Requiem for a laundrette

In less than a week, Giant Bear and I will move into our first house together. This is, of course, exciting on many levels and for many reasons. Surprisingly high up the list is ‘not having to go to the laundrette anymore’.

Our local laundrette is about fifty yards from the flat. A full wash and dry of three enormous bags of laundry (colours; whites; towels, woollies and Giant Bear’s sock collection) costs about £20 a throw, takes all afternoon to do and creates a pile of ironing to rival the Matterhorn. Using the laundrette also means venturing into the filthy web of The Creepy Man, who owns the business and lingers by the washers and dryers in a way that suggests he doesn’t have anything better to do than usher unsuspecting females into his sticky lair. The proliferation of bleached posters in the window suggests that he should, in fact, have plenty to occupy his time. ‘WHY NOT TRY OUR SHIRT SERVICE?’ asks one, giving no details whatsoever about what this involves or costs. ‘LET US CLEAN YOUR RUBBER GOODS!’ wails another. My favourite suggests that customers might care to enjoy a cold beverage while they wait, even though the only means of producing any kind of drink is the Horrible Hot Machine, which dispenses horrible hot coffee, horrible hot tea and horrible hot hot chocolate.

The Creepy Man is in his early fifties, greying and with a moustache like one of those brushes for cleaning wellingtons. He is ever so slightly boss-eyed and therefore appears to be eyeing his interlocutrix up even when he isn’t (he usually is). His voice is loud, braying, nasal and comes in nauseating waves. The Creepy Man is invariably dressed in jeans (slightly too short and much too tight), white trainers and one of several dark sweaters of uncertain provenance. He is unapologetically misogynist, enjoying nothing more than telling one female customer about the idiocies of another, attributing all said idiocies to her gender and then laughing heartily. The Creepy Man has confided to me more than once that ‘all women are mad’, and that both of his former wives divorced him without explanation, presumably while in the grip of ovary-based mental illness. No opportunity is missed to manhandle female customers, or (if we are quick enough to nip out of his way) the dirty smalls of female customers. I have a theory that a substantial proportion of his liquid intake consists of the broth given off by these items as they foment in the washers.

Using the laundrette has also given me the opportunity to plunge deeper into the seamy underclass of my chosen seaside town. I have met, for example, Confused Lady, who uses the same machine every week because she ‘understands’ that one (the machines are all the same); Assorted Dotty Old Ladies, all with different coloured rinses, wrinkly tights and nothing to say (this does not stop them saying it, over and over again); and Quiet Arabic Man, who always holds the door for me and spends his time talking very softly into his mobile telephone in a language I can’t identify. The Assorted Dotty Old Ladies don’t approve of his mobile, his foreign-ness or his desire to hold the door for other people (they actually click their tongues each time he does it). They don’t approve of me knitting while I wait for my laundry to dry (perhaps they are annoyed that they didn’t think to bring any knitting themselves?), or at least I assume that they don’t from the sideways looks I get when I put a half-finished sock out of my handbag. They definitely don’t approve of the horrible hot tea from the Horrible Hot machine, but will nevertheless consume several cups each while they wait, exclaiming after every pucker-mouthed sip how vile it is.

Finally, there is the Very Boring Man. I have a soft spot for the Very Boring Man, because he has twice saved me from the Creepy Man by engaging him in Very Boring conversation while I made my escape. Perhaps he isn’t actually boring at all, but some kind of low-level superhero, using his powers (such as they are) for good. On both occasions, his weapon of choice was a story about a leather jacket that he bought in 1963. I say ‘story’, but it was no such thing. It was simply his thoughts about the jacket, arranged into no kind of narrative or order, delivered in his trademark monotone (‘I once owned a leather jacket. Discuss’). The Creepy Man was pinned helplessly against the giant washing machines while he droned on and on, unable to even inject a sexist quip.

‘I bought it in Leatherhead, you see,’ said the Very Boring Man. ‘It was black, with a sort of … a sort of belt round it. Not … not like a real belt. A sort of, a sort of … belt, you see. With a buckle … and holes. Like a … like a belt. And I used to wear it when it was cold, you see.’

