‘Magic and Mischief’, a short story
The lift doors opened with a clatter but Elinor didn’t get in. For the third time she checked her handbag. Keys. Purse. Cheque book. Paying-in book. Two dividend cheques to pay in, four bills to pay. She ticked the items off her mental checklist. Then she looked again at her keys. Had she locked the door? Oh dear.
The lift doors closed empty as she retraced her steps to h’r front door. Twinkle followed. She didn’t need to tug once on the white Scottie’s elegant Smythson pink leather lead, Twinkle went wherever Elinor went. And he knew her routines well.
Yes, her front door was locked. As her long fingers, now bent with arthritis, struggled with the heavy bunch of keys, another fear popped unbidden into her head. The fire. Was it off?
A tall elegant woman, Elinor looked younger than her age. She was bored by other women of 74 who seemed pre-occupied with the twin domesticities of grandchildren and husband. Elinor, who had neither, had always been comfortable in her own company. She was satisfied with her own internal monologue and comfortably isolated herself from modern society. And she never sought the company of men. The thought of a strange man taking the place of her beloved Jack was unthinkable.
Within five minutes she pushed the lift button again and rubbed her aching knuckles. Door double-locked. Fire off. Windows shut against burglars [her apartment was on the third floor of a Georgian terrace] and ignored the nagging thought that she was getting a bit obsessive.
She humoured herself: it was simply her routine. Ever since the elderly man at apartment 2b had been found dead her routine had got longer. He’d died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The poor man laid there for six days before Mr Arif the newsagent called their caretaker about the uncollected newspapers for 72 Bentham Mansions, Whitaker Square, London W1. Since then Elinor made sure she spoke to the caretaker once a day so that if anything happened to her, he would miss her.
“Ping”. Twinkle preceded his elderly owner into the lift on this, their monthly trip to the bank. Elinor told herself that everything she needed was in her little Mayfair square. There was the private garden in the middle where she could sit and enjoy the flowers, Mr Arif’s corner shop for her newspaper and pint of milk, and the elegant Georgian square to walk around with Twinkle twice a day.
This was Elinor’s world. After Jack had his operation their longing to explore further afield had evaporated. Having travelled the world in their youth, they were content to spend the autumn of their years in suspended animation in this small neighbourhood. They would spend the afternoon sitting on a bench in the garden, Elinor would read poetry while Jack read every word in the Telegraph.
Unlocking the garden gate with the heavy iron key never failed to lift Elinor’s spirits. The garden was her oasis within the madness of London and it was rare to be interrupted by another visitor. She loved the simple restrained decoration and refined proportions of Robert Adam’s classic square. She looked at her building, her eyes journeying upwards from the black iron railings, past the arched windows and fanlight over the door, to the triumphal arch flanked by tall circular Corinthian pillars. Much nicer, she thought, than Nash’s Hanover Terrace.
Elinor felt a kinship with Robert Adam. He was a traveller too. He’d done the Grand Tour in 1754 and come back inspired. When Elinor and Jack had visited Rome ten years ago they’d recognised the grotesque decorations on the Vatican Loggie which Adam had recreated in Whitaker Square. Elinor and Jack would sit in the garden and have a lively discussion about architecture. Elinor thought Adam a true romantic, soaking up everything he saw like a sponge. Jack thought him a bit of a tart who mixed sphinxes and gryphons with altars and urns. Certainly in their square, Adam combined an eclectic mix of Etruscan and Pompeii schemes which he had seen at the Herculaneum and Pompeii excavations with images from Estruscan vases. He must have seen those in the British Museum, Elinor mused. Adam’s Grand Tour never reached Greece.
Elinor would sit on the bench, her hands tidily curled in her lap, and remember people she had loved, all now dead. Jack, the love of her life. Her sister, Belinda. Her parents. William, her son.
Since Jack’s death, Elinor’s world had shrunk to 450×700 yards, the circumference of Whitaker Square. She ventured outside only once a month, to Coutts on The Strand, to ‘handle her affairs’. The first Wednesday of every month at 9am. She’d never been able to shake off the fear, engendered in her gainful youth, of an interview with a forbidding bank manager. So she always dressed up.
