(I wrote this as an exercise in response to a challenge by Dan Curtis Johnson, writer of the excellent Chase and Batman: Snow, on his blog – to write a story about one of the pictures here, a collection of 60 completely unusable stock photos. I went for a fairly soft option in the end, this one, and, well, I guess I’m reasonably pleased with the results. This afternoon, at least. Expect this to get pulled down at some point this week in a shrieking fit of hysterical self-doubt.)
Nobody tells you you still have to do your washing after you’re dead.
Once, sometimes twice a week you rise up from your grave, leave your regular haunts and shamble down to the nearest launderette to wash the mould and dirt out of whatever shroud or Sunday best you were buried in. All at night, of course, after the living have finally finished for the day.
It’s not really fair, if you ask me, to have to go on maintaining a wardrobe long after your actual mortal remains have rotted away to almost nothing, but there you go. It could be worse. At least I died in a town. In rural areas they have to wash by hand in rivers and streams, wailing all night at the indignity of it.
I don’t really remember how I died, or who I was before. I know I was probably murdered – strangled (I can see the bruising around my neck when I look at my reflection in shop windows), then weighed down with bricks and tossed into a canal, clearly never found. I generally spend my time floating up and down the same length of towpath. I have this pink balloon with me, so perhaps I was coming back from a party. I look like someone who was in their late teens, early twenties, and this is a university town, so maybe I was a student or something. To be honest, I don’t really care anymore. It’s just one of those things you occasionally find yourself wondering about, but can’t be bothered to investigate properly, like how much the sky weighs, or why you never see a baby pigeon.
My nearest launderette is in a small sidestreet with a newsagent one one side and a shoe repair shop on the other. The rest of the houses are redbrick terraces, all residential. The sign outside says ‘Elmly Mills Launderette’ – I suppose that’s the area. There doesn’t seem to be a church anywhere nearby, which is another small mercy. Anywhere near a cemetery must get pretty crowded.
As I approach, I can see a small crowd of us forming. I always feel underdressed on laundry nights. Most people are buried in suits, or their wedding dresses, whilst I’m in my canal water stained party frock, looking like a drowned rat for all eternity. The older-looking ones don’t say anything, but I can sense their disapproval. It’s obvious how I ended up like this. Perhaps some of them think I was asking for it. I wonder if I used to worry about this sort of thing whilst I was alive, whether this is some sort of residue.
I wait for a while with the others, and after a few more arrive there’s an almost imperceptible click. The door creaks open and we file inside. Buildings were never alive and have trouble differentiating between living and dead occupants, but if enough of us turn up, they generally get the idea eventually.
Inside the launderette’s cramped, and there are only the twelve machines. Some of us will have to wait. I head straight down to the end though, and manage to get the last machine in line. A few stragglers dejectedly settle down near the entrance to wait their turn. Those of us that have machines all start to strip – the dead don’t have anything to change into, and any embarrassment, shame or lust any of us might have felt at doing this when we were alive died at the same time our bodies. Cold, pale and naked, I bundle the frock into the machine, and shut the door, selecting the ‘warm delicate’ cycle. Then I settle down on the narrow bench that runs down the centre of the room, still holding my pink balloon, wishing Hello magazine had a dead people’s edition.
I suddenly notice the boy sat next to me. I say boy, but he can only be a few years younger than me. Skinny, blonde – pale like all of us. I don’t mean Caucasian pale – death bleeds all the colour out of you, leaving a sort of slatey grey. He has bruises around his neck like mine, except his look to have been caused by rope rather than a grown man’s hands. His head doesn’t loll though, so he can’t have gotten it right, much like, I imagine, most other things in his life. I find myself pitying him.
He must sense me looking, because he turns his head slightly in my direction, and looks me in the eyes. I try and smile, warmly, or as warmly as a dead person can. And then he smiles back. It’s been a while since anyone’s done that, and something sparks in me I’d forgotten about. Not love, or passion – all those things are done with. It’s just a reflex, more like nostalgia. It feels good to be reminded life must have had its moments, even if I can’t remember a minute of the detail.
We take each other’s hand, and together we wait for the spin cycle to start.