The following week, and my last week in the laundrette, it turned out that the Very Boring Man had remembered some further facts about his leather jacket that had hitherto remained forgotten.

‘It was after our conversation … the other day,’ he said, at length. Part of the genius of the Very Boring Man is that he speaks extremely slowly, with maddening pauses at points where politeness prevents his listeners from relieving the monotony by, say, getting themselves another cup of tea from the Horrible Hot Machine. This is infuriating for Creepy Man and Assorted Dotty Old Ladies alike, but gives the other female customers a window in which to stuff their clean laundry into a bag and scuttle away. ‘And it make me think … about where I was when I bought it. It was 1963, you see.’ He looked up at the ceiling and chewed on nothing at all. ‘I was in Leatherhead. That was the … point of the story, you see.’ A baffled silence ensued, broken only by myself and another lady pushing clothes into our respective bags as fast as we could. Eventually one of the Assorted Dotty Old Ladies (the one with the pink rinse) could stand the tension no longer.

‘No,’ she said decidedly. ‘No, you’ve lost me there.’

‘I don’t understand,’ snapped the Creepy Man. ‘You told us last week that you bought it in Leatherhead.’

‘Yes, you did,’ the Assorted Dotty Old Ladies chimed in, all nodding vigorously. ‘Leatherhead.’ The Very Boring Man looked surprised.

‘Yes, it was Leatherhead. I bought it in Leatherhead. I bought my leather hat in Leatherhead. Leather, you see. On my head.’ There was another, much shorter silence.

‘YOU SAID IT WAS A JACKET!’ the Creepy Man burst out. ‘You said it had a BELT round it! WITH A BUCKLE AND HOLES!’ The Very Boring Man nodded sagely.[1]

‘Yes, yes. I … did. That’s very true. But then I got home and … thought some more about our conversation, and thought, no. You see … it wasn’t a leather jacket that I bought in Leatherhead. It was a leather hat. In Leatherhead. So it was leather, you see. On my head. That was … the point of the story.’

‘I didn’t know you could get hats made of leather,’ I said innocently, walking quickly but calmly towards the door, as one might on hearing a distant fire alarm. ‘What was it like?’ The Very Boring Man settled himself more comfortably.

‘Well …’ he began. The Quiet Arabic Man softly opened the door for me and the other lady, bowing and smiling as we sailed gleefully into the sunshine, for the last time.


[1] Wouldn’t it have been amazing if, instead of the leather jacket/leather hat confusion, he had meant to say he purchased a leatherjacket (for purposes unknown)? You can probably buy these as a healthy snack in a Chinese supermarket, dried and rolled in aniseed.

Bite me

The students that I work with in China are not always reliable correspondents once I have returned to my natal shore, but some of them stay in touch and become friends. Those that do so all comment when they visit me in Britain that I ‘look different’. This is for two reasons: firstly, my Chinese students have never seen me without enormous hair (the humidity of the Asian summer is not kind to curly-haired women: in Britain, I can actually fit my head through doorways); and secondly, they have never seen me without insect bites.[1]

These are not any old insect bites, dear reader. All is quiet for the first few days after I land in the People’s Republic, and I am lulled into a false sense of security. Just as I have convinced myself that this time might be different, diverse alarums are sounded, and insects voracious and poisonous fall upon me with inaudible screams of delight.[2] Nothing can stop the onslaught: repellents are useless, as are long sleeves (they simply bite straight through). Low visibility holds them back for mere seconds, as per a trip to Qingdao a few years ago during which the entire city was shrouded in fog for twenty-four-hour periods at a time and I was bitten so badly that I could hardly walk for blisters and bandages. Somehow, I, an animal designed to find prey via the eyes, could barely make out the local Communist Party headquarters[3], but a bunch of tiny airborne creatures with microscopic brains and compound eyes managed to find something much smaller and easier to chew without any trouble at all.

