by Matthew John Cook
This is a story that I worked on as part of an Arvon course, that was eventually published by Number Eleven Magazine:
When Angela and I finally went our separate ways I suddenly found I had no money and took pretty much the first job I could find, which turned out to be repairing dishwashers. Mr Dishwasher Ltd was based in a foul-smelling garage and operated by a hairy dwarf-like man, who hated all of humanity as far as I could tell. He had worked his way through dozens of employees who refused to endure his hostility but I would just smile and think what I wanted to think and after a while we settled into a pretty amicable routine. He even let me live in the small flat above the garage, a flaking formica box with walls decorated in the sprawling doodles of previous tenants. The most ambitious of these was a sort of biographical tapestry etched in Stanley knife, which depicted the disturbing adventures of a stick figure in a hat all the way from the kitchen to the bathroom light switch.
The dwarf’s favourite way to kill a quiet afternoon below was to dip into his library of yarns in which he not only fixed a dishwasher in some ingenious way but had sex with the pretty young owner afterwards, which may have been true, I don’t know. I had been with my Angela so long my nose for such things was useless. I once asked him what his secret was.
“I was born lucky,” he said with a pompous grin that made his beard splay out. “Things like that just happen to me.” I did my best to seem jealous. In truth, the idea of so much unrehearsed intimacy terrified me.
True fact: when you work for a company called Mr Dishwasher that’s what people call you when you visit. Hello Mr Dishwasher, step this way. That sort of thing. Would you like a glass of water Mr Dishwasher? After a while it’s what you begin to call yourself when you look in the mirror. Brush your teeth, Mr Dishwasher. You’re an ape, Mr Dishwasher, with shoulders like ham and no other woman will ever want you.
I knew I would start missing Angela eventually, but for a while I decided to just enjoy being rid of all the gripes and cracks. Her family were yoga freaks and visualisation techniques were a big thing. If she was unhappy or stressed her eyelids would suddenly drop and she’d get this little crooked smile and inside she’d be travelling to an island or a period in history she liked until she felt better. I started to resent these escapes, partly because my own efforts were always such failures. She had this waist-length hair, which flounced all around my chest when we humped and which I liked a lot, but I could already picture the grey witchery of it when she was old. She was a good few past forty and I couldn’t help teasing her about it in front of our friends. In revenge she would leap over and count the white hairs in my beard, pressing her finger deep into each one until I shrugged her off.
The work wasn’t hard. I just had to check the appliance was plugged in correctly, see if the control panel had burned out or scoop up whatever detritus was clogging the pump. At night I mainly read dishwasher manuals, or else one of the science fiction paperbacks the dwarf kept in his desk. Sometimes I tried dismantling one of the machines. I had nothing better to do. The inner workings are surprisingly straightforward. It’s the humans, the owners, that take you by surprise. One hunch-backed old dear wouldn’t leave me alone for a second, and took photographs of everything I did with a huge pre-historic camera. When I found a ball of hair clogging the filter she admitted that her cat liked to crawl in around the hot dishes at the end of a cycle and fall asleep. She didn’t like to disturb it because it was so old and had almost no time left. I was called out constantly by a woman whose children kept putting their plastic soldiers in the cutlery tray. They melted into miraculous shapes, the heads drooping, the limbs oozing all over the plates before cooling solid in the pipe. She always looked so surprised and sad about it. The kids laughed and ran around me as I worked, singing ‘Mr Bumwasher’ over and over again, gripping the warped little men.
Some people are so unafraid they will leave their back doors unlocked and the money in an envelope on the counter. Others watch you from next to their magnetic knife strip, their lips twitching. Some have photographs of their family on display that speak of a complicated past. As the weeks passed I began getting asked to help with ever more strange and irrelevant problems – malingering car engines, skin complaints and so on. I did what I could. I was approaching the frayed edge of society, reaching in to help others but increasingly remote from the business of actually living myself.
And then one afternoon the dwarf sent me to Northaven, a quiet labyrinthine suburb I’d never explored before. At first I thought it was a child answering the door to me. As my eyes adjusted to the light I realised it was a young woman in a wheelchair, grinning at me in a crooked way I couldn’t quite fathom. It was hard for me to tell if she was good looking or not. Her hair was blonde and she was wearing a long dress which stopped short at a pair of plump slippers, each of which had a unicorn embroidered on the toe and sparkles pouring off and away around the sides towards her heels. I found those slippers fascinating. I wanted to know if they had ever felt her weight pressing them to the floor.
“Ah, Mr Dishwasher,” she said, in a kind of karate sensei voice. “Follow me please.” Then she spun off down the long hall and into the kitchen, doing a little well-practised skid around the door-frame.
