Before dishwashers became a standard feature in most people’s kitchens, every town had at least one crockery cleaning kiosk located near a car-park or taxi rank, or within easy reach of public transport. In those days it was common during the week and at weekends, and on Mondays in particular, to see people carrying their dirty dishes in cardboard boxes and plastic bags to a kiosk to be washed, rinsed, and dried.
Shona MacColl ran the While-U-Wait Wash ’n’ Wipe crockery cleaning kiosk in the coastal town of Falfrieth. The kiosk was situated by the up-escalator on the first floor of Falfrieth shopping centre. Twice a day Shona loaded her customers’ tableware into her industrial dishwasher which was housed out of sight in the back of the kiosk. She stoked the boiler, ignited the engines and climbed into a protective cage while the colossal machine roared and bellowed.
The Beast, she called it.
If The Beast was active anyone travelling up the escalator vibrated so much that the shopping centre owners put up warning signs not to carry milk in case it curdled. Teenagers travelled up the escalator during those times in order to experience a sexual frisson – the owners put up signs about that too. Carbonated drinks were banned.
The shopping centre was a place to buy greetings cards, remaindered books and cheap shoes. There was also a coffee shop called the Kwikuppa and a party planning shop called Weekend Whoop It Up. People who wanted to buy food and domestic supplies shopped elsewhere.
Weekend Whoop It Up was owned by Oliver Ballantyne. Perhaps the time was not right for party planning in Falfrieth because after six months of trading Oliver had yet to whoop it up for a single weekend. So he was closing down.
He was reflecting on this when a young man carrying a cardboard box came into his shop even though the sign on the door said Closed. The young man was Rudy Morris, grandson of Beaver Morris. Everybody in Falfrieth knew the Morris family. Beaver Morris was serving twenty years for robbing an oil-rig: technically an act of piracy. Beaver’s daughter, Verity, was a local councillor, and her son, Rudy, took care of the family’s ‘heavy lifting’.
People still talked about the day Beaver was arrested. He had returned from the North Sea in time to take his position as buckshee back for the Falfrieth Shinty Club. But the opposing team had been replaced by twelve policemen. As the game began they pounced and a young Rudy, holding his mother’s hand, saw his hero pushed to the ground and carried away, struggling and shouting.
Rudy put the box on the floor and took a note from his pocket and read it. “So,” he said. “Councillor Morris, my mum, says to tell you that my grandad is being released from prison on Friday and we are going to have a party to celebrate. You will arrange it.”
Rudy gestured at the box. “This is our family china. It is of great sentimental value. Keep it safe and on the day of the party lay it out on the top table.” Rudy checked the other side of the paper. “Mum says, write out some party fun ideas and details and I’ll pick them up in the morning. All right?”
Oliver said, “The thing is -”
“I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Rudy left, slamming the door so hard the bell rang for several seconds afterwards. Oliver sighed. He opened the box and looked at the crockery. It was dusty and old. Why hadn’t he said he’d quit? What was wrong with him? He decided to have it washed as a goodwill gesture before returning it to Rudy the following day, when he would explain that he wasn’t a whoop-it-upper any more. He picked up the box, locked his shop door and carried the Morris family china across the ground floor of the shopping centre and up the escalator to the While-U-Wait Wash ’n’ Wipe crockery cleaning kiosk.
He put the box on the counter and rang the bell. Shona appeared with suds in her hair.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi. I’m from the party shop downstairs. I’d like this crockery to have a party pre-clean, please.”
“Is it dishwasher safe?” Shona opened the box and held up a saucer to the light. “It looks fragile,” she said. “Too fragile for The Beast.” Shona flicked her head towards the back of the kiosk. Oliver tried to see what was behind her but she didn’t move.
“So your crockery cleaning kiosk won’t clean this crockery?” he said.
“You could wipe it with a damp cloth.”
Oliver took the saucer and put it back. “Thank you.” He took the box, turned to walk away, tripped, and accidentally threw the Morris’s family china down the up-escalator.
