The first four hours are the toughest. Traffic from the West End to, well, wherever? People, hordes of them, with one aim – to escape, to get to the pub, to see the kids, to watch television, to kiss the wife. And him at the centre of it. The driver. The enabler. A working night beginning when their working days are ending. A race he’ll never win is on.
It’s slow. That’s the nature of rush-hour. A febrile, anxious, fretful world of hurried slowness, culminating in the final puffy eyed ready-for-bed hours at the end of a shift as another dawn infuses the verdant stillness of south west London with an iridescent glow. Even then, after seven hours behind the wheel and umpteen espressos, he can do Richmond to Kings Cross in 40 minutes, without thinking, probably without opening his eyes? Heathrow even quicker, unless Al Qaida has been active and the army is on the perimeter. It was the IRA in the 70s said Maxie. It could take hour, maybe more then; passengers threatening legal action if their flights were missed. In the first four hours of the night shift, the five thirty to nine thirty Wacky Races, it can take twice that nowadays. It’s insane. He dreams of tail lights. Yet no matter how hard he pressed the accelerator in the car or in his dreams he never got any closer, to anywhere. That’s the taxi driver syndrome he was fond of saying to nobody but himself. Like trousers smudged with chocolate and aching clutch ankle. A real ‘nowhere man’. Some tune that. His dad had played it every Sunday while carving the roast. The next car will be an automatic, something he can tailgate in for hundreds of miles with a hand free for a drink. It improves around ten, before the theatre curtains came down and the pubs and bars tip out. Time to catch a breath after the long haul tide of two million people going, just going. What was that Carol King tune? Time to snatch a coffee and a smoke before the wide eyed dizzy out-of-their-heads club crowd return to reality.
Michael Marshall, Micky to everyone except his mother, didn’t like his job but he liked the independence. He liked being awake while the world slept. He worked nights and enjoyed his own company.
“Rayburn 43, clear. Rayburn 43 to control, clear I repeat clear – over.”
He wiped the dashboard with his handkerchief and switched on the evening news. It was already dark, the time of year when the long umber lull of autumn gives way to endless dark. Chilly too. He sorted the loose change out on the passenger seat and turned on the GPS. A woman spoke with a voice like the one at his bank or was it the phone company? Maybe it was the same voice, the one that said she didn’t catch that and could he say it another way? She said hello and asked him to tap in the destination. “Coming Suzie,” he said checking his quiff in the rear view mirror and laughing at his own banality. Could use a dash more gel he surmised as he spat on his hands and ran them across his head.
“OK Rayburn 43, I know your there,” said a voice distorted with the sound of chewing. “Don’t get all pushy. There’s a lot going going and roadworks on the 316 aren’t helping. Wait your turn. Over.” He reached below the seat, adjusted the squelch and increased the volume. The voice was clearer then handing out jobs to other drivers.
‘That’s 32 Grange Park Rayburn 36 – outward and return. Over. Confirm 18. Over.”
It’s one way traffic on the RT. He could hear control, a south London accent without the humour of a Cockney. Featureless and flat. London without extended vowels.
“Thank you Rayburn 18, you will wait.” He’s eating again. “ The client has agreed a price. Over.” Silence.
“Then wait around the corner where the nasty warden can’t bother you. Over.” Silence.
“You too 32, leave the onions. Over.”
They were discussing dinner. He looked in the mirror again, tilting his face to one side. A pallid reflection, the look of a man who hasn’t seen more than a handful of daylight hours in a week. A 747 on a path into Heathrow, its tail lights blinking in the deepening twilight. Ham Fields below, the lambent Thames twisting west past Eel Pie Island towards Teddington and tide’s end. It’s a wait he looked forward to. Watching the river and listening to control, a man called Harold with a comb over and a dislike of young people. A barathea blazer with brass buttons, food stains and two metal badges; regimental? Who knows? Sat in a green leather swivel chair behind a smudged glass screen with a flask of tea. He could see him there now picking his nose and wiping his finger under the desk. Bursts of activity followed by a brooding silence. He doesn’t know how many drivers there are? Maybe twenty, more during rush hour. And though the night a dozen maybe; loners like him; malcontents; men without families; men like 32, real name Maxie, and, Eric, dour and teacherly, control’s nearest and dearests. That pair get the jobs that pay the best, always clear of rush hour and late night long hauls. He’d listen to Harold cajole and pamper them. For his favourites the sweet runs, over and done in half an hour. Traffic tips and gossip, and always what they’re going to eat next in the nine o’clock lull, the late night snack, and breakfast. Do they drive for food? Then there’s 15, Jake, a thick necked Australian with mean streak and a nose that looks like it’s been stolen from a cartoon rabbit. Deeply tanned inside suits that shine and fit like cling film. Jake doesn’t like anyone. He doesn’t talk to anyone. He just drives.
“Rayburn 18. Rayburn 18 over.” Silence.
