Ian McMillan: Then and now, I’ve got no idea how dry cleaning works

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Every so often my dad would take his suit jacket and a coat of my mam’s from the pegs at the bottom of the stairs and announce he was taking them to the dry cleaners in Wombwell. He’d put the garments in a bag, carry them to the car and disappear up the road in chugging second gear, clothes in boot. He would no doubt be whistling Red River Valley.

A few days later he would return to Wombwell and bring the clothes back and they would be clean and mysterious in clear plastic, with tickets on, hanging on temporary hangers. And the key word here is “mysterious” because, then and now, I’ve got no idea how dry cleaning works.

After all, I said to myself when I was younger, the whole idea of cleaning things is that you get them wet. My Uncle Charlie would stand at the sink having what he called “a reyt good wesh”, pounding his face with soap and water and splashing and making a whinnying noise like a horse. When my mam washed my hair in the bath she poured jugs of water over it, pretending that she was a waterfall, and even when she cleaned my mouth with a hanky she wet the hanky first. So cleaning had to be wet: so what on earth was dry cleaning?

I asked the school caretaker Mr Rothin because he seemed a practical sort of man who was never seen without a brush and a bucket. He gazed into the middle-distance, which in this case consisted of Mrs Robinson taking some infants through a particularly convoluted episode of Music and Movement. “I think they must put the stuff in a machine,” he said, his voice uncertain. “I reckon the machine must rub ’em somehow. I reckon it must be to do with rollers and stuff.” Mrs Robinson was now encouraging the infants to be trees reaching up, up, up to the sky. I could tell that Mr. Rothin didn’t know either. “I hope that helps,” he said, before rushing into the yard to scare some seagulls off by clanging his brush against his bucket. It didn’t help, to be honest, but I didn’t like to say.

That night I tried an experiment. I got in the bath as usual but I didn’t put any water in. I rubbed myself with soap and a flannel but no water. Nothing much seemed to happen. My mam came in to wash my hair. “What are you up to?,” she said. “Dry cleaning myself,” I replied, and she responded with the reaction that mothers have given for the whole of recorded time: “You’ll get dry cleaning in a minute!” and she turned the taps on full and reached for the jug.

In the end I decided dry cleaning was done with rocks. I worked out that they took the clothes round the back of the shop, got some rocks, wrapped them in tea towels and hit the clothes with them.Somehow the act of hitting the clothes with stones in tea towels got rid of the grime. They’d then get the clothes and whirl them round like helicopter blades to get rid of excess dirt. Then they’d put a label on them and wrap them in plastic.

Or something like that. Maybe it’s best that dry-cleaning remains a mystery, in this information-heavy world. Yes, maybe it is.