The Essential Worker
  Stories by Jane Turner Goldsmith
  1  Chicken
 Dumpster Zone
3  Roadkill
4  Floral Arrangements
5  Shiny Shoes
6  Temporary Repair Only
7  Steady White Light
  About the Author  |  |  Summer 2023 Fiction Issue

Temporary Repair Only

Essential Worker #6: Kevin

In the end I take the shift since Dwayne was a bit freaked out and fair enough, he’s got little kids and all that. It was our fortieth wedding anniversary—get that!—and I had an idea for a surprise for Rhonda, but never mind, that’s the way it goes, and the rule is we never make anyone do a shift they’re not comfortable with. I’ve had plenty of doozies in my time, you need the right kind of bloke. Woman last week who was convinced her car had been infiltrated by an evil presence. She took a while to allow me to present my credentials, even from a distance. It’s not as if we can come close anyway at the moment, but I mean, I had the uniform and the yellow van so I don’t know who she thought I might be impersonating, but she was that scared. The car started, no probs. I checked the battery, checked the oil and water, all good. Eventually she came out from under the veranda and thanked me. Dunno what I did to calm her down, but it seemed to work. Day before was a guy we suspected would be a doozie when he called in on the 1300 number. Out of petrol, yeah, sure, by the sound of the noise and carry-on behind. But members are entitled to a service. So the mug (me) goes out and sure enough some idiot thinks they can get their clapped out Commodore to go faster and they’ve pulled out the spark plug leads. You can usually tell when there’s greasy hand smear marks all over the guards and spanners lying around everywhere—and of course the car won’t start. All the mates standing around with their stubbies, pissed, having an illegal party. Should have guessed I suppose and might have given it a miss but we’re short staffed because everyone’s freaked out. Someone produced a card, and it was valid, so no worries, you’d think. Members are entitled to a service. Then one of the blokes started pressing in a bit, kind of mocking and jeering, like: can’t get it started, mate? What are ya, some kind of lion tamer or what? Then they all kind of pushed in, like, it was certainly not at a social distance! I said the car needed a part and I’d have to go order it from the office. Called the cops on my way out of that one. Got out of it just in the nick. Lucky it was me and not one of the juniors. Sometimes you just need the right kind of bloke.

But most of the time, you know, I love my job, it’s brilliant, you get people back up on the road. Half the time it’s a flat battery, after that it’ll be a flat tyre, keys locked in the car, out of petrol, or oil, or water; pretty straightforward stuff but people appreciate you, so it’s all good. They’re upset on the phone and hugely relieved when you arrive and get it started. That’s gold. Except this morning I was looking forward to my day off, as I had a bit of a plan, even in the circumstances, for a surprise.

Not to worry, that’s life, all good. We’ll take a rain check on the surprise.

So, this morning, I assumed it would be the standard flat battery, the member was understandably upset. Teacher, going to be late for her class, not a good look, but the phone team had done a good job of reassuring her. Road service would be out there, despite the times, within the hour, not a worry.

Drove past the golf course, brilliant day for a round, if you even could. Nice address. Magpies warbling away in the sun. Quite posh street with some fancy houses, you know those old stone residences built around the Federation, only know because I’m interested in architecture, you know, and real estate, like. We’d never live in one ourselves, too much salt damp and upkeep, even if they look fancy with their curly iron fretwork and their bay windows.

The member’s car—late 90s Holden Astra—was in the driveway of a much less posh block of flats, squashed between the fancy houses, some kind of 80s renovated factory building with those odd sloping rooflines. Young woman came out from behind a sliding glass door of the corner flat when I pulled up. To be honest she looked like she’d only just stopped bawling her eyes out, but no problem, I’m used to that, people’s plans have all been thrown up in the air when the car won’t go. Smart young woman, all dressed up and ready for work. All out of sorts, only to be expected.

So, I park the van behind her car in the driveway (allowing space for other residents to get past, of course).

Good morning, may we start with your card, please, is my standard line, even though they’ve given it over the phone. Now I have to add: Please can you place it on the bonnet.

She sets the card on the bonnet.

I say good morning, but I don’t suppose it’s the best of mornings for you, given the car situation. Again, my standard line. It tends to relax people, I’ve found. It feels a bit weird saying it from two metres away. It’s like we’re playing chasey around the car! Just an autograph here, then, on the form, thanks. Nobody has told us whether we can catch the damn thing from a pen, so we’re still doing signatures. I’ve got my gloves on though, just to be sure.

She scribbles a signature and I double check the card details against it.

“Prue, is it?” I say. The scribble doesn’t look like it.

“Prue” doesn’t reply right away. Normally I don’t take that much notice, it’s just the procedure. But today when I look, I see the signature doesn’t match up with the name on the card or on my job sheet. You’d be surprised how many people don’t actually have a membership when they call you out, so you have to expect all sorts of fudging and shenanigans. I can see she’s a bit flustered, as well as teary.

“Oh, so—this is not the same person as the one who called in, right?”

“Um,” she says, so I give her some time. She’s upset, remember.

“Are you the member, or is it on someone else’s card?”

