Tony had been living at home for three months before his mother said anything about it. “It” was his sudden career change, of course, not the fact that he was back under her roof in the room he’d had as a little boy. That part she was thrilled about as it meant, for instance, that, instead of paying an arm and a leg to ring him on his mobile, which was frequently busy (“Either you are wasting the battery on calls to that footballer Jesminder or you are purposefully ignoring me”), she could follow up on any thoughts in a timely manner and corner him over the breakfast table.
“I am coming with you,” Tony’s mother said briskly one morning. “I want to see this launderette empire for myself.”
Tony almost spit out his yoghurt. “Mum!” he protested, as soon as he could think of anything so say. “The thing with empires is they’re all over the place. I can’t very well take you ‘round to all of the colonies, can I?”
“Don’t talk to me about colonies. You don’t know the meaning of the word.”
“Mum, you were seven when—”
She held up a hand and Tony fell silent. “Take me to the office, then. I want to meet this boss of yours.”
“That wouldn’t be…”
“That wouldn’t be what?”
Tony tried a different tack. “You never came in to visit me at my old job.”
She waved him off. “That was not direct. I had to change trains many times, and often there were no seats left. You know how bad that is for my hips.” She brightened. “But this is perfect. Just a handful of stops and there we are.”
“The office is up some stairs,” said Tony weakly.
“I climb stairs every day,” his mother replied, sounding a little offended.
There was no hope for it. “All right,” said Tony. “Let me get my things.”
The problem was this: Tony had a very inquisitive mother and he was, to use a term Jess’s friend Jules had apparently recently picked up in California, a pussy. What this meant in practical terms was that when he moved home three months ago to save money until his wages came through and he could start saving for another flat, his mother had asked what he was doing.
“I’m the office and financial manager for an up-and-coming launderette empire,” he had said with some pride.
“And who does this empire belong to?” was of course her next question.
Tony had two options, as far as he could tell, and each of those options had several sub-options. He could tell the truth. He could tell the truth in its entirety (“Mum, I was inspired by the heartwarming tale of the gay Asian businessman and his ex-punk husband and I’ve gone into the launderette business. Also he’s Muslim”), or he could soften it. Or he could just lie, which seemed easiest. “Chap called Johnny Burfoot,” said Tony.
“I’ve never heard of him,” she said.
“Well he’s not Richard Branson, Mum,” said Tony. This seemed to satisfy her and for some time she said nothing more about it.
Now she wanted to see the office. There was every chance, Tony kept telling himself on what felt like the fastest Tube ride of his life, that neither of them would be at the office above the Tesco Express. They frequently weren’t; Johnny preferred to spend the day at one or another branch, doing odd jobs and keeping an eye on things despite what Omar said about being able to hire people to do both. Omar himself would spend the day brainstorming ways to expand ever further, and taking meetings to facilitate just that. He liked to do his thinking in transit so, like Johnny, he was often in and out of the shops. The only difference between their modi operandi was that Johnny preferred to devote all his attention to one launderette while Omar liked to barge in with a bang, whip his employees into shape, and bang out again, moving on to the next stop with rapidity and purpose. Most of their day-to-day operating expenses went into Omar’s Oyster card.
When they reached the office, Tony’s mother looked up, impressed, as Tony punched the keypad to allow them into the building. She had clearly expected the office to be in the back of a launderette. Tony had too, at first, but Omar explained to him, “Separation of labor. We lose all authority if we’re operating out of the back of some shop like a tradesman.” Johnny, leaning against the wall with Omar’s coat slung over his arm, clearly ready to go, had rolled his eyes at this.
“Look, Mum,” Tony began, “if we meet anyone—”
“I am on my best behavior,” she said, smiling widely but, Tony thought, a little shyly too. “Lead on.”
That’s not what I was afraid of, Tony thought to himself, but he said nothing, just held the door and allowed his mother to pass into the stairway ahead of him.
At first it looked like they were in luck. The office, with its single desk facing a small sitting area—sofa, chair, and coffee table, with tea things in the corner—was locked, and Tony had to unbolt and unlock. His mother waited patiently, reading the signs hanging on the bulletin board of the office next door. “What is a lahdeegaga?” she asked.
“A what?” The lock was being particularly stubborn.
“It looks like a kind of kabab.”
Tony spared a glance for the poster that had his mother so intrigued and almost died of suppressed laughter on the spot. “Mum, that’s Lady Gaga. She’s a pop singer.”
“This is a woman?” She leaned in to look closer, pulling up her glasses on their chain and peering through their lenses inquisitively. “What is she wearing?”
“There,” said Tony with relief, and a little bit breathless—he really must visit the gym more—as the door swung open.
“Well done,” said a voice behind them.
Tony and Tony’s mum turned quickly, she with a small shriek and he with a sinking sensation in his stomach. Sure enough: Johnny was standing there, leaning against the wall opposite, as if he had been waiting patiently for some time.
“You’re too good at that,” said Tony. “Sneaking up on people like that.”
“I’ve had practice,” said Johnny. His eyes flicked to Tony’s mum, standing beside the poster featuring Lady Gaga. “Going to introduce me?”
“Yes, yes,” said Tony hurriedly. “Mum, this is Johnny Burfoot. Johnny, this is—”
“Ah! The emperor!” Tony’s mum exclaimed, elated.
There was an excruciating pause during which Tony backed partially into the office and flicked on the light switch, his mum followed him, beaming at Johnny all the while and Johnny, finally detaching himself from the wall blinked and said, “Come again?”
“You have a flotilla of launderettes,” said Tony’s mum.