“Rayburn 18. 12 Popes Grotto for Putney Bridge. Name of Patterson. I think you know the score, over.” Silence.
“In a moment Rayburn 19. The same for you Rayburn 27. That sort of language isn’t going to do you any favours Rayburn 27, over.” Silence.
“Rayburn 19. Correct. Mrs Patterson. She asked for you. The smart one with the gold rimmed glasses and tie. You get the prize for driver of the month, over.” Silence.
“You too Rayburn 32. You can share it with Rayburn 19. Now both of you, on your ways. Next time I hear from you 32 it’ll be to say you’re DoB. Over.” Silence.
That’s nice, dinner on board. How about a bit of work on board?
“43, you still there, over?’
At last. “A little trip out to the airport. An account job with the name of Jeffries, Lincoln Avenue. Near Crane Park. Terminal 1. Over.”
Been fine if there’d been a return, but he doubted it. Up and running at last. Across Richmond Bridge to St.Margarets , Marble Hill Park and Twickenham. Past the Green, up The Meadway to Lincoln Road. Nothing exceptional. A world of paved over front gardens and PVC windows. Dull, monotonous and half a million.
“Affirmative Rayburn 43. Call when PoB. Over”
Jeffries was looking out the window as he pulled up. In his forties with an anorak over a suit. He kissed a women and then knelt down. Maybe a pet or a child? Maybe a brief case. The middle ranking executive type that’s all expenses and poor salary. When he finally emerged he had a suitcase. Terminal 1, flying intercontinental. A cut above the average. A tipper, maybe? Micky stepped out of the car and flipped the boot while Jeffries settled into the back.
“Rayburn 43 PoB. Over.”
Whitton, Hounslow West, industrial estates and two story homes with roof extensions. The Skyline Hotel and into the Tunnel. He’d done this run fifty, sixty, maybe more times and didn’t need to think, watching the thin band of orange on the horizon dissolve into black. Then BANG! A motorcycle overtaking on the wrong side of Hanwell railway bridge making the sort of noise the Citroen made that time he hit a speed hump and the exhaust had snapped. The biker was upright. His arms at shoulder height and the tips of a long beard wrapped around his neck. BANG again, then pause and another BANG, even louder. Was that legal?
“My god,” said the fare. “I was nodding off until that thing.”
“”Me too,” replied Micky. “No, only joking.” It’s not good to banter with clients, especially account ones. It always found a way back to the Major.
What do you know, no tip. Must have been that quip about nodding off?
“We live in a contactless world of plastic,” Jeffries said, with a weak, thin, apologetic smile.
“Roger that sir. Not a problem. All discretionary.” Adding, “have a great flight.”
Moments later he was following a convoy of Ubers through the airport tunnel. Another passed him on the inside. An E-Class with tinted windows. That’ll be him in six months. Albert Cars couldn’t compete with Uber. Who could? It’s only old school clients and long term customers slow or resistant to adapt to the apps revolution that were keeping Albert Cars afloat. He’d refused to ride in an Uber until the tube he and Penny were on ground to a standstill on their way to the cinema. Penny had punched something into her phone and within what had seemed like no time at all a five series Beemer had pulled up opposite Putney underground station with a dolorous Ukrainian behind the wheel. No money changed hands and Penny said the fare was half of what Micky would have charged. It’s a different world and it was getting more different by the hour. He felt the stubble on his chin and freed a piece of kebab lodged in the corner of his mouth. The traffic was lighter against the rush hour torrent flowing west.
“Rayburn 43 pickup 12 Dene Court Mansions for Kings Cross. You read? Over.”
He knew the address. It’s a woman who wears a lot of perfume and talked on her mobile the whole time. Her name was Harper, Claudine Harper, and he liked her. She was in the lobby when he arrived, drop dead gorgeous, bathed in a camel coat and cream scarf. Could be a Burberry judging by the check pattern. She smiled and slipped onto the backseat like a feather blown in on a silent breeze. He could have watched her do that all night. They exchanged greetings and for the umpteenth time he felt, well, if you really want to know, a bit special. Micky was her driver. She’d said as much and they travelled all over London – and often. Been awhile though. She’d been away she said, “family business”. Back now and said she was looking forward to getting back to work, “with my favourite car service.” He felt himself redden as he placed her Louis Vuitton spinner in the boot. She was wearing that perfume again. Sweet, with a hint of some dry and exotic spice. “Cabochard,” she’d said, with surprise the time he’d mentioned it. He liked to savour it the way he’d been taught to enjoy wine; slowly, internally, long after the passing. It’s from the 30s and not so fashionable now she’d told him in an offhand way as though she’d been asked many times. Her aunt bought it for her, adding, with a hint of intimacy and puckering her cabernet lips, “I’m glad you like it.” Then puncturing the flirtatious veil of familiarity with an attenuated giggle and a “don’t want you gasping for air behind the wheel do we now.” Brother, she knew how to hit the launch button.
