The Shop

In the beginning, his people had been land dwellers, not sea steaders. Yes, they were something of amphibians in the limn between coast and sea, but what mattered was that after all their wanderings, they returned to the land. Through their networks, goods offloaded themselves from shores and diffused into the rest of the country. From their coasts, wares were set on the bold mission to see the world.

As their town became more modern, it welcomed electric cables that lit their homes, computers by which they conducted their trades, and ships from lands even farther than they could dream. But what never changed was that the ocean marked them.

‘Those people of the port,’ people would remark both fondly and warily, of this community that was the permeable membrane around the country’s landmass.

They were spoken of as a place you must visit once but leave before you get lured by, for they were as seductive as the ocean, bearing both true stories and fables, cuisines sprinkled with the deepest riches of the ocean, themselves a melting pot for all sorts of languages and ethnicities. They were notorious revelers, lustful for knowledge as they were for exotic things. They lived as if there would be no tomorrow. As if they knew.

In their language, the ocean had meant mother, synonymous with sustenance. They went to her with longing and returned with boats filled with goods. Imagine then, when the ocean became a stranger; when it became – dare it to be said – devourer, extinguishing artifacts, mementos, and their very beings. There was no language for that.

They should have left earlier. It was the fear of becoming ghosts in the process, people with no roots, that planted them. Surely there were things worse than death, like losing their history and vitality.

However, the rescue mission had been insistent, lending hands, offering shelter and a chance to be made anew. His people came to agree that the land that remained was no longer the one they had entrusted their fates to, even if they stayed. It was then that they packed their things and cast their eyes beyond their shores.

For months Denton incorporated them into Witness, not even the majesty of its architecture could make his forebearers stop grieving their origins. They vomited from time to time, claiming sea sickness. They longed for places that would only be memories. There were whispers for so long, pointed fingers remarking about the people from that waterside community that had perished.


It had been generations now, but he must have carried it in his blood. It manifested in an abiding sense of disbelonging, that emptiness he could not pin on a single thing, that otherness that gave him the privilege of seeing through many eyes. It was what he sought to soothe when he chose the narrow path that promised more to life than met the eyes, more to time than the infinitesimal arc of a lifespan. When he found his way to the monastery, it was not that he forgot these feelings but that he steadied them. He had found somewhere on the earth he could press his feet to the ground, and stand.

And it was ultimately to the siren song of that notorious port city, that he still yielded. Upon saying his vows, he knew that he would be one of the brothers who worked with his hands just like his people. For his ancestors had tinkered with vessels of all sorts, containers full of goods, the ships that carried them, the trucks that transported them. His parents had passed this knowledge to him, as their parents did them, asking him to hold on to it for dear life. Engraved into him was the exhortation that no matter what other sophisticated thing one did, you had to be able to do something with your hands, and it could be what saved you. Indeed, after changing the oil in a truck, rewelding damaged frames, or performing electric repairs, the wheels of his mind became transcendentally still.

But tell it to the students who walked into his shop, the ones who could not make it into Collegia, and had to ‘settle’ for an apprenticeship, several taking this disappointment out on him. Tell them it was only because of this way of working that his people could assimilate into Witness without having to lose their dignity, even if they did not know the language.

Another thing he would say if they would listen, was to watch for just what a city’s broken things could tell you. It was an archive of what it valued, how it was changing, where it was going. Into this shop came both the church buses for the parishioners going to revivals and the wedding trolleys that wheeled people off into matrimonial bliss.

In times when roads needed more maintenance, or the rains were heavier, more vehicles would come in needing care. On the seats and corners of those buses were etched the rebelliousness and tenderness of people, the things they needed to say, in ink. There was a sweet satisfaction to seeing these vehicles back on the road, carrying people of the Distrikt to their different destinations. Sometimes, he would catch the eyes of the drivers and wave back at them.

But tell the young apprentices, and they would roll their eyes at you, tell you there was no future here, tell you not to take them for a ride. So, he did not. The only thing he was insistent on was the dignity in their labour. The least you could do was to come on time and do what you were expected to. It would surprise you just how many could not do this much, how many would walk in late for all sorts of reasons, how many could not be respectful to his staff or their trade, and how many he had to part ways with.