Jack had always handled the money. And though she recognised her checklist as a delaying tactic to avoid leaving the flat, she also knew she had no choice. She’d run out of cheques and owed Mr Arif £15. She didn’t like owing money to anyone. It was against her creed.
“Ping.” The lift doors opened on the ground floor and there stood Mr Bassett the caretaker, nervously smoothing Brylcreemed hair over his shiny scalp. He held the front door open and nodded slightly. “Your cab is here, Mrs Trentham. I couldn’t get the usual people but I’m sure this mini-cab will be fine.”
Elinor had driven a Mini Cooper in the 60s so found the idea inviting, though perhaps this Mini Cab would be too low for her to get into. Her bones were a little stiffer now. She frowned upon any disruption to her routine. Mr Eliot from Elite Cabs always drove her on these monthly excursions. He understood her.
Standing on the step she looked for a Mini Cooper and saw instead a scruffy grey Toyota that had seen better times. A smiling black man held open the back door and beckoned towards her. Elinor appraised him closely. She noted his clean neatly clipped fingernails and nodded to herself. Mind made up, she stepped forward. With a supporting hand under her elbow, the driver helped her into the back seat. He picked up Twinkle, placed him on the seat next to her and the little dog snuggled next to his owner who was comforted by his familiar panting warmth against her bony thigh.
Well, she thought, pushing aside her pre-conceptions about the driver. If he likes dogs he can’t be all bad. Most cab drivers put Twinkle on the floor and some even refused to take him at all. But she was disappointed with the Mini Cab, it didn’t live up to its promise.
“To The Strand, yes?” The driver asked. Elinor nodded and laughed as if he’d said something funny, a default reaction when she was nervous. The car pulled into traffic and turned south onto Park Lane.
Elinor clutched the handbag on her lap and looped the handle through her arm to be safe from muggers. Jack had taught her well. What he hadn’t had time to do before he died was teach her about money.
Not wanting to rely on her solicitor, Elinor had insisted she was capable of handling her own financial affairs. Everything had gone swimmingly except for one basic fact. She didn’t know how much money she had or where it was. She knew it was a lot but was bamboozled by the money pages in the Sunday newspapers. Mini this and maxi that: skirt lengths as far as she was concerned. She’d refused all the bank’s attempts to give her a plastic card. Almost 20 thick white envelopes sat in her desk drawer, unopened. An undefined fear of the bank’s disapproval stopped Elinor from throwing them in the bin.
Out of the right hand window, Green Park gave way to The Ritz. Jack had often taken her tea dancing there in a wonderfully elegant room with high ceilings and a view of the park. They would dance to a string quartet and eat a tasteful afternoon tea served on rose-patterned china.
Elinor checked her handbag again. Yes, it was fastened securely. She always used the same handbag on these trips. Plain and scruffy so as not to draw attention to its contents, it was spacious enough to take the bundles of notes and still close safely with a satisfying click.
Sensing that the driver was watching her in his rear view mirror, she looked around the cab for his identification papers. Some sort of charm hung from the rear-view mirror, swaying every time the car turned a corner.
His picture was stuck to the dashboard. Peter Obende. Peter. One of the disciples. His parents must have been Christian. Obende sounded African.
Elinor loved Africa, she’d lived in Kenya with Jack for 20 years before coming back to London. Peter looked just like Solomon, their Kenyan houseboy. She’d been happiest in Kenya before Jack fell ill and they were forced to return to London.
Halted at traffic lights at Piccadilly Circus, she glanced at Eros. She’d loved and lost, but she’d lost out to death not another woman. Darling Jack.
The traffic cleared, the car sped down Haymarket and left into Trafalgar Square. Standing square in front of them was St Martins-in-the-Fields.
“That is my favourite church,” said Peter. “My brother and I go there every Christmas to sing carols, it’s on Radio Four you know?”
Elinor did know. She’d sung there herself with Jack every year. But now she didn’t go on her own.
“James Gibbs built it, it’s his most famous church,” she said. “Some people say he was Wren’s successor but I think he deserves his own merit. He trained in Rome, that’s why it looks a bit Italian.” It was Elinor’s favourite church too, another fine example of Georgian architecture. There were quite a few dotted around London. She’d visited most, with Jack.
