clothes. They were lost, anyway. John and Casey threw socks at each other. I joined in after a moment, wanting to take part in the happiness, but it wasn’t the same.
I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I needed to take a moment and regroup. John knew I liked her, and seeing them having fun together was a punch in the gut. I’d stayed firmly as her friend for so long, the newer, stranger John, the gatekeeper to the laundrette, was closer to her than I was. When did that happen?
I washed my face in the bathroom, then walked into the laundrette. Something was off. The machine with the robes in, the ones with gold trim and… whatever colour they were, it didn’t matter any more. They were gone. So were the contents of the other machines. The stray socks all over the floor from the clothing fight. And so were Casey and John. The open machine door told me all I needed to know. Even with the magic we’d seen, I couldn’t believe it. I looked at the book shop in case they were there.
“Guys?” I said, as if I knew they were hiding.
The book shop was empty. So was the laundrette. Just me and the open door and the truth.
I looked inside the machine. It was, of course, empty. I put my hand in, I couldn’t feel the back, my arms were short, so maybe I couldn’t normally. I thought about jumping in after them, but I chickened out.
The laundrette closed shortly after John disappeared. His family moved back to Leeds and that’s where they started up the book-slash-chip shop. The old shop’s boarded up now, but the magic left it, so I’ve no reason to break in.
When I grew up, I never bought a washing machine. Instead I go to a different laundrette each time I wash my clothes, and I make sure to touch the back of each machine. One day I’ll find the one with no back. One day I’ll find the place where John, Casey, and all the socks go.