Sometimes he wondered about the future of the shop, especially as the seasons began to take their gentle toll on him. It was not a difficult job, but managing all its components required a steady kind of care for the relationships with clients and staff, attentiveness to the work, and meticulous record keeping. He had made efforts to recruit at trade schools and to offer decent enough salaries and commissions, and he wondered why an industry that paid decently still struggled to get enough capable hands.

It was a small shop serviced by a team of mechanics, a service manager, and a parts manager. If you needed exceptional work done for a slightly lower cost and could afford a little longer, this is where you came. Some people also came because they knew this contributed to the livelihood of the brothers and sisters. He had never aspired to build it bigger but refused to let anyone acquire it either, especially not those hyper-profit-seeking companies that wanted to appropriate its history.

Sometimes, if they had made enough profit to cover their costs and needs, they offered services to the buses that helped the Distrikt without asking for money back – the ones that helped new migrants find their way, took food to the newly bereaved, carried stray animals to places where they may be adopted.

Despite the myriad of people who passed through his supervision, the new apprentice caught his attention. For one, she did not seem resentful of the posting, not even at the beginning. She was certainly present to the job, doing all she was asked dutifully, without the typical mistakes of apprentices – the gaps in the inventory, the tardiness in their tasks, forgetting their tools, and more. When she was done each day, she cleaned up and left requiring neither stimulation nor conversation.

He still tried to engage her along the way, inquiring about her dreams for the future, and wondering aloud about her experience of her apprenticeship. To these probes, he received not much beyond the literal. Her dream, she said, was to get her certifications and find a job. To the question about her experience, she would respond by pointing to tasks completed and yet to be completed. Shortly after, she would simply get back to work. They had worked that way for months now, and he had come to rely on her punctuality and diligence, but sometimes still wondered what her story could be.


It had been one of those days at the shop where he set out earlier, right after his morning tea. He was ahead of the sun on his trip that day, and as his bicycle cut through the subtlety of the mist while the day cleared up, he felt refreshed ahead of the lengthy list of tasks to get through.

In the morning he inspected some welding jobs that had been done the previous day. Toward noon, he gave the apprentice feedback on the support she had provided with the estimates for the repairs. But then it occurred to him that the buses that were supposed to come in shortly after he arrived at the shop had still not arrived. This was part of a large fleet from a major client.

‘We are stuck in traffic,” the driver responded when he called.


“Yes. Protests. Have you not heard the news?’

He fiddled with his phone for the headlines, stopping when he saw which one it was. Ebunolowa had removed the Distrikt’s fuel subsidies. He played it louder for his curious staff to listen in.

The mayor could be seen defending this decision, claiming that it would be advantageous to the common people. If you could afford to buy a car, she argued, surely a little more in fuel prices would not be so harmful to you. Besides, with these subsidies, there was so much more money to invest in to make Covenant competitive.

The mayor had threatened to do this from time to time, but no one expected her to follow through. In fact, at the start of the year, discussions about it had begun again, but they were expected to eventually die down as they always did. Now, discussions followed on many sites, people offering their shock and commentaries ranging from whether the subsidy removals were needed to whether this was the right time.

The next day, as he made it to work, his eyes were greeted by so many new signs. “Bring Back The Subsidies,” had been painted on some buildings, and a growing number of people carrying placards began to file into the street corners. He manoeuvred gently but deftly, trying to make it to the shop before it became impossible. He wanted to be there especially when the customers of the day came in.

When he got to work, however, several vehicles they were expecting had still not come. His apprentice had made it on time, but his other staff trickled in past the hour. Some had been unable to drive to work because the price of fuel had climbed so steeply that morning. They abandoned their cars and tried to take the buses, but these were also running late. Some could not drive because the roads were closed owing to protests in certain parts of the Distrikt.

In the coming days, fuel became thrice, then five times its original price. Some workers who could spoke of rapidly transitioning to hybrid arrangements, where they worked from home as often as they could. But his mechanics could not, so some who came from farther parts of town simply stopped coming. It was a troubling virtuous cycle that was imperiled at both ends – he needed mechanics to do the job, and he needed jobs to keep the mechanics.

With each month, the race to pay the rent became more existential. Soon he and the apprentice would be calling clients repeatedly, seeking to make enough money to at least close the books without being in the red. Some clients were not on the road as often, some defaulting in sending cheques, and some trying to renegotiate contracts they had already settled on. The burden of the dwindling income on which the livelihoods of his brothers and sisters depended weighed heavily on him. It started to keep him up at night, along with the concern that it would soon have to come to laying off some staff, and this deeply concerned him.