After asking how long he thought the journey would take she was back on the phone, her one true companion, wedged between her neck and a raised shoulder, an intimacy he could barely imagine. He liked her style. Lean and gamine, a bit French. The broad shoulders of a swimmer and erect stroll of a catwalk model. She was talking softly while looking out the offside window. He saw a low hoop earing resting on on the iPhone. He asked her if he could turn the radio on, down low? Looking into his eyes in the rear view mirror she said fine. Smiling small pleats fanned out from the sides of her mouth and he wondered if she was older than he thought? Maybe 40? Beautiful in that moneyed, manicured, sophisticated way. He tapped a preset button to ditch the drive-time news, something to do with European finance, in favour of a MoR station with non-stop oldies. Sheryl Crow was singing about a freeway. It felt right. The rhythm in time with the motion of the car, taking some of the sting out of the stop-start of rush hour traffic. He thought about his passenger. Her life. Her friends. Her lovers. He hated them all.
He’d picked Claudine Harper up many times, mostly from her apartment a red brick block with bay trees in tall galvanised metal pots either side of crittal doors. She’d usually be alone except for that time he’d collected her from a do in Notting Hill. She’d been with a posh boy in a suit and one of those shirts in which the chest and collar are different colours. The guy had come on to her on the back seat. There’d been a tussle and she’d pulled herself together pushing the posho off far enough and for long enough for her to give Micky his destination instructions. Not her place another, probably his, but in the same neck of the woods. The two colour shirt jerk had missed the body language and continued nuzzling her neck and doing something out of sight with his free arm.
“Freddy,” she’d yelled, straightening herself and shifting to the opposite side of the seat. “Stop it,” then looking up to the driver’s mirror, perhaps for approval? Freddy wasn’t impressed. In a high falutin accent, although maybe it wasn’t some theatrical mock and is actually the way he speaks, he insisted that she wasn’t normally this reserved. Quite the opposite in fact, reminding her of the last time they’d enjoyed an evening of martinis.
She caught Micky’s eye.
“You were more discreet then when there wasn’t a bloody audience. For fuck’s sake Claudine it’s only the sodding driver.”
Micky had jumped on the brakes sprang out and pulled open the rear door with such speed Freddie almost tumbled out onto the pavement. It had the desired outcome too. The alcohol coursing Freddie’s dilated veins was then having the opposite effect to that for which he’d consumed it. In a heartbeat he’d sobered. He mumbled apologies and how he’d been out of order an how he was on medication that doesn’t mix with booze and that he hadn’t been thinking, and…whatever said Micky.
“And of course you’re much bigger than me so why don’t we just have a nice drive home and listen to the radio.” He’d shuffled uneasily. She’d laughed and agreed.
Freddie barely spoke for the next 25 minutes and when he did it was in an indecipherable mumble. He lived in one of the apartment blocks leading up to Richmond Park. One of those faceless steel and glass and always ‘luxury’ blocks that are going up all over the country with tacked on hearth rug balconies and are so cramped inside every window space resembles the inside of a cupboard cluttered with clothes and bicycles and modern paraphernalia. The sort of apartment that Penny said she wanted but which Micky could neither afford nor aspire too.
Claudine had asked him to wait while she walked Freddie to the door. She kissed him on the cheek and after whispering something returned to the cab. She apologised and said he’s the nicest person on the planet, most of the time, but pour a few drinks inside him and he turns into an octopus, like most of the guys in her line of work.
Micky agreed Freddie had been out of line and that it wasn’t his place to intimidate passengers.
She shook her head and filling the car with Cabouchard disagreed saying he’d been a godsend.
“Please, I really appreciate what you did. Don’t feel bad. Freddie needs reminding how to behave from time to time.” Her mobile played the opening bars to Boogie Wonderland. She pulled a face and Micky guessed it was Freddie. Stepping out into the warm night air she’d turned and asked for his name?
“Thank you Micky, for being my Galahad.”
“Company policy maam,” he’d replied with a theatrical bow.
She’d never mentioned that episode with Freddie again and he sensed she was reassured that the man behind the wheel was on her side. Then to his surprise she’d bought him a drink one morning on a Gatwick run. Other drivers were always bragging about this or that client buying them gifts, but not him, he’d never accepted anything – until that morning. She’d made up some story about getting the departure time wrong and going without breakfast. She wanted to stop and wanted company. She was coming on to him, that much was clear. She’d been wearing a two piece check suit in beige with epaulets and a green silk scarf tied around her neck like a choker and had said she knew this hotel on the outskirts of Crawley that does a great breakfast. She talked up the homemade marmalade and coffee like it mattered. The place empty but for a woman with silver hair and a small terrier to match. As the waitress approached Claudine announced she wasn’t hungry making a pitch for what she said were killer Bloody Marys instead.
“With horseradish and a real kick. Whaddya say?”