A few minutes later, as they slowed to a halt outside the ugly angular 20th century Coutts building on The Strand, Elinor wrenched her mind to the present.
“Thank you Peter, for driving me today.”
“I’ll wait for you Mrs Trentham, I’ll take you home again.”
He even sounded like Solomon. Elinor waited as Peter lifted Twinkle onto the pavement. Then she followed her eager dog into the concourse, stepped onto the escalator, and marvelled as she did every month at the real tree growing inside the glass atrium.
Twenty minutes later she emerged from the revolving door, evidently flustered and a little shaken by the speed at which the door spun. She sank into the back seat of the Toyota with a relieved sigh.
“Is something wrong, Mrs Trentham?” Elinor searched her pockets for her handkerchief to dab her eyes. It was made of fine white lawn, edged with lace and embroidered with her initials. She’d made it herself many years earlier, before the arthritis put a stop to her dressmaking. Now she played patience instead.
“Oh Solomon. It’s all so overwhelming. There’s a new manager who doesn’t know me. They speak so quickly and give me papers to sign. They don’t understand that I just want to get my money and go home.”
Silent for a few minutes to let her gather her wits together, Peter studied her carefully in the rear view mirror as he drove along Pall Mall.
“It’s none of my business, but there has to be a better way of looking after your money,” he said. “Coutts may be fine for the Queen but you need a bank that’s around the corner.”
“Well I have always felt I’m rather a nuisance for them.” Elinor laughed as if in appreciation of a joke, except it wasn’t funny.
Peter smiled kindly at her. “You are their customer, not the other way round. You shouldn’t feel a nuisance.”
Elinor knew he was right. She often felt as if people humoured her because of her age, as if they thought she was sick or dotty. They spoke to her as if to a child. She was rather insulted by that. Solomon treated her like an equal.
“If you had a bank card you could get your cash and order a cheque book without having to go to the bank you know.”
Elinor thought of the envelopes in the drawer. “I think I’ve got a wallcash card but I don’t know what to do with it. It rather frightens me. I know it’s silly. Mr Arif has told me I can pay him by Visa if it’s easier for me, but I don’t want to apply to the embassy for a visa.”
The Toyota turned right at the traffic lights into Whitaker Square and Elinor breathed a little easier at the sight of the familiar. “Here you are Mrs T, home.” Peter turned off the engine and all three sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, the quiet broken only by Twinkle’s occasional whine to be let out.
“What if. No. Well, if you like I could….”
“Look I know you don’t know me and there’s no reason for you to trust a mini-cab driver, but if you like I could help you with your cashcard. Find you the nearest cashpoint and show you how to use it. If you’d like, I mean. But if you don’t want to, I quite understand.”
Elinor smiled as she heard the embarrassment behind his hesitant offer.
“Oh Solomon that would be wonderful. Of course I trust you, after all we’ve known each other such a long time.”
“Okay Mrs T. But there’s just one thing. I’m not Solomon, I’m Peter.”
“I know, dear.”
Later that afternoon the weather changed. It was the sort of rain that bounced up off the pavement and wet you in places that normally stayed dry. Donna moved her umbrella slightly to the right to stop the steady drip down the back of her neck.
Conscious of being fair and giving Christie equal shelter under her Liberty floral print umbrella, she was forced to stand elbow-to-elbow with the woman she’d walked away from in anger yesterday. Donna felt uneasy about the physical contact and knew it was irrational. Perhaps it was guilt, pure and simple. Guilt. Because she longed to escape from Christie.
This was the third week of their European tour. Today, Wednesday, was their fourth day in London and they’d just come out of their second museum of the day. The tour was turning into a tourist treadmill, a tick-list of ‘worthwhile things to see and do in Europe.’ Surely the Grand Tour had not been like this.
They’d spent the morning at the Courtauld Institute and the Gilbert Collection at Somerset House. Then they’d drunk a cup of tea [dark brown and far too strong for their pallid tastes], eaten a tasteless cous cous salad [just like the one they’d eaten yesterday at Stonehenge’s Standing Stones café] and were now standing shoulder-to-shoulder on The Strand. Two middle-aged ladies dressed incongruously the same like ten-year old twins in porridge-coloured raincoats and white trainers, they looked in vain for a black cab in the early afternoon rain.
