MRS. MISTRY SHUFFLED ALONG THE NARROW AISLE THAT LED FROM THE front to the back of the laundrette. A row of plastic seats to her right were fixed in place opposite off-white, front-loading machines. Metal shelves lining the walls were packed with ages-old mini boxes of soap powder, whilst strict warnings prohibiting the washing of under-wired bras were dotted about the room.
The rain meant that today she’d get the mothers and toddlers. When their kids were about to drive them up the wall but it was too wet to take them to the park and they didn’t have enough money to go shopping, the moms piled into the warm dry space of the launderette. The hum of the machines sent the babies to sleep and the constant swirl of the clothes kept the older ones fascinated.
Mrs Mistry adjusted the waistband of her orange sari and pulled her brown woollen, oversized cardigan tighter. She opened a children’s book, inhaling the new-print smell of the glossy black and white pages. She pressed a thumb tack into the centre spine pinning it onto the wall near the chairs. Next to it, she secured a spike-edged cardboard neon yellow sign, the same size as her hand which read: “COLOURING BOOKS ONLY FOR £1.00.”
Her eldest son had brought back a caseload of the books from his last trip to India. They cost her nothing but would sell well. The books depicted characters from Hindu folklore, thick black outlines with plenty of space for colouring and hardly any words. She couldn’t remember seeing any of her daughters-in-law read to their children. Trust her sons to marry beautiful idiots, interested only in Bollywood and celebrities.
Mrs Mistry arched her back, kneading the constant ache made worse by the damp English weather. Never in India would she have experienced arthritis, but here it was the curse of the old.
She shifted behind the counter and spilled a handful of fluorescent lollipops into a jar which she placed to the left of the countertop. Next to it, she placed another neon cardboard sign, this one bright green with “LOLY’S ONLY FOR 50p” written carelessly in red marker. She ignored a crate of shiny green apples in the back corridor. There was no point putting out fresh fruit, it would only go bad. These young mothers seemed to know little about proper nutrition.
When she’d made sure the latest Avon brochure was in clear view, she sat in her comfy chair, put her feet up on the stool and selected an out-of-date calendar with pictures of Punjab, flicking the leaves to January so she could start at the beginning and reminisce on her childhood home, even though it was all so different now.
Stevie Wonder crooned Overjoyed through the crackly speakers while Mrs Mistry turned the pages. As she reached the month of June, the song ended and Stevie sang about a time known as Always. The bell pinged and Anthony Stone strolled in, his footsteps slapping against the lino flooring.
Mrs Mistry eyed the oddly familiar, handsome stranger, his face damp from the drizzle. Dressed in a suit and tie he moved with a slight stoop as if trying to reduce his tall frame. His long legs allowed him to cover the distance from the front door to her in half as many steps as everybody else. He laid his grey plastic clothes protector across the counter and looked around for the desk bell, unconsciously sniffing the chemical-like yet fruity aroma of laundry detergent.
‘I throw it away.’ Mrs Mistry regarded him from her seat. ‘People ring and ring and ring. So in the bin I toss it, now they wait.’
Anthony peered straight ahead searching for the voice, eventually looking down and seeing her.
‘We’re not all tall with long legs, like you.’ Mrs Mistry fidgeted to ease her back pain.
‘Hi, can you do me a Service wash?’ He held up the clothes protector. ‘It’s my daughter’s birthday party tomorrow, this is my best suit.’ He unzipped the bag and pointed to sections of the jacket. ‘Got whisky stains on it, don’t ask!’ He snorted. ‘Can you have it ready?’
‘Suits only dry clean, take three days.’ Mrs Mistry rose to finger the lapel, appraising the silk/wool mix. ‘Not Service wash.’
‘Oh.’ Anthony Stone stood perfectly still. He’d brought along his favourite suit wanting it to be stain-free overnight, but he was clearly in the wrong place for a miracle.
‘I’m supposed to take my new girlfriend Tanisha to the party. My children have been asking about her.’ He paused and hummed along with Stevie Wonder. ‘I don’t think she’ll come.’
‘She changes her mind?’ Mrs Mistry shuffled a pack of laminated playing cards taken from the wide melamine shelf near her chair.
‘S’pose that’s one way of looking at it.’ Anthony watched the cards rotating in Mrs Mistry’s small hands. ‘I was going to introduce her to my kids, even to my ex-wife. Shows commitment. Most women would be happy with that wouldn’t they?’
Mrs Mistry did not comment. Anthony fiddled with the buttons on his suit and shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
‘Think she’s found someone else. Probably shouldn’t be surprised, she’s a lot younger than me.’
‘Which card?’ She fanned out the pack in front of him.
‘I don’t play.’
‘You humour an old lady. Choose.’
Anthony’s fingers hovered. Mrs Mistry watched the rain teaming down the windowpanes, hoping it wouldn’t rust the old iron frames.
‘This one.’ He pulled out a card and examined it. ‘Five of hearts. So, have I won the lottery?’ He grinned.
Mrs Mistry took the card and put it back in the pack, shuffled and spread them out again.
‘Here.’ Anthony made a swift selection and handed it to her without looking at it.