He looked at his watch. It was probably the last job of the morning, so what the heck? They were sat next to each other in a red leatherette booth with an ornate gilt and glass art nouveau lamp on the table, by a bay window with intercontinental jets disappearing into a platinum stratus. She with her back to the window silhouetted in the grey light and him to her side marvelling her jaw line; a nose that lifted imperceptibly at the end and eyebrows as dark and glossy as her gamine bob. She could be a model and she knew a thing or two about Bloody Marys.
She talked a lot and had said she’d grown up not far from where there. Her father had worked in airport security until he’d died of lung cancer when she was 10. Her mother was a nurse, and her younger sister a teacher. She said she’d wanted something more exciting. Travel and entertaining, a bit of glamour. Public relations for a hedge fund (he didn’t like to ask what in hell that is?) was the perfect solution to a suburban girl looking to step out.
He told her he shared her passion for travel. He’d been a photographer with a local newspaper but like her wanted something, more. She smiled and raised her glass. She drank like someone used to working a room and clinked her empty glass against his as if to say, another?
“I’m sorry, you’re driving, I shouldn’t encourage you. It’s just…well, to tell you the truth I haven’t felt this relaxed in a long while.”
He wanted to kiss her “I’ll drink to that,” said Micky poking his eye with the celery stalk.” She laughed then seeing his pained expression suppressed it. Time to go. She was still giggling when they stepped into the car. She didn’t invite him for drinks after that leaving him to wonder if he should have given her some sort of encouragement.
It was raining when they pulled up opposite the black cab rank at Kings Cross. Like all minicab drivers he knew never to trespass on their sacred strip of tarmac but nevertheless felt angry eyes on him. There was a policeman looking at him too. What’s the big deal? Everyone’s got to make a living. He helped Claudine with her case shifting awkwardly and looking into her eyes as she stuffed a note into his breast pocket. Some woman he mused slipping back behind the wheel as a policeman in a high viz jacket approached the near side and gestured for him to pull away, pointing pendulously along the double yellow line, the taxi only loading bay. Remonstrating was out of the question. The near side front tyre was worn below the point at which it should have been replaced and he wasn’t too confident with the off-side either. Once you set those fellas off there’d be other misdemeanours. Best skedaddle and as me dear old gran used to say, “keep smiling.”
The Citroen wasn’t old. It’d only just come up for its first MoT, sailing through but for the near side stop light and the wear on that tyre. He’d bought it because it was cheap, very cheap owing to its high mileage and he’d liked it immediately. With He liked the way the hydropneumatic suspension sailed over speed humps at any speed and sound proofing that filtered all internal and external noises to a warm whooshing, seducing clients into feeling that they were riding in something prestigious. The Major, Rayburn’s boss, had liked it too and after a trial week, during which Micky’d done nothing but pub and nightclub runs, clearing gum and vomit off the tan leather, promoted the newby to account jobs.
“Rayburn 43 cleared, over,”. He slipped a CD into the player and slumped back into the driver’s seat as Maxwell’s whine took him back to a room and a girl long ago. Strange he thought, you don’t notice the traffic after a while. It’s just there, like the weather.
“43, it’s your lucky day. Evershalt Street, steps of Euston Station 19.00 hrs for Sandycombe Lane. Name of Joyce. Over.”
That was more like it. And it’s cash. Slow along the Marylebone Road, and around Shepherds Bush, but who cares when you’re being paid for a return? And they were on time. An elderly couple, nice coats and shiny shoes, with old fashioned suitcases you need two hands to lift into the boot. The type without wheels and with sticker pennants stating where in the world they’d been, and, as it turned out, as good as gold. Been to stay with their son in Manchester. He’s some sort of producer whose wife had recently given birth to their first grandchild. The husband held up an iPhone with photographs of a baby. They smiled and chatted and talked all the way to Kew about how well their son is doing and the house their daughter-in-law is restoring in a neighbourhood that’s a bit down-at-heel but which everyone agrees is on the up. They spoke a lot about the personalities their son works with, names Micky had never heard of. He didn’t let on he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t want to burst their bubble. She rummaged around in a shiny handbag with a metal clasp that she clipped and unclipped and offered him a sweet, one of those parma violets his grandmother loved. He didn’t take his hand off the wheel so she leant forward and dropped it into his mouth. They were so nice they didn’t want him to get out when they arrived at their quiet street with tall hedges. When he revealed that he’d been born in Manchester the wife gasped and her husband squeezed her shoulder. “Like we were meant to be friends,” he said.
Next a short run from Mortlake High Street to Richmond, back to Mortlake for Richmond Station and then up to town for a pick up at The Connaught Rooms, destination Barnes Common. Lucky again. Another cash job and the client, a penguin (one of Maxie’s terms for passengers in black tie). The name of Ingleby, a jolly man with a florid face, curly fair hair, and eyebrows that stood proud of an extended forehead like stickleback fins. He laughed a lot, too much, and said he owned a chain of launderettes.
