For a job in the City, this one really was shite. If Mr. Nelson wasn’t harping on Tony to do this, that, or the other thing he was sending him out with his dry cleaning—his dry cleaning like it was some fucking stereotypical film; Wall Street or something like that—and other useless errands.
Jess told him to quit. She phoned him from California where she was playing some, coaching some, and trying to fight the urge to go for a masters, assuming possibly correctly that doing so would just vindicate her mother’s sense that football was a passing phase. At least Joe was still in the picture. Tony had always liked him. “You’ve been out of university how many years? Four? Time to be your own man, Tony, and,” she lowered her voice out of habit, “possibly to find one, yeah?”
“I can’t quit. It’s a recession. I was lucky to get this job. And as to the other thing…”
He could practically hear Jess smirking over the phone. “You sound like your mum,” said Tony, and hung up on her, trying to banish the sheepish grin slipping onto his face.
Mr. Nelson had views. He liked everything to be just so, and that included his dry cleaning and his employees’ sex lives. One day he came and sat on the edge of Tony’s desk and glanced down at the picture of Jess sitting by his monitor. “That your girlfriend, Tony?”
“No,” said Tony. Even two years ago he would have said yes.
“Best mate,” said Tony.
“Oh,” said Mr. Nelson, as if he understood everything.
The next day he tried to set Tony up with Emily Galston in accounting.
So, Tony supposed, compared to that the occasional trip to the dry cleaner was no big deal, especially when it was an afternoon run and he could call Jess in California and catch her before she headed out in the morning.
The day Jess told Tony to find a man he found two. No, not like that, he said to cut off the innuendos of anyone to whom he happened to be telling this particular story. It went more like this: he was distracted enough by Jess’s phone call that he didn’t notice until he was actually trying to force the door to the cleaners open that the sign on the door read “Closed Until Further Notice.” He stood there on the curb for a few seconds in a panic before he remembered that he had a Blackberry and there were dozens of dry cleaners in the City of London. A quick search yielded a combination launderette/cleaners right around the corner so he set off.
The first surprising thing about the cleaners was that the guy behind the counter was, well, a guy. And white. And probably about fifty years old.
“Hello,” said Tony. “I need these suits cleaned.” He hefted them onto the counter.
The man shuffled through them. “Not yours by the looks of things.”
“No,” said Tony, a little stung. Mr. Nelson was in his mid-forties and incredibly wiry and compact. Tony was, in his mother’s opinion, perpetually on the cusp of shedding his baby fat. “So it’s how much?”
“Forty pounds fifty,” the man said with half of his mouth.
“It’s cheaper ‘round the corner,” Tony observed, reaching in his pocket nonetheless. It was Mr. Nelson’s money, not his.
“You pay for quality,” the man observed.
“That is true,” said Tony.
“We’ve got nine of these.” He gestured to the room around them with one hand as he took Tony’s money with the other. “This one, one in Wandsworth, two in Lewisham, ones in Battersea, Hackney, Croydon, Ealing, and Merton. All launderettes with cleaners attached. You want a deal you should go to one of the others.”
“So you own the line?”
“Me and me partner, yeah.”
“How did you decide to go into this business?” Tony asked. “Is it very successful?”
The man raised an eyebrow and grinned and Tony saw that he must have been very handsome in his youth. “Thinking of a change in occupation, are we?”
“Something like that,” said Tony. He realized that he had paid and gotten his change and so he should really be heading back to the office, but with Jess in California there really were very few people he could talk to. Emily Galston was nice, and he was fairly sure she knew the score, but she loved her job and wouldn’t understand. “I haven’t been getting a lot of satisfaction out of it recently and my arse of a boss… What did you do before you did this?”
“Oh, this and that.” The man picked up the suits and moved them over to a rack behind the counter. “These should be ready for you tomorrow, so tell your boyfriend not to worry.”
“My what?” Tony blurted, turning beet-red. “Those suits belong to my boss.”
The man seemed completely unembarrassed. “The arse. I see.” He stood expectantly and when Tony didn’t say anything else, or make any signs of going, he repeated, “They’ll be ready tomorrow.”
Tony’s phone rang, and he stepped away from the register to answer it.
“So I was talking to myself for five minutes. And then waiting for you to come to your senses and ring back. How could you hang up on me?! I know who your favorite Spice Girl is!”
“Jess,” said Tony, “this isn’t the time.”
“I just wanted to say,” she said, “that there should be something headed your way in the mail.”
“And what is that?” Tony was vaguely aware that another man, this one Asian, had entered the shop, but he was empty-handed and instead of approaching the counter to retrieve his clothing, he passed through the swinging gate and joined the other guy there. He planted a kiss on the side of his head. Partner, he’d said. Tony almost dropped the phone.
“Well I expected congratulations at least,” Jess was saying into the phone.
“What? Sorry.” Tony turned his back to watch out the window, blushing a bit and feeling like an idiot. “What did you say?”
“I said I’m getting married, slowcoach.”
“Joe and I are engaged. Are you deaf?”
“That’s wonderful, Jess! That’s… What will your mother say?”
“I’ve already told her. And Dad. They think it’s brilliant. Well, they do now.”
