“Oh Lord, we have wronged our selves…” The Holy Quran
Foad Amson was in some serious trouble. For a start, his wife, Eve, was on to him and her suspicions were slowly leading her to the truth. Foad had been cheating on her. It was a woman from work who was strangely alluring and remarkably easy to seduce. After one thing led to another, Foad found himself booking a hotel room and engaging in an illicit rendezvous after work. When he returned home that evening, he made some excuse about his colleagues going out to a restaurant, and in the following days, he worked hard to cover his tracks and to convince Danya, the office temp, not to reveal their secret. She obeyed, and his persuasive powers seemed to be working, so he planned to meet her again, at intervals, over the next few months. Danya never invited Foad back to her place, which he respected, particularly as Danya was so gracious as to contribute to the cost of their hotel rooms and food.
But Eve had noticed something subtle that Foad had overlooked on an occasion. The classic stain on the shirt. After consistently washing his shirts for several years, scrubbing away at those stubborn stains, Eve almost instinctively knew the origin of each and every blotch on Foad’s clothes, especially the shirts. The pasta sauce from his clumsy eating habits, the curry stains from their favourite eatery, the leaking ink from biros in his top pockets, the t-shirts drenched in sweat from five-a-side. Through her sincere dedication and love, Eve thought she knew her husband intimately, even the clothes he wore on his body, which was why Foad’s concealment, hitherto, had been masterly and his betrayal so wicked.
So when she noticed that hint of redness on the edge of Foad’s shirt, something he had totally missed, Danya’s make up, Eve was rather perplexed. And when she questioned Foad about it, she was slightly troubled by that split second of hesitation before he gave a blank expression, explaining he could not recollect where it came from. Thereafter, Eve kept a very close eye on Foad’s movements, increasingly asking of his whereabouts and checking if his answers were consistent.
Foad knew she was on to him. Although he still acted like a loving husband and spent some quality time with her, deep down he knew that she had her doubts. But he also knew that, though she suspected him, she didn’t have the courage to ask him face to face or burst her bubble of happiness. For she did love her husband. This knowledge didn’t stop Foad sneaking off here and there for a few hours with Danya.
And though he was careful to cover his tracks and work out alibis, his conscience was beginning to affect him. Deep down, he did also love Eve. He knew she was dedicated to him and was hoping for a family in the future. She was loving and faithful. He also knew he was transgressing the limits of his religion, for Foad came from a god-fearing Muslim family. He had been brought up by a strong mother and a charismatic grandmother who had raised him well. She was the one that named him and taught him the special prayer:
“If you make a mistake, or do a sin,” she told him, with benevolent eyes, when he was a child, “don’t worry, because Allah The Almighty forgives you, as long as you mean it, and say this prayer, Rabbana Zalamnaa Anfusanaa…”
And she taught him the rest of the prayer so well, that it was ingrained in his heart. Funnily enough, he tried hard these days not to remember it. So he knew he wasn’t just betraying Eve, he was also betraying his elders who he respected so much.
But it was the pressure and the monotony of everyday life that was stifling him. Keeping up with the daily living expenditure and mortgage. Working hard, but not getting the promotion he thought he deserved. He didn’t pray much these days, though he did attend the mosque and show his face when needed. The intermittent evenings with Danya felt like a rejuvenation of his spirit, a boost to his confidence. The thrill and excitement seemed to keep him going, and this affair seemed so easy to attain and sustain. But afterwards the guilt was terrible. He knew that his wife had always been faithful and patient. It would kill her to find out, and his family would probably disown him, such was their respect for his wife. Consequently, Foad had to wrap a stifling cloak over his screaming conscience so his wife and he himself could not hear the guilty beatings of his heart.
And now he was in even deeper trouble… Danya was not the pushover he thought she was. They had met in the office cafe one day and Danya had been in a rather distant mood. Soon after, Foad noticed a word-processed letter in his pigeon-hole, which he started reading, then shuddered and rushed off to the toilet cubicles to read.