The bites fall into three distinct categories. Firstly, there are big red ones, probably caused by mosquitoes. This year, two of these bites either side of my elbow developed into hard red patches that were so painful and so firm that I was unable to bend my arm. The patches also enlarged at an alarming rate, such that my carefully-drawn biro line had already been passed by an ironic red tide by the time I had finished drawing it. One of the Chinese staff was kind enough to buy me some kind of eucalyptus gel that came in a tiny white tub with a picture of a Swiss maid on the top, and this not only solved the problem and allowed me to stop gibbering about cellulitis, but made my room smell pleasantly of menthol. Secondly, there are small red ones with a tiny blister at the centre, which are ant bites. We screened Passport To Pimlico[4] for the students in a darkened lecture hall at one of Shanghai’s many universities, and somebody helpfully left the door open. Attracted by the flickering lights and quietly sweating cinema audience, stealthy ant attack ensued. These bites stream with tissue fluid almost constantly, rendering one’s legs itchy, sticky and totally unshaveable. This may sound like mere vanity, but allow me to remind you that a. I am rather proud of my legs, and never more so when in a foreign country as the sole representative of my race; b. it was far too hot for trousers and anyway I hadn’t packed any (nor would I have been able to buy anything that would have come close to fitting me); and c. I was in Asia and therefore already the hairiest woman for thousands of miles.[5] Finally, there are enormous orange blisters, which are spider bites.

The first spider bite I ever got was while walking in Nanjing Park with my dear father and his then girlfriend (now his wife, happily). I had been unwell for a few days with my usual gut-related issues (see Busting a gut) and so the ensuing faintness and enforced sitting down did not strike any of us as special. Later that day, however, The Blister started to appear on my ankle. It grew steadily and by the time I had reached Bristol[6], it was the size and colour of an egg yolk. The following year, my cornucopia of suppurating wounds included two more spider bites, one of which was right next to a scar on the top of my foot[7] and therefore unable to swell into its usual dome, instead forming a sort of kidney shape, uncannily like a giant orange-flavoured jellybean. This bite split during an invigorating sprint through Shanghai Pudong airport in a failed attempt to catch our ’plane home. An unbelievable quantity of liquid ensued, followed by Garden Naturalist applying iodine to the wound (iodine! Sweet merciful Jesus!). Having missed the flight, we were then put up in an unbelievably crappy hotel overnight, where we passed the time by counting (thirty-one), categorising (as above) and dressing my bites.

On my most recent trip to China, my inevitable spider bite was in a rather more awkward spot than usual: the back of my ankle, just above the edge of my shoe. The work is exhausting, the days are long, and the humidity and jet-lag suck any remaining energy out of all staff and students. Imagine my delight, then, on being informed that the last day of teaching was going to be crowned by a fancy dinner with a load of important people who might be able to offer me more work. The fancy dinner was in the usual multistorey building with a deeply unprepossessing exterior and stupendously luxurious interior, and while we waited for our dinner of pigeon heads and unidentified bits of lobster, we were encouraged to hob-nob by drinking cups of green tea and lounging about on a set of what I will describe as loveseats. My chosen loveseat was far too low for me and getting up out of it to walk to the massive circular dining table was an awkward manoeuvre. It was so awkward, in fact, that as I stood up I scraped the back of my ankle against the (razor-sharp) edge of the loveseat, not bursting the blister but rather slicing it off in a single gelatinous piece. This was so exquisitely painful that it numbed my vocal cords and I didn’t even squeak, but scuttled over to the table and sat down, where my ankle then proceeded to bleed gently into my shoe for the entire meal. On returning to the hotel, I soaked my bloody foot in the bath (it had also swelled up and was completely stuck to and in the shoe by all the bleeding, a bit like a window that has been painted shut), removed both shoes, threw them in the bin and asked room service to bring me bandages and disinfectant in the middle of the night.

I notice that Facebook is under the impression that I might like to spend my hard-earned money on a ‘lipstain’ (whatever that is) called Just Bitten. I’m not sure what I have done to give Facebook the impression that I am interested in a. being bitten or b. buying makeup, but apparently this product will make my lips ‘extra kissable’. One can only hope that women unwise enough to purchase something on the grounds that it comes in the form of an ‘adorable chubby crayon’[8] do not wake in the night to find tiny spiders pouring out of the tube and scuttling over their faces (for more spider-related horrors, see Eight legs bad).