Donna shuffled her feet and clapped her gloved hands in a vain attempt to generate some heat in her sodden limbs. Christie stood with her arms thrust deep in her coat pockets and didn’t speak. On yesterday’s coach tour to Stonehenge, they had started the day united in their hatred of unimaginative tourist traps and ended it sniping about irrelevancies. Donna had had one doubt before embarking on this trip to Europe. Christie could be very irritating. Her doubt had been proven. They’d dined separately last night and settled into an uneasy truce this morning.
Trying not to make eye contact with a seven foot tall black man in an ill-fitting suit who was leaning against a scruffy grey Toyota parked ten feet away, Donna waved vainly at an empty black cab speeding the other way without his light on.
“He’s going home. He won’t stop for you.” He had an incredibly deep bass voice which reminded her of Paul Robeson singing ‘Ol Man River. And he was as big as a house. Except he wasn’t American.
“Where do you want to go?”
Donna assumed a look of deafness and hoped he’d take the hint. He didn’t.
“Where do you want to go?” His voice was soft for such a large man. The power of his lungs stretched to full capacity in anger would be a sound to be avoided, Donna decided. His jacket, which was too small, was straining at the buttons. One will pop soon, she thought idly, if he doesn’t undo it.
The next thing she knew they were sitting in the back seat of the Toyota, damp carrier bags around their ankles, heading past Bush House east round The Aldwych.
“Are you tourists? Where are you from?”
Donna thought quickly before she answered. Now they were in this mess, in a car with a strange black man driving off into the depths of a city they didn’t know. Should she make up a name to hide their true identities? But what would that achieve? Determined to avoid upsetting Christie, who could panic for all 52 states, she pushed her own fear aside and told him they were American.
“American, ah.” As he twisted to look at them over his shoulder, the lights turned green. A truck behind beeped its horn with typical London impatience.
“Would you like to see the sights?”
Christie groaned. “That’s the problem. We’ve seen too many sights. We’ve been to all the attractions. They’re boring.”
Yes, thought Donna, they are. For once I agree with Christie. They do all the experience for you. We could leave our imaginations in the hotel because you certainly don’t need it with all the multi-media presentations and interactive demonstrations. I don’t want to see another audio-wand or listen to a plastic woman’s voice. I don’t want a list of facts and figures that don’t mean anything. I want memories of real London.
“We want to see the real London.” Christie unconsciously echoed Donna’s thoughts and then stopped short when she saw the expression on her friend’s face. Donna was wildly trying to work out where they were and was wondering if the best bet was to jump out of the car at the next set of lights. But all the lights were green and the car sailed forwards.
“I’ll show you the Real London. I love London. £40, I’ll show you London, misses. What do you want to see first, the multi-storey car park in Gerrard Street or the concourse at Waterloo station?” He chuckled, a sound like the distant approach of thunder.
The two women missed the joke. They were too busy preening themselves at the ‘miss’. It was some years since either had qualified for that description. But it was flattering all the same.
Christie patted her perfectly highlighted blonde hair.
Donna, who didn’t want to go to Waterloo station, wasn’t thinking about her hair. She leant forward in her seat and said, “If you could just take us to our hotel, we really don’t want ……..”
“Akemannstreet, this road was called Akemannstreet in Anglo Saxon days. Did you know that? It went all the way from The Strand past Ludgate Hill.”
“Your pronunciation of anglo saxon is very good,” said Christie. “Do you learn it in school here?”
Donna raised her eyes in amazement at her friend’s dimness. Christie’s capacity for idiocy had surprised her on their first day at senior school together. And it still managed to shock her 46 years later.
Unaware of Donna’s internal monologue, the driver was now talking about food. It seemed it was a popular theme for street names during King Alfred’s time. He pointed out of the window and waved his arm around. Donna noticed his hands, square and strong with neatly clipped fingernails. She looked up just in time to catch a glimpse of London Bridge – not the real one, of course, that was back home in America – and narrow winding streets straight out of the pages of Dickens.