I followed her inside, doing my best not to knock any of the ornaments with my tool bag. The inside was a mess of girly, fragile things. Everywhere I looked there was something tiny waiting to be broken. I felt too large, an ogre. I found her again next to an ancient dishwasher, the door hanging wonkily open. She gestured towards it with a flourish and a wink, like a gameshow host’s gorgeous assistant. There was a wine glass in the sink.
“It’s older than me,” she said, nodding at the sorrowful machine. It was a real museum piece, God knows how it had kept on going for this long. I knelt and peered inside. I was hot but I didn’t want to roll up my sleeves in case it sent a message I was unaware of. “I’m Sonja. I sell cosmetics to unhappy people over the telephone.” At this she jerked a thumb towards a stack of Dee-Lush Beauty Repair Kits on the counter behind her.
“Tobias,” I replied keeping my eyes on the piece of plastic I was fumbling with.
“No, your name’s Mr Dishwasher,” she said. “Look.” Wheeling forward she poked the logo on my polo shirt with an outstretched finger. A little spark shot down my arm.
“That’s more of a stage name, really.”
I closed the door and inspected the brown control panel at the top. Both were decorated with complicated dents and scrapes.
“Yeah, me and mum hit him a lot,” said Sonja. “We shout at him too. His name is Herbert. Herbert is our butler. All he does is cry these days. He’s our slave and he’s a lazy arsehole! Aren’t you Herbert!” She banged her fist into the door, adding a small new dent to the collection. Then she chuckled quietly to herself and rolled back a little.
I pressed the door closed till I heard it click then turned Herbert on. He began to tremble and a high-pitched whine came from somewhere deep within, enough like a creature crying in pain for me to switch it off quickly.
“You know that’s probably why it’s – ”
She jabbed me again. “He’s”
“Why he’s not working. Important things happen in here.” I moved my hand in a washing motion around the door.
“Have we given him brain damage?”
“Well this is probably where his brain is,” I said pointing to the control panel. “But there will be wires running all through here. You’ve definitely been hurting his feelings.”
“Good,” she said. “You hear that Herbert, you scumbag?”
“Hey,” I said. “I’m Mr Dishwasher and it’s my duty to protect this individual from your tyranny.”
“We don’t care!” she yelled and pumped herself backwards out of the room. “Drag him away, we’ll just find another on the black market. The ships come in loaded with them every day. There’s plenty more where you came from, Herbert!”
For a moment I heard her squeaking around in the next room; then, it went quiet. Opening the door fully I lifted out both of the yellowed trays and placed them on the floor. I unscrewed the casing which concealed the electrical wiring. There was no sludge. The wires looked old and tired but I couldn’t see anything wrong. I blew on the connections and tightened a few screws here and there. I needed the dwarf, but I didn’t want him there to spoil everything with his bad breath. I undid the filter cap, a sorry thing, and lifted it out. It felt a little like undressing an old man. I stuck my hand inside the cradle. Nothing.
“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever found in there? In a dishwasher?” came through the wall.
“Teeth, probably!” I yelled back.
There was a buzz of wheels and she reappeared beside me, her face screwed up. “You found a tooth?”
“I’m always finding teeth. They fall out as you’re eating, you put it on the side of the plate, you forget it’s there…” I shrugged.
She ran a tongue slowly over her own front teeth. I closed the door and tried the square button again. The whine resumed, worse now, weak and humiliated. This time I let it carry on, to see if I could glean anything from the sound. Sonja edged forward and I felt her wheel pressing gently against my knee. Then all at once there was a queasy belch followed by a quiet bang and the noise stopped. A delicate rift of smoke crept out from underneath.
“Is he dead?” said Sonja.
“I think so.”
“Good. Let’s eat.”
I went upstairs to the bathroom to gather my thoughts and check the hair at the top of my legs which often got wild and fuzzy. I had no idea how to read this kind of situation. And the wheelchair? The dwarf never mentioned anything like that. I checked my reflection. Good enough, Mr Dishwasher. That’ll have to do. I rolled up my sleeves.
The washing up, I decided. That would be my moment. I would be The Dishwasher Man who came and did the washing up himself and made his move, that would be the story we would tell. I could feel my hands leaking. On the landing I discovered a grey cat asleep in a melodramatic pose. I sat stroking it for a moment.
“What do you think, cat?” In reply it stretched itself out in a lean display of disinterest in anything and everything. “Okay. Good advice.” I stood up. All the things I had gone upstairs to think about fell gently out of my head.
