Craving Candy: Chapter 4

The dim lights on the clock radio of her old Corolla flicked over to 4:30am as Laura Chen slid into the carpark of the suburban service station she opened on the weekends.

Dawn was close. It was nearly summer and the birds celebrated the coming day with an exuberant and almost inappropriate joy. As Laura jerked the old gear box into park and pulled the brake, she took a moment to put her head on the steering wheel and imagine it was her pillow.

Then she shook herself, took a deep breath and launched herself into her day. The servo needed to be opened by 4:30am. The paper delivery would be imminent. The milk delivery would be here at 5am. And she had the car wash to turn on, the gas tanks to unlock and the ice freezer to check.

Besides, she thought, this was the favourite of her part-time jobs. Between the hours spent at the 7-Eleven staring at a glass screen as the fluorescent lights flickered artificially above her head and the bar where she swatted off artless passes and greasy hands, the service station was a great job. She loved the clear empty mornings in particular, far more than the late nights of the timeless convenience store and the thumping nightclub. 

She pulled back the bolt from the door, turned off the alarm and then let herself into the garage, walking through the mechanic’s meticulously tidy space and into the shop. She made herself a bad instant coffee in the dirty kitchen (that was mechanics for you – pristine garage, filthy kitchen) and then logged onto her console and opened the front door to let in The Rambling Ancients.

The oldies wandered, especially in the mornings; coming down to the servo for their paper, some milk and the odd detour into well-intentioned casual racism.

“Where are you from dear?” the blue-rinsed grandmothers would ask her with brightly curious faces.

She felt like the Thai girl in that old lamb ad and sometimes even answered, “Ballarat” in her flattest, broadest accent just for the reaction.

She wasn’t, of course. She was from right here. The same place they were. And her family had been in this country for 150 years, something she doubted many of them could say. Oh the irony.

Once it turned 7am, her mother called. Repeatedly if Laura let her. She took the first call, patiently explaining for the millionth time that she didn’t have time to take calls at work and then turned off her phone. Her mother was worried about, in no specific order: the cost of her Master’s; the fact she didn’t have a boyfriend; her grandmother’s ominous mutterings about finding her a nice Chinese (hopefully wealthy) husband; and her parents’ failing business and Uncle’s bankruptcy. 

“Maybe you should just think about dropping out of your course and moving home for now,” her mother had started saying. “It’ll just be temporary. I’m sure with your help we can turn the business around. Your Uncle, well, I know he’s my brother but…”

She didn’t need to finish that sentence. Even Laura knew her mother’s brother was useless. He had taken money from everyone in the family and lost it all on endless blue sky financial mistakes. Unfortunately this last one had coincided with the start of the worst pandemic in 100 years and the beginning of the first recession in 30. She knew how much the family business was struggling. Hadn’t she taken commerce and law to help her family? The horrible thing about Laura’s life at the moment was that she was starting to think her mother was right. 

Moving back home would put her in the path of her father’s mother though and the woman had started to look at her with a certain gleam in her eye. The gleam that said that the family was going too native and needed a re-injection of ‘proper’ Chinese blood; preferably one that came with a big fat trust fund. It was one family tradition Laura didn’t feel like upholding.

“Lolly, I think there’s a problem with the car wash.”

It was Matthew, her assistant who arrived at 8am every morning to give her a hand so she didn’t have to leave the console. Matthew and her had gone to primary school together briefly but she barely remembered him. She remembered instead his more outgoing, better looking fraternal twin, James. Brown hair and clear skin to Matthew’s fair hair and somehow cheerful freckles. Matthew was ambling, laconic and, frankly, not particularly bright. But he was a laid back and lazily kind young man and she enjoyed working with him, even if he insisted on using her old nickname.

It was her cousin Mei who had named her Lolly when she was young. And like Baby in that old dance movie, she hadn’t been old enough to realise she should have a problem with it. Or to ask how Mei Chen had ended up with red hair and green eyes.

“Okay, take the console,” she told him and went out to wrestle with the car wash. There was a reset programme she could run and a short set of troubleshooting techniques she knew. But if she couldn’t get it to work, she’d have to shut it down for the day until they could get a technician in to fix it on Monday. 

In a flash she saw a terrible unfolding image of her whole Sunday filled with people coming back from the beach and the bush wanting to have their cars cleaned and realising it wasn’t working. Whole beach-stained 4WDs full of beach-stained families and loud hungover groups filling the store as she had to explain their precious cars would need to remain unwashed.

Salt and sand encrusted bogans with salt and sad encrusted vehicles storming out or yelling or giving her tired, resigned looks of frustration. And then as the day progressed, harried apologetic women with drunk boyfriends and their drunk friends leering at her and yelling because of the paint job on their treasured vehicles. Finally the excessive politeness and clear staccato enunciation would give way to racial insults about her dark slanted eyes, straight black long hair and requisite glasses. 

She was fixing this car wash. Nothing would stop her.

Matthew had undersold the problem with the car wash. It was most definitely absolutely not working. She checked the fuses and the gears, coming away with grease smeared down her work uniform of shorts and polo shirt in company colours. One of those colours was white, something she’d never understood.

She walked into the car wash itself, the giant rollers looming over her diminutive 150cm self, and saw that there was something jammed in the mechanism. She sighed in relief. Remove it, reset and she’d have her car wash back. It was a Coke can, which meant it was deliberate. Idiots.

She tugged it but it didn’t budge so she braced herself against the car wash walls, carefully placed her hands on the can and pulled as hard she could. Nothing. She was starting to sweat from the humidity inside the wash and breathed a sigh of relief in the cooler outside air when she left to get a pair of pliers. 

“Coke can in the mechanism,” she reported to Matthew as she went through to the workshop and hefted a pair of large pliers over her shoulder. “It’ll be fine once I get it out.”

“All good,” he said, sprawled over the console chair. It was quiet, she realised. She was sweating in the fast-building heat and he was here soaking up the air-conditioning in an empty shop. She was the manager and the console couldn’t be left unattended so this was just it then. The way things were. 

She stepped back into the car wash and realised there was still a puddle of brown water on the floor. The wash wasn’t draining properly so the coke can was the least of its problems. She’d put in a maintenance report when she was finished. Laura quietly patted herself on the back for noticing the issue before it caused a major problem.

She braced her feet against the car wash wall again, clipped the can with the pliers and yanked it out. When the can gave, it gave completely and she found herself falling backwards, the heavy pliers flying out of her hand as she flopped down into the filthy water; the steel implement succumbing to gravity just as she had and landing with a crunching thud on her nose.

As she stumbled out of the car wash – bloody nose, covered in mud, old detergent and grease –  to reset the machine. As she drunkenly stumbled – sweating, bleeding and dripping – into the molten spring sunshine she slammed straight into the rock hard chest of the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen. 

And that was it. Lolly’s life as she had known it was over.

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