Your Laundry

by Edwina Attlee

Produced by Angela Shackel

This piece is a part of a series called “Walking Tours of Your Home.” The physical component of this section is an accordion pamphlet advertising a series of tours (read the image description of the pamphlet here).

Press play to listen to the audio as you read along.

[A stream running through a forest, beeps from a machine, birds chirping. It sounds cold and foggy.]

[Narrator, accompanied by ethereal music swelling] In a test laboratory in northern Ontario, near the banks of the river Echo, researchers are placing miniature items of clothes into a miniature washing machine. The reason for this shrunken experiment is to test the efficacy of mold in removing various household stains. Enzymes are nature’s technology, they say at the lab.

[A sticky washing machine door is popped open.] To begin this experiment—the one I’m involving you in—we’ll need a long shot from a high angle that shows where you are. By the banks of the river Echo, the catkins are turning kind of pink, while the river birches’ pointy leaves are already an outstanding yellow. What color are the leaves where you are? Are there berries on the branches? Under a sharp dusting of snow? [Far-off animal noises sound under the rhythmic, ethereal drone, and then fade into silence.]

Our experiment is you doing your laundry. You’ll be wondering if you have everything you need. Don’t worry. You can always go back for what you’ve forgotten. Let’s start with the dirty linen in front of you. Grab your bin. What else? Change. Detergent. Softener.

We’re going to do our washing together.

[Animal noises fade in and out again.] Like in the olden days—everyone washing together. What is the opposite of forgetting? You might have done that too. Let this be the moment where you remove the dark sock from the light wash, the woolen item, the fragile thing that doesn’t need to be here, the non-shatter-proof button [plastic button falls to the linoleum tiles and bounces]. I want you, with your washing, standing at the machine, waiting for my instruction. It won’t work unless we all do it together. Staining is the other side of forgetting [ethereal music fades softly in and out]. From your specific viewpoint the stain cannot be unremembered. Even from far away, I can see that. Let’s begin.

The instructions are as follows: Open the door and check the interior [washing machine clangs open]. Bend down and put your head inside if you have to [the narrator sounds as if his head is inside the drum of the washing machine, his voice echoing]. Take a good look. The panel should be smooth, the bevels clear of debris. What would you give it out of ten? How tight a ship are you running? Anything above an eight and I’m impressed. My compliments to the maintenance department. Now you need to load the machine. Everything in. [An armful of clothes are thrown into the drum with a thump.] Don’t overload though. Nothing good will come of it. Close the door [door clicks back into its rubberized frame]. Wait! Have you checked the pockets? And the inner cuffs of the shirt collars. You don’t want a machine full of collar stays. Trust me. Okay. Good to go. Choose your program. Add your soap. Add your coins if the machine needs them. There’s a knack to this part. Insert, depress the mechanism, and release. [Machine starts draining water into drum.] There we go. We’re on.

[A woman’s voice sounds as if it’s coming through a telephone or television, speaking with authority. Her voice is accompanied by a soft, almost gloomy score.] The dynamic character of laundry depends upon the active tension that exists between bodies, clothes, and the world. Nowadays we think of the world and people making clothes dirty while chemicals and machines get them clean. But in the past, when people made their own soaps and mixtures, the dynamism, which was a kind of wildness, reached out towards the world for both the dirtying and the cleaning of clothes. Perhaps that world was more readily named, seized, and used than ours is. Perhaps it was both wild and tame. Fabrics, stains, and their remedies could all be identified. Could you name the ingredients in your soap powder now?

[Narrator answers as though in a trance] Sodium citrate, limonene, geraniol, marjoram, ambergris, lavender...

[Woman’s voice returns] To unstain the glove of the past you had to know if it was made of washleather, buckskin, or kid. You had to know about the stain, and this knowledge was spread throughout the households of the country. What this means for you is you’re not alone. [Machine quietly tumbles.] To remove ink spots from linen, [machine drains water into drum] soak the spots in cold milk or tomato juice as soon as possible, or melt some clear tallow and dip the spotted portion in. If the ink spots are old ones, sponge them and then dip in half a pail of rainwater.

[Narrator] I hope you are still here. Standing or sitting comfortably, looking around the room. As we wait for the wash, let’s practice our folding. This is best done standing. Can you mime a fold? Let me see. Let’s say you’ve got a shirt. Mime shaking it out. You should be holding it by its shoulders. Fold it in two. One more fold. Are your hands meeting now? Fold it again. In other rooms other people are folding and not miming. You’re all doing a little dance with your hands. Folding to carry. Folding to put away. Think of all those hands.

[Eerie ethereal music rises again and woman speaks] The tenderness of the inanimate is at its most touching and disturbing when, after an air-raid, the contents of a bedroom are thrown about: clothes, pillows, houseplants, as after sex. You have disturbed things in your life. It’s true. The end of the affair is marked by a yearning for the things of the person as much as for them [twang on the guitar rings out as if struck by a little ball mallet]. Their laugh, their arms, their clothes. What do you do with the things your ex loved so much? [Music becomes deeper, lower, more unsettling] Years later you keep a mute tally. And in some spectral filing cabinet, lodged the losses of their football team, or the sudden presence of their favorite obscure song on the radio all at once.

And one day you snag yourself on an old top forgotten in a never-used bag. [The high notes of the music sound almost like pangs of nostalgia, maybe despair.] What is alive teaches with its death. The strange insight that a sleeve could love a sleeve is an expression of the kind of magical thinking that informs so much of life, and almost all of love. [Music fades.]