Danya was blackmailing him. Without his knowledge, she said she had filmed hidden videos of them together, and now she wanted money because she was moving away. Literally, in the next few days. She was giving Foad twenty four hours to transfer money into her account or she would arrange for Foad’s wife to receive the damning materials. His first reaction was disbelief, and that the whole thing was a joke. But he took a long deep sigh, when he noticed things in the letter: a couple of photographs of his lewd encounters with Danya, his full address and his wife’ s email address and mobile phone number and then written in clear capital letters on the back of one photograph: “THIS IS NO JOKE. I WANT THE MONEY ASAP. BEFORE I LEAVE TOWN. IN 24 HOURS”.
Sweat dripped off his forehead, as he sat there in the cubicle, fuming and cursing his stupidity and this woman’s infernal audacity. Anger was erupting. Vengeful feelings were surfacing. But Foad, at heart, wasn’t a violent man. He had never hurt anyone physically before and now was beginning to wonder whether he had slipped into deep, murky waters which the likes of him should have kept away from. Suddenly, he felt himself struggling to tread water.
Danya was nowhere to be seen in the office. After some inquiring of her line-manager, Foad found out she had gone home. In his inbox, he found an email with a video attachment, from an unfamiliar email address, with no heading. He checked no one was around him on the office floor, checked the message and to his horror saw a few seconds of himself and Danya having dinner together in their recent hotel room. Now he understood why she had never invited him to her flat, even though they had met several times in the last six months. Foad had trusted her and judged she was genuine.
He tried to ring her mobile, and found no answer. Soon he received a text message from another number stating: DO NOT RING ME AGAIN. I WILL DISPOSE OF THIS PHONE ONCE I FIND THE MONEY IN MY ACCOUNT. IF YOU ATTEMPT TO CONTACT ME AGAIN I WILL SEND THE STUFF TO YOUR WIFE AND SEND SOME OF MY BOYS TO SORT YOU OUT.
Foad thought of going to the police. Or seeking some advice from some of his old mates who were more streetwise. But he didn’t have the guts or the bravado to take action. He couldn’t live with the embarrassment if his friends found out he had been duped by a young office girl. And by involving the police, his wife and family would certainly find out…
He drove home. Like a deflated tyre, in a dire state of mind. But he put on a brave face as he walked through the door of his flat ready to face Eve.
Suddenly, marching up the hallway of their flat, Eve regarded him with a fierce look, the kind of look she had when she was highly irritated. Foad took a deep breath, anticipating what might come next, when Eve said:
“Foad!!! What did I tell you about our blasted washing machine!”
“Whoa! Let me walk through the door at least!” Inwardly, he praised the Lord.
“Darling,” she whined, “the dryer is still not working, and I’m fed up of spreading damp all around the flat with all these drying clothes. I want you to buy us a new one this weekend..”
More expenses, Foad’s head began to cloud over: “Well, we’ll see..”
“No we’ll see. Just use some of our savings, and please take these two bags to the launderette to dry them for me, please pretty please, and when you come back I’ll have the dinner ready. And here, take these bags and wash a couple of things while you’re there.”
That was a close call for Foad. But his relief was quickly overcome by his dread and realisation that he might have to part with a chunk of his and his wife’s savings and would have to come up with a valid excuse. He shuddered at the thought.
He drove past various busy streets, scanning the area for launderettes. He had never used the local launderettes before and almost half an hour had elapsed when he finally discovered one on the edge of town, in a cluster of shops with parking, at the end of the suburbs. Three Victorian houses contained a newsagent, a furniture shop and finally the launderette, “Billy’s Launderama”.
The drones of passing traffic faded away, as Foad heaved his bags of washing and drying into the laundry. The sign appeared as if it had been designed in the 60s with the Rock and Roll style typography. He stared at the sign and the name ‘Billy Silbi’ written in smaller writing underneath the enlarged telephone number. There was something familiar about the name. He crossed the threshold of the door, and found an empty launderette, with two sides. One with a line of washing machines, the other side, the dryer drums, and in the middle, benches to sit on and vending machines of various types. But it was empty of people, though some washing and drying seemed to going on.