“Fish Street Hill. Bread Street. Garlick Hill. And Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London started in …”
“No,” said Donna firmly. “No dates. We won’t come on your historical tour if you give us dates.”
Christie nudged Donna and whispered, “Are we staying then?” Donna nodded. The driver observed the interaction in his rear view mirror and smiled with satisfaction.
Realising that she’d stopped talking abruptly and feeling, strangely, that she’d been rude to this giant man, Donna continued. “It’s funny, I was fascinated by history at school and wanted to know all the dates when things happened. I memorised them. Andrew Johnson, 17th president from 1865 to 1869. Came from North Carolina. Took office after Lincoln’s assassination. He had two claims to fame. He bought Alaska in 1867, and he was impeached in 1868 for trying to get rid of his Secretary of War after a bust up over the Civil Rights Act.”
She hesitated, realising her tone sounded preachy. Christie was staring at her.
“Bet you didn’t know that,” Donna challenged. “But since we’ve been here we’ve learned about things that happened so many years earlier it makes America’s history feel irrelevant.”
“How do you know whose turn it is to go first when you drive up to a roundabout?” interrupted Christie, “I swear I’d drive the wrong way round.” Ignoring her, the driver turned into a side street. Without a word, he got out of the car and left them.
Donna and Christie sat in silence and surveyed the scene around them. Closed shops with shuttered windows, covered with unreadable graffiti. Overflowing dustbins with a skinny dog tearing determinedly at a black bin bag. A flickering yellow streetlight gave the scene an eerie glow. Was this his Real London?
Nervous again, but not wanting to verbalise it and frighten Christie, and conscious of the tension between the two of them, Donna tried to work out what to do if things turned nasty. Goodness knows where they were, somewhere in the East End. She didn’t fancy their chances going it alone. She looked at her A-Z. She always carried it to discourage taxi drivers from taking her on the ‘scenic route’ that involved passing Buckingham Palace three times from different directions. But she couldn’t read the tiny type without her reading glasses which sat on her bedside table in the hotel.
Not a soul walked along the road. The dog won its battle with the bin bag and triumphantly dragged away something unidentifiable. Nothing else happened.
Ten minutes later the driver re-appeared, balancing three cups of takeaway tea. “For you. We can sit over there.” He gestured towards a bench on a piece of waste ground next to a broken child’s swing.
Obediently the two women followed him and waited while he dried the damp seat with his neatly pressed handkerchief. It never occurred to Christie to walk away. Donna knew this tour of Real London wasn’t sensible but she was at a loss how to get out of it without being rude to the driver. After all, he’d bought them a cup of tea.
He pointed to the wasteland. “One of the ways they found out about ancient London was by digging up places like this, you know,” he said. “In olden days people threw things away in cess pits or rubbish pits or down wells. Near here they found bits of broken pots and beakers that were made in the Thames Valley. You know where that is?”
The women shook their heads and blew on their steaming tea. Too hot and too strong for their tastes, they sipped it politely.
“It’s 40 miles from here. The pots were shelly ware, they knew that because there were shell fragments in the local clay. History, wonderful isn’t it. It brings London to life.”
Feeling calmer than she had in the last twenty minutes, Donna swallowed the last drop of tea and wondered if it was going to be okay. The driver threw their empty cups into the litter bin and they drove on.
As they waited at traffic lights to turn right, Donna settled into her seat and realised they’d just passed up an opportunity to get away.
“You can turn right on a red you know, there’s nothing coming, “ said Christie.
“I know you can turn right on a red light in the US, but we can’t. It’s not in the Highway Code. Athough Ken might introduce it.” He chuckled to himself, the joke lost on the two Americans. “He wants to charge us for driving into the City. He can cite the history books too. In olden days when ships used to dock here they had to pay a toll to the City, sometimes it was money but they could be asked for part of their cargo. At Christmas one German ship had to pay lengths of grey and brown cloth, 10lb of paper, five packs of gloves and two saddle-kegs of vinegar.”
“I can understand the gloves,” added Donna, rubbing her hands together. “London in October is freezing, even if it has stopped raining. It never gets this cold in Florida.”