[Male narrator] You can stop folding now. [Water running.] In Ontario, by the river Echo, the child-sized clothes are sloshing about in the water. [Dial is turned on washing machine, buttons are pressed.] They’ve been pre-treated with enzymes from a mushroom that grows in nearby woods. But how did the lab technician stain the clothes? Are there lab children? Are they set down in front of bowls of soup and left to their own devices? When does the stain become extreme or beyond the capability or reliability for laboratory conditions? [The sound of water in the machine grows louder, merging with the sound of a river flowing, animals howling.] How far does the simulation stretch? [Machine comes to the start of a spin cycle, picking up speed, moving so fast it becomes almost anti-gravity.]

Hiroko Hirakawa is rolling her eyes, folding some of the dry simulation clothes and joking with her lab mate. [Water runs from a faucet.] “Give me one good reason to get married. Just one.” Matilde Gonzales laughs and shakes her head, holds up a tiny blouse to the light. “There’s a stain here.” They both examine the shape. [Faucet running water is turned off.] It’s a little like a cartoon amoeba, or a prehistoric cow, or perhaps the dent made in a stone wall by a large piece of shrapnel. [Underwater rumbling, as though heard through the glass of an aquarium.] It’s strangely soft.

[In an echoing lull] Sod-i-um ci-trate, Li-mo-nene, li-na-lool, Sod-i-um ci-trate, Li-mo-lene, li-na-lool.

Please say it with me. [Echoing, whispering hypnotically] Sodium citrate. Limolene. Linalool. Geraniol. Sodium citrate. Limolene. Linalool. Geraniol.

Are you mouthing along? Mouthing and miming. Remembering and not forgetting.

[Echoey whispers continue] Sodium citrate. Limolene. Linalool. Geraniol.

[Machine sounds return.]

You are not in a simulation. You are in a long line of laundry. Wild things and tame things. Remedies and irritations. The mud on the coat after the walk. [Water stops and it is quiet.]

There is a laundromat in Hanoi, where they shrink wrap the washed and tumble-dried clothes. Your bundle of washing is delivered back to you, tightly swaddled in cellophane. When you undo the flat skin of plastic, the packed layers of washing are still warm and dense with heat. They wash the clothes in enormous batches, which is not environmentally sustainable, but it does mean they have to label every garment with a loop of differently colored thread. Your washing might all be labeled with a tiny measure of forest green. And someone else’s will be sky blue. It’s one of the laundry workers jobs to sort through the clothes and identify them by thread, making sure that each individual wash is packed up and returned as a single load. If you had an ex-partner in the city, and you both used the same laundry your clothes might meet up again in the wash. Violets in April. Woodbine in June. Camomile chopped together in May.

[Ethereal music begins again, the stream is closer. The woman returns.]

There is something vicious about the warmth of laundry from the dryer. Material to be hugged and breathed in and clung to. The way it exposes the terrible weightlessness of not being touched and needing to be held down. You might lean up against one of the machines now. See if you can glean some heat.

[Male narrator, accompanied by music] Is there time for a close up? Return to the room that you find yourself in now. You’ve looked in the pockets and inside the drum. [Music stops, replaced by sounds of the machine.] You’ve tested the acoustics. But we haven’t run the simulation yet. I asked you to select your program before setting your wash. That’s where the experiment starts to stutter. [Metallic stutter increases in speed and then abruptly stops.] Zooming back onto you. Hi again. How are you? How’s the weather where you are? Will the clothes go outside later? Is there a stray piece of laundry to hand? If you can, bring an item of washing close to your eye. Close your eyes. What do you smell? Is there a pear tart baking somewhere nearby? Is that the sound of a grenadine? [Washing machine clunking along wetly.] A personal question. When you were small, did your mother teach you how to hang the laundry out on the line so that it wouldn’t get fully creased? Trousers from their belts, or ankles. Dresses from their upside down. Underwear ready for someone to fall into.

[Music begins again, then the woman] The French method is to wear the gloves and wash them in turpentine, rubbing exactly as if washing your hands. Then to dry in the air to get rid of the smell. The fourth method listed in the manual requires Eau de Javel: ammonia, powdered soap and water. Make a soft paste.

[Male narrator] Try that the next time you are washing your hands. Try pretending you are wearing a pair of gloves and trying to get them clean. Mix things up a little!

On days where there isn’t sun, all those hands will be hooking endless socks onto the racks on backs of doors, lipping pants and tee shirts over the tops of radiators, making a damp steam. The smell of clean wet. The smell of clean dry. Do you need your clothes dried in a hurry? Are you making the calculations now? Take a breath [narrator inhales deeply through his nose, then exhales through his mouth.] The program is where the eradication of wild and tame knowledge is contained. The dial you turned, lopping off years of recipes.

[Woman returns] Recipe to learn the secrets of a sleeping woman.

Recipe to carry fire with bare hands.

Recipe to grow parsley in two hours.

[Male narrator] Undone by Rex, Ip-so, E-lec-tro-lux.

[The stream is closer and louder now. The rumbling of thunders, birds chirping sweetly. Then the tender ethereal music begins again.] In the lab by the river, they are making new tame, wild recipes, matching stains with remedies from the woods. The catkins are turning a kind of pink, and the leaves are still bright yellow. The water is rushing outside. You’ve been very helpful. I’m sure your clothes will be ready soon. [Dryer tumbles, then stops. The stream becomes the washing machine. Birds chirp. Frogs ribbit on their pads. The music swallows up their sounds and slowly fades out.]

Edwina Attlee is the author of two pamphlets of poetry, Roasting Babyand The Cream. She teaches history and theory to architects and is the author of the nonfiction work Strayed Homes: Cultural Histories of the Domestic in Public.

Angela Shackel is an artist and audio producer whose work has been shown across Canada and the UK. She enjoys producing audio walks and adapting text to audio. In 2013 she founded Accounts & Records, an audio production company. Her audio work has been featured on The Organist (KCRW), The Imposter (Canadaland), and NTS Radio, among other places.