© Jon Horne
The passengers from flight VS-312 (New York to Birmingham International) straggled their way out of the Arrivals lounge. Taxis queued by the kerb, the drivers talking amongst themselves, drinking coffee out of flasks and smoking. One driver stood apart. He wore a dark blue uniform and a low-peaked cap.
- - -
Good morning madam, welcome to Six As Sixways. Where would you like me to take you today? he said.
Eh? Oh... Sutton.
A local accent. The driver cursed his error. He held the door open for the fare, closed it behind her and climbed into the drivers seat. He wound the window up and put his foot down. The passenger sat stiff and straight in the back seat, not looking out at the first signs of dawn rising behind Coventrys nondescript skyline. He took the sliproad onto the motorway and headed west. The going was good this time of the morning, three hours away from rush-hour frustration. Soon the heat would strike; tyres blistering, tempers boiling. There hadnt been a summer like it for years.
Not only was the passenger local, she was also from the wrong end of Sutton. He dropped her outside a fading 1930s semi-detached that must have been bought from the council. She tipped him a pound and he thanked her through gritted teeth. Then he drove home and fed the dog. Time for a break before the mornings first booking; he put his feet up on the sofa.
He woke to the discordant clang of a brass alarm clock and felt the little dog jump from his chest, barking like a cough-stricken baby. He batted the clock into silence, then raised his hand to the dog, which dropped its ears and sank behind the sofa.
A cup of tea and the list: The first job was in Four Oaks - Sutton again, but this time at the far end from town. If you ignored the cheek-sucking parp of the voices and the stink of expensive perfume and aftershave, these were the good ones. They knew how to tip. He went down to the car and gave the back seat a brush before returning to the flat and changing back into his uniform. He listened to the answering machine while he changed. A couple of afternoon pickups and an extended whine from his daughter, angling for money. It would do her good to go without, once in a while.
That was a lie. He had driven up to see her a month before, in the house she shared with six others in a Leeds backstreet, near the university. She seemed to be existing on a diet of white bread and Aldis baked beans. There was nothing he could do for her. AAAAAA Sixways Taxi Company (chauffeur service at a minicab price) was on its way out. Its one car, a leather-upholstered 1954 Rover handbuilt at Longbridge and handpainted in charcoal grey just a year ago, was running on WD-40 and good fortune. Next time the car broke down, the cash wasnt there to get it fixed. The sole proprietor and sole driver would have to find another job. Or something.
Tyburn Road was filling up on the town side. This could be good or bad: if you got them there just in time, they could pull out a tenner or even twenty before dashing into Departures - but if you were late they blamed you, and you were lucky to get paid at all.
The pickups house was huge, with a cul-de-sac gravel driveway and apple trees in the front garden. The driver slowed down as stones pinged against the underside of the car. A man came out of the house, dressed in an suit and overcoat and carrying two matching white suitcases. The suit and the coat were expensive, tailored. The fare was young - mid-twenties, the driver judged - hair not brushed and a little too long; unshaven. His step was slow and careful; that of a man much older.
Good morning sir, welcome to Six As Sixways. The airport, I believe?
May I take your luggage?
Thank you. The mans speech was as measured as his gait. The driver took the cases and placed them gently in the boot of the car.
The air was damp and already warm. The driver weaved his way through the northern suburbs. At the side of the road manicured gardens were a uniform brown. Only the hedges with their poinsettia and honeysuckle had any colour. Isolated joggers pounded the narrow pavements, sweating without modesty, invulnerable under Walkman headphones.
On the motorway, cars were still moving - but only just.
I hope youre not in a hurry, sir, the driver said. A chancey thing to say. He should be more careful.
No, not at all, replied the passenger.
The city was hidden by a concrete crash barrier, but on the other side Fort Dunlop loomed. The passenger stared dispassionately out of the side window at the building.
Would this be a holiday?
You could say that. The passengers tone didnt invite further questions. The driver glanced into the mirror and nodded. The rest of the journey passed in silence. Every few days there was a customer like this one - quiet, polite and rich.
At the airport, the driver loaded the suitcases onto a trolley and accepted a five-pound tip with a slight touch of his cap. Then he parked the taxi in the short-stay zone and walked into the terminal to buy a newspaper. He was greeted with a broad grin by the woman behind the newsagents counter.
Alright lover, hows it going? she said.
Oh you know, fair-to-middling, the driver replied.
The life hed built up was going to come apart, soon. Once more hed have to start from scratch, and he wondered if he could do it. How long had he known this woman? Two, three years? At least. Every day she was pleased to see his face, and yet the only things they ever said to each other were Hows it going, darling? and Not so bad, flower. There were others like her: a mechanic at the Rover garage, a Greek waiter at Georges Café, a forecourt attendant at Sixways petrol station. When the car broke down for good, these small, almost wordless friendships would end.
Turned out lovely, hasnt it? said the woman behind the counter.
The driver tried to think of something to say, but his thoughts were drowned out by the distorted voice of the tannoy: Please carry your luggage with you at all times. Any unattended bags will be dealt with at the owners expense. Any passengers seeing an unattended bag, please report to security personnel.
Best be off, said the driver.
Ta-da then, love.
The Departures lounge bustled as it always did. There was the usual mixture of anticipation, panic and boredom in the faces and bodies of the people waiting to fly. Languages and accents abounded. The driver had, via experience and Linguaphone records from the library, picked up the relevant basics in French, German and Dutch. Japanese had proven too much. He had learned to tell the English-speakers apart - Canadian from American, New Zealander from Australian; sometimes he could pick out a city - it was a useful tool if you got it right: they felt as if they were welcome and gave better tips. He sat with a cup of tea and tried to read the paper, but he couldnt shake off the regretful feeling. He had long ceased to see these people as anything but living cashpoint machines - push the right buttons and they spat money at you. But for all that, he hadnt become rich, he didnt own a fleet of high-class taxis, and he would soon be unemployed once more. He folded the newspaper, stuffed it into his jacket pocket and stood up. The tea had gone straight through him. He turned on his heels and went back through the lounge to the gents toilets.
He stood at a urinal, reading the marker-pen graffiti (which changed every day) and tried not to catch the eyes of the men lined up beside him. He went to wash his hands, then saw, under a sink, a familiar white suitcase. He looked around for the passenger in the suit and overcoat. No sign. Perhaps it wasnt the same one after all.
- Excuse me, is this anyones bag? - He nearly said it, but something made him keep quiet. He dawdled at the hand-dryer. No one made to pick up the case. Perhaps it was a bomb. Maybe he should report it to security. What if it blew up now - right now? It would be quick. His problems would be over. His daughter would get more than he could ever give her if he was alive. Shed be able to buy Heinz beans. Hed be a martyr too, a victim of a terrorist plot, and not just a failed taxi driver. He realised what he was thinking and a snort escaped through his nose. The men at the urinals peered at him. He shook his head; his imagination was running away with him.
Amongst the T-shirts and summer dresses in the Departure lounge, the suit and overcoat stood out. The man was heading to the exit, still carrying the other white suitcase. Never mind imagination, this was real, and weird. The driver followed, slowly at first then almost breaking into a run. He lost his quarry in the crowd by the check-in counters. Had the man seen him? OK, now it was time to get hold of security.
There was a guard standing just outside the automatic doors of the exit, smoking a cigarette. The driver went to get his attention. Then he spotted the man in the overcoat once more; he was standing opposite the terminal building on a patch of grass, some thirty yards away. He was staring at the driver and shaking his head slowly. The driver stared back. The man pointed at his suitcase, then at the driver.
- Me? - the driver gestured. The man nodded and pointed again at the case, then past the driver. The driver repeated the gesture, then jerked a thumb back to the terminal building. The man nodded.
The driver turned around and started back into the terminal. Then he stopped. Im not playing this game, he muttered aloud - but when he looked back, the man in the suit and overcoat had gone.
Still here, darling? said the woman at the newsagents.
Not for long, the driver replied.
The suitcase was still there. So much for the loud-speaker warnings. He picked it up and walked smartly to the exit. He hurried through the check-in crowd and out of the building, then crossed the road and sat down on the patch of grass on which the man in the suit and overcoat had stood. It was empty of people. A good spot.
He wondered whether to say a prayer. If it was a bomb, and if there was a God, he might be meeting Him very soon. Then again if this was a bomb he had just saved however many lives; surely that was enough.
The sun was burning the top of his head. The grass was coarse and brown. Aeroplanes were taking off and car horns were beeping, but he felt quiet inside. He reached over to the suitcase and opened the first catch. It clicked loudly and the shackle sprang out. He drummed his fingers on the grass, then pressed open the other catch. Slowly he lifted the lid.
The first thing he saw was a felt cover. It was stitched into the lining at each side of the case, then folded in triangles and tied in a neat bow in the centre. He undid the knot to reveal a series of brown-paper parcels. The packages were numbered. The driver picked up parcel number one and began to open it. He saw what was inside, and felt his hand shaking. Nausea rose from his stomach. He shut the case and lay back on the grass until the after-shock went away.
Well it wasnt a bomb. He picked up the case and carried it back to the car, where a traffic warden was sliding a ticket under one of the windscreen wipers.
Hang on pal, Im on me way, shouted the driver.
Better take this with you then. The traffic warden handed him the parking ticket. The driver put the case onto the back seat and drove off without speaking.
Back at home, he pushed the dog away as it tried to scramble up his legs. He took the case into the living room and emptied the parcels onto the dining table. There were six in all; each one folded carefully at the ends and sellotaped down the middle. He ran his finger along the tape and eased the package open. Then he started shaking again. Fifty-pound notes were bundled together with elastic bands. One, two, three... there were fifteen bundles. He picked one up and counted the notes. Twenty notes in each bundle made...
Fifteen thousand pounds. There was a letter too, on expensive paper and in an ornate copperplate hand. Dear Sir or Madam, it read.
Congratulations! By choosing RISK over SECURITY and IGNORANCE, you have won this weeks STAR PRIZE.
You now hold in your hand £60,000 (if this surprises you, then I suggest that you open packages 2, 3 and 4 immediately). This money is yours.
The driver tore open packages 2, 3 and 4. He piled the money up on the table in front of him. The notes were new and crisp. He took one from a bundle and held it up to the light from the living room window. The watermark and metal strip were there. He built a wall with the bundles as bricks, then shook his head and went back to the letter.
You are probably wondering what the catch is. There isnt one - except to your mortal soul (you are, after all, a THIEF) - but as far as the cash goes, take it. The £50 notes are of course numbered, but they were obtained quite legally, by me, so you can spend them as you wish without fear of prosecution - although if you behave foolishly you may find yourself answering some difficult questions, and that will be YOUR PROBLEM.
If you are satisfied with £60,000 - if that much money will ease your worries, or make you HAPPY, then you would be advised to stop reading RIGHT NOW. Otherwise, turn over the page.
He stopped reading and went into the kitchen. He let the dog claw at his trousers as he filled its bowl with dogfood. Then he put the kettle on. Sixty grand would set the business up again. It would set his daughter up - maybe not for life, but for a long time. He stared at the kettle. What did the note say? Ease your worries. He needed the money. He could give her half.
But maybe it was a hoax. Maybe there was a television camera hidden somewhere in the flat.
The dog munched frantically at its dinner. The driver went back into the living room, sipping tea. He turned over the page.
Welcome back. Is this CURIOSITY or just plain old-fashioned GREED? I suppose Ill never know. Actually that isnt true. I lied about there not being a catch. The catch is this: I AM WATCHING YOU. Dont worry, Im not peering in through your window, and even if I was, you could close the curtains. No, the thing that interests me is to see what you do with the items in the remaining two packages.
The REAL STAR PRIZE is... (wait for it)... MY LIFE.
He got up and closed the curtains. What did this loony want? This was getting sick. He should take the money and have done with it. What was the choice? Risk, security or... he turned over the the page... ignorance. He turned back and read on. No one going to accuse him of being ignorant.
In package 5, you will find my house. Enclosed are the keys and a rental agreement. The rent is £1 per calendar month. I think you will be pleased with the property. The named party is my agent.
You will notice that the agreement becomes null and void if you have anyone else there. At all. That includes guests. Remember, I said the prize was MY LIFE, not simply a continuation of your own. You must by now have spotted that I am not entirely sane. This has made a personal life difficult to construct, so if you intend to live my life, you will have to live it alone, just as I do.
In package 6, you will find the details of a bank account. This is once again administered through an agent, and will provide you with sufficient income for the upkeep of the house, and yourself. Collection of this money is dependent upon your acceptance of the rental agreement.
Thank you for your attention.
The letter was not signed. He put the money back into the suitcase and took it to the bedroom where he slid it under the bed. It was time for a walk. Time! He checked the clock. Hed missed both afternoon bookings. It hardly seemed to matter now.
The Beckwood estate was made up of blocks of flats interspersed with rows of family houses set on a grassy hill. He walked out of the door and around the flats, then across parched turf to a paved path which led all the way around the estate. He let the dog off its lead and watched it as it ran towards a group of boys playing football. It barked furiously, yelping as it chased the ball. The boys didnt seem to mind. He waited until he was past them before shouting: Here boy! The dog scampered to heel.
There was a constant low growl in the background: Spaghetti Junction and the motorways. Day and night it never stopped. There were moments when he noticed it and realised just how loud the noise was. It was different in Four Oaks. Out there, birds chirped.
He reached the top end of the estate and looked out over the motorway towards the city. A panoramic skyline was hazy with smog in the afternoon light. The Clent Hills rose in the far distance. Cars crawled behind the concrete, horns blaring. He made a decision. Then he walked home.
He held open the outside door. The next-door girl limped through on her walking stick.
Oh, thanks, she said.
Yeah, not bad. Be rid of this bloody thing soon. She held up the stick.
Good for you.
A car crash. Terrible business, he thought. Very sad. At the time it had almost put him off driving the taxi.
She stopped to let him past - the dog was starting to growl. He picked the dog up and carried it up the stairs under his arm. He opened the door. The dog scrabbled out of his arms and dashed inside. He followed, then sat down at the living room table and began to write.
The next day he woke early and put on a short-sleeved shirt and lightweight trousers. He packed a bag, fed the dog and went down to the car. He turned the key and the engine spluttered. He tried three more times and it still wouldnt go.
Come on, you miserable old bugger, he said to the car. This time it started.
A familiar figure was standing on the grass opposite the flats. The driver wasnt surprised. He beckoned the man over, then drove off before he reached the car. He stopped further along the road and beckoned again. Once more the man followed and once more the driver took off. He didnt stop again until he reached the house.
The front door lock was a Yale. The key fitted.
The hallway was dark. At the end, though, was a half-opened door leading to a sunlit room. He walked through the door and found himself in a kitchen larger than his entire flat. At its centre was a scrubbed pine table. He put a letter down on the table. Then he picked it up again and read it through.
Dear Sir. First I would just like to say thank you for the money. You are very generous and as you may know these are difficult times. As to the house and your life, I have to say thank you but no. Instead I would like to give you a little bit of mine. Outside you will have seen my taxi, which you will be familiar with since you rode in it yesterday. Its yours if you want it and if I were you Id use it. You say you are insane (I hope you dont mind me saying that) and that you like watching people. Well driving a taxi is a great way to see the things people get up to. Theres a few things you should know though. First one is that the cars on its last legs and if you dont get it seen to youll wish you had done. Take it to Wilsons garage on Reservoir Road and ask for John. Tell him you bought the car off of me. He charges a lot but hell do a good job and I dont expect youre short of cash. Second thing is that youll probably not make much money on the job but again I dont suppose that matters much to you. Im going to have a long holiday with half of your money. I dont know how long it will last since they all say Ive got holes in my pockets so I hope you keep the taxi going because I may be wanting my old job back some time. Until then take care and I hope you have better luck with people now that youve got something to do. Best wishes. P.S. The keys are in the ignition and the log book is in the glove box. Ive filled in the form for you and you just have to put your name on it.
That would have to do. He put the letter in its envelope and placed it back on the table. Then he found a telephone and called for a taxi. That left time for a quick look around to see what he was turning down.
back to The Most Beautiful Thing in the World
back to Jon Hornes home page