He looked at Shona. “I just threw the crockery down the up-escalator,” he said.
Shona watched him walk round to the opposite side of the shopping centre and go down the down-escalator. She stepped out of her kiosk and leaned over the glass barrier and watched him retrieve the box from the bottom of the up-escalator. He looked inside it and then came back up. Shona stepped into her kiosk and waited. Oliver came over to the counter.
“It’s all smashed to pieces,” he said.
“That’s what happens.”
Oliver put the box back on the counter and they both looked at the fragments of cups and saucers and plates and milk jugs and sugar bowls and other less obvious items.
“Do you have any crockery-fixing equipment? Like a machine that puts crockery back together?”
“Nothing like that? How long would it take to glue it all together?”
“How many people?”
“About five days, allowing for nature breaks and sleep and things. But there would be a lot of cracks. Probably some gluey bits. Maybe some fluff sticking to the glue. It would probably be mostly glue. I doubt you could use it. Maybe if you spent a year, being really really careful, it might look okay.”
“Do you know anybody, anybody in the entire world, who might be able to fix this?”
“Do you know who Beaver Morris is?”
“Is he the pirate? The one in prison? The one who got arrested playing tennis?”
“Shinty. Yes. He’s coming out this week. This is the Morris family china.”
They looked at each other, both thinking about Beaver Morris coming out of prison and how he’d once tried to rob an oil-rig with speed-boats and machine guns and rockets, and about all the villains he must know, and about all the tiny bits of Morris family china that were lying in the bottom of the box.
Oliver carried the box of smashed crockery back to his shop. He locked it in a cupboard and went for a walk to think about things.
While he did that Shona loaded The Beast with the final wash of the day. She turned the dials, checked the readouts, pulled the levers and set the launch sequence for twenty-five seconds. She laid her hands on the metal for a moment, feeling the power within, and then stepped into the protective cage.
The Beast prepared itself for washing. Superheated water laced with a chemical mix of detergents and noble gases formed, ready to be squirted at high pressure from pre-positioned nozzles. The tunnels and chambers and whirring brushes ran through their self-clean procedures and expunged any foreign contaminants.
With fifteen seconds to go Shona heard the bell ring at the front of the kiosk. She ignored it. It rang again. And again. At ten seconds she threw open the cage door, slipped past the already expanding pipes and hissing valves, and went to the front of the kiosk, slamming the safety hatch behind her.
Standing at the counter was Rudy Morris.
“You’ve missed the last wash,” Shona said.
Behind her The Beast ignited. Four teenagers and a retired accountant who had been waiting downstairs now boarded the up-escalator.
“I’m Rudy Morris.”
Shona wondered if he knew that his family china had been smashed to pieces.
“Do you want any dishes washed?” she said.
Rudy laughed. “No way. Look, I’ve seen you around and I was thinking…”
“Is this a question about dishes? I can only talk about dishes when I’m on duty.”
“No, it’s not about dishes. So, anyway… I’ve seen you around and I thought…”
“Can you come back later?”
“I’ve seen you around and I thought…”
“I’ve got a boyfriend.”
Rudy frowned. He’d been watching her for over a month and had seen no sign of a boyfriend.
Shona saw Oliver on the opposite side of the shopping centre coming back from his walk. She said, “Him.”
Rudy turned and looked at Oliver. “Him? The Whoop It Up guy?”
Rudy stepped back from the counter and took a closer look at Oliver. “Really?”
Something large exploded behind Shona. Rudy ducked down. The kiosk shook and a cloud of rubber-smelling gas rose from its roof. The engines stopped and only the rattling of shattered crockery remained. The teenagers ran away fearing their sexual frissons had caused the explosion.
Rudy stood up. “What was that?” But Shona was gone, leaving him alone at the counter.
Oliver was sitting in a darkened room when his phone rang. He thought it might be Rudy but it wasn’t.
“It’s Shona,” said Shona. “From the kiosk. Guess who came to see me?”
“Did you tell him I smashed all his crockery?”
“No. I told him you were my boyfriend.”
“You told him I was your boyfriend?”
