Every day, May and Charlie share fruit for a snack at the carwash where they both work. After their “ritual” Charlie lines his mouth with tobacco, which he chews the rest of the day while they wash and vacuum fancy cars. When business is slow, Charlie plays his small hand piano, called a mbira, whose music May loves.
Even though May is scarfing down a snack in the midst of a difficult job, she elevates it by calling it a “ritual.” Throughout the novel, sharing a meal, however humble, is an almost sacred occasion because it represents human connection and harmony.
However, May and Charlie are both wary of their boss, Mr. Tzuilakis, who “waddles” out from his office several times a day to inspect their work or make sure they’re not stealing. He’s constantly suspicious of Charlie, whom he calls “boy” even though Charlie is fifty-four and works harder than everyone else at the carwash. Charlie is an immigrant from Africa and May imagines that he was “a chief or a hunter” there, but he never talks about his homeland, and May understands that he doesn’t want her to ask. He doesn’t ask May about her origins either.
Mr. Tzuilakis’s name suggests that he is an immigrant, making his way in a new place like May and Charlie. Rather than recognizing this similarity, he uses his slight position of authority to put them down. The power dynamic at the carwash suggests that oppression is often perpetrated by people who are themselves insecure of their place in society.
One day, May surprises Charlie with watermelon, a fruit they both love. Seeing his approving smile, she wishes that “Charlie could have been my father” and imagines him wiping sweat off her forehead and telling her that she’s his child.
May’s readiness to look at Charlie as a father after a small display of kindness shows how much she longs for a family. Although she seems independent and tough, she’s still a teenager who craves guidance from adults.
Suddenly, Mr. Tzuilakis yells out, “Hey Chocolate,” and appears with several police officers, who quickly arrest Charlie and take him away in a car after shaking the boss’s hand. May stands in shock, looking after him, until Mr. Tzuilakis says Charlie will be deported and orders her to get back to work. May thinks back to the police cars outside Aunty’s house that announced her mother’s death; to her, it seems like the police are always taking away the people she loves.
When May was a child, the arrival of police signaled Mum’s death, and now they herald the loss of someone she was starting to consider family. The uniform vehicles characterize the social oppression that leads to both of these losses as impersonal, even more sinister because it’s difficult to describe or comprehend.
When May returns to work, she sees some young men hanging around by the carwash. They want her to let them into the storeroom to steal chemicals, which they can use to get high. She tells them to go away or she’ll lose her job, but they convince her to bring them a bottle of petrol, which they promise to pay for. When she returns with the bottle, she finds them in the storeroom. Soon, Mr. Tzuilakis appears on the scene, and the men run away. The boss assumes that they’re May’s friends and that she’s let them inside. In retaliation, he fires her and threatens to call the police.
Mr. Tzuilakis’s suspicions of everyone around him suggests a strong sense of paranoia. While May connects with other people by observing and appreciating idiosyncrasies, he alienates people by generalizing and insisting on viewing people as members of groups rather than as individuals.
May grabs Charlie’s thumb piano and runs to the Block. She sees a police car outside Joyce’s house and waits for it to leave before sneaking inside and begging Joyce to believe she didn’t steal anything. Joyce assures her that she knows the truth and that the cops and Mr. Tzuilakis are racist. Still, as she makes lunch she’s worried, and seems to think May will have to hide for a while.
This is the third appearance of a police car in the narrative. In this case, it signals the loss of May’s newly secure life at the Block, since she won’t be able to earn money at the carwash or even live in Joyce’s comfortable house.