Ian McMillan: Swizzled out of father-son bonding

As I perambulate on my Sunday morning stroll I note that many of the time-honoured rituals of the Day of Rest are still firmly in place; I see church- and chapel-going ladies and gentlemen in smart suits and hats; I observe bleary blokes in shorts and football shirts waiting for a lift to the match, puffing on an early-morning cig or glugging from a man-size tin of energy drink. I glance away from people in last night’s gladrags tottering home in that universal stagger known as The Walk of Shame and I witness one of that most enduring of all Sunday-morning rituals: the washing of the car.

I think it’s odd that, in these days of fragmented employment where more people work weekends and the fact that on every Yorkshire street you can find groups of people with chapped fingers and old mangles who are willing to wash your car for a fiver, the old solo bucket-and-polish routine still goes on. But there they are, the Sunday Sluicers, shammy in hand, radio on, whistling and rubbing in the keen morning air.

As a lad I was always dying to help my dad to wash his car but I never dared ask. It wasn’t that my dad was stern, in fact he was the opposite (prow?) but it seemed to me that when he was washing the old blue Zephyr 6 and singing A Scottish Soldier by Andy Stewart or Sailor by Anne Shelton he had achieved a pinnacle of sublime happiness otherwise only available to sages who’d sat on freezing Himalayan mountain tops for decades wearing their threadbare knickers; a happiness that would be disturbed by the presence of a tousle-haired kid in brown corduroy shorts and a Tufty Club badge. One Sunday morning, though, emboldened by the e-numbers in a packet of Swizzles (well, four packets of Swizzles) I asked if I could help.

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The silence that felt like that silence just after Oliver Twist asked for more, as my dad put his cloth down and stopped mid-chorus. And then he smiled. “Aye, why not?” he said, and he went to fetch another bucket. I was so full of joy and gratitude that I ate another packet-and-a-half of Swizzles. I was a grown-up! I was washing the car! I’d be getting married and buying a house next! I’m sorry to report that the joint car-washing wasn’t the beautiful father/son bonding exercise I’d wanted it to be, mainly because I was rubbish. I rubbed too hard. I didn’t rub hard enough. I rubbed the wrong way. I rubbed the right way but not with enough pressure at the beginning and end. I didn’t know the words of Sailor.

My dad had almost infinite reserves of patience but I could tell they were nearly exhausted as he explained to me again how to do it right. My hands were freezing and red and clumsy. I knocked the bucket of water all over Mrs White-next-door’s cat and it ran off to tell her in spiteful cat language. I wanted to stop but I didn’t want to admit failure. I felt tears beginning to well up. My dad noticed and said “Do you know what? I fancy a few Yorkshire Mixtures: nip to Mr Kendall’s and get me a quarter…and some Swizzles for yourself”. I was released.

I’m pleased to say I’ve never washed a car since. Well, I wouldn’t want to knock the water over, would I?