“That’s some shopping list,” said Christie. “Perhaps grey was the new black that Christmas.” The two women laughed at the shared joke.
“You ladies, you think you invented shopping. But men, we like clothes too. King James bought 180 suits and 2000 pairs of gloves in five years. Five years. Fashion was big in the 17th century. Almost a quarter of Londoners had jobs in the fashion trade.
“Now we’ll drive for a while, you can relax.” The driver turned the radio on and the heater up. Lulled by the warmth, the ladies wiped the condensation from the inside of the windows and pointed out tourist attractions to each other.
“Houses of Parliament.”
Donna’s eyes felt heavy but just before she surrendered to sleep, her bleary eyes focussed on the driver’s plastic pass stuck to the dashboard. His name was Peter Obende. His photograph didn’t do him justice, it made him look like a convict in a Southern chain gang.
They dozed. Peter coughed reverently to wake them. The car was parked in front of B&Q at Wandsworth.
“There is the River Wandle,” he waved a tree-trunk thick arm towards the council tip. Bemused, the two ladies watched a large green waste truck reverse into a narrow gap. There was no river in sight, not even the Thames.
“It’s because of the river that Wandsworth became such an industrial centre in the 19th century.”
“What sort of industry,” asked Donna.
“Calico works, match factories, dye works. It was the water you see, it gave power to 40 factories.”
“You’d never know it.” Donna turned 360 degrees and surveyed the three towering apartment blocks with their expensive shoebox river views, the jolly green Holiday Inn Express situated beside the bleak roundabout with what looked like entwined elephant tusks at its core. Elephants, here?
Having circumnavigated the B&Q car park to the puzzlement of shoppers pushing laden trolleys, Peter turned back onto the Wandsworth one-way system. Now completely lost, Donna stopped trying to memorise street names in case she had to retrace their steps at a later date.
“Where are we going now?”
Donna leafed through her red and blue Baedeckers’ guide to London. There wasn’t an entry for Merton.
Twenty minutes later they pulled to a halt outside the Sleepeezee bed factory. Christie nudged Donna and pointed. Hung on the factory wall was a five foot high crest. The royal warrant.
“They made the bed Princess Di slept in.” Peter spoke with pride and watched the wonder appear on the faces of the two middle-aged ladies. They stood in silence and looked at the unprepossessing grey building, oblivious to the steady stream of passing traffic behind them.
“William Morris printed his fabric in Merton. Liberty too.” Peter gestured towards Donna’s umbrella and she pulled her senses away from her memory.
Back in the car, the Americans fell asleep propped against each other. Emotionally spent and physically tired, they had no fear now of physical contact with each other, or of their driver. By 6pm they were safely deposited outside their Bloomsbury hotel.
“We knew a real Londoner would give us the best tour and we were right. Where in London were you born, Peter?” asked Christie.
“I live in New Cross.” Peter pocketed their £40. “You want a tour of West London tomorrow?” Without a glance to each other for agreement, the friends nodded.
Shelley rammed her hands further into her coat pockets and found a loose thread. Nervously she wiggled her fingers to enlarge a tear in the pocket lining. The clock above the jeweller opposite said it was 11.30pm.
“Oh, come on Darren,” she whined. She watched Darren walk towards the traffic lights three hundred yards away. She didn’t see why they couldn’t get the doorman at The Savoy to call them a cab.
As the freezing north wind whipped down The Strand, Shelley sought shelter from the windchill factor in the smelly doorway of an office block. Breathing through her mouth to avoid the smell and careful where she stepped, Shelley gave vent to the frustration with Darren that had started to mount as soon as he was late to meet her from work. He should have booked a cab to take us home, she thought. You can’t expect a black cab to want to go all the way to Barking on a cold Wednesday night. Stands to reason.
The play had been a mistake. She’d enjoyed it, she’d done it at school, but Darren had evidently been bored out of his brains. She sighed again, poked two fingers through the hole and reached her right hand inside the coat lining down towards the hem.
She wished he would make an effort and try to be a bit more cultured. She’d dressed up for the occasion. Little black dress from Warehouse, stockings and sparkly high heels. After all, you don’t go to the theatre every night of the week, not like going to the dogs. She shivered. This cold wind crept into your bones.