“Yes. I thought I’d better tell you because you’ll probably be seeing Rudy again and he might say something. Not that it’s any of his business, but he might. So if he says anything, just say, ‘oh yes’ or something like that. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No, I don’t.”
“So she wouldn’t mind.”
“No. I shouldn’t imagine.”
“That’s all right, then. What are you going to do about the broken crockery?”
“I’m trying not to think about it.”
“You could wear a false moustache.”
“I suppose I could. Did you hear that explosion just now?”
“Yes. That was The Beast. He blew up. It’s going to take me all night to fix him.”
“He’s a him?”
“Why did he explode?”
“He just did. He’s The Beast. Hey, I don’t suppose you could bring me a coffee. And maybe a sandwich? I’m covered in oil.”
“What sort of sandwich?”
Oliver queued in the Kwikuppa coffee shop. He bought a coffee, a tea and two sandwiches: cheese for himself and one with halloumi, chorizo, raisins, beetroot, cauliflower and apricot for Shona. The shopping centre was closing and the security guards were rounding up the last of the shoppers as he made his way up the up-escalator. He rang the bell and Shona came to the counter. She was covered in oil.
“Hi,” she said. “Come in.”
She lifted up a section of the counter and Oliver squeezed in. He followed Shona through the safety hatch and into the back of the kiosk.
The Beast was enormous. Bright lights pointed at ruptured pipes from which steam blew and thick drops of chemical liquid dripped; a gaping gate revealing bent brushes and twisted shelving and burned-out electrics; walls studded with sheered-off nuts and bolts; and everywhere shards of crockery and oil – oil on the walls, oil on the floor, oil on Shona and now, oil on Oliver.
They sat next to each other in the semi-darkness on bits of the wrecked machinery and ate the sandwiches and drank the tea and coffee. Their oily hands stained the bread and the crumbs that fell from their lips mingled with the fragments of ruined plates and cups and saucers, and their drips of tea and coffee made patterns in the puddles of oil.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” said Shona.
They finished their food and looked at each other in the strange light of the kiosk’s back room, while, outside, cleaners polished the floors with large machines and switched off the escalators and closed down the lighting and pulled metal shutters across the exits and entrances.
“They’re closing up,” said Shona. “You might get locked in.”
“I get locked in every night. I live in the back of my shop.”
“I didn’t think that was allowed.”
“It’s not. What about you? Won’t you get locked in?”
“It doesn’t matter. I have to stay here all night to fix The Beast.”
After the cleaners had gone a silence spread across the shopping centre like an invisible gas: from floor to ceiling, from shop-front to shop-front, down stairwells, through heating ducts, in toilets, against doors, in lifts, on escalators, across children’s play areas. The silence crept up to the security office and looked in on the two kindly security guards who were ignoring the unauthorised maintenance work taking place on the first floor.
Shona ran her hand along the dishwasher’s still-warm metal casing. “I used to hate this thing,” she said. “When I went to university I thought I’d escaped Falfrieth for good. But my mother fell ill so I came back. And then Dad became ill too, and there was nobody to run the business.” She rubbed her forehead with her oily hand. “Anyway, now there’s just me and The Beast.”
Oliver stood up and peered through the gaping gate. He picked up a piece of metal from the floor. It was a cog. “This takes me back,” he said.
Shona stood up and looked over his shoulder. “To what?”
“To college. I did a horology course.”
“Timepieces. There are a lot of cogs in timepieces.”
He could feel her breath on his neck. She smelled of halloumi and chorizo and raisins and beetroot and cauliflower and apricot and coffee. He turned round.
“And now you’re a party planning guy,” she said. “The best parties are the ones that just happen. Did you know that?”
They stood amongst the ventilation pipes that ran up to the top of the shopping centre and released hot white steam into the atmosphere. Below them exhaust chutes and drainage channels fed down through internal runaways and connected to Falfrieth’s underground water systems.
Oliver cleared his throat. “I could get my tools,” he said.