With no sign of Billy or of any other worker, the service door was locked with a sign stating the working hours, Foad proceeded to use the dryers and wash his clothes. For some unknown reason, Foad decided there and then to put his jacket in the washing as well, perhaps because it was feeling a bit sweaty. He knew he could dry it and wear it on the way back. Then he sat back, on the wooden benches in the middle, watching the industrial size machines, spinning and turning and throwing the water around, while he could hear the dryers, with their high-pitched rumbling and turning and shaking. The monotony of the spinning almost had a hypnotic effect on Foad. But strangely enough, as the washing machine slowly went through its cycles, and sprayed more and more water, Foad felt his troubles slowly flowing out of his heart and head.
He looked around. Still no other customers. He began to smile. Before coming into the launderette, his mind itself was churning with the dread of the coming events and the mistake he had made with Danya. He had even made a secret prayer to his God, Allah, to help him. But now, as the machine did its work, he felt the pain and depression leave his heart. It felt great!
Perhaps he was coming to terms with the situation. Perhaps he was going crazy. Nothing seemed to have changed. But there was no shadow of a doubt, that by just sitting there, watching his clothes getting washed, it had an effect of purging his soul.
For an hour, Foad sat there, almost in a trance, alone, enjoying the moment, and finally when the washing and drying were done, he made his way out. He was still rather intrigued by “Billy’s Launderama” and the name, Billy Silbi: where had he heard that name before? Before leaving, he took a glance at the washing machine, a clone, one of six identical machines lined up down the launderama. He noticed the model name: Maasiwasher 100. A Japanese model perhaps, he thought. Then he glanced at a sign on the wall as he left, bordered with stars and underlined in red ink:
OUR MACHINES HAVE AN AMAZING ABILITY TO PURIFY YOUR CLOTHES, LEAVING YOU FEELING FRESH AND PRISTINE. ONCE YOU WASH HERE, YOU WILL ALWAYS COME BACK. SO BE WARNED.
Foad thought there was something inappropriate about the message, something almost ridiculous, but guessed Billy Silbi was probably an immigrant and didn’t know how to express his ideas properly. But for one thing, he did agree with the last statement. These washing machines almost had a narcotic effect. They helped him to escape his problems. If he had to wash his clothes anywhere, he would come back here. This had to be reassurance from Allah that things would be okay.
Amazingly, when he got home, the irritation in his wife had disappeared. He had a relaxing night with her and she never mentioned the blasted washing machines again. It was as if she had forgotten all about the dryer and the dirty damp patches on the ceiling. Foad lay there in bed that night, dumbfounded.
But his night could not prepare him for the shock he would receive the next day. Danya approached his desk with a lovely smile, as if nothing had happened, asking Foad whether they could meet again. She mentioned nothing about the pictures or the money she had asked for. Foad decided to have some lunch with her, just to check what she was up to, and found she acted naturally and as if nothing had occurred between them. She appeared altogether truthful. Foad felt like he was in a trance, like the purging of his soul had wiped away his fear and concerns. But his temptation to spend time with her still lingered, despite the fact that she had betrayed him and despite it seeming he had experienced forgiveness from God. He booked a room with Danya after work, and they spent some secret moments together. But, remarkably, instead of the guilt, the ease and peace still flowed in his heart. Foad was fascinated. He did a wrong thing, but his heart was clear. Something must be right here.
When he arrived home, his wife, as the day before, had the washing ready, but this time complained little and sent him on his way. Without much thought, Foad found himself back at Billy’s Launderama, doing the washing, this time, taking off his socks and throwing them in too, watching the drums roll round and round and round, the words ringing in his head: LEAVE YOU FEELING FRESH AND PRISTINE.
Time seemed to quicken. The next working day, Danya met Foad at work again. The twenty four hours had elapsed. His world had not collapsed. She had not done anything and she seemed to have dropped the idea of moving away. Actually, Danya was more delightful and pleasing than she had ever been. But to his confusion and amazement, Foad realised that Danya had completely forgotten about their meeting at the hotel the previous day. It was as if the meeting had been wiped from her memory. And when he went home, his blissful wife seemed to have forgotten about her irritation about the washer dryer not working, and she acted as blissful and pleasing as a wife could ever be.
