Things don’t always come out in the wash!


Just off lower Briggate in one of the oldest parts of the great city of Leeds, lies a derelict building, once the home of a launderette seen as a godsend by those who could afford it. Women used to boiling, scrubbing, rinsing and mangling at home before stringing their washing across the street or draping it around the kitchen fire on wooden clothes horses couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the shiny new machines. Not only that, but the establishment gave them the opportunity to air their dirty linen in public in more ways than one. They were too busy gossiping at first to pay heed to the threats of old Jabez Grimshaw, who’d been swindled out of his premises and, or so it was said, used his dying breath to swear vengeance.

He had died at five o’clock one winter’s evening and it was always around that time that things went wrong at the launderette. The lights would fail or a high pitched whine would be emitted by a washing machine that had not even been switched on. The door of one of those that was in use would open all by itself, allowing soapy water to cascade all over the stone floor and soak the shoes of the waiting women. The soap in the dispensers would turn a funny colour too and threaten to stain the washing. The new owner put all these things down to teething problems and refused to close early. When customer numbers declined, he cut his rates for that time of day.

So it was that Johnny Costello, the oldest child of a family so poor that a couple of decades earlier might have seen them in the workhouse, arrived one evening after dark with a pram load of dirty sheets. His mother, spotting an opportunity, had offered to do her neighbours’ washing along with her own, but could neither leave the other children by themselves nor bring them all with her. On top of the washing, though, sat little Stevie. Four years old and already missing a finger from an accident with the rusty old mangle the Costellos kept in their cellar, he had pleaded to be allowed to accompany his brother, who promised to keep a close eye on him. All went well during the washing process and while Johnny loaded the damp sheets into the dryer. Stevie sat cross legged in front of it, fascinated by what he could see through the porthole.  Nothing could be heard but the  sound of the revolving drum and Johnny, who’d been up since well before dawn delivering newspapers, nodded off for a few minutes. When he woke up, his little brother had vanished. Just for a second, he thought he caught sight of a despairing face and tiny hands pressed up against the glass circle, but when he screamed for help and the door was wrenched open, there was no sign of the child. In any case, how could Stevie have stopped the machine in order to gain access and then set it going again from inside?

The launderette was shunned from that day and all attempts to run a different kind of business from the premises have failed one by one. Mrs Costello still clings to a sheet with a strange imprint on it, but you’d have to believe in the Turin shroud to see what she does.

Written as a seasonal challenge for York Writers.