“My horology tools. I still have them. I could help out. Tonight. Here. They’re very small, though. My tools. But if you have any tiny cogs I could help.”
Shona smiled. “That would be nice.”
It took them nearly all night to repair The Beast. During that time Oliver told Shona all about horology and she told him all about detergents. He explained the mechanics of an oscillating counter-spring and she explained why non-scratch scourers had changed the face of dishwashing.
Oliver worked inside The Beast’s cavernous interior, re-constructing the intricate cleaning mechanisms; Shona refitted the pipes, calibrated the gears, reset timing gauges, de-coked the cold-gas thrusters, switched over the propulsion jets, filled up the combustion chambers and welded together a new launch cradle. Together they wiped down the bottles of coolant and chemical cleaning agents and re-installed the vacuum nozzles.
At four o’clock in the morning it was finished.
“We’ll have to give him a test run,” Shona said. “That will clean out the insides too. Then we can hose down the kiosk and everything is done.”
“Except us,” said Oliver. “We’re filthy.”
It was true. Oil and grime had infiltrated every pore and crevice of their bodies. Their clothes were soaked in oil. Their hair was thick and sticky with oil. They blinked oil, breathed oil and dripped oil.
“We can’t use the shopping centre toilets. We’d leave a trail of oil everywhere.”
“There is another way,” said Shona.
Oliver looked at her. He looked around the kiosk. He looked at The Beast. He looked at Shona again.
She nodded. “I’ve done it before. There’s a setting.”
“It’s quite nice, actually. But it might… damage our clothes.” She glanced at him. “And they clog up the pipes. So… you know.”
Oliver looked at her. It was impossible to make out any features other than her eyes and teeth.
“Together?” Oliver stared again at The Beast.
“We don’t have to,” said Shona. “Only if you want… Do you want?”
“I don’t know. Are we dishwasher safe?”
At half-past four in the morning the security guards noted a vibration on the first floor of the shopping centre and correctly inferred that it was a maintenance test run coming from the While-U-Wait Wash ’n’ Wipe crockery cleaning kiosk. The cycle lasted for fifteen minutes. They were surprised when the vibrations launched again, indicating a second test cycle, which took place at four-forty-six. This time it lasted for thirty minutes. Just after five in the morning, as the first of the cleaners came back on duty, the dishwasher launched again – for a full forty-five minutes this time.
The following morning Rudy came into Oliver’s shop. He took a step back when he saw that Oliver’s hair was now a massive ball of fluff.
Rudy stared some more at the hair. “Right, anyway, change of plan. Grandad’s coming out today. They do that sometimes. Mix it up. And he’s vetoed a big do. He wants a small family gathering instead. We’ll have something to eat in the Kwikuppa and then go home. Mum’s there now, getting things ready. I’m going to pick him up and bring him here. So, I’ll take the china.”
“You’ll take the china?”
“Yeah, I’m going to surprise him and put it out at the Kwikuppa. It was the last thing he ate off before he went to rob the oil rig. It’s like a genuine antique. He used to say it was worth hundreds of pounds and that was twenty years ago. So anyway, hand it over.”
“I don’t have it,” Oliver said. “It’s being prepared. Cleaned.”
Rudy gave him a hard look. “At the kiosk? I’ll get it. And don’t expect me to pay for it.”
He left, slamming the door.
Oliver picked up the phone and called the kiosk. Shona answered.
“It’s Oliver,” said Oliver. Rudy’s coming to get the Morris family china.”
“I haven’t got the Morris family china.”
“I know. When he arrives, tell him it’s in The Beast and can’t be removed yet.”
“He’s coming up the escalator.”
Rudy bounded up the up-escalator and banged the bell on Shona’s counter. When she appeared he took a step backwards. Her hair was also a massive ball of fluff.
“You too?” he said. “Anyway, I’ve come to collect my china.”
“Do you have a receipt? Without a receipt I can’t give it to you.”
“It’s the Morris family china. I’m a Morris family member. Give me the china.”
“Not without a receipt.”
“Give me the china.”