The woman just stands there, stammering, and it’s obvious she isn’t Prue and it isn’t her card and she’s not good at faking.

“Yes,” she says finally. “I mean, no. It’s not my card.” And then she bursts into tears.

I wait.

“It’s my girlfriend’s membership,” she sobs, “but she’s not here.”

“You mean she’s out? Is it her car?”

“No, I mean she’s left.” More tears.

Gawd, what do I say? “So, she has the membership, but it’s your car, right?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, I don’t have a membership, Prue had it, but she’s left now. She was living here.”

“But,” I say (I have to get this clear, even though she’s already done her dash), “is she coming back?”

“No. We broke up,” she says, between sobs. It’s way more information than I actually need, but never mind.

Usually when people lie about their membership you have to call them on it. I mean, being a not-for-profit is not the same as a charity! But this lass has no idea how to lie. I’m a total sucker for people who don’t know how to lie.

I say I’m sorry because what else do you say? I am sorry. The kid is upset. She’s all alone.

I could suggest that she join the Association on the spot, like, pay the membership fee, in instalments, along with the battery purchase, pretty sure it will be a flat battery.

But she’s weeping like a waterfall. You know what, I’m just going to let it ride today. I say something like don’t worry about it, because I really don’t think she’s bunging it on, pretty sure she might have been crying all night and that’s hard to fake. She’s already late for work, and most people would just take the morning or even the whole day off when it starts off so pear-shaped, but for some reason she seems very exercised about not being there at the beginning of the day for her kids. I understand that. Someone who takes pride in her job, I get that, and I figure who is going to care if maybe she should technically be the member, but she’s managed in her crappy start to the day to stumble on her ex-girlfriend’s membership card, well, good luck to her, I say. Karma.

“Let’s just go with it today, could you show us some ID?” I don’t look at her. I’m sweating under my hi-vis, I’m sure my face is beetroot.

I can’t quite read her name from her messy signature so I’m a bit stuck for calling her anything. She mumbles what sounds like a thank you and produces her drivers’ licence: Lilla D’Angelo.

We’re good to go.

“All right, Lilla, may I have your keys please? Can you tell me a bit about what happened?”

“It drove fine yesterday. But the radio went a bit funny—like on and off a bit. And the lights were dimmed and then brightened up when I revved. There was a warning light on this morning, so I guess it’s the battery, but I thought I replaced it only a year or so ago.”

She sounds heaps more sure of herself. I let go a little breath. “Righto, let me have a listen.”

I turn the keys and sure as eggs, no ignition (although you’d be surprised how many cars actually start when the patrol arrives and we just turn the key).

“Or the sparks—maybe?” she says, trying to be helpful. I like the bright sound of her voice. “Sparks need checking, perhaps?”

“In an older car. Not so much with these newer models.”

I return to the back of my van to get all the gear. She edges back from me. Stupid maggies think it’s funny, squawking away.

I open up the bonnet and lean over to inspect it all, clearing away the eucalypt leaves that inevitably congregate around. I check the oil and water: good. Check the driver belt: serviceable. “Could be the alternator,” I say, and point to it. “You see these leads going through to the fuse box and the battery? They nourish the battery.” She peers at the jumble of parts under the bonnet, politely, from her safe distance, though she’s got no clue what I’m talking about, which is the usual case, so I’m not surprised. “It’s about the most common call-out after battery.” Even if it’s not, people like to know that it’s probably just a regular thing, and fixable, kind of like when you go to the doctor and she says could just be haemorrhoids, which is not a joke I generally share with a customer, but I’ve been known to give the team a bit of a chuckle.

“Oh,” she says, “that sounds expensive?”

“Nine times out of ten it’s a matter of giving it a bit of a tap. It’s wiggled loose and disconnected from the battery, so you’re driving but the battery isn’t charging.”

“Ah,” she says, pretending to understand.

I test the voltage of the battery. “Well, it sure is flat. The question is why. If the voltage drops quickly, then the battery’s faulty. But let’s give the alternator a tap and jump start it and see how we go.”

I tend to talk through what I’m doing, not that members usually know what I’m going on about, but you have to assume they’re intelligent and since they mostly have to take the car to the garage and re-explain it all. In this case I really want to keep talking. Car mechanics, I understand.

I give the alternator a bit of a tap, wriggle it a bit. I clean the battery clamps and the terminals which are badly corroded. I like to give members a better than average service. I attach the jump leads and we get the Astra started. It’s a sound usually accompanied by a relieved that’s good from the member, but this one’s gone quiet again. She’s looking defeated, and I really don’t think (for the second time today) that she is bunging it on. She goes back to her sliding door and sits down on a little step. I figure, if I can get her car so she can drive it to work without hassle, that should majorly improve her day. I stand back, observing and listening for the right smooth engine sounds, aware of her out of the corner of my eye.

“Look, it could be that the brushes are a bit worn. I’ll give them a bit of a clean now. Needing attention. But it’s enough to get you going, and you’ll still be able to get her started at the end of the day if we keep it charging a bit now. You’ll need to take her to your garage as soon as you can.”

