At least it’s not raining, Jess told herself as she sat on the back step, pulling on a pair of green wellingtons. She had dithered over whether to wear the new tartan slacks she’d bought in the market last week or to stick with her usual weekend miniskirt look. In the end, she went with the latter, with the addition of some enormously long, fluorescent orange socks that reached practically to the top of her legs and would definitely keep her warm while she and Tom cleaned cars. They had some guaranteed work from Mick’s Motors, courtesy of Jess’s mum who had chatted up Mick while selling him haddock and chips. That would be five cars at five bob each to start the day. Tom had offered to bring the cleaning materials because he could ‘get them cheap’, though Jess knew that in reality he would just nick them from his mum or gran.
The car washing at Mick’s had gone well. He’d had five cars on the forecourt. The first one had taken them nearly an hour because they had wanted to please Mick, but also because they were unpractised and kept washing some bits twice while missing other bits. However, it did not take long to work out a methodology that ensured they cleaned everything only once. Tom took charge of the roof, the rear doors, and everything else towards the back of the car, while Jess did the front half but also made sure the chrome work shone and the windows were smear free.
Medgate Race Day was a major event in the flat racing calendar and meant that the town was quiet. There had been few customers, so Jess had had to put up with Mick staring at her for most of the morning, which meant she’d had to keep her coat on to stop her exertions from being too revealing. Not for the first time that day, she wished she had gone with the tartan slacks.
By eleven, they had finished the cars at Mick’s and, with twenty-five shillings jingling in Jess’s purse, they had set off to try their luck around the streets. By two o’clock, they had knocked on fifty doors, which had resulted in only two jobs. “We should have asked double for that last one; what a state!” Jess commented ruefully, as they carried their cleaning gear along Salters Avenue.
Tom looked troubled, but neither of them wanted to admit their idea had not earned them as much money as they’d hoped. “There just aren’t enough dirty cars around, that’s the problem,” he said bitterly. “Too many people cleaning their own, if you ask me. Haven’t they got anything better to do?”
“Maybe it’s our town that’s to blame. Maybe it’s just too clean,” Jess joked, and immediately regretted it, for Tom snapped back, “What do you mean our town is too clean? How can a town be too clean?”
Jess felt a little desperate. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “it was just a throwaway remark, you know…”
The children were silent for a moment. Then Tom’s face changed. Tom’s thoughts seemed to have no choice but drift across his face in an ever-changing slideshow of moods and emotions, that Jess for one enjoyed watching. Clearly, he had brightened up and she felt out of immediate danger. “Maybe we can do something about that,” he said.
Jess looked puzzled. “About what?”
“We could do with more cars that need a wash, right? Do you remember that old stirrup pump we found in Alan’s shed, the one his dad kept from the war?”
Jess giggled. “The one you used to soak the woman sunbathing next door? That one? Alan got into so much trouble.”
“I know, I felt sorry about that,” Tom said unconvincingly, and began laughing too. “And he wasn’t even there; he was in the bog at the time.”
“And you ran off after she screamed. It’s a wonder he still talks to you.”
“Yeh, well anyway, it’s a good strong pump, that’s the point. So what if we stirred some mud into a bucket of water?”
“And did what?” Jess said, her mouth gaping open in disbelief. She did not like the sound of this one little bit.
“Somebody’s goin’ to see us,” Jess whined, hopping on one leg and tugging at her skirt. They stood in the draughty car park at Eastleigh Court, the swankiest address in Medgate, and not for the first time that day she lamented her poor wardrobe choice. The miniskirt had not been as ‘good for business’ as Tom had predicted. Apart from Mick, none of their customers had even glanced at her. The first job had been a Reliant Robin whose cleaning, the elderly owner insisted, was only worth four bob, it being a three-wheeler, and for that he wanted the floor swept as well. The other job had been a Land Rover belonging to a red-bearded Scotsman who spoke in a brogue so thick as to defy comprehension. The vehicle, filthy and mud-caked, had taken them an hour to get anything like clean.
Being Medgate Race Day, the Eastleigh Court car park was only sparsely populated. Probably half the town attended the event, the most popular meeting in the Medgate racing calendar. For local people, the day was as much about dressing up, getting drunk and showing off as it was about the actual horseracing and, although not as well known as the Derby or the Grand National, it counted as a significant event in the flat racing calendar. In the past, even members of the Royal Family had been known to attend. Jess’s mum had taken her and Katie to the Medgate Races several times. Jess thought it must be the most animated she had ever seen Katie, almost beside herself at being able to stand so close to so many beautiful horses.
“Look, over there.” Tom pointed to a tap on the wall by the flats’ entrance.
“Keep your voice down,” Jess hissed. “I thought I saw some old woman looking out of her window. Let’s get behind that car or somebody’ll see us.”
“First things first,” Tom replied. The children crouched by the wall tap and waited while water trickled into the bucket and Tom stirred the muddy mixture with a stick. When he had finished he looked up and smiled at his partner. Far from returning the sentiment, Jess looked and felt distinctly uneasy. Still, the water in the bucket looked suitably murky and their attention turned to the parked cars. Most were large, new and shiny.
“Let’s do that Jag first,” Tom decided, picking up the bucket. “I’ll try to make it look natural; just a light coating around the wheel arches and the bottoms of the doors, something like that. It’s not a precise science.” The latter, one of Alan’s favourite expressions, had evidently rubbed off on his friend. “Ready with the pump?”
Jess nodded, her nervousness expressing itself in a sudden urge to pee. To take her mind off it she tried to think of something else. She wondered how Katie and Alan were doing at the zoo. It had to be more fun than this, surely.
Tom dipped the rubber hose in the bucket and held the spray nozzle a foot from the car. “OK, give her a pump.” Jess did so. At first, nothing happened, and then with a gurgle a jet of filthy water shot out of the nozzle and peppered the driver’s door. It was working, kind of. Tom grinned and nodded vigorously at Jess who raised the pump handle once more and then leaned down on it. Tom worked his way around the wheel arches and rear wing, moving the nozzle quickly so as not to leave too many runs. At last satisfied, he stopped spraying and stood up to view the result. “There, done. What do you reckon?”
Jess had to admit it did look quite convincing; you could imagine the car had been driven at speed along a muddy track, even though it hadn’t. They went round to the other side of the car to finish the job.
“Done,” Tom said, once happy with his efforts, and stepped back to admire his handiwork. “Not bad for a first go, don’t you think? Don’t want to overdo it.”
Jess had to agree. “The boy’s got talent. When do I get a go?”
“You can choose the next one. We just need to make a note of the owner.” All the car park spaces were numbered so this was not difficult.
Jess crouched and rummaged in her shoulder bag. A notebook and pen were always on her ‘essentials’ list. “Any idea whose car it is?”
“Flat eighteen? Two old geezers. They’re on my paper round. One of them is called Aubrey, I think. They gave me a very nice tip last Christmas and even invited me in for a mince pie.”
With the first car finished, plenty of mixture remained in the bucket. Enough for four more, Tom estimated.
“Let’s do that Bentley next,” Jess suggested, nodding towards a grey limousine.
Tom winced. “Are you sure you want to do that one?”
“Sure I’m sure. Pass me the nozzle.”