[1] Or in anything other than smart clothes, or in a country where I don’t lose a half a stone every week through sweating.

[2] How do you know there are screams of delight if you can’t hear them, you ask? Because the glee with which I am attacked cannot possibly be expressed any other way. I imagine them whizzing through the air, shouting across to each other like swallows when the gnat harvest is unusually plentiful (‘Wheeeeee! Gnats! Fuck, yeah! Gnaaaaaaaaaaaats!’) at a pitch that might have been described by Flanders and Swann in ‘High Fidelity’ (‘All the highest notes, neither sharp nor flat/The ear can’t hear as high as that/Still, I ought to please any passing bat/With my high fidelity!’).

[3] A building remarkably like a khaki-coloured fridge.

[4] Partly to teach them about British culture, partly to give me something to ask the PPE students about. I asked one of them in a practice interview if she thought that Passport to Pimlico showed that small states were inevitably pushed around by big states, and she replied, ‘no. I thought it showed that the French can’t be trusted.’

[5] Next year, I will be maxidressed to the hilt <swish>

[6] Bristol! Cool, damp, rainy Bristol! Land of friends, gardens, songbirds, pasta and cheese!

[7] The residue of an encounter with a slippery patio and a bicycle chain, recorded in my diary (see Broken Dishes).

[8] Many things are both adorable and chubby (dormice, for example. Man, those things are cute. The one in the picture I have linked to is called Dozey and may be the cutest thing alive), but I venture to suggest that such things are not usually inanimate, or indeed likely to be found in one’s handbag.

Eight legs bad

… before I cut my throat, 
I shall leave this final note;
Driven to it by the spider in the bath![1]

I once drowned a spider in the bath. Earlier in the day, my mother had stuck a post-it note on the edge of the tub that summed up the situation. It read: ‘Eek! Spider!’ I duly noted the large house spider crouching defensively in the bath tub, miserable and uncertain. And then some time later, I forgot it was there (the post-it having been removed contemptuously by another family member, or maybe it just fell off under the weight of its own portentousness) and I put the plug in and ran a lovely hot bath and read Time magazine for a bit while it ran. It wasn’t until I had removed all my clothes that I noticed the spider, now very dead, floating dreamily round the bath like a sad black glove. My immediate thought was to let all the water and assorted bits of arachnid out and never bathe again, but I think it is a sign that I was more mature than my fifteen years that instead I put on a dressing gown, went downstairs, got a jug and decanted the dead spider. The hot water had caused its exoskeleton to soften and break up, so it took several attempts to ensure I had poured every last knee and mandible out of the window. Then I got into my spider-broth bath and pretended it hadn’t happened and had a wash. And then, even later, I got the heebie-jeebies.

I am interested here in two apparently unrelated topics, joined together by this story: spiders (some dead, some alive) and the art of letter-writing (dead). Let’s take the spiders first, and let’s assume that the human dislike of spiders stems from three things: cobwebs are unpleasantly sticky to the touch; spiders have a disconcerting way of scuttling about; and some spiders bite, sometimes painfully and other times fatally. The first and second ideas of the general yuckiness of getting a web in the face and the creepy way that spiders move can be seen in literature (The Hobbit, Shelob later on in Lord of the Rings, and of course the final shape taken by It), terrible films (Arachnophobia, Starship Troopers) and multiple science fiction offerings, in which the most unsettling aliens and/or alien ships are inevitably slightly spidery (Babylon 5, Starship Troopers again). The third idea relating to bites is a little harder to verify when one lives in the British Isles, but happily (for the purposes of today’s post) I got bitten by a spider in Nanjing Park a few years ago and can speak with some authority here (see Bite me). The bite resulted in my feeling as if I was going to faint for about half an hour, followed by a hard, painful blister the size and colour of an egg yolk, followed by a permanent scar. Here is a jolly fact that I learnt from this experience: you don’t always feel the little bugger running over your ankle and you certainly don’t always feel it bite[2]. Compare this to the morning when, while sleeping on the living room floor of some relatives, I was woken at 6am by a spider running over my arm (in defence of my girlish scream, I thought it was a rat).