Darren had insisted on wearing his blue fleece because it was warm. It may keep him warm but it made him look like a windblown rambler. And, thank you very much, that’s not who she wanted to be seen with at The Importance of Being Ernest at the Savoy Theatre.
As Darren walked back towards her, shuffling his walking boot-clad feet on the pavement, Shelley noticed for the first time a scruffy grey Toyota parked in the bus lane ten feet away.
With an air of detachment as if she was observing someone else’s experience, she watched a man climb out of the car and walk towards her. He was well over six feet tall, black, built like a rugby player, and wearing a red football shirt underneath a too-small suit jacket.
“You want a cab?” he asked.
“No tha…” Shelley’s words drifted away on the biting northerly wind as Darren said “yes” and propelled her firmly onto the back seat.
“What are you doing, you idiot,” she hissed at him, “I am not getting into a strange car in the middle of the West End with a black man. Do you want us to be attacked?”
“Don’t be stupid, it’ll be fine. It’s nearly midnight. There aren’t any black cabs around so it’s either this or walk home.”
Sitting in the back of the Toyota and wanting to be anywhere else, Shelley pressed her back into the seat hoping it may swallow her up. She crossed her arms and legs away from Darren to show him that she was angry. Darren didn’t notice.
The car turned left off The Strand into a maze of streets beside The Savoy. Winding first to the left then to the right, the driver turned into an underground car park and slowed the car to a crawl.
This wasn’t the way to Barking. Shelley kicked Darren and scowled at him. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly and looked away. She could feel her pulse pounding in her stomach but tried to stem the rigor of panic flooding her face.
The car stopped. No-one moved. No-one spoke. The driver caught Shelley’s eye in the rear-view mirror.
“One man, he was so nervous of me taking this shortcut he got out here and ran away. He left his woman. That’s not right. A man should look after his woman.” And he laughed, a huge guffaw straight from his belly. The laugh was friendly but the words, addressed at Darren, were threatening.
“I do look after her.” As Darren held eye contact with the driver he reached for Shelley’s hand, gave it a reassuring squeeze, and tucked it underneath his arm.
Calmer, Shelley looked at the driver and saw him watching her in the rear-view mirror. A minute later they were safely on Victoria Embankment , the river on their right, heading east. Darren watched the view as they passed first Blackfriars Bridge then Southwark and London bridges before turning left onto Gracechurch Street and wiggled through Aldgate to pick up Commercial Road.
Shelley monitored the driver’s every move for signs of another deviation off-route. So far, so good. Just to be safe she memorised his name and photograph displayed clearly on the dashboard. Peter Obende. Mind you, knowing his name wouldn’t do her much good if she ended up in bits at the bottom of the Thames.
She watched as block after block of shabby concrete flats passed by the window, past Stepney Eye Hospital and Limehouse DLR station, and she tried not to think about drugs. After all, if he’d wanted to rob them or kill them he could have done it back there in the car park.
No, perhaps he was a drug dealer. She gave up trying to decipher his torrent of words laced with an incomprehensible accent which she vaguely thought might be African. Darren didn’t seem to have the same problem, though, the two men were chatting about football.
“Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea. They buy foreign players because they’re the best,” said the driver.
“I think that’s wrong. There should be a limit on the number of foreign players to give the local lads a chance. A lot of the London clubs have youth teams you know and the boys are bloody good. I support West Ham.” Darren pronounced the statement as if it was self-explanatory although Shelley knew that West Ham were propping up the bottom of the league table.
She watched Peter shake his head slowly in disagreement, the metronomic movement of the back of his head left and right had an hypnotic effect on her. The car heater was on high and the windows steamed up. She fought against the heaviness that dragged her eyelids down.
“I live near Millwall but they’re rubbish, but sometimes I go to watch Charlton.” Noticing the fogged-up windows, Peter turned the air vents on.
They were silent as the car swept through the Limehouse Link and onto Aspen Way catching glimpses of the Dome, expensive apartment blocks, and motorboats moored in the docks.
