When I get to the garage at 6:30, I see Dad’s yellow Peugeot parked outside. He doesn’t wave or raise a hand as I pull in to park, nor does he say hello when I get out of the car and walk over. The only affection he shows is towards my dog, who bounds over to greet him.
“Hello Tyson, hello boy,” he says, scratching the bull mastiff’s ears.
“That’s Buster,” I say. “Tyson was the dog we had when I was little.”
He nods, as if he knew that the whole time, but his eyes narrow and I know I’ve hurt him already. It wasn’t my intention – it never is – but I seem to manage it nevertheless.
“How are you, Milton?” he asks.
“Yeah, not bad,” I say. “You’re up early.”
“Ah, I don’t sleep much these days.”
“Car playing up?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. Whenever I turn left it feels like there’s something grinding down there. I don’t think it’s serious, but you’re always saying not to take anything for granted…”
“I’ve got a couple in at the moment,” I said, “but leave me the keys and I’ll bring it in when there’s time.”
“OK,” he says, fishing the keyring out of his pocket and handing them to me. “When do you think it’ll be ready?”
“This afternoon, probably. Depends what needs doing and if I need to order any parts.”
Dad shrugs. “Ok, well, give us a call when it’s ready,” he says and starts to turn away.
“Wait… do you want a cup of tea or something?”
Dad shrugs again. He does that a lot. Learning to read his indifference is an artform I’ve never mastered, so I decide to take the initiative.
I take my keys from my pocket and open the door set into the shutters.
“Inside,” I say, maybe to the dog, maybe to Dad. Both of them step through the door at the same time, tripping over each other’s feet on the way in.
Once inside, Dad waits for me, unsure of where to step in the dark garage. Buster has no such circumspection and bolts over to the dog basket in the far corner. Once I get in, I flick the lights on. I’ve owned this garage for six years, but I can tell that Dad has never felt comfortable here. On some level, I think he was always perplexed by my preference for gears and grease over ink and academia. But then, sons have been disappointing fathers ever since the dawn of time.
“Make yourself at home,” I say, knowing he won’t.
I keep a box of Earl Grey teabags just for him and as I busy myself with kettle and cups, he stands around and doesn’t know where to put himself.
“Business going well?” he asks. “You always seem to be full.”
“It’s OK,” I say. “Gary was off sick on Friday, so we’re a bit behind.”
“Is that the new lad? How’s that working out?”
Gary’s been working here for three years.
“Fine,” I say and ask if he wants sugar. That’s not me being ignorant as to my father’s habits – he changes his mind with every cup.
“Mm,” he replies in an affirmative grunt. I drop a sugar cube into the mug and add milk.
“So, what have you been up to?” I ask, handing him his tea.
He shrugs and shakes his head with a sigh. “Oh… Starting another book, you know… The Phoenicians.”
Dad’s interest in ancient history has withered a bit since he retired, but he keeps trying to write books and losing interest half way through.
“I think I remember them. Galleys and purple dye?”
“If you want to be reductive about it.”
“Well, I’d love to read some when it’s ready.”
Dad shakes his head in a gesture of unconscious rebuttal. He’s refusing, even though he says: “Hmm. Maybe.”
We sip our tea and say nothing for a moment.
“Is everything OK, Dad?”
His reaction is so startled, you’d think I just flicked an elastic band at his nose.
“Of course. Why would you ask me that?”
“I don’t know,” I shrug. “You seem a little out of it.”
Dad snorts and that small gesture of ridicule makes me feel about eight years old.
He puts down his tea and stands up to leave. “You’ll call me when it’s done?”
“Of course, but Dad-“
He hold up his palm. “I know how busy you are, so I don’t want to hold you up any further.”
“You’re not,” I begin, but he’s already turned to the door.
“See you, boy.” he says.
I open my mouth, then shut it quickly. He was talking to the dog.
It’s a relief when Gary turns up, dropping a bacon buttie on my lap and flipping the radio on to Capital Gold. He’s still not totally shaken the flu, but I’m glad of his company as it distracts me from the nagging chatter inside my head. We start ploughing through the backlog and manage to clear a good proportion of the jobs by the end of the day. It’s just as well, because the work was backing up so far that it was starting to test my customer’s patience.
Getting round to looking at Dad’s car took a lot longer than I thought it would. As soon as I got behind the wheel of the Peugeot, I slid the seat back as far as it would go – an automatic gesture that I’d learned from the many times I’d had to do work on the yellow lemon. I started her up and listened for anything out of the ordinary. The starter was working OK and while the 1.6 litre engine was never going to sing, it didn’t sound like there was anything wrong with the tappets or cylinders. I give it a couple of revs in neutral and when it responds as well as it ever will, I put it in gear and start steering it into the garage.
As the wheels turn, I hear the scraping sound that Dad mentioned. It sounds like it’s coming from somewhere on the offside wing. So I park the car inside, shut off the engine, get out and climb underneath. As I examine the wheelarch, I feel around with my fingers to see if I can detect any broken or buckled metal that might be causing the scraping sound. After a short period of blind fumbling, my fingers fall onto a hard lump wedged in between the arch and the axle. It’s impossible to tell by touch alone exactly what it is, but it’s certainly jammed in tight and no amount of yanking will budge it. I angle the light to try and see what’s stuck in there. It’s difficult to make out, but looks like a piece of metal and even though I can’t see exactly what it is, I can tell it doesn’t belong. I can’t get it out with bare hands, but after a bit of a wrestle with the wrench, I pop it out and it drops to the floor with a clink.
The noise alerts Buster, who has been lolling around all afternoon, waiting for me to finish up and take him home. He scampers across to the new thing and I have to snatch it away from him before he covers in in slobber. As I do so, I can feel a sharp edge digging into my palm, one that could cut Buster’s mouth if he chewed at it. Eventually, he backs off and I’m able to have a better look for myself.
It’s a watch, or – at least – part of one. Most of the face is present, although the glass on the face has shattered. The rest is dented and dirty, probably from being jammed into a wheelarch for however long it’s been there. The most unsettling thing about it, though, is the way that the band has been ripped apart. The strap was made of stainless steel links, not leather, and the tear has created a jagged blade along one edge. I turn the broken watch over in my hands, trying to work out how it could have happened and how it ended up jammed into the wheelarch of Dad’s Peugeot. I tell myself that it could have been lying on the street and got picked up somehow as it was driven over, or that maybe there was some weird kind of electromagnetic field that attracted it to the car’s interior. It’s not very convincing, but I’m on the verge of believing it when I hear a unpleasant slobbering sound coming from the front of the car. I peer round and see Buster licking the radiator grille, his rough pink tongue lapping at the metal with so much gusto that I have to physically drag him away from the front of the car.
I look at the radiator grille and between the white bubbles of canine saliva, I can see streaks of something red. Kneeling down, I look at the red marks and turn the smashed watch over in my hand and I try to think of an explanation for it all that doesn’t make my skin crawl.
I look along the bonnet of the car and I can see the indentation at its middle. I know that it wasn’t a stone or a carelessly placed shopping bag that made that impression, but the impact of a human skull.
I think about how the watch could possibly have got inside the car and try to envisage a scenario that doesn’t involve reversing over someone’s arm.
I think about the blood was on the radiator grille and wonder how long you would have to spend washing it away and how bad a person’s eyesight would have to be not to notice that they hadn’t got it all.
More than anything, I think about how much I love my Dad and how lucky I am that, for once, he’s got something I can fix.