Dot was new to the night shift.
She was very much a day person – all sunshine and blonde curls and dresses that hit just the right part of her knees so that the fabric flounced perfectly. She drank lavender tea and read poetry and was rather sure that without the sunlight on her skin every morning, she would shrivel up and die.
But that was probably rather dramatic.
The ten-minute break between the day and night shift was like a dam between precision and insanity. Though Dot was never one for precision, soft-edged and gentle-smiled as she was, it would still forever be her choice over the madness-inducing stillness and echoes of the 9pm clock in. Dot had so far been able to avoid it.
And yet, here she was.
The harsh fluorescent lighting that tore through the petrol station did nothing for her dress but wash out the pastel colours to insipid tones. A depressing start to what would undoubtedly be a depressing night, Dot was sure.
Craig, the greasy supervisor whose sweat stains and shiny forehead made him look rather like he’d been rolling around in the spilt petrol that puddled on the concrete outside, had been the one to show her what he liked to call the ‘ins and outs’. Dot had never really talked to him before this point and wasn’t sure what he thought was so different in the logistics between the two times of day. Daylight, sure. And a will to live, maybe. But apart from those two points that the night shift severely lacked, it couldn’t have possibly been that different.
“Don’t leave the counter,” he had said, a waft of cigarette-smelling breath coming Dot’s way, “Customers come in, you still don’t leave the counter. They ask for help, you–”
“Still don’t leave the counter?” She guessed, eyebrow raised.
“Nothing gets past you,” Craig rolled his eyes particularly emphatically, “You know how to work the till?”
She had been working here for three years.
“Yes.” Dot squeaked out instead.
“Right,” he nodded, “I’m off, then.”
The so-called ‘off’ that Craig hobbled away to was an office on the other side of the room, Dot found out. She was pretty sure she could hear the droning buzz of a football commentator coming from somewhere within.
She could probably report him for that.
She just grabbed a Mars Bar off of the shelf instead.
Compensation and all that.
Well, Dot thought as she moved behind the counter of doom, at least I get a chair. When the chair in question appeared to be suspiciously warm, though, she decided that perhaps her positivity had been rather premature. Dot’s positivity always seemed to be rather premature.
She was halfway through her Mars Bar and a Vimto from the fridge when a customer came in.
Over the aforementioned three years, as painfully ponderous as they were, Dot had created a careful little Venn diagram in her head of each and every category of customer. There were the daytime drunks, all grabby hands and slurred words despite the time of day, or the monotone mothers, usually with a child or two hanging on their arm. There were condescending Colins and patronising Pauls who talked to her as if she hadn’t, indeed, worked there for 37 and a half months and counting.
There were other categories too – the holiday hordes, the petrifying pre-teens, the maddeningly chatty children, the belligerent boomers, the serotonin-deficient students, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. A carefully compiled cerebral compendium of Dot’s petrol station past.
The customer who walked in, however, couldn’t be jammed into any of her satisfyingly alliterative categories.
Dot could smell him from here.
Was that… meat? The stench of it was stronger than anything she had ever smelt before, which was quite concerning when you grew up with five older brothers who couldn’t tell the difference between hygiene and infrequent wipe-overs with a slightly damp flannel.
The smell shot up her nose, tingling each hair until they practically buzzed, and with the quietest sniff she could muster, she realised what the smell actually was.
Dot stopped mid chew.
Well, perhaps he was a butcher.
He did seem to be finding the station’s pathetic selection of processed meats quite interesting, eyeing them up with his small eyes as if they didn’t look like slices of pink rubber.
He was a tall man, Dot noticed. Skinny and yet broad shouldered. Pale and washed out, yet somehow striking in the light. Where it had washed Dot’s dress out, he was vibrant with it, perhaps even sparkling. She couldn’t quite see his face properly, though, her subtle glances over only glimpsing so much of him.
It took the rest of a Mars Bar and the last dregs of her Vimto to realise that he had been staring at the meat for nearly five minutes.
“Can I help you, Sir?” She decided to ask.
The man snapped his head in her direction.
Were his eyes… black?
Dot wasn’t one to judge.
“Excuse me?” The man spoke. He was rather posh, actually, contrasting startlingly with his shaggy hair and holey clothes. Each of the three syllables was laced with a private school education and hunted pheasants, sprinkled with the leftovers of Mummy and Daddy’s inheritance.
“It’s just that you’ve been staring for quite a while,” Dot near-stuttered, pulled in by those inky eyes against her will, “I thought you might need assistance.”
“Oh,” the man’s mouth stretched into a toothy smile (a sharp-toothed toothy smile?), “That’s very kind. I was wondering if you perhaps sell black pudding?”
Dot would try her very best not to judge.
“This is a petrol station, Sir,”
Inky eyes blinked in confusion.
“No, we don’t sell black pudding.” Dot clarified, finally drawing her eyes away.
“Shame,” he spoke, “Perhaps iron supplements?”
“Tablets. Pills. Little brown chunks that you swallow to stop you from being anaemic.”
Now she was starting to think this man was really just a patronising Paul.
“This is a petrol station, Sir.” She pointed out once again.
The man gave a hopeful look. “A petrol station that sells iron supplements?”
And, well, Patronising Paul 2.0 didn’t really seem to appreciate that.
“Sorry.” Dot tacked on.
His face flattened out once more.
“Well, in that case, what would you recommend?” He gestured to the fridge of meats. Having been a vegetarian for the last decade, Dot just gave a reluctant look.
“I’m not really sure, Sir.”
For a split second, the man’s eyes flicked down to her neck.
Dot brushed it off, taking a sip of her drink – now a Redbull.
“Care to help me choose?”
“I’m not really supposed to–”
“Perhaps you’ll even get a tip.” The man added, black eyes somehow glistening.
Did petrol station workers usually get tips?
Dot certainly didn’t.
And she did want to rent that new Ryan Reynolds movie. (£5 for a sodding movie, honestly. If Dot wasn’t a sucker for Canadian men, she’d be complaining about capitalism or something.)
What exactly was it that she would recommend, though? Not buying processed flesh and instead eating a carrot? He didn’t look like the carrot type.
Dot held a mouthful of Redbull on her tongue, waiting for a decision to strike her. She wasn’t one for breaking rules.
Don’t leave the counter, she repeated in her mind in Craig’s crackly, tobacco-stained voice. But she glanced to Craig’s office. The football still blared. She was actually sure she could hear him snoring.
Dot swallowed the Redbull.
The florescent lights flickered.
The man eyed his meats.
Ryan Reynolds was worth it.
Dot left the counter.