The value of those with a Dome view had doubled in the last couple of years. The prices were crazy but there were people crazy enough to buy them. Shelley sighed. She didn’t approve of the Dome. The money could have been spent better on other things for the locals. She’d refused to visit it, even though Darren had been quite keen.
As they turned into the Barking Road at Canning Town, past West Ham’s ground, Shelley breathed easier. She was on familiar territory. She liked going up west for a night out, but she was a home-bird. An Essex-girl and proud of it. Even her name. She knew when Darren asked her out that they sounded like a kitsch windscreen sticker on a souped-up Ford Escort. But she’d still said yes.
Her eyes closed as she remembered why she’d fancied him. Two years now they’d been going out. A record for her, she’d never had a boyfriend longer than a year. Her mum was already planning the wedding, though Darren showed no sign of asking. Perhaps she’d ask him. She still fancied him though sometimes those feelings were pushed aside by the daily art of survival.
“I’m a PC,” said Peter suddenly, jolting her out of her reverie. “You know what a PC is?”
A policeman, thought Shelley.
“I’m a pussy consultant.”
Darren looked blank.
The words translated in Shelley’s head and slowly came into focus like the swirling pattern in a child’s kaleidoscope.
He’s talking about sex, she thought, and now wide awake she panicked. Of God, why me. He’s not a drug dealer, he’s probably going to kill Darren and rape me. Please Darren do something. Her stomach knotted up and she sat ramrod straight, as if someone had pushed a bolt down the back of her dress. She shivered and pulled her coat across her knees.
Darren did nothing. Perhaps he hadn’t heard him properly.
“He means he’s a sex ther…”
“I realise that,” snapped Darren impatiently.
Peter winked conspiratorially at Darren in the mirror and added “I can tell you how to keep your woman happy.”
“I don’t need lessons on that thank you, we do just fine,” replied Darren, a little primly.
Well, thought Shelley, that’s not strictly true.
“You are a nice man. I will give you some tips on how to give your lady more pleasure. You know what I’m saying?”
Darren nodded and started to look interested.
“You can look at my website www.pc.co.uk. But I tell you now for free. Normally this would cost you money, you understand?”
They both nodded.
“You take coriander and you rub it on the lady.” Darren looked stunned. Shelley burst out laughing. Was that what he was, a comedian?
“Where?” she asked. Darren frowned at her forwardness.
“Where do you rub it?”
“You mix a little dried coriander with water and rub it on the lady’s titties. It makes them very sensitive and is very nice. Don’t put too much on though or it makes the titties sore. And never put it in the fanny. It’s very painful.”
Shelley giggled nervously, it sounded like an exfoliating treatment. “What about the fresh sort?”
“You know what fresh coriander looks like?”
Shelley nodded, thinking of Jamie Oliver’s packets of fresh herbs in Sainsbury’s.
Peter caught Darren’s eye in the mirror and held his gaze without a trace of embarrassment. “You must eat it. Lots of it. It makes you hard for hours. You just keep going. Much cheaper than Viagra and you make your woman very, very happy.”
“Stop here.” Shelley pointed to a garage next to a Sainsbury’s Local store. Repeating the instructions in her head like a mantra about what to do with dried and fresh coriander, she left the two men sitting in the mini-cab and rushed into the store.
Ten minutes later the cab stopped outside their maisonette opposite Loxford Park in Barking.
“Thanks mate,” said Darren.
Shelley waved goodbye to Peter as he drove away. What an experience. A PC who moonlights as a cab driver. So, the advice cost Darren an extra £5 and the coriander was 89p. Cheap for the price.
She tapped her pocket and felt for the plastic sachet which had dropped through the lining into the hem of her coat. She kneaded the back of Darren’s hand with the fleshy ball of her thumb.
They wouldn’t get much sleep tonight.
© Sandra Danby
2003: shortlisted in London Art’s Diaspora City short story competition
2003: published in ‘Diaspora City: London New Writing Anthology’ [pub. Arcadia Books]
‘Diaspora City: The London New Writing Anthology’ [UK: Arcadia]
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
MAGIC AND MISCHIEF a #shortstory about an unusual London cab driver via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/s5gEM4-49