She checked it before holding it up to him with a quick lift of her eyebrows. It was the same card as before, the five of hearts.
Anthony laughed at the coincidence. ‘Let’s go once more. Best of three.’
Mrs Mistry shuffled, placed the cards face down along the counter and tapped them.
‘Erm,’ Anthony sucked his top lip.
‘Don’t try so hard,’ Mrs Mistry cautioned, ‘is not life or death.’
‘All right,’ Anthony closed his eyes and let his finger land on a card.
She selected it for him. ‘Ah.’
Anthony took the card staring in disbelief at the picture of a man and woman intertwined. The label beneath the picture read; ‘The Lovers.’
‘Hang on, I thought these were ordinary playing cards!’
‘You think too much.’ Mrs Mistry took ‘The Lovers’ from Anthony’s grasp and put it back into the middle of the pack.
‘What does it mean?’ He asked.
‘Forget about the girl. Too many secrets. I can tell in my mind.’ The little woman bustled about with her back to him.
‘You get all that from a card?’ He scoffed. He took a lollipop from the jar, discarded the wrapper and put it in his mouth.
‘£1.00 for lolly.’ Mrs Mistry’s head whipped around when she heard the crinkling of the wrapper.
‘50p!’ He pointed to the sign.
‘Cheaper than therapy.’
Anthony felt in his pocket for a pound coin. ‘You got any kids?’
‘Two sons, both married,’ Mrs Mistry tidied cupboards behind the counter filled with laundrette paraphernalia; blue rinse for whiter whites and peach-scented softeners which no one bought because the supermarket sold them cheaper.
‘My daughter’s married, three kids. Still can’t believe I’m a grandad.’
The door creaked open gaining their attention.
‘Michael!’ Anthony approached his son-in-law and slapped him genially on the back. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘All right, Ant.’ Michael’s response was curt.
‘£8.25.’ Mrs Mistry hefted a black bag of clean laundry over the counter.
‘Last week it was only seven quid!’ Michael protested.
‘Good rate for Sophie, she regular customer.’
‘I’m her husband, it’s the same washing!’
‘I see you two times only this year,’ Mrs Mistry countered.
Michael shook his head and took a £10.00 note from his wallet which Mrs Mistry deposited in the till, returning his change.
‘Sooo, Sophie ready for her big day?’ Anthony asked Michael, grinning at the thought of the upcoming celebration.
‘You washing that?’ Michael ignored his question, instead eyeing the suit still in its protective covering.
‘Yeah, whisky stain streaked down the front. I’ll take it to a dry cleaner in a minute if I can find one that’ll get it done in time. Hey, we’ve been playing this great card game.’ He gestured to Mrs Mistry who shrugged before retreating to the stockroom.
‘Don’t know what’s up with her.’ Anthony was embarrassed. ‘She was fine a minute ago.’
‘Must be something about you lot. Sophie thinks the old lady doesn’t like her either.’
‘She liked me fine till you came in.’
Michael was silent. He rubbed the back of his neck and soothed his eyes with his fist, his car keys clinking. ‘You spoken to Sophie yet today?’ He checked.
‘No, been rushing around. I’ll probably check in on her later. Why? Should I have?’
Realisation swept over Michael. Anthony had come in to get his good suit dry-cleaned for his daughter’s birthday party and that was all he had on his mind. He had no idea his daughter and his girlfriend were lovers, or nearly lovers if you believed Sophie’s side of the story.
‘What about you and… your… woman?’ Michael couldn’t bring himself to utter her name.
‘Yeah. Her. The busybody who’s all up in everyone else’s business.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You still seeing her?’
‘Of course! Might even bring her to Sophie’s party. I got a plus one in my invite, didn’t I? And she’s a very special plus-one if you know what I mean!’ Anthony playfully punched Michael’s arm.
Michael scratched his forehead. Squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. Even if they stood there for a week, he’d never find the words to tell Anthony what he needed to know.
‘Don’t tell me Sophie’s not in a party mood. She can’t back out now, it’s her night!’ Anthony said.
‘Yeah, she knows that.’ Michael gazed at a misspelt notification behind Anthony’s shoulder, absolving the laundrette of all liability in the case of any ruined garments.
Anthony looked at Michael and then out of the window at the dismal rain. He sensed Michael’s reluctance to be around him but he didn’t know why. Seemed to be happening a lot lately, first Tanisha, now Michael and even Mrs Mistry had suddenly gone frosty.
‘Why the games, Mike? It’s not like you not to speak your mind.’ Anthony felt as if he’d been caught up in a weird round of Chinese Whispers where everybody but him knew the real story. ‘You’re running down Tanisha who, by the way, you haven’t actually met yet and Sophie might not even go to her own party?’
‘Don’t mention that woman’s name to me. She’s the last person I wanna be thinking about right now. Which hole did you pull her out of, anyway, Anthony?’
‘What the hell are you on about? What would you know about Tanisha? You heard something? Never known you to gossip.’
‘You bring her to Sophie’s party and you’ll probably never see us again. All she does is mess things up!’ Michael grabbed his laundry and headed for the exit, Anthony following him, straining to grab his arm.
