Car Wash

He is sitting on the back seat of a car, somewhere in France. It’s a bright blue day, absurdly hot, and the roads are hazed with dust. The car looks as though it’s been dragged out of a ditch. It is coated in dust flung up by the wheels and scraps of weed are poking out the grille. They ease into the automatic car wash and the daylight fades like a dimmer switch. Rollers descend from above; close in from the sides. The movement is dramatic somehow, like when the curtain rises in the theatre. Pushing his forehead to the window, he watches the synchronised columns dervish around the car. There are glimpses of the world outside but mostly he sees a wet black flicker. This is the first time he’s been through a car wash. He is five years old. Vibrations travel from washer to window to skull and turn his tongue into a tuning fork. Mist pounds against the glass while opaque liquids dribble, slide, are carved off by blades of pressurised air. It is strange to be inside, to observe but not feel the raging water and foaming suds, here: the still point in a mechanised storm. He is inside a violence which does not touch him. The doors are locked. It’s like being in a lift as it moves between floors, a state of enforced passivity he can’t will himself out of. Caressed, scrubbed, breathed-on, showered: the cleansing envelops but never enters the car. He pictures rainwater coating his skin in a liquid sheath, invisible armour. How do those water-jets feel? What does the white foam taste like? He feels nothing: his body is air. The machine is loud but muffled, a roar that sounds far-off yet visceral, the thud and rush of blood. No one is talking. His sister is heat-drugged, fast asleep; his parents are staring into the glassy darkness where the road should be. Their heads are hollow cases enclosed within the hollow case of the car, which is enclosed within the machine, the city, the world. He remembers the diagram of the Earth with a section removed from the side, its concentric layers of red and orange darkening as they progress towards the core. This is where he is: not roaming the exterior crust but in the bright red sphere in the centre of everything, unable to move or act. He glances at the back of his father’s neck, the hairs arcing out of the skin, the speckled gleam of emerging sweat, the road map of miniscule creases. He reaches for the plastic crank in the door. A short shaft ending with a circular button: machinery he can, with his body, control. Earlier, as they drove into the car wash, he father said ‘Don’t try to get out.’ [Laughter.] Sometimes the boy makes choices. Other times the choice makes itself, as spontaneous as a sneeze. A twist of his arm and the window opens. Water blasts into his face and chokes his nose, burns his cheeks and pummels his throat; it explodes, ricochets, sluices through the moulded plastic and faux-leather seats and coats the dashboard in greasy suds. His sister jolts awake and his parents squirm as if their seats are on fire: they move in slow motion. There is no sound. He can barely see past the mist that beats and plumes against his face; he swallows mouthfuls of foaming water as if it was air. His father yanks the window closed. Liquid gathers in tiny hanging pouches on the inside of the car, several droplets forming and falling at once: a constellation.


This piece was originally written in reaction to an 8-minute work of video art by Sophie von Cundale first exhibited at Conch: A Forum for Critical Discussion at the South London Gallery on 8 January 2013.


is a writer and producer based in London. His work has appeared in The White Review, the TLS, the Lisbon Triennale, Arc Magazine, Arena Homme+ online, Radio 4, Radio 3, Resonance FM, the South London Gallery and elsewhere. He co-runs CAR, an arts podcast.



Issue No. 1

Interview with Paula Rego


The White Review Short Story Prize 2015



September 2016

Colonel Lágrimas