Another day and Foad experienced a very similar flow of events. He began to realise that this Billy’s Launderama seemed to have some miraculous effect on his life. It seemed as if he could do as he pleased, wash his clothes, and his conscience was cleared completely, and the memory of his actions cleared from the people around him.
He decided to put his theory to the test. Seeing as he dealt with customer accounts, he decided to put the money of one customer into a holding account of his company. His line-manager asked him why he had done this, and Foad explained that he was just clearing and organising the accounts he was looking after and would return the money the next day. The same day, he made a quick trip to Billy’s Launderama, threw in his tie for washing, dried it and went home. The next day, he waited for his boss to ask him whether he had returned the monies. His boss had no recollection. Foad then had an idea. He was so sure that no one would check that he transferred the monies into his own bank account.
Later that day, he made another washing trip to Billy’s Launderama. And the next day at the work, he waited, and to his amazement, he found that the money he had deposited had been credited to his account, but was also simultaneously showing up as still listed in the holding account. He transferred the money back, informing the boss, who without any recollection of their previous dealing, praised him for his good works. The words rung in his head: LEAVING YOU FEELING PRISTINE.
That evening, Foad returned to Billy’s Launderama. A richer man. With no longer any woman trouble. In fact the two women in his life, his wife and mistress, were heavenly in their behaviour and tolerance of him. And all because of the washing, the water and the machines, washing away his conscience and the consciences of those around him. Foad sat there on the bench, bemused and bewitched. He looked around the launderette once more. It stood exactly as it had done. Nothing had changed. He seemed to be the only customer. Just to check this time, he decided to ring the number attributed to Billy, just in case the last week was all a dream and he was really in some nut house somewhere.
“Hello, Billy Silbi, speaking,”
“Oh, hi, I’m in your launderette, just checking that your number was working. I have just started using your machines.”
“Oh that’s good. Everything I trust going okay, the machines washing well?” To Foad, Billy sounded like a cockney fellow, but along with this name, there was still something familiar in his voice.
“Yes, they’re brilliant, I…”
“That’s great. I have seen you by the way.”
Foad froze for a second: “Seen me?”
“Yeah, we have CCTV on the premises. I can see all around the place. When you come, it’s not really busy see, most people use my place in the day. Old people and the like, but every now and then we get new people, who like the way our machines wash. Like the way it gets all those stains out.”
Foad could not put his finger on it, but he seemed to have some familiarity and connection with the voice.
“Great, thanks, you sound familiar, so does your name.”
“Oh, yeah, people know me, I’ve been around for years. And when people use my machines, they have to come back. Anyway, I have to leave yer, because I’ve got a few things to do”
“Okay, great thanks.”
Foad was convinced now, that this was all from Allah. Allah was forgiving him and giving him peace in his heart. So he walked out with the washing and returned to his wife.
Weeks went by. The weather changed. Eve could now dry her clothes outside in the warm sun. Foad became busier at work. Through the recent miraculous events, Foad had gained promotion and had more responsibility on his shoulders. He was doing very well at work. He worked so hard that he found he hadn’t met up with Danya recently. Weeks continued to go by. He even neglected his trips to Billy’s launderama.
The next day, at work, Foad found that Danya was snappy. She felt he was avoiding her, neglecting her. She wanted to meet him soon. The same night, Eve was beginning to grumble about the dryer again, there had been some rain recently, it was inconvenient to send him to the launderette, why couldn’t they get a proper working washer dryer. There were even the old suspicions beginning to linger in her voice again.
Suddenly, as if by magic, Foad found that the customer account he had swindled before, suddenly showed a withdrawal, dating back to the day he had transferred it to himself. His manager asked him to investigate it. Foad scratched his head. Before, his action had been completely hidden but now it was showing up again. He checked his bank account. The money was still there, but whereas before, there was no reference to the credit in his account, now the reference number clearly displayed the customer name and reference from the office accounts.
The penny dropped. Foad had realised he had forgotten his regular conscience wash at Billy’s Launderama. He would start going again and things would be back to their blissful, pleasing self again.