‘Did Tanisha try it on with you or something?’
‘You ain’t got a clue, blood.’ Michael snarled, slamming the door behind him.
Tanisha was in her garden. Canvas overalls, leather work gloves, thick boots and a large baseball hat protected her from the continuous rain. It was almost dark but the light from her kitchen windows flooded the outside space as she sculpted till her fingers ached. Intermittently she changed position to ease her stiff limbs. She was sweating and covered in fine dust particles, hungry, but too upset to eat.
Anthony’s number flashed up on her phone. She switched it off and kicked it across the grass. Her tapping against the stone grew more fervent as she craved the feel of Sophie in her arms, her silky soft skin pressed against her own, longing for the completion of what should have been. It was so hard to believe that because of a simple omission, the other woman now hated her.
Sophie switched on the amber night light in her children’s bedroom and closed the door behind her heading downstairs to where Mike watched American football on their super-sized, wall-mounted plasma TV.
‘It’s a bit loud. I’ve just got the boys off. Could you turn it down?’ She nudged his feet urging him to make space for her on their cosy sofa but he didn’t move.
‘Suit yourself.’ Sophie went into the kitchen. ‘Making a drink, d’ya want one?’ There was no response. She popped her head back around the door. Michael was fixed on the screen, waiting for the next touchdown.
‘Guess it’s just me then.’ She put two slices of bread under the grill and searched the cupboards for sauce to flavour her cheese on toast.
‘Your dad’s still planning on bringing your girlfriend, you’ll be glad to hear.’
‘Oh!’ Sophie jumped, she hadn’t heard him come into the kitchen. ‘Michael, for the tenth time, I made a mistake. Can’t we talk it through? Let me explain, properly?’
‘You did explain! In technicolour, remember? You gave me full and intimate details of the reason why you were showering so hard you nearly scrubbed your skin off, never mind the kids having to listen to you screaming and shouting down the phone at that woman.’ Michael snapped the blinds closed and banged plates and cups into their place in the cupboards, Finally he swept Sophie’s toast crumbs from the worktop onto the floor.
‘Yeah, but-’ Sophie shifted, following him around.
‘-you told me everything, even stuff I didn’t need to know just to make yourself feel better.’ The grill pan clattered against the inside of the sink, hot water splashing from the tap onto Michael’s t-shirt as he rinsed the pan clean.
‘I never meant to-’
‘-what? Upset me? Course not, cos as usual, you were only thinking about yourself. If you’d thought about me, you might have kept your big mouth shut. Jesus, Soph! You could have made something up! Do you think I wanted to hear that? What the hell’s wrong with you?’
‘I told you I’m never going to see her again.’ Sophie wiped her tears with the back of her hands. ‘I’ll change laundrette! What do you want from me?’
‘Leave. You can stay for the party, seeing as everyone’s gone to so much trouble, but afterwards I want you out, at least until I decide what to do about us.’
‘I ain’t going nowhere without my kids.’
‘You ain’t got no choice.’
‘Gets dark early now. Short days. Long nights. Soon be Christmas.’ Anthony watched customers tending to their laundry while keeping their little one’s fingers away from dangerous places.
‘£1.50 for the tea.’ Mrs Mistry said.
Anthony cradled the milky beverage Mrs Mistry had made for him, thinking about how Tanisha validated him as an alpha male. He’d felt rejuvenated walking into clubs with her on his arm. He’d boasted about her at the barbers, but not too much and relished the chance to reveal her beauty at Sophie’s party. But deep down, he wasn’t surprised it had come to this. He’d always known their relationship rested on nothing more than ropes of sand.
He should have left by now to find an overnight dry cleaner, but Mrs Mistry had reappeared after Michael’s departure, something in her eyes compelling him to stay. So he’d sipped the sugary drink and flicked through the Avon brochure, every page reminding him of Tanisha’ perfumes, the creams on her dresser, the jewellery around her neck and her intimate underwear of lace and satin.
Mrs Mistry had shared gossip about her customers as if hearing about others’ misfortunes would help Anthony avoid the painful but obvious truth; on the eve of his only daughter’s birthday, he had nowhere to be.
Anthony placed a £2.00 coin on the counter, zipped up his suit carrier and slung it over his arm. The small woman held the pack of cards in front of him once again.
‘Three times shuffle and cut.’
He put his suit down, exhaled and acquiesced, it was easier to let someone else do the thinking. He thumbed through them face up, satisfied it seemed to be an ordinary pack of playing cards. Mrs. Mistry fanned them out and indicated for him to choose, her dour expression causing Anthony to hesitate.
‘Nah, I’ll leave it.’ He said.
‘You shuffle, you cut, now you pick.’ Her tone was non-negotiable.
Anthony handed the card nearest his index finger to Mrs Mistry who placed it face up on top of the deck. It was a picture of the Hanged Man.
‘What’s that all about then?’ He looked at Mrs Mistry.
‘You take a break and spend time for yourself.’ She tidied away the cards. ‘Let new things come through for you.’
Anthony nodded. ‘I might just do that.’ He slung his suit over his shoulder and walked out into the rain.