September 18th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

My Beautiful Ex-Launderette

Last year our ancient washing machine, a veteran of twenty summers and two countries, shuffled off its rusty coil in mid-cycle - leaving us with a drum full of wet, soapy clothes.

Repairing the washing machine was not an option. It was ancient, parts would undoubtedly be both expensive and hard to find, and the loud bang and the small cloud of ectoplasm that had accompanied its demise gave this householder the impression that resuscitation was not an option.

So we had to buy a new one. But first we had to sort out the washing. All my favourite T-shirts were in there, and the local Leclerc had a launderette only ten minutes away.

So off we went, driving through the French countryside with a black polythene sack stuffed full of half-washed clothing. Naturally we'd gone prepared - with handfuls of coinage and notes covering all denominations. It'd been years since we'd used a laundrette but I well remembered their liking for large and varied amounts of coinage.

The launderette was situated off the Leclerc foyer. Four washing machines, a couple of driers and a huge machine with a door that looked like a hatch into a small space station. We read the washing machine instructions on a wall plaque, translating them from the French as best we could. After all, what could you say about using a washing machine? Put the money in here, put the washing in there and stand back.

Which is when we encountered problem number one. There wasn't anywhere obvious to put the money. The instructions said put the money in the slot. But none of the four washing machines had a slot. The space hatch might have had a slot but could you really get your clothes clean in zero G? I thought not.

The launderette was empty so there was no one to ask. And the slot had to somewhere on the machine. Surely it was just a matter of looking harder?

We looked harder. We combed every inch. We consulted the instructions again. We thought laterally, we tried to place our heads inside the mind of Zanussi's top designers. I even attempted a mind meld with the machine by the door. Nothing. Where would someone place a small money slot? Not the front, apparently. Nor the top or sides. Had we gone mad?

Then Shelagh noticed that one of the machines was slightly different to the others. It had a small slot at the front next to a couple of red lights. The others had that slot covered up. We loaded our washing into that machine, slammed the door shut, slid the first of our coins into the slot and...

All the lights went out. Not just the two red lights on our machine but all the lights in the launderette. And the washing machine door refused to open. Our clothes were locked inside.

Ah. We tried putting another coin in the slot. Maybe it was some kind of strange mechanism that switched off all the lights until the correct amount had been deposited? What can I say? We're natural born straw snatchers.

All the lights stayed off. And the more I looked at our coin slot, the less like a coin slot it looked. Had we? Could we? Would a metal coin cause a short circuit if a really adventurous person found a novel place to shove it?

The answer was a resounding yes. We sidled around to the Leclerc customer service desk and gave our best account of what had happened. I toyed with the idea of saying it had been like that when we found it or introducing the possibility of an outside agency - masked vandals, marauding Visigoths or pan-dimensional aliens dropping in to whiten up their space suits. But wisely kept quiet. Besides it was our washing stuck in the machine and we wanted it back.

Something that wouldn't happen for a while. The door, we were told, could not be opened until the power came back on. And that wasn't going to happen until they tracked down the agency repairman.

But we did find out where we should have inserted our coins - there was a special slot on the wall by the instruction plaque. I stared at it. Why put it there? All the laundrettes I'd frequented had their coin slots on the machines not on the opposite wall.

We slunk home, T-shirtless and tails, if we'd had them, hanging limp between our legs. We'd destroyed a launderette.

Two days later we returned. Yes, it took two days for Leclerc to find a repairman and stop him slapping his forehead in disbelief. I suspect there may have been some arm-waving and much ritualistic grinding of spittle into the tiled floor as well, for we found our clothes thrown into a clothes basket and hidden behind the laundrette door. The words 'never darken these halls again' were etched in the atmosphere. And someone had taped over our alternative coin slot.

I considered asking if the repairman had found our three euros in the far machine's innards but opted for grabbing our still slightly damp half-festering clothes, and legging it for the car park.

We haven't been back since.