Here I sit, thirty-one years old in a car I’d never be able to buy. Outside a house three storeys high. Impeccable gardens wrapped around it. Hugging it. With an army of gardeners tending to them day and night.
I drove a taxi for ten years in the city. But out here it’s different. In a car like this it’s different. Leather seats. Air conditioning. A powerful engine that will never be tested to its full potential. In the city it’s all about speed and time. Out here it’s all about comfort and silence.
My buddy Graham, off for a week to spend time with