Gareth pulls up sharply next to the big sign and scans the options. His eyes dart, fingers tap, legs jiggle. His apparent urgency is in stark contrast to the pristine condition of his brand new, top-of-the-range Audi.
“What’ll it be, boss?” asks the car wash guy with a thick accent.
Avoiding eye contact, Gareth flourishes a large note between the first two fingers of his right hand. “Super-Deluxe.” The guy offers change, but Gareth dismisses it.
“Cheers, boss.” The guy walks backwards, fanning his hands. “Come, come, come…”
Gareth cranes his head out of the window and aligns the front wheel with the drag mechanism, revving impatiently.
The guy thrusts his palms out. “Engine off, gear neutral, windows up.”
“I know, I know.” Gareth rocks the button, cocoons himself in exquisitely upholstered silence. Shoulders back into the contoured seat, rests his hands on his lap and exhales completely. Feels a slight jolt as the machine grabs hold. Submits to it like a shave or an MRI.
The car is pulled from the bright, warm day into cool shadow. A deluge of soapy water descends all around. Behind closed lids, Gareth’s eyes still dart. His face is tight, brow and jaw clenched.
“Look at you,” says his dead father from the back seat. “Driving a Kraut car and paying Polacks to wash it.”
Gareth’s eyes stay closed, but his face softens. “We don’t use those words any more, dad.”
“I think you’ll find a lot of people do, son. But maybe not the types you associate with these days. What are you – a banker? Lawyer? Drug dealer?”
Gareth hesitates before replying. “Digital media strategist.”
His dad snorts. “What’s that?”
They progress into a maelstrom of whirling blue strips that flagellate the car from nose to tail and back again, whipping away the suds. Gareth opens his eyes and finds his dad with the rear-view mirror. Scans the well-worn features, looking for his own. “No time to explain. I need to ask you something.”
His dad cocks his head. “Okay, but first I get to ask you something.”
Gareth exhales through his nose. “Fine. What?”
“Why don’t you wash it yourself, you lazy sod?”
Frowning, like it’s obvious. “Because I spent too much time washing your cars? In all kinds of weather, back aching, hands raw…”
“I paid you, didn’t I?”
“Barely enough to buy chips.”
“Nothing wrong with a bit of hard work.”
“No, lad, mo-ti-va-tion,” stressing each syllable with a slap on Gareth’s head, making him squirm away. “Paid off, too, by the looks of it.” He prods the seat with a bony finger. “Too rich for my taste, mind. All this leather, like we’re in a swinger’s club. What time does the orgy start?” Cackling at his own joke.
The blue strips wilt and recede. The car moves on into torrents of hot air that chase water droplets up the windscreen into oblivion.
Gareth’s dad leans forward and rests his elbows on top of the seatbacks, his arms splayed out like chicken wings. “And what’s wrong with a British car? Austin? Hillman? Triumph?”
Gareth snorts, an echo of the old man. “They’re all dead and gone, like you. Couldn’t move with the times.”
“Shame, they were classics. Remember our Herald? What a beauty!”
“I remember it breaking down a lot, trudging along the side of the road looking for a garage, lorries thundering past. It’s a wonder we survived.”
His dad nods. “Good times.”
Gareth makes a face but says nothing.
The car advances into a waxy mist.
“Listen,” says Gareth, twisting to face his dad directly. “We’re running out of time.”
With a weary sigh, “Go on, then.”
Gareth takes a deep breath, braces himself against the pent-up anticipation.
“Did you love me?”
His dad stares back at him for a long moment. Then he cracks into raucous, hooting laughter, falls back into the seat, clasps his hands together and shakes them like he’s backed a hundred-to-one winner at Epsom.
Gareth’s jaw clenches again. He blinks rapidly.
The car glides through a curtain of dangling, dancing fluffy loops that caress its bodywork to a high sheen. Beyond them, sunlight glints.
Gasping, wheezing. “Give me a minute…”
“I need to know. Please!”
His dad controls his breathing, supresses an errant giggle, inhales and lets it out slowly. But joy makes way for disappointment. “Of all the things you could ask me, all the wondrous knowledge I could impart. Not only from life, but beyond. Honestly son, it would blow… your… mind.”
“Never mind all that.” Desperate, damming back tears. “Did you love me?”
“What do you think?” His old trick, returning the question like a one-two.
“I don’t know! You did nothing but snipe and criticise. Like, no matter how hard I cleaned your cars you always pointed out the bit I’d missed, even if you had to spit on them to prove your point.”
“And here you are, driving something I couldn’t even have dreamed of and paying someone to wash it.” With a panto-posh voice, “Keep the change my good man!”
The car stops. Overhead, a green light pings on, telling Gareth it’s time to leave, but he’s still twisted backwards, his face clenched with need. Looking out of the rear window, he sees the next car emerge through the dancing loops, its driver arguing with someone unseen.
There’s a sharp rap on the window. “You okay, boss?”
Gareth’s face resets into cold indifference. He straightens up, turns around. Jabs a finger at the ignition button, stamps the clutch, rams the gear stick into first. And without acknowledging the car wash guy, he roars towards the exit.
“You’re welcome,” says the guy, shaking his head.
Giles Montgomery writes ads for a living and fiction for joy, previously seen in Storgy, Spelk, fat cat magazine, Tiny Molecules and Reflex Fiction. He lives near London with his family and can be found on Twitter @gilesmon.