When I came downstairs I found another woman kneeling next to Herbert, her head bowed, one hand placed solemnly on top. The next thing I know she’s standing up and coming towards me, only it isn’t a woman at all. It’s a bloke, a big bloke, the long dusty blonde wig swinging around his massive jaw, his calves working hard in a pair of nubuck high heels. His dress was a kind of floral wrap, which added a lurid ninja-like quality. There was a violent perfection to him.
“What the hell,” he said to me, his arms wrapping around his waist, feeling themselves. “You were supposed to fix him, pal.”
“And who exactly are you, pal?”
“I’m Munnery, Sonja’s husband.” He extended a huge hand for me to shake. “Call me Mun.”
So that was that. There was no Mum. There was just confusion.
“Is there really nothing you can do, Mr Dishwasher?” Mun said. “We can’t live without ol’ Herb.”
“It was his time,” I replied. “I couldn’t find anything really wrong. I can take him away for you, if you want. No charge.”
“This is a sad day.” His eyes closed a few times, slowly. “No. He deserves better than that. A decent burial.”
I gawped, then turned to Sonja as if to say ‘Is he for real?’ but she was just nodding, not looking anywhere, her unicorns tapping along.
“Now look. Hold up,” I said, though I had no idea what to do next.
I’d played this game as much as I could. I just wanted to get in the van and take off. But they couldn’t do it without me and I saw that this way of living, this madness, was a machine, and it had a life of its own. They were trapped inside it and for now so was I. I had missed two or three appointments and my mobile was a mess of missed calls, mostly from the dwarf. So I switched it off, then me and Mun lugged Herbert to the bottom of their tangled garden and dumped him on a patch of grass. I saw a spade propped against a small tree and started digging. I said I would do it alone, I was Mr Dishwasher and the civic duty was mine, so to speak.
“Thanks,” said Mun. “You like pasta?” I couldn’t remember so I nodded and kept digging. I wondered if there were more appliances in the ground around me? Were there toasters and hand blenders and irons scattered like pet skeletons in significant corners? I kept expecting to find a gruesome length of decaying cord. Around sunset we decided to make do. My stomach hurt too much to carry on. Mun and I lowered Herb into the hole, with ropes, like a real coffin, and we stood back. Sonja rolled in between us. Munnery took Sonja’s hand. Sonja reached up and took mine. I realised they were waiting for me to say something but nothing came to mind.
“Well then, goodbye Herb,” said Munnery, the muscle in his jaw clenching under his bangs as he spoke. “You did a good job.” I let go of Sonja’s hand and started throwing soil back on. Then they joined in and soon it was done. It didn’t really cover him. It didn’t really matter.
Mun went inside and came back with some bowls of cool pasta and a bottle of red wine. We sat on a rusty old swing bench and ate and drank from the bottle in silence, then Sonja said she thought Mun and I should dance since she couldn’t. We stood up and did our best. Mun seemed to have had the benefit of lessons so led me gracefully around the scrubby lawn. I felt a raw jealous hatred of Herb for getting to serve such a sweet and devoted household for such a long time.
It wasn’t the best moment for the dwarf to arrive. All of a sudden there he was, gasping and swearing. He was peppered with scratches from climbing over the fence and a swathe of sticky green buds clung cheerfully to his beard. He wanted to know what in the hell was going on and was he seriously losing his mind, was I seriously here dancing with a trannie instead of taking care of my other appointments?
I said that yes, yes I was, in fact why didn’t he come and join us. My head was doing strange ellipses from the wine. I turned and smiled at my new friends so I didn’t see him move until he was on top of me, gripping my collar and trying to bite my nose off. We collapsed and my mouth filled up with his beard. Sonja began screaming and I felt her words fall on us like a shower of petals, though these turned out to be pasta shells that she was throwing, unable to do much else. As my shirt collar finally tore, in a long unhappy shriek, I kneed the dwarf hard in the balls, and he fell silent and limp. Mun hoisted him up like a sleepy child then carried him groaning out to the road. I could see that Mun was stronger than me, stronger than I would ever be.
When Mun came back we started giggling and soon we were laughing so hard I didn’t think we’d ever stop. We drained the last of the wine wiping the tears from our chins. My nose was still burning from the dwarf’s teeth. Then Sonja pointed out that there was no one to do the dishes.
“I’ll do ‘em,” I said, grinning, “I am Mr Dishwasher after all.” I would have done too, I would have stayed and washed their dishes till my heart gave up and they buried me next to Herbert in the grass, but Mun took them from my lap and tossed them into the brambles.
Then we realised how cold it was and before I knew it I was in the van with some money in my sore hands and I wasn’t Mr Dishwasher anymore. I closed my eyes. My legs and arms began to melt. Somewhere inside myself I felt a heavy clunk and an unstoppable rushing begin.