“You live around Richmond you may have washed your socks in one of my machines,” said the penguin in a voice more refined than he appeared. Upon which the woman with a voice of cigarettes and costermongering said he ought wash some of his own. The penguin scowled and dropped a business card on the passenger seat landing face down on a the remains of Micky’s egg mayonnaise sandwich. He talked, about the economy mostly, and the lack of get up and go in young people. Mickey wanted to concentrate on the drive but the penguin was leaning on the back of the passenger seat and spitting into his ear. He tried to focus on the neon world ahead of them; tale lights of the jets at roof height over Hounslow; tessellated patchworks of lights and lives in illuminated rooms unaware of inquisitive eyes; the grey blue flickering of televisions, and the ceaseless amber lit road. He’d heard a story once, he doesn’t know if it’s true but he likes it all the same, of a driver who simply couldn’t stop. He’d driven PoB until the fuel had run out, somewhere near Bristol, and even then he’d than remained in the car, the fare asleep beside him.
The penguin tipped well. A Jane Austen, folded in half with another business card inside. Micky left them in the driveway of a detached Edwardian house pulling away across the common to where Marc Bolan had been killed, jaded bouquets and wreaths tied to the chain link fence.
He’d been listening to Harold handing out jobs to Rayburns 32 and 18. Three for each of them for every one for other drivers. Reaching below his seat to turn up the volume heard his own call sign.
“Go on 43, have a break, you’ve earned it. Got you down for Sheen Court to Notting Hill at ten Lover Boy. Name of a Caring. Over.”
He’s lived with so many nicknames, what’s one more? His mother used to say, “don’t knock it, it means they’re talking about you. Better than than being forgotten.” Did she have a point? Some names are better than others. He earned his latest after a spate of bookings came in asking for him specifically, and all of them women. It was his birthday, “and you’re not 30 every day” said Maxie who’d coined the name. Some call in and request Lover Boy which is fine except on those occasions when the pick-up is a couple and the boyfriend wants to now why his other half is so familiar with the driver? At best it’s a laugh, at worst a challenge.
Some drivers took their breaks at Rayburn’s offices above a former stables. But Micky didn’t like to spend too much time there. It’s a mess, rank with odour of cigarettes, food and unhygienic men. One of those smells that gets inside your nose and stays. An ochre lit pit where Dave, an affable Cornishman on the day shift, told him you have to remember to wipe your feet as your leave for fear of carrying something contagious with you. Maxie and Harold were eating kebabs when Micky entered.
“Whoa, Lover Boy. To what do we owe this honour?” Maxie threw him one of his cheesy grins whilst wiping bits of lettuce and chillie sauce from his chin.
“Shouldn’t you be out spreading love and affection to all the lonely ladies of west London?”
Micky told him they’d have to wait. It’s wet and he needed some caffeine.
“Just don’t leave it too long. Yours is a civic duty.”
Harold made a noise that could be mistaken for a laugh.
“Look at that,” said Maxie, “you’ve got Harold all worked up.”
Harold made another noise, louder and more unusual than the first. Two other drivers, whom Micky didn’t recognise, joined in the mirth. Maxie was on a roll, revelling at being the centre of attention. One of his favourite routines involved farting, then stopping mid-sentence and demanding to know what the noise was? The other drivers cracked-up every time. He did it again interrupting a story the day driver, an Asian looking man with black hair and a goatee, had heard from a friend working for another minicab outfit in the east end. There had been some exchanges with black cab drivers at a drive-thru McDonalds and the police had been called. The black cabbies saying the minicabs were uninsured and were a risk to the public. There were no arrests and it all blew over until some weeks later a minicab was called to a pick-up in Soho Square at gone midnight. Within seconds he’d been surrounded by black cab drivers who flipped the Sierra over onto its roof with the driver inside.
“Like, was it a personal thing?” asked Harold.
Maxie laid the remains of his kebab on the radiator. “Yeah, like they were all personally pissed off with minicabs. What do you think you moron.” Harold looked hurt. “They think, and maybe with some reason, that we’re stealing their trade.”
Micky said they could also have been thinking they’d spent five years on The Knowledge and we roll in with hire and reward cover, and a GPS and we’re off.”
“Whose effing side are you on?” spat Jake.
“He’s on our side you wallaby. He’s pointing out, if you’ve got the time to listen, it’s the number one reason lardy arsed black cab drivers are pissed off with us.” Harold liked lardie arsed repeating it several times until Maxie threw him a look and a strip of lettuce hung.
There’d been other attacks. Dog excrement on windscreens, tyres deflated and what a lot of drivers believed was an orchestrated campaign of bilking; passengers doing runners at their destination without paying. Micky had had a couple. Initially friendly types, asking him all kinds of chummy questions about the life of a nighttime minicab driver before skedaddling with a parting “fuck you”.
