SO THERE I was, paying the red bills, vacuuming the carpet and defrosting the fridge in a fit of tidying, as if restoring order to the flat would restore some order to my head. By the early evening, after a breather in front of the television, I was suffering a game-show overdose, so resolved to tackle the last bastion of filth in the flat, the bedroom.

After stripping the bed and shoving my sheets (along with the baseball cap that had grown mouldy in the car) into a black plastic bin-liner, I set off to the launderette at the end of the road.

The Irish woman with a puce face shooed me away as I wandered in. 'It's Saturday night,' she muttered as she hauled out the dregs of the last service wash. 'We close early on a Saturday, no one does their washing on a Saturday night.' She was right. I wasn't where I should be - but then neither was Saturday night. That's what happens when you get too drunk on Friday night: the following day mysteriously turns into a Sunday.

Picking up a few cans of lager and my flatmate, I found another establishment up the road. There were a few punters inside. A Portuguese woman sat next to her plump son in the corner, her arms folded across her bosom. She bickered under her breath. On the other side of the yellow metal machines stood a thin man with thinning hair. He spun around and around on the heels of his cowboy boots on the checked lino floor as he waited for his jeans to dry. A man in combat trousers with a crew cut was transferring his load from washer to dryer. Cracking open a beer, I sidled up. 'Er, does it take long, the washing machine, I mean?'

'No,' he replied. 'About 20 minutes.'

'Oh, good,' I said, kicking an imaginary cigarette butt, then asked: 'So what are you doing later?' It sounded terrible. I sniggered. He suddenly pelvic-thrusted the dryer and said: 'Going round to the girlfriend's, ain't I?'

'Oh, good,' I replied, and then added: 'Why are you doing your washing now?' This produced a whole mass of explanations: he had taken two Ecstasy the night before; he was a shift worker and therefore had little time; and he had been in the French Foreign Legion which, as far as he was concerned, explained everything.

He had left the Legion after the Gulf war and his eyes lit up as he recounted how they had fought with the Americans. 'They're great, the Yanks,' he said with a loud laugh, 'you see this Marine, built like a brick shithouse, and you know immediately what they really hate. Punch them in the teeth and they really lose it. They're funny about their teeth, the Yanks.' He paused. 'I lost my two front teeth once and they shoved them back in again. Look.' He leant forward and tried to wobble them. They hardly moved.

The conversation stayed with fights, and my flatmate and I asked about self-defence tactics. Standing up among the machines we took an aggressive stance. 'No, no, no,' he laughed. 'You don't need any of that martial arts shit. Just bite their nose off or a lump out of their cheek. That stops them dead in their tracks.'

We were stunned and he so enjoyed our reaction that he set about repeating the effect. 'I tell you what . . . did you know that if you get VD in the Legion, you get locked up for seven days for 'wilful dam-

age to military property'?'

He then went on to explain the intricacies, for Legionnaires, of scoring women. 'You pick the number of the woman you fancy for the night or the hour, and then you show your pecker to the surgeon at the base. You get a clean bill of health, you return with your certificate, and you pay the man behind the bar and give the girl the receipt.' All very simple. The soldiers are tested every month for Aids. 'If you have it then they will look after you. Best medical facilities, you know.'

He did not regret the Legion. Leaning against the Persil dispenser, he said: 'It's a laugh, you know. You sign a contract that you can't read because it's all in French, and it's not until you've learnt the language that you understand what you've signed, and by then it's too late]'

'Anyway,' he said, as he pulled more combat gear out of the dryer, 'you don't see any ex-Legionnaires pissed on the streets, do you? We're family, you know, we look after each other.' With that he walked off. Collecting our washing, we walked back along the street. My flatmate opened up the last can of lager, turned to me and said: 'Forget the Post Office; it's amazing what you can pick up at the launderette.'