Round white headlights. An even rounder exterior. Metallic blue doors and black rubber tires. Scratched but intact side lamps. Worn fabric seats, peeling at the sides to expose yellow foam. Seven-year-old Chathu stared at the unfamiliar object, a tiny blue second-hand Nissan Micra with headlamps and grills that gave it the curious face of a two-year old child. “It’s our new car,” her father said proudly, the beams of the sun glinting off his bald head mirrored in the smile he gave her.
Round white headlights. An even rounder exterior. Metallic blue doors and black rubber tires. Scratched but intact side lamps. Worn fabric seats, peeling at the sides to expose yellow foam. Seven-year-old Chathu stared at the unfamiliar object, a tiny blue second-hand Nissan Micra with headlamps and grills that gave it the curious face of a two-year old child. “It’s our new car,” her father said proudly, the beams of the sun glinting off his bald head mirrored in the smile he gave her. “Now we won’t have to walk as much!”.
This Sunday had started like any other: sunny blue sky with few clouds, fresh breeze blowing through the grass in the backyard. It was nine o’clock, and Chathu was outside digging holes with her red plastic spade, spooning clumps of dirt into the yellow bucket beside her. Only it wasn’t really dirt—it was rice she was preparing for her dolls. Running inside to grab a glass of water, she gently poured it into one of the holes in the ground, spooning in small amounts of dirt, mixing everything with the awkward, jagged clumsiness of a child. A thick mixture of mud was forming. Satisfied, she started to spoon the mud into three paper plates, garnishing the top with plucked strands of grass.
This daily “cooking show” that Chathu hosted in her own backyard was a great way for her mind to relax. The calming sensation of mixing and spooning “ingredients” reminded her of her mother’s cooking, a constant in her life amidst all the changes of moving to a new country with its new school, new language, and new friends. Someday, she hoped to recreate her mother’s cooking, but for now, she was content with her backyard, and occasionally helping with chopping and cleaning in the kitchen.
Just then she heard the crunching of tires coming up the driveway, the gentle whooshing of an engine. There was a blue car in the driveway. She left her cooking endeavours and walked up to it to investigate; there was a sudden silence as the engine turned off.
Thaththie got out of the car, a wide smile appearing on his face when he saw Chathu standing in the driveway. He beckoned her with his hand: “Come and see!”.
Chathu came closer, her apprehension of the foreign object melting into curiosity. Hesitantly, she touched the driver’s side door, the smooth metal cool to the touch.
This car would be the vehicle that carried her to school and back, that took the family on their weekly grocery runs where Ammi always shook the coconuts to hear their sloshing juices and plucked the ends off okra to check if they were ripe. This car would take her to the old train station and the local Science Adventure Centre, and to the playground slide she was always too scared to go down, even with her eyes closed and her parents cheering on from below. This car would then start to steadily get sick, starting-stopping, coughing up black smoke and making weird noises. “A bad gearbox,” her father would later say. “Nothing to be done”. This car would cost her parents double, triple its original price in the cost of repairs, and leave a lasting impression on all their lives.
But Chathu wasn’t to know any of this just yet. For the moment, she stared at the car in wonder, its metallic blue exterior sparkling like magical fairy glitter. She grinned. What an adventure this will be! she thought.
The blue car soon became a fixture in their lives. It was there after school in the parking lot queue, staring at Chathu with its quizzical expression, and was always ready to carry her home after a long day of exhausting swimming lessons at the local pool. The car stopped being foreign, and with every day that passed, it seemed more and more like it had always been there. Soon it even began appearing in Chathu’s dreams. She would often dream of fantasy lands full of unicorns and magical fairies over which her and her family would fly in their blue car, except now it had wings. The car was a constant friend, ever present and always listening.
The routine was broken when, one morning on the way to school, the car broke down in the middle of morning traffic and had to be towed to the mechanic. Chathu stayed home from school and spent the day in anxious relief: anxiety in her worry for the car, but relief that she wouldn’t have to recite her six times tables to Teacher (she could never get six times seven quite right). Her parents came home to tell her she would go to school with a friend from now on, as the car “wasn’t feeling well”. Chathu accepted this, assuming the car would eventually come back from car hospital as good as new.
Chathu kept the car alive in her mind by involving it in everything she did: at school, she would draw it out on big A3 pieces of paper, colouring it in various shades of blue until she had just the right colour. She would play with her brother’s toy cars, pretending they were the family’s own blue car, and would hold up her soft toys and promise to take them on a ride sometime. She even prayed for the car during the family’s evening gata, hands clasped together and eyes squeezed shut in concentration.
And the blue car did come back—only this time like a wounded animal in its final days of life, like the sick lions Chathu had seen in a documentary on National Geographic. It broke down three times in two weeks, and no matter how many times it visited the car doctor, it didn’t seem to be getting better. Chathu spent most of her time thinking about the poor blue car at the car doctor, wondering what type of medicine it was getting. One bright afternoon, the blue car came sputtering home for what would be its very last night. The next morning, it was gone, as suddenly as it had appeared. The sudden loss left Chathu feeling hollow, and she wondered if the blue car had ever been real at all. She asked her father about it the following morning on the way to school, and he told her they had taken it to the junkyard. “The gearbox was gone,” he said, one hand pinching his creased brow, “there wasn’t much we could do”.
As the school holidays approached, Chathu’s initial sadness at losing the blue car turned into calm as she accepted its loss as that of a great friend. The car had entered her heart and permanently parked in it, for it was the first car the family had owned since migrating to Australia. And even though the last time she saw the car it had been a wholly different creature, she always remembered it as it had been when it first arrived that bright Sunday morning, with the sun glinting off its blue metallic doors and a curious expression fixed on its face.