“WHAT IS WRONG WITH HER?” the second man was exclaiming. “I’ve told her time and again to come into work on time. I can’t have you behind the counter all the time. It doesn’t look right.”
“I don’t mind.”
Tony cupped a hand around the mouthpiece. “Jess, I’m going to have to call you back tomorrow.”
“Sounds like you’re on the Tube,” she admitted.
“No, the cleaners. I’m really happy for you.”
Jess hung up, but Tony stood there, phone to his ear, murmuring the occasional “mmm-hmm” and shamelessly eavesdropping.
“The men in Manchester rang back. They want me to come on Tuesday and look at the place.”
“I want you to come. Another pair of eyes.”
There was a silence, punctuated by a brief rustling and it was killing Tony not to turn around but he uttered another “mmm-hmm,” and was instantly rewarded.
“Maybe later we can…”
“Be nice. ’S been a while.”
“Okay, bye!” Tony said brightly, hung up the phone, and approached the counter. He extended his hand. “I’m Tony.”
“Johnny,” said the first man, nodding his head as Tony but making no move to take his hand, and “Mr. Ali,” said the second man and then, “Omar,” he amended, noticing Johnny’s smirk.
“Do you mind if I—” This is insane, Tony told himself. Just take your receipt and bugger off before you get laughed at and fired, in that order. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”
Johnny just sat there, arms crossed, but Omar said, smiling slightly, “Go ahead.”
“I’ve just got…” Tony trailed off, unsure of where to start.
“Tony here’s got an arse of a boss,” said Johnny. “And he’s very interested in us here.” He grinned in a manner that could only be described as cheeky. “The launderette, I mean. And the cleaners.”
“Yes,” said Tony.
“And the suits he just brought belong to the boss,” Johnny continued. “Who he’s not fucking, which makes one of us.” Omar let out a rap of laughter. Johnny turned in his direction and raised an eyebrow. “And there’s you updated.”
Tony knew he must be bright red. “Yes,” he repeated.
“All right,” said Omar, “and your question is?”
Tony considered his options. Picking just one, even if it was just one to start with, was proving difficult. How long had they been working together? How did they meet? Did launderettes make money? Did they plan on taking it national, with the Manchester thing he had overheard? Did they… “Did you make it official?” Tony heard himself asking.
“Make what official?” asked Omar. Johnny just grinned at the countertop.
“You mean this?” Johnny asked, indicating a certificate hanging on the wall beside the counter, certifying that they had passed their fire code, health, and safety inspections and which had both of their names on it. “Or this?” he grabbed Omar around the waist.
“Well, I mean. My friend Jess—she’s a girl—she’s getting married. To a bloke. A really nice bloke actually, but it made me wonder, you know, if that would ever be… I mean, I never thought I would but I never thought she would either, not really. Her sister, she’s popping out babies like nobody’s business.” Oh for fuck’s sake stop babbling. But no: “And I just wondered whether you’d ever thought about it. Or whether you already have. How long have you been together? Do your families know? And you’re, I mean, you’re from different, erm, backgrounds, so. You’ve had to deal with the things Jess and her fella’ve had to—he’s Irish and she’s Indian too—but you’re two guys and you don’t seem Irish and you’re probably Muslim? Or if it’s none of my business please say so and stop me talking but I thought I would ask.”
Johnny started laughing quietly. “Jesus Christ,” said Omar.
“I’m sorry,” said Tony. “I’ll just go and—”
“It’s just that it’s all anyone wants to know about,” Omar said. “I’m about to open my tenth launderette/cleaners. Someone once told me that cleaners were a thing of the past and I proved him wrong. ‘I’ve got a real challenge lined up for him.’ That’s what my uncle said when he gave me the first one. I’m a businessman. I opened my first launderette in 1985. I opened my second and third in 1991, when everyone else was foreclosing. Now it’s 2010 and I’m about to open another one in the middle of another recession. Fewer jobs, less dry-cleaning, and most people have their own washing machines now, but here we are. I am a businessman, and you want to know about my marriage?”
There was a grand pause before Tony said, “So you do have one then?”
Omar threw up his hands and Johnny burst out laughing. “Omar’s cousin in Canada,” he said. “Had us to stay, threw a little party. We trotted down town hall and got it done up. Then back here we did it again, but less official.”
“And more comfortably,” Omar muttered. “Tania’s fold-out ruined my back.”
“Anything else?” Johnny asked.
“Yes,” said Tony, “but I have to go back to the office.”
“Here’s my card,” said Omar, pulling one out of his breast pocket and handing it to Tony, “if you really are considering a change.”
“Thanks,” said Tony. “And sorry.”
“Congratulations to your mate,” said Johnny. “The suits’re ready tomorrow.”
Out of the shop, Tony walked briskly back in the direction of the office. When his phone rang in his pocket he pulled it out on the first ring.
“Where the hell are you?” Mr. Nelson demanded on the other end. “We’ve got that finance meeting.”
“Dropping off your cleaning,” said Tony, weaving between the people on the sidewalk. “I’m on my way back now.”
“Listen,” said Mr. Nelson, “don’t think I won’t sack you because I’m afraid of a discrimination lawsuit, ‘cause I will.”
“No need,” said Tony. “People should make up their minds. I quit.” And he walked all the way back to the office to hand in his notice with a bounce in his step.