When he came into the shop that day, he did not expect to see the apprentice waiting at his desk, what it might be completely eluding him.

‘A few weeks ago, I started reading some books that I had borrowed from St Benedict’s library.’

Now what that had to do with the shop was a mystery but he tried to appear interested.

“On bus repair. It got me wondering if we could retrofit some vehicles with electric propulsion systems to get them back on the road”

He paused, thinking about the mechanics of this, and noted the difficulties – getting batteries, retrofitting diesel drive chains to work with electric motors, cooling solutions for the new hardware.

He would express these concerns, but already the apprentice had led him into the shop and turned on the light. She went all the way to the back, where a dusty bus sat, its worn paint clinging to its metal frame in patches of green. This used to be a bus for the defunct Teacher’s Training College.

The apprentice lifted the cover of the engine. Gone was the internal combustion engine that he had last seen.

“In my spare time, I have been trying to see if I could retrofit this vehicle with an electric power train,” the apprentice explained.

She paused, suddenly reeling in her eagerness, but some of it remained.

“I used some of the spare inventory we have been accumulating over the years, and parts lying around the shop.”

“There were batteries from cars that are no longer in use, some spare air compressors. And then, I found the generators that the monastery had stored at the back of the shop. I understand they were saved up for blackouts that never came. They still work though they may be old.”

She entered the bus and turned it on. Gone was the throaty roar of the diesel engine. A quiet hum, like a nest of sleepy bees replaced it.

“It is just a prototype but it could be enough to get some people to work.”

The mentor could no longer hide his fascination with what his protégé had done. In turn, the sense of validation now coursing through her was deeply satisfying. She reminded him of his beginnings as a tinkerer with vehicles. She reminded him of that urge to make and remake that he felt had long been going out of style.

They did not have to wait until the next day before deciding to offer to help Hope Delivery retrofit their aging van. For several years, the van could be seen tirelessly going back and forth on the street, taking food to the homes of people who needed it any time they called. For the past few weeks though, it was nowhere to be found, struggling to keep up with the demand for deliveries.

They called Hope Delivery’s senior driver, and once he approved, the apprentice along with a few mechanics worked to get its wheels back on the streets of the Covenant.


The shop’s accounts were by no means as robust as yesteryears considering the fuel hikes, but when the protests subsided, they were at least able to make it to their clients and get their clients’ vehicles to the shop. Workers started finding other ways to come in, like using the bus and carpooling. The prices of things continued to escalate and the shop too had to increase prices to be able to close their books.

These days, he tended to make a mental scale of preference and run through it to choose the task that needed to most urgently be done before doing others. His staff needed to be paid as did his rent, and then everything else would be prioritized accordingly.

The apprentice was different after she gave a new life to Hope Delivery’s bus. Her dutifulness turned into a firm joy in her work. The old Teacher’s College Bus that had served as her prototype was also repainted and used to run some errands for the shop. Recognizing her aptitude and eagerness, he turned her focus to her certifications, encouraging her to get through them little by little.

She changed from her overalls on the last day of her service year, and they both stood by the sink on the repair floor, as she tried to remove a day’s worth of grease from her hands. At this point, he would try to help his students explore their options, but for this one, he was certain there was no need to worry.

“You have done good work here,” he said, extending his callused hands to hers.

“Thank you,” she said, eagerly returning his handshake with her head held high.

‘And they say people who come here have no future,’ he said, chuckling.

‘I would like to make you an offer to join our shop,’

I see you running it one day far into the future. But for now, I want to see to it that you get all your certifications. I would also partner you with the best of my technicians to make sure you have all the opportunities to become the best at what you do.’

‘Consider all your offers and think about what is best for you. But know you have a place here if you just say the word.’

The apprentice was thrilled. She promised to think about it and get back to him in the coming days. She wiped her hands on a towel, then she swung her bag over her shoulder and left.

When she had shut the door, he did his typical final check around the floor, turned on the alarm system, and turned off the lights as he left through the front door.


In the fables they told of that old port town, they said its descendants still found a way to each other because of the magic of their skilled hands. When he got home that evening and had eased out of the energies of the workday, he really did wonder.