Our old tumble dryer broke and, after being several months without one, and with rainy Winter comin’ in fast, we decided to go to the big shop and get ourselves a new one. All we wanted was a run-of-the-mill machine. Throw the clothes in, when the washing line is not an option and when clothes are needed, turn the dial, and let it do its thing.
Imagine our consternation (stop… just imagine it) when we found there weren’t any run-of-the-mill drying machines in the big shop. Nary a one. But wait, there in the back, skulking beneath a microwave over, one solitary regular tumble dryer.
A salesman approached. He was wearing a high-vis jacket. I guess it was to avoid being run over by a shopping trolley, I’m not sure. Anyway, I accosted him (which sounds far worse than it is). I buttonholed him. I cornered him. Okay, okay, I asked him a question. “Why are you wearing a high vis jacket?” I asked. No, of course I didn’t. “Where are all the tumble dryers?” I asked him.
He waved loosely (no sleeves in a high vis jacket) at a wall, along which there was an array of large grey super-computers. “There they are,” he said, with the authority of a man who knew.
These machines were a different breed. Hulking and clearly intelligent, they sat awaiting your command, not yet ready to take over the Earth.
“It’s the Global Warming,” the high vis man was busy explaining, “your old-fashioned dryer is out the window now. Too much energy used in ‘em, you see. These new ones will dry your clothes for a fraction of the price in five seconds and will earn their money back within three days of buying one.”
All right, I may be exaggerating the claims made for effect but I’m not all that far off the mark. The clear subtext was that this new installation would instantly change our lives for the better in several different ways.
We ended up buying one of these fancy-ass new dryers. There were several reasons. We needed a dryer and the last old one on the shelf suddenly looked sinister and dangerous, a threat to our very existence as a race. Also we had some vouchers to help allay the frankly outrageous cost of the device.
The delivery men came a few days later, and they were most helpful. They wouldn’t unpack the machine, they wouldn’t lift the old machine down off the washing machine (“I could injure my back with that, sir.”) (I lifted it down myself) and they wouldn’t take away the packaging either. Really helpful guys. I hope they deliver my next thing too; they were that good.
For what it’s worth, the machine is brilliant. We won’t be using it much. We favour the clothesline and running in and out to the yard to get clothes dry between the showers. But, sometimes, you’re just stuck, and you need to dry a sock or three. This machine does it, but it converts the dampness in the sock into water in a little tank that you empty out afterward. No steam, no condensation. I’m not trying to sell you one but (pulls on a high vis) it will change your life, Missus, it really will.
All of which made me think of Mrs. Roberts.
Before we got married, and for quite a while after we got married, we lived together in Mrs. Roberts’ house in Acton. It was your average two-storey terraced house, and we lived in the one-bedroom flat on the first floor and Mrs. Roberts lived in the ground floor flat. She owned the house. She was a getting-on elderly widowed lady who had come from Poland to wed her beloved Mr. Roberts who had passed away, leaving her alone in her house. So, she made the conversion, got a small kitchen in upstairs and advertised the space. Along came us and we moved in. There was no separation between the ground and first floor flats. Mrs. Roberts could have walked up the stairs to us at any time and we could have walked in on her just the same. But we never did. We imagined a separating wall and a door, and we lived accordingly. She was a lovely lady. Stern and quiet mostly but she enjoyed the company in the house, I think, and we had a lovely little corner to commence our married life in.
The reason the dryer reminded me of Mrs. Roberts is that, once, our washing machine broke irreparably in the flat and Mrs. Roberts got us a new one. This was remarkable as being practically the only time that Mrs. Roberts broke the imaginary partition wall and door that lay between our residences. On the day that the washing machine was installed, and as soon as the (wonderful) delivery men were gone, she brought up a small three-legged stool and a washing basket with some of her clothes in and she did the first wash in the machine. She set it running, then sat on the stool in front of the little round window and watched every rotation the drum took until the wash was finally finished. Trish and I still refer to this as ‘doing a Mrs. Roberts’, although we’ve never done it ourselves.
Eventually we bought our own place and we moved on and we lost touch with Mrs. Roberts. I’m sure she had lots of subsequent tenants in, and I hope they all got on as swimmingly together as we did.
One final thing for today and it’s a slightly odd thing. When we moved back here to Ireland in 1997, I almost immediately spotted a youngish lady who worked in McDonalds. She was Polish and rather stern faced and I immediately came to the whimsical conclusion that this was Mrs. Roberts, re-invented and rejuvenated and come to live in our new town with us. No logical reason for this, I just thought it, that’s all.
But it stuck.
I still see this lady around town. It’s now (counts several times on fingers) 26 years later and she’s not so young anymore. She’s still stern faced and quite self-contained and I’ve never said a single word to her in my entire life, except conceivably ‘a Big Mac please’ sometime back in the late nineties. As each year passes, she looks more and more like Mrs. Roberts used to look. I’ve never quite shaken the notion that it’s her, relocated to keep an eye on us.
It's a sort of a Paul Auster thought, I think. The kind of weird thing he might tell us about in one of his novels.
Perhaps, some day soon, I will answer a ring on the front doorbell and, opening it, I will find the new Mrs. Roberts standing there, three-legged stool in hand, come to inspect the cycle of our fancy new dryer machine.