If Micky had done his sums right he’d have enough for an E Class by the summer. And that’s when the big money’d roll in. He could break with Rayburn and either join one of the limo firms or go it alone. It’s why there was a photo of Jamie Foxx from Collateral on the inside of the sunshade. Less miles for more money. Evenings in the back seat watching Strictly while the penguins are getting fat. Then there’s the perks. Big ticket clients like to feather their fanbase. Micky had heard of a C-Class driver getting a case of Bollinger. Now it was his turn for some reward. “A man needs deserves some of that prestige action,” he said looking at himself in the mirror. Running a hand through his wavy hair and a finger across the bottom of his nose.
He’d got six six texts since he last looked; two from his credit card company, another from the phone company, and two, the second a reminder with a quizzical emoji, from Penny asking him to drop by for breakfast. The last was from Annie calling him an “arsehole”; that’d be for calling her Penny in a reply. Disorientation is another part of the job? When will they ever learn? Two five ’til nine nights one week and five one-after-the-others the next. This was one of the five nights straight and calling Annie ‘Penny’ hadn’t been his only mistake. He’d been counting his takings on the front seat and forgotten he was in gear. The Citroen lurched forward and punched a hole the size of a fist in back of a Smart car. A bony man with a high forehead and expensive spectacles took him for two hundred cash there and then to settle it. A night’s takings gone in a moment of madness. There’d been a mystery overcharging too. It was the first time he’d seen the Major since his interview six months ago. He was accused of overcharging some Dutchman, who he’d charged £50 for a £25 pound job. He’d thought it’d been odd the next day. The drunken idiot had paid so what was the big deal? The Major accepted the Dutchman was drunk, “he’d said as much in his letter. But he’d been expecting some change.”
Penny was in bed when Micky threw the car keys on to the draining board and poured the remains of the Rioja into a teacup. A studio with a bed just three strides from the kitchen appliances. She’d fixed it up well in a hippy dippy kind of way with rugs and antimacassars, William Morris wallpaper with peacocks and swirls, a dream catcher in the window, and bunches dead roses hanging from the bookshelves. He liked it, cocooned in Penny’s mystical world just yards from Richmond Park at the top of stuccoed Regency house with a monkey puzzle tree in the garden. He undressed in the grey half light and climbed in next to her. The bed creaked and Penny silently drew him closer. Without speaking she rolled to her side and placed him inside her. In the morning he’d found a note about croissants in the bread-bin and fresh orange juice in the fridge.
The pick up at Sheen Court was to Epsom so next to no chance of a return. With the park closing at sunset it meant a run out to Ham and through to Kingston. The GPS pointed him to Surbiton and Ewell. Harold interrupted the Delphonics with something about a police checkpoint at the foot of Kingston Hill. Have to be Hook then, and then cut back.
“Where are you going,” barked the client. “This isn’t the way.” He was indignant. Hadn’t he hear the RT? His anger subsided. A burst water main at Surbiton and a tailback? Of course he hadn’t heard, he’d been on the phone. Micky assured him it was the same price. When the company quotes it sticks to it. Client indignation goes with the job. There’s always a better, faster and cheaper route. Micky didn’t mind. He liked the quiet life. It’s why he always explained his route before setting off. If they knew a better one, fine. And when theirs backfired, which it frequently did, he’d be in the clear.
It was gone midnight when Harold sent him back to Twickenham, for the fourth time. A wait and return to Hampton Court, the client paying £30 an hour waiting time. Would have been cheaper to call for another cab. The pick up was at one of those tall terraced 1970s homes with a garage next to the front door. There were German cars on every drive except those with Range Rovers. The client was around his age, maybe in her early 30s. Nice looking by the name of Gittings. Shoulder length blonde hair with highlights. She was wearing a short checked overcoat with a high collar. Petite, even with heels like skewers. She didn’t smile and didn’t look at him. Sniffy bitch then.
“Sandringham Avenue, wait and return.” Nothing about the weather or the traffic or how it’s a funny time of night to be making house calls. A baby sitter maybe, or a carer? No, non of those. She was way too angry with a face that said she’d belt anyone who spoke out of turn. And then there’s the wait. So, she’s coming back. Hey. Who cares? She was cute, she had money to burn, and this was his favourite time of the shift; gone midnight when the traffic was light and the feeling of desolation comforting for a man who liked to be alone. His mobile buzzed in his pocket. It was Penny wanting to know if he’d be calling in for breakfast? He’d been there four or five times for breakfast now and hadn’t eaten a thing. The passenger was motionless, staring at the back of his headrest, sparkly blue and red maquillage delineating the outline of her cheekbones. To break the ice he said it wasn’t long now. No reaction.
Of course he’d known where they were headed the second Suzie had instructed him to turn left in 400 yards, and to “keep right”. This would normally be about the time the Cabouchard stirred in the back; his class act gathering her phone and papers, ready to flash him that smile. He’d tapped in Sandringham Avenue without giving it a second thought. Why hadn’t Harold said Dene Court Mansions? He’d have got there on autopilot. He could smell the citrus and spice and have killed for another shot at those Bloody Marys. There’s another bay tree and a new lamp above the door and no concierge.
