One fine April morning I duly arrived for a spring clean. The day before I had given the interior its yearly vacuum, an endeavour that had yielded half a dozen chip forks, a mouldy banana skin, a lottery ticket and 13p in hard currency. Oh how my heart sank! Spic n’ Span’ had closed its doors. The local car wash had vanished without so much as a word. Damn! Having a car wash virtually next door to one’s home had been convenient. ‘Oh well,’ thought I, ‘I’ll have to find another one.’
I need not have worried. Driving past the premises, just days after Spic n’ Span had closed its doors, I noted with some satisfaction that the business had re-opened those same doors, although they had changed colour from red to yellow.
Arriving a week later for my delayed spring clean, I noted that Terry, Steve and the boys were no longer working at what had been re-christened ‘Quick Clean.’ In their place were four gentleman of Mediterranean appearance, who soon began to clean my muddy XJS to the same high standard I had been accustomed. Out with the old in with the new. ‘All the same,’ thought I, ‘a bit strange. Where had Terry and co gone and why had their departure been so sudden?’
I got out of the Jag and stretched my legs. In the small office sat a gentleman who introduced himself as Neil. ‘I’m the new owner,’ he smiled. We exchanged pleasantries. Originally from the East End, Neil had been in the navy and since arriving back in civvy street had been looking for a new direction. ‘If you’d told me I would have been running a car wash I would have laughed at you,’ confided the new patron in an unmistakable cockney twang.
‘What happened to Terry and the lads?’ I enquired after the pleasantries. On the forecourt the new workforce were certainly putting in plenty of elbow grease into their job. The Jag was starting to gleam in the midday sun.
‘Oh, they all left,’ replied Neil airily.
‘All four of them? None of them wanted to stay? I was puzzled. ‘Terry had been here for, what, five years?’ I also knew he had a wife and a small son to look after. Would he have quit just like that?
‘Economics,’ said Neil watching the guys put the finishing touches to my car through the office window. ‘You want cheap car washes, you need cheap labour.’
Aware there was more to come, I held my tongue.
‘Spic n’ Span couldn’t continue as it was. Labour costs, see? So we had to . . . Neil shrugged, ‘we had to reduce our labour costs.’
‘But where did Terry go? Has he got another job?’
‘Dunno. Probably got something else I would think. ‘nother car wash . . .’
‘Until he gets undercut again,’ said I trying hard but failing to sound unconcerned. Imagine earning the minimum wage and realising that you are too expensive. I felt my blood starting to boil.
Perhaps Neil read my mind, I’m not sure, but I detected a definite change in tone when he said:
‘Well you want cheap car washes don’t you guvnor?’
‘Erm, yes, I suppose we do.’
‘These guys came all the way from Syria,’ said Neil waving a hand in the direction of the chaps now hosing down my rather shiny looking Jag. ‘Turns out only one of ‘em is actually from Syria. The others are from somewhere else . . . Afghans, Albania.’
‘Do you mean,’ said I quelling the anger I felt, ‘it was too expensive to employ Terry? What about minimum wage? I thought . . .’
‘What about it?’ Neil seemed a trifle irritated. ‘These guys do the same work for half the salary. They’re happy. You’re happy and I know I’m happy.’ The office telephone rang. ‘Everyone’s a winner!’ said Neil picking up the receiver with a wink. ‘Hello, Quick Clean . . .’
‘Apart from Terry, his wife and kids.’
‘Nothing.’ I nodded and left the office in search of my car.
I found the Jag parked up behind the office. It looked immaculate.
‘He’s right,’ I thought as I drove the mile or so home, ‘we do want cheap car washes. We want cheap everything. So what about low-wage, low-skilled workers like Terry and his family – what will happen to the likes of them in this rush towards the lowest common denominator?
Who knows? Who even cares?