I’ve become something of a connoisseur of launderettes. Given that the vast majority of people nowadays have washing machines and tumble driers that leaves a narrow, but interesting, range of people who use launderettes and their availability says much about the demographic of a town. Exeter, for example, has quite a few – but it is a university city with a fair amount of other educational establishments such as international schools. Hence it has a large student population possibly in need of somewhere to do their washing. Our two nearest towns are Crediton and Tiverton. To my knowledge, Crediton has no launderettes whatsoever – the subtext being that everyone who dwells therein is in possession of a shiny washing machine. Poor old Tiverton, however, well it has about five – and that figures, it just feels a little more down at heel and deprived.
It’s a couple of decades since I had to use a launderette, but it is much the same – the usual mix of faulty machines, warm soapy smells, single men, foreign workers, travellers and people washing their double duvets. There’s a kind of camaraderie that exists – you can’t watch someone else’s smalls going round and round in the machine next to yours without feeling a little bond grow between you.
But that’s not always the case. Last Sunday, for instance, I was alone in the launderette stuffing mud-spattered clothes into a machine with little hope that they would come out much cleaner. About halfway through my laundry bag, I came across a long, plump and energetic earthworm. Now, I accept that most people don’t have earthworms in their laundry, but then most people don’t keep their washing in a caravan awning.
Anyway, I carefully placed the worm on top of the machine on a comfy glove and continued putting in my washing. At this point, three Polish men entered the launderette. They made a merry group as they arrived chatting and laughing, but this stopped as if by a switch when they saw me and my earthworm.
OK, I admit, I may have been talking to it at the time. I may possibly have been telling it that it was lucky not to be boiled alive on a hot wash and that I would find it a nice municipal bush if it would bear with me for a minute or two.
The men stood uncertainly at the door and then sidled around the shop perimeter, keeping me firmly in their sights. They were clearly not taking any chances with the crazy worm lady. Taking a leaf out of John Wayne’s book, I decided the maxim ‘never apologise and never explain’ was best employed in this instance. I shut the machine door with a flourish, set it on ‘start’, smiled boldly at the men, picked up my new friend, and left. As I drove away from the launderette, I looked in my rear-view mirror. All three men had come out into the street and were staring silently in my direction.