That evening, Foad made a trip to the launderama. Down to the suburbs, to the cluster of shops. He parked his car and walked instinctively to Billy’s Launderama. He pulled on the door handle, but found it resisted. Then and only then did he realise that the place was empty. Billy’s Launderama was no longer open for business here. Foad desperately looked around and saw a poster on the blacked out window and read:
BILLY’S LAUNDERAMA: MOVED PREMISES: WE ARE NOW BASED 996 JEANAM ROAD
Something deep and festering returned to Foad’s mind and heart. The way he was before was slowly infesting his conscience again. He had to find the machines and purge his soul once more.
He had a vague idea where Jeanam road was, on the outskirts of the town, nearer to the rough and tough areas. But when he finally drove down the road, he found himself on a dark, seemingly condemned street, with boarded up houses, and discarded supermarket trolleys laid waste on the pavement. This couldn’t be it…
Suddenly, he stopped the car and saw the bright lights and Rock and Roll sign of Billy’s Launderama. He got out of the car, taking out his washing, unsure. A shop in this part of town would definitely be cheaper with rent, and poorer people were more likely not to have a washing machine in their house. There were valid reasons for the sudden move. So without much thought, he proceeded to enter the launderette. But as he entered the threshold, suddenly a vivid memory entered his mind and he stood stock still. It was his one of his grandmother’s last words to him, while he was growing up: “Beware of your enemy, for he traps you in the least likely of places…”
Billy Silbi. The name. He had heard it before. It couldn’t be. No, that was just madness. Pure madness. He shook off his imagination, shuddering a little and proceeded to do the washing. He felt his conscience clearing and gave a huge sigh of relief. This time, he noticed there was an old woman also doing her washing on the other side, just as normal, which gave him some reassurance. No sign of Billy Silbi. Just his great, purifying machines. Foad regarded the phone number. Billy’s phone number. He had to know what was going on here. Even if he sounded crazy, he had to clear his mind of the curiosity.
He dialled the number on his mobile:
“Billy Silbi, how can I help you?” The voice was now utterly familiar.
“Oh hi Billy, I just had a question to ask..”
And as Billy answered his question, Foad felt his heart open up like a deadly wound appearing, for he recognised Billy’s voice.
The same voice, who when he was a kid, urged him on in the deep recesses of the night. The same voice, deep in his subconscious, who spoke to him, at intervals, with suggestions, with ideas, which he always fought off and ignored. The same voice, of a mortal enemy, of a liar, an accursed one who pretended to be a friend but was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“I’m sorry if you are dissatisfied with the way my machines washed your clothes. But you are free to use the other machines in the others launderettes in the area. Thank you for your custom, good bye!”
Foad ended the call. His conscience free, but suddenly his spirit had awakened to the facade that had formed around him. The old lady took her washing and before she left, this was all she could say: “As it says on the wall, once you wash here, you want to wash again and again.”
Foad fumed. And began to feel his world crowding in. The only way he could live his life without being caught was to wash his clothes in this infernal launderama, and live a life of bondage and dependence to the enemy of man. Now the real anger raged in his heart at the betrayal, at the second time he had been duped by his mortal enemy. Suddenly Foad couldn’t take it anymore, and he started raging through the launderette, smashing the machines, kicking, punching, taking out the aerosol deodorant sprays in his bag and with a lighter, he sprayed fire, catching light to bits of paper and leaflets which began to spread through the premises.
The police had already been called and were at the scene in a flash, and Foad had no chance of escaping. As they rushed towards him, Foad lifted his hands in surrender and felt hard tears, true, repentant tears, cleansing the skin on his face and readied himself for the justice that would be meted out, for his wife’s and family’s pain and shame, and how each shameful and regrettable mistake would be washed out of his conscience.
And just as they were leading him away, out of the burning launderette, for a moment, he caught eye of the sizzling bag of washing, the very thing which had led him to there in the first place, a tear rolled down his face and then the police heard him repeat something he hadn’t said in a long time, the prayer of Adam:
“Rabbana Zalammna anfusana wa illum taghfirlanaa wa tarhumaa la nakunanna minal khaasireen”, O Lord, we have wronged our selves and if You do not forgive us, we will surely be of the losers.”