“You know why we’re here, don’t you? No of course you don’t. But you’ll find out sooner or later though so I might as well tell you.” She swallowed like someone whose bitten off more than they can chew. Nervous? No, it’s more than that, she’s set to blow. He shifted around in his seat to face her but she was staring out of the nearside window towards the block.
“We are here…because my husband is in there.”
Was he expecting her he asked thinly? She snorted. “No way. He and his bitch are about to get the surprise of their lives.” And with that she’s out the door and through the wrought iron gate. Turning she snapped, “you don’t move, that’s the deal. You stay.” Micky nodded, then lowering the driver’s window called out, “you sure you want to do this?” No response.
He didn’t like it one bit. They’d been mulling over a similar situation at the office just that week, and that one had ended badly. Like tonight the husband had been fooling around, the only difference being that when the wife got out the Rayburn she went to work on the girlfriend’s Audi with a screwdriver. With the car alarm in full swing her hubby was outside before she could complete etching ‘fucking sla…’ on the bonnet.
“Control, Rayburn 43 this Dene Court wait and return can I have some clarity? Over.” Silence, but for the scream of a fox in the rank darkness. Nothing from control. A curtain moved on the first floor and a shaft of light silhouetted an inquisitive occupant illuminating the path to the door. He looked up and the curtain swung back. Something wasn’t right. It had to be more than a coincidence that this was Claudine’s address.
Thinking on his feet was never one of Micky’s strong points. He was more the sort to meander around a situation rather than jump in feet first. Penny used to say he didn’t do spontaneity; she’d order for him in restaurants. What if all hell broke loose and Claudine saw him waiting in the car? He should get the hell out of there, it’s what Maxie would do. It’s what any sensible person would do. Walk away from something that didn’t concern them. But there’s the problem “it does concern me” he whispered as he unclipped the seatbelt and stepped out into the charged night air. He could smell the Cabouchard. A man in a hat with a small dog were leaving as he stepped up to the door. Catching it just as it was about to click shut he thanked the dog walker and was inside before the man had time to ask him what he was doing? If he’d been asked he wouldn’t have known how to answer. He didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing? He called Rayburn again. The brass letter boxes bore apartment numbers not names. Harold’d sent him here enough times he must know which is Claudine’s flat? He span him some yarn about how the passenger was visiting their account client and had left a package on the back seat. Maxie would have put to and two together but Harold bought it. “You ok 43? Been running?”
Micky said he should quit the fags. “Roger that 43. Third floor, number 17.” No time for the lift. He ran six flights and felt his chest about to explode. He leant on the doorbell and thumped with his fists.
Freddie answered bare chested with a towel around his waist. A voice somewhere, Claudine, asked who it was?
“It’s your taxi driver, and by the look of him I think he wants a duel.
“Is that it cabbie? Guns at dawn?”
Micky couldn’t speak. After 84 steps, and slipping and falling and hitting his head on the polished brass banister he could barely breathe. And here was that posho again, here in Claudine’s apartment looking as smug as a man who’s ship has just come in with a cargo containing the most attractive woman in west London. He should have flattened him when he had the chance. Instead of now feeling the lifeblood drain out of him.
“Is she alright?” He couldn’t help himself. He could see what it looked like yet despite himself, and having good idea how all of this must have looked to the bare chested Cheshire cat in front of him, he needed to know Claudine was safe. Was there someone there called Gittings. He started to describe his passenger that only had the effect of making Freddie laugh even louder. He tried to look past him but every time he leant this way or that Freddie moved to block his view.
“Ole,” yelled Freddie each time he tilted to block Micky’s view. So, had she called a cab? No, he didn’t think so, calling over his bare shoulder into the dimly lit hall with picture frames on both sides the length of it. A muffled ‘no’ and something he couldn’t discern. Freddie said not to worry and then turned back to face Micky who was starting to regain his composure. “So unless you’ve got a pair of loaded pistols with you I suggest you fuck off.” With that the door slammed shut.
Passing through the lobby the man with the dog said something about it being a private block and something else about turning his back on him. He wasn’t bothered. He needed to be outside in the calm of the night. There was a quarter of Glenmorangie in the glove compartment. There was something else too, the glib, colourless repetition of his call sign on the RT: 43, 43; Rayburn 43; 43, where are you 43? He found the bottle behind his AtoZ and with his other hand swung the Citroen on a short circuit of the cul-de-sac heading back to the main road just as his passenger stepped out into the road with an undisguised expression of defiance. He pulled up along side and lowered the passenger side window. They weren’t at home she said sounding disappointed, “and where were you? I’ve been here for five minutes.” He apologised telling her he’d gone for a smoke.
There it was again, like a pic he couldn’t shake off. Rayburn 43, Rayburn 43 what was his situation? Over.
“POB Twickenham. Over.”
“Sounds like Lover Boy sorted it out. Over.”