She looks across at me from her step and, breaks my heart, I see a bit of a smile through her tears. She seems to have a bit of trouble saying anything, so I repeat:

“It’s a temporary repair only. You should book her into the garage to get the alternator looked at. Might not need anything, but better get it checked.”

I test the voltage again on the battery. 12.5. It hasn’t dropped. “Battery’s okay,” I say, thinking she might be relieved at that. Batteries are a couple of hundred bucks, even with the discount, which doesn’t apply to her as she’s not technically a member, but we’ll deal with that in due course.

She coughs. She gets to her feet just as I feel the buzz in my pocket for the next callout.

“Oh,” she says. “I wish you hadn’t…” then I can’t hear the rest of what she says as the engine is chugging over too loudly and for some dumb reason the magpies have started up a wild chortling racket. I have to ask her to repeat what she just said.

“Thank you, but I wish you hadn’t managed to fix the car!”

I’m puzzled now, but hey, I’ve got her sorted. I’d better be getting on to the next breakdown.

I leave the engine ticking over. There’s paperwork to do so I stand there filling it in at the side of my van, a bit conscious of her still, in the periphery. She’s not crying now but looking a bit dazed. I’m not one hundred per cent sure she’s okay. It’s one of those situations where you don’t really want to leave them, like, they look like they need their mum or their sister or—I don’t know—someone! Reminded me of the time I had to call the cops for that woman on the road on the outskirts. She was dead sure her ex was following her when her car broke down, that he was waiting for me to leave her once the car was going. I figured safer to call the cops and wait with her. You don’t know if they’re going to thank you, though, and same this time. If I uttered even one word of sympathy, I reckon I’d be in for the long haul. There is no way I’d be getting off for my anniversary dinner-at-home, which was what I had planned, nothing that special, was just going to call into the continental shop and pick up some of that fancy homemade ready-to-go pasta that Rhonda likes and cook up a nice dinner at home. And then, you know what, I thought I’d take Rhonda up the top of Mt Lofty and see the super moon. I figure if I was in my yellow work van no cops would stop me.

“Are you all right?” I end up saying, because, what else are you going to say? I mean, I feel bad for having a wife of forty years and obviously this lass doesn’t have anyone now, she’s just had a breakup, and it’s all sounding a bit complicated.

“I just,” she sighs, “had a bad day at school yesterday.”

“Oh, right,” I say. “It must be tough at the moment, right?” I sound like a raving idiot. I have no blinking idea. My own kids are all grown up, grankids too young for school. I’m completely out of touch.

“This boy…”

I wait. You’d get some doozies in classrooms, I bet you, it must be crazy there right now. I could say, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.

“And it reminded me of…”

I wait for her to finish her sentences, though I’m a bit freaked about what she’s going to say.

“Look, um.” Gawd, I’ve forgotten her name.

“Lilla.” She looks at me with these big eyes, like she wants me to give her the answer. I want to shrink into a hole. I am not cut out for this. I don’t know what to say. I open my mouth and I don’t have the foggiest idea what is going to come out of it.

“Look. Um. Maybe. I reckon. Do you have anyone you can talk to right now?”

She shakes her head, but then seems to pull herself together a little, what a relief because I truly have no idea what comes next.

“No, I’m okay,” she says. “Thank you, I had a bad day yesterday and this boy… attacked me… and… when you got the car going, it suddenly hit me, I have to go back to the classroom and… But I’m fine, I’m really fine.” She smiles at me. A weak smile—but, a smile!

The next thing that comes out of my mouth, I have no idea how the words got assembled.

“Look, Lilla, do you reckon you might need to, you know, take a day off, what do you think? Most people would call in, if they had a wobbly like that, it’s normal. I’m sure they won’t think badly of you. Reckon you should be able to talk to someone about it.”

That’s all I say. I don’t have the faintest idea where it came from.

She looks at me with her red eyes and it’s like she was waiting for someone to say it. She gets out a tissue and blows her nose and puts on her teacher voice—kind of confident and “knows-what-I’m-talking-about.”

“You know what,” she says. “You’re right. One hundred per cent, that’s what I should do.”

What did I just say? She’s smiling still. This is what I usually get, but after sorting the alternator or fitting the battery.

She starts saying she’s embarrassed and she’s really sorry and knows she should sign up for Road Service and she’s not sure why she hasn’t and it’s not that she can’t afford it, though to be honest she’s on a contract that will finish at the end of term, and she doesn’t know when the next contract is going to come, with the times and all. I have to wave her off and say I’m sure she will sign up when her situation is a bit clearer and as a PS I say I’m sure she will get something, another contract, even though how would I know? It just seems like the right thing to say. It’s a relief to hear her teacher voice. I feel like telling her my wife loves homemade pasta but that would be so rude, just because her surname is D’Angelo. I’m an idiot. Luckily I don’t say that.

The magpies are laughing, like it’s all a big joke. It’s not, but sometimes it helps to take heavy things lightly. I reckon.

All that’s left is for me to sign off on the job.

Alternator requiring attention. Jump start.

Temporary repair only.



  © Jane Turner Goldsmith, 2023

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