Given that spiders can apparently rush about one’s body whenever the whim takes them, and given that sometimes one feels it and sometimes one doesn’t, does this give credence to the much-quoted urban myth of spiders running in and out of one’s mouth while one sleeps[3]? I had a lot of fun researching this on the interblag. However, as always happens when I spend time trawling internet fora, it also renewed my despair at the death of literacy (“I have seen it with my own eyes. Maaany tonnes of these creepy crawlie bugs duuuude they’re waay trippy maaaan. Sometimes I think it’s gods way of stickin’ it to the man, man!” writes Roy of Corazon de Oro, Portugal, for some reason. Why would God need to stick it to ‘the man’, and why would He choose spiders as His means of doing so? And what man?); the death of common sense (“I woke up when a spider was crawling in my mouth. It was huge. I have taped my mouth shut every night since that happened. Almost died once.” Thanks, Mariah from Blairstown, USA. Thanks for sharing); and the death of self-consciousness at the banality of one’s own thoughts[4] (“Dying by choking on a spider would be a dumb way to die” says Priscilla Moreno of Fullerton, USA. Priscilla is apparently unaware that i. this is not good conversation; and ii. her surname is an anagram of e-moron). Got a thought? Share it with someone! Immediately! Don’t filter it first to see if it’s interesting, useful, thought-provoking or funny: just share it, preferably with as many people as possible and in a format that ensures it will live forever.

Contrast these witless burblings with the writing of letters: ephemeral, hand-written and intended for just one other person. The first entry in my new diary, which I began some time in 2009 and add to from time to time, has this to say on the subject:

I recall ceasing to keep a diary (several years before anything of real importance had happened to me) on the grounds that: i. when lots of interesting things were going on, I didn’t have time to record them; and ii.  I wrote a huge number of letters, in which I let my various correspondents know much of what I had been up to and what I thought about it, and it seemed beyond tedious to describe the same events for my own benefit. Having not kept a diary for fifteen years or more, I also can’t remember the last time I wrote a proper letter. Email and the mobile ’phone seem to have killed, finally and truly, an art that I flatter myself I was rather good at.

The most striking thing about the spider-in-the-bath story to me now is that my mother thought a post-it note an appropriate response to this domestic crisis. Why didn’t she simply remove the spider and say no more about it? And yet I also like the idea of notes appearing around the house, from one family member to another (possibly in imitation of William Carlos Williams and his well-rehearsed fruit-based verse, possibly not), drawing attention to various small emergencies or points of interest. This has a wistfulness to it that I don’t think any other form of communication can match.

[1] Flanders and Swann again, of course (see The origins of the filthy comma).

[2] Another thing I discovered while researching spiders bites was the Brazilian wandering spider, one of the most poisonous spiders in the world. In addition to being very painful, the bite also causes severe priapism for several hours. This is so extreme that it can lead to heart attack, loss of blood to (other, more) vital organs and, if left untreated, death within a couple of hours. It does, however, have the advantage that this particular symptom is unique to the bite of the Brazilian wandering spider (interesting in itself as the spider is very similar in appearance to a bunch of other much less venomous species of spiders, making studying the thing excitingly uncertain). Therefore, provided the patient isn’t too humiliated to draw the afflicted part to the attention of his doctor, it allows medical professionals to make an accurate diagnosis and start appropriate treatment swiftly.

[3] Shakespeare missed a trick, in my view, when he gave the following splendid line to Margaret in Richard III (act 1, scene iii): ‘Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider?’ (Elizabeth repeats this description to Margaret towards the end of the play), but failed to follow the idea through. I know the spider she refers to is King Richard himself, but think how brilliant it would have been if Richard had whipped a bottle out of his doublet and replied, ‘forsooth, my lady, I am bereft of all but the sweetest of condiments. Om nom nom.’

[4] I also really wondered at the general tone of the people that write in such fora. For example, Brain of Roanoke, VA, reassured concerned spider-botherers by saying “Dont [sic] worry, I am sure you have had things a lot dirtier [than that] in your mouth before.” I resent your tone, Brian.