“Yes,” said Johnny, on familiar ground now. He reeled off the list. “Wandsworth, the City, Battersea, Hackney, Croydon, Ealing, Merton, and two in Lewisham. And we open in Manchester in a month.” He stopped, glanced at Tony. “S’where I’m headed today actually. Evening train. You got the paperwork?”
“Yes,” said Tony, turning to the desk and beginning to rifle around. “They’re here.”
“Thank you,” said Tony’s mum.
“For what?” asked Johnny.
“Tea, Mum?” Tony called over his shoulder.
She waved him off wordlessly. To Johnny she said, “For hiring my Tony. He is a good boy, and he will make you very proud.”
“I’m sure,” said Johnny.
“How did you start?”
“How did I--?”
“What got you going?” She said it as if Johnny were a steam-powered locomotive, the first in the country.
Tony fought the urge to bury his face in the paperwork. Instead: “Found it!” he said, holding the papers aloft.
Johnny nodded. “Cheers.” To Tony’s mum: “When?”
“When you decided to go into this business.”
Tony could see this conversation going on all day. The best thing to do was just to face up to it and push through. “Look,” said Tony in a lowered voice, stepping to Johnny and meeting Johnny’s eyes, “I’ve told Mum you’re my boss.” He handed him the papers.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed slightly, but the corners of his mouth turned up as well. “Thank you,” he said in a tone for public consumption.
Tony felt like jumping for joy. He should have known Johnny would get a kick out of this.
Tony’s mum went on. “Did you always want to do this?”
“Always,” Johnny said, a too-wide grin on his face. He winked at Tony. Tony blushed. (He had to stop doing that.)
“When did you first know?” asked Tony’s mum.
“I think,” said Johnny, and he paused for an indecently long time during which Tony’s replayed what his mother had said in his head and began to be genuinely concerned that Johnny was about to take the conversation in the ultimate unwanted direction. “I think it was meant to be,” he finished. Then, as if he couldn’t help himself, “I was born this way.”
And of course, of course Omar would pick that particular moment to walk in. Tony hadn’t known him for very long, but Johnny had and there was not one lick of surprise on his face. He was even grinning a little, the fucker. “Omar, look,” he said. “We’ve got a visitor.”
“This is my mum,” Tony said, hoping to avoid the whole last name business.
“Tony’s mum,” Johnny repeated.
“We were just on our way,” said Tony, somewhat ineffectually given that his mother had just settled herself down on the sofa.
“So,” she said, “what is it that you do here, Mr.…?”
“I’ll put the kettle on,” said Johnny.
“I’m sorry?” said Omar. He perched on the edge of Tony’s desk scattering a few papers to the ground as he did so. He didn’t spare them a second glance. Tony bent down to pick them up, hoping against hope that the floor would take advantage of his newfound proximity, open, and swallow him whole. But, no, it didn’t. And, yes, “I’m the owner,” Omar said.
“The owner,” Tony’s mum repeated precisely, as if she had not quite heard.
“Yes,” said Omar, smiling. “Wandsworth, the City, Battersea—”
“I’ve said,” said Johnny from the corner, eyes fixed on the teakettle.
“And what was your name?” she inquired, in a slightly strained voice.
“Oh. Right. Sorry.” Omar extended his hand. “Omar Ali. We’re very lucky to have Tony with us.”
She shook his hand briskly. The casual observer may have thought nothing of it, but to Tony it looked as if she were trying to wring moisture out of a damp washcloth. “Tony,” she said abruptly, “you will help me back to the Tube.”
“Yes, mum,” said Tony miserably, helping her up.
There were nods all around and then they were in the hallway. “Back in a tic,” Tony managed. “See that you are,” Omar called after them, in his I-Am-Joking-But-Not-Really tone. “Omar, give it a rest,” Johnny said quietly from his corner. Then they were back in the stairwell and Tony’s mum was turning to him.
“I do not know,” she began, then stopped, and held her hands to her mouth.
“I do not know,” she began again, “why you felt the need to lie to me. I do not know why you agreed to bring me here if you had planned all along to lie to me.”
“Allow me to finish.” She did not say anything for a long time and Tony thought for a moment that she was so angry as to be without words. Finally: “This is a good job. I do not care at all whom you may be working for, even if I would prefer not to take tea with him. You will do well here and it is a good place and when you leave in the morning it is with a smile on your face. For years you were unhappy. I could see it.” She stopped abruptly. Tony reached out and took her hand. She squeezed his hand and let it drop. “But the lies. That is not how I raised you. Is there anything else you wish to tell me?”
Tony thought. Tony swallowed. “No,” Tony said. “No, mum. There’s nothing.”
“All right,” she said rather stiffly. Then she sighed and smiled and seemed to relax a little. “Very well. I will see you at home.” And she reached up, patted Tony’s cheek, and turned to descend the stairs.
Back in the office, Johnny and Omar were arguing about tea. “Why you smother it in milk…” Johnny trailed off with the air of a man so accustomed to this particular argument that he no longer even had to finish his sentence.
“If I could convince you to try real chai you would understand,” said Omar simply.
“And what,” said Johnny cockily, “d’you reckon your chances are?”
Omar was clearly about to respond, but he saw Tony hovering in the doorway and the smile slid from his face. “Come in,” he said. “Sit down.”
Tony sat down not at his desk or in the chair but on the sofa. “I’m really sorry,” he said, and waited for the blow to fall.
It didn’t. “It’s forgotten,” said Omar. “Now. What are we going to do about that awful woman in Merton?”
As Tony quickly recovered himself and began to reel off facts and figures relating to the Merton branch, he thought he could see a brief flash of communication between Johnny and Omar. It occurred to him that he was being handled. He was being handled and, he found, he didn’t much care. He turned back to the numbers. They, at least, were predictable.