“Rayburn 43. Something like that. Over.”
By the early hours the smell of cigarettes and body odour at Rayburn is overwhelming. There are four bunks in the corner furthest from the glass screened office and every one was occupied by men in crumpled suits, and all but Micky had their shoes and socks on the floor by the only window which was shut tight and sealed with parcel tape, because it was December and cold outside. The air was sour and the noise an insomniac’s cocktail of muffled RT chatter and the wheezy breathing of men who work long hours and smoked too much. It was impossible to sleep drifting fitfully in and out of consciousness. He thought about the house where he grew up in Suffolk and summers on the beach wind surfing and getting laid in the dunes. He felt a warm sensation and thought of something less erotic. His mobile vibrated in his pocket. She missed him, and he missed her, but only for the thing he is trying not to think about. The phone vibrated again: “bring some bubble bath and I’ll blow your bubbles.” He smiled and rolled over.
It was nearly four when Maxi, prodding his arm with his mobile phone, snapped him out of a dream about a journey he can’t get back from. In it he has to leave friends he doesn’t recognise and return home, but each way he turns is narrower or lower or more precipitous than before. Maxi jabs him harder as he is pushing through a crowd. His legs are moving but he doesn’t make any progress.
“You’re on Lover Boy. Lil wants her fags, and it’s your turn.”
Lil’s real name is Mary and she is the sister of a singer who had some hits when he was a boy. His parents used to play one, a 45 they’d called it. He could see the red paper sleeve it came in with a hole in the centre. He doesn’t know what Mary, maybe in her 70s, does, only that she likes to buy her cigarettes in the early hours of the morning at a 24 hour service station ten minutes on foot from her home. Some of the other drivers say Mary had come on to them. Maxie even hinted that he’d seen some action there. But that’s Maxie, and whatever he says needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. He isn’t concerned with gossip, he likes her. So what if she’s lost in the past? He couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t bragged about the parties she and her sister had been to, or the headlines, or the phone calls from movie stars he’d never heard of. But that’s ok. He liked her enthusiasm, her fur coats, and heavy makeup, and in a funny sort of way he empathised with her feeling of uselessness. She just liked to break up the loneliness of sleepless nights. He’d said this to Control and Maxie after one such dead of night cigarette run. Their response had been howls of laughter, and more Lover Boy jibes.
“And so are you,” said Maxie, to hoots of approval.
It was still dark and more than usual because the light beneath the office was out. He pressed the ignition fob so he could be guided by the car’s but doing so he walked full square into an iron staircase that ceased being useful years ago. He stumbled back in a heap hitting his head on one of the other cars smelling the blood in his nose and the crack on his forehead. He felt sick. The car lights were on a timer and quickly dimmed into darkness. He pressed the fob again and found the strength to stand and get in behind the wheel. Drawing down the eyeshade and looking in the mirror his injuries were less than he expected. Some grazing and blood hanging from his nose.
Mary didn’t notice the bloodied tissues on the passenger seat, nor his pallor, talking incessantly about Lily all the way to the service station. There was a comeback tour being mooted and she’d be in charge of the wardrobe. He nodded in an interested way and she was still talking about necklines and shoes long after they’d pulled up in the deserted forecourt. A youth behind the glass looked up from his phone and acknowledged two of his regulars. Micky nodded back and tilted his head towards Mary who was in full flight about an awards show she and Lily were at in the 70s. He’d told his mother about the little woman who does her shopping in the middle of the night, who’d unearthed, from somewhere in a cupboard sealed up for years a record Lily had charted when she was a girl.
Mary didn’t just want cigarettes. From where Micky was parked it looked like she was doing a major shop the youth tooing and froing between the shelves and the pay window. Holding items up and Mary nodding or shaking her head. Finally he met her at the door and handed her two full carrier bags. She was still talking as the young salesman backed away from the door. Micky papped the horn. She turned towards the car with a smile; a little old lady with two bags and a lot of class. He fished around in the glove compartment and popped another paracetamol.
Minutes later Mary waved him off. “Rayburn 43, cleared, over.”
There was a early morning glow to the east, the stuff of postcards. Sheen to the Cross. Victoria to Kew. Twickenham to Terminal 2, and then the cherry of them all, Terminal 2 to Banbury. A pair of Dutch businessmen, on account, handing him a bag of croissants talking a lot about someone called Robin van Persie. He felt good. Clearer than he had for a while. His mobile vibrated. Penny again. He turned it off and followed the GPS’s instructions to a small modern office block on the outskirts of Banbury. It’d taken an hour, and by then in broad daylight.
“Rayburn 43, Cleared. Over.” What are the chance of a return fare? Slim, but he is feeling lucky and calls again. Still nothing. The paracetamols are wearing off. He reaches into the glove compartment for some more and recalls he’d taken the last. His head hurts now, in a deep, dull, throbbing sort of way, and the smell of blood is back.
“Rayburn 43. Cleared. Over.”