Flash Fiction – The Laundromat Cafe
The café looked perfectly normal from the cold, blustery high street, but once she was inside Katie realised that it was anything but. For a start, The Laundromat Café didn’t include a single working Laundromat. Instead, a series of old pastel-coloured machines were stacked on top of each other in one corner, with a handwritten sign bearing the words ‘Display only – hands off!’ hanging on the front.
The rest of the walls were covered in old laundry advert memorabilia, vintage tea towels and stacks of soap cartons. A string of clotheslines criss-crossed above the counter, with messages pegged to them – some menu-related, other seemingly random scribbles. There was too much to take in straight away, and Katie kept scanning different areas whilst she sat in the corner and warmed her hands over the saucer-like cup of tea.
It was easy to notice fellow new customers, because they had the same wind-swept puzzled expressions when they walked in. Katie was tempted to move her bag off the chair to see if anyone would sit down, but the thought of someone talking to her like she was another normal person was far scarier than the snub of someone not wanting to sit near her. So she watched, an unremarkable mousy-haired dot against the café’s chaotic backdrop.
A few of the new customers wandered over to the machines and tried to press the buttons every now and then, only for the pregnant woman behind the counter to squawk and brandish a cup, spoon, or whatever she happened to have in her hand at them in warning.
And then the woman appeared at Katie’s table, coffee-stained apron stretched over her stomach, and what looked like pegs embedded in her wild, curly hair. She pushed Katie’s bag on the floor and settled herself on the chair opposite.
“You’re new,” she said, not as a question but as a statement. “And you need more tea.”
Katie looked around her to check that she hadn’t misunderstood and then felt the signs of a blotchy blush redden her cheeks when the woman began to laugh.
“I’m talking to you, love. Don’t be scared, I’m the tame one. He –” and she pointed at the man behind the counter, “ – is the one you want to watch out for. He’ll talk your ear off if you let him.”
She called at him to bring them more tea, but her voice was so loud that the din of chatter fell silent for a moment as the customers stopped to stare at them. Katie could feel the eyes on her and wanted to slide down further on her chair.
The man behind the counter soon arrived with a pot of tea and slices of lemon cake that were almost as big as the plates they rested on. For a moment Katie worried he was also going to make himself at home and sit down with them, perhaps that’s just what they did in this town? But he had scurried off back to the end of the café before she could mumble her thanks.
Even from a brief look at him, she could see that he was as timid as the woman was wild. Whilst her face was round and expressive, with a piercing stare and wide, full lips; he was softer and more delicate, with heavily lashed eyes and hair that only slightly curled at the edges. They made an unlikely pair.
“That’s Tom,” said the woman. “What did I tell you about being a chatterbox? Never thought he’d shut up. And I’m Priya.” She poured Katie a cup of tea and tore off a corner of the cake. “The quiet one.”
When yet another opportunity for Katie to introduce herself had slipped by, Priya said, not unkindly: “You can talk can’t you? I swear I remember you ordering a tea before.”
“Yes,” Katie said, and then opened her mouth to say something else that didn’t come. It was too much. What made her think she could do this? After weeks of hiding in the flat, convinced she would bump into him, into them, she decides to go to a café of all places. Somewhere filled with other people to look and judge. Somewhere owned by the loudest, nosiest person in town.
She could see the man behind the counter glancing over at them nervously, like he was embarrassed for her. Perhaps he knew? Perhaps they both did and that was the only reason Priya sat down in the first place.
“Oh good,” said Priya, and then seeing how panicked Katie looked, she added: “Listen, I can leave you in peace. You’ll get to realise I’m always intruding on my customers, perk of the job y’see, but I have to check first. Are you okay? You just seem a bit –” Priya pulled a face, “– a bit lost?”
Instead of saying something, like a normal person would, instead of excusing herself and just getting out of there before it happened, quiet, dull-as-dishwater Katie broke into ugly, loud, grating sobs, right in the middle of the Laundromat Café.
Conversations halted mid-word and chairs scraped against the floor as couples turned around to get a good look at the dumpy woman in fits of tears. But instead of trying to quieten her down like a normal person, or thinking that she was off her rocker, Priya simply placed her hand on Katie’s and gave it a squeeze.
“That’s it love,” she said, leaning towards her. “You let it out.” And then she turned to Tom and bellowed, far louder than Katie’s crying: “The lemon cake’s no good! This woman needs chocolate!”