“Right!” Rudy turned and ran down the up-escalator. “I’ll get the receipt.” He sprinted across the ground floor to the Weekend Whoop It Up but the door was locked. “Open up,” he shouted. “Open up.” Rudy looked at his watch. He had to go and meet his grandad. “You are so dead,” he said.
Oliver was walking towards the Kwikuppa. He had with him the cardboard box filled with shattered crockery. He had decided it would be safer to own up to Verity Morris rather than to Rudy.
Shona met him on the way. “Hello,” she said. “Has Rudy caught up with you yet?”
“Not yet. I have to go to the Kwikuppa.”
“I was thinking about putting on a rinse cycle…”
Oliver looked at his watch. “Okay.”
The Kwikuppa coffee shop was on the ground floor. It had a large indoor space and seating in the shopping centre’s main concourse. Part of the outside area had been roped off and a tall, slim woman, with close-cropped grey hair, large glasses and an earnest expression was talking to a local reporter who had come along with a news photographer.
Shona and Oliver arrived just in time. “Is that her?” said Shona. “She looks nice. Did you bring your false moustache?”
Shona nudged him. “Here comes the pirate.”
Through the glass entrance doors at the far end of the shopping centre walked Rudy and his grandad. Beaver Morris at eighty was a still big man and it was possible to imagine him as a daring young criminal planning and executing an oil-rig heist, travelling fast through the night on a high-speed boat and raising boarding ladders while the cold North Sea waves drove the boats hard against the rig’s stilts.
He walked slowly with a stick, his arm curled around Rudy’s arm, and Rudy walked alongside with the pride of a bride’s father. His sight failing, Beaver looked this way and that.
The news photographer stepped to one side and started taking pictures. Verity Morris kicked off her shoes and ran down the concourse to greet her father and hold him as tightly as she could. Then the three of them walked back towards the Kwikuppa in order to enjoy some light refreshments.
“Right,” said Oliver.
“I’m not sure now is the right time,” said Shona.
“I have to.” Oliver stepped forwards, holding the box in front of him.
Rudy looked up and saw him. “Oh no you don’t.” He left his grandad and mother to be photographed, ran over and snatched the box from Oliver’s hands. “You’re not muscling in on my party,” he hissed. He turned to run back but Shona lifted the rope used to cordon off the Morris reunion, and Rudy tripped. For the second time in two days the Morris family china flew through the air.
Perhaps it was just muscle memory from many games of shinty; or perhaps through his failing eyesight Beaver perceived a danger bigger than a cardboard box; but whatever the reason, Beaver stepped forward, swung his walking stick like a caman, and smashed the box as hard as he could. It lifted high into the air and a thousand tiny pieces of blue and white china fell to the ground like hailstones.
“That’s the Morris family china you’ve just smashed to pieces,” Rudy said.
“No it’s not,” said Beaver. “Sold it ages ago. That’s just tat – and bad luck tat at that. That was the last thing I ate off before I was nicked. Good riddance to it.”
The Kwikuppa staff swept it up and threw it in the bin.
Later, while they shared a coffee at the kiosk, Shona on one side of the counter and Oliver on the other, he said, “Thank you for tripping up Rudy.”
“That’s all right. I thought if he broke the broken bits, nobody would know which bits you’d broken.”
“Clever. Hey, I was thinking. I might open a horology kiosk. Set up by the down-escalator. I could call it Clocks ‘n’ Cogs.”
Shona laughed. “Or Watch ‘n’ Wind’.”
“We could look at each other.”
“I’d like that.”
They finished their sandwiches and then Oliver left. Shona watched him go down the down-escalator. She watched him until he’d gone and then she watched the other people who passed by her kiosk. Her parents used to say that everyone was different but dishes always needed cleaning. She went into the back of her kiosk and locked the safety hatch. She stoked the boiler and ignited the engines, and then she curled up inside the protective cage and closed her eyes while The Beast came to life and roared and bellowed and surrounded her with its warmth.
- BFS Horizons 6. The British Fantasy Society. March 2018.
- Artwork: Pexels / Skitterphoto.