Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This time, Lee Hamblin takes a sneaky taxi ride.
Keep the Change
“Quick, under the blanket.”
He says it in a whisper, his lips hardly move, but even still, his voice carries an authority that makes me tighten just a little. As he pulls over to an abrupt stop, an irate driver gives a long blast on his horn. He ignores it like he doesn’t even hear it. The idling engine whirrs away beneath where I lie in stillness, keeping me super warm. I’m huddled in a space not meant for a boy of 10 (small though I am), but intended for suitcases and baggage, parcels and pushchairs. I hold the blanket tight, an inch above my head, and try not to breathe. Through the blanket I make out the dazzle of bright lights — street lights, shop lights, coloured lights of red, gold and green, set in the shapes of stars and Christmas trees and angels. The flashing lights make me think we’re in Oxford Street, or Regent Street, we could even be right outside Hamleys.
He reaches an arm over and slides the window down, an icy air grabs me and I think I’m going to sneeze. I don’t. I can’t.
“You can’t let them see you,” he’d said, “I’d lose my badge if they do.” I believed him. Of course I did. “If you’re a good boy we’ll split the tips, and maybe you’ll get that Chopper for Christmas.”
I was going to be a very good boy. A Raleigh Chopper. In bright red. From Hamleys. Yes please.
By now I knew London pretty well, not literally though, but from dad’s vast collection of spiral bound pads, brimful of handwritten routes, methodically documenting the directions needed to take us from point A to point B — from pick up to put down — from Trafalgar Square to St Paul’s Cathedral — from The Monument to Shepherds Bush Green — from Mile End Underground station to St Leonard’s church. I’d tested him for an hour most nights the past two years — even longer as his exam date drew near. My finger would glide beneath every word he’d written, making sure he repeated verbatim what was down on the page. I was to say nothing, simply to look up at him when he’d made a mistake, or missed a line out — bore left instead of right — missed a notable landmark — taken a wrong turn, that kind of thing. I had to wait if he needed thinking time, and only give him help when he said. Those were the rules.
“Where to, love?”
His voice sounds funny. He doesn’t much sound like my dad when he speaks to strangers, it was his work voice I suppose, it changes all the time, depending on whether he was being deferential to a barrister, or begrudging to a barrow boy, or pally with a baker. But whatever the lady said was drowned out by the engine’s rattle and hum. I was just relieved she’d no big suitcase with her. Dad set the meter running and only once under way did I lower the blanket, just enough to see lights flashing by, the tops of old buildings, but no eye contact with dad — those were the rules. He’d sneak a little wink in when the coast was clear though; I think he liked playing the game as much as I did. After all, it was our little secret.
Nights out in dad’s taxi became regular, though only on a Friday or Saturday, never on a school night. He’d work days, because he had to, but he much preferred nights — more people, more money and less traffic, he would say. I couldn’t tell anybody of course, especially at school. He said that if a teacher found out he’d be in big trouble, and so would I. He never said exactly what trouble, but I had a pretty good idea.
Going out with dad sure beat having to stay over at Mrs Templeman’s — she was like one of those cat ladies, but with kids. Hers was the ‘after school’ house, where all the kids went until collected up by their parents. She was nice enough considering the chaos surrounding her. I went there a few times early on but hated it. For a start, the place always smelled of damp and sour milk and the stink used to seep into my clothes. All I wanted to do was sit and read a comic or something, but there was always someone in your face. When I told dad, he gave me my own house key that I wore on a piece of brown string around my neck, and he told me to say it was for emergencies only, but of course, between us, we knew different.
We seemed to be going round in a circle, and looking up I could just about make out Horatio Nelson, sat proud on top of his column and I wondered how they managed to get him all the way up there, and I tried to remember how he lost his eye, or if indeed he had lost an eye, or was that Wellington? But that was something I’d have to ask dad tomorrow. If I remembered.
The meter clicks away, ten pence at a time, click, click, click. Dad has the little dividing window behind him wide open but the lady isn’t saying much, maybe she’s not in the mood, maybe she too just likes to sit and read.
We left Nelson behind and shimmied left and right and left and right. We slowed.
“Here you are.”
That’s my cue to sidle back underneath the blanket. Dad stops the meter.
I hear the lady slam the door. Dad leans over me and slides the window open. My heart starts pounding.
“Here’s a ten. Keep the change.”
Did I hear correctly? I’m sure my heart skips a beat. I’m good at maths, and I know that £3.50 will go some way towards buying me that Chopper.
Copyright, Lee Hamblin, 2014. Image by Bob Bob, via the Londonist Flickr pool.
We’re still after your stories based on Christmas in London, which you should send to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
Christmas in London
- The Ghost of Christmas Replete: David Croser shares a Christmas tale set in the bleak midwinter.
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Station Clock: Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
- Asparagus and Syrian Gold: A guy on a blind date takes a risk… but will it pay off?
- The Race: Susanna James races against the dying of the light.
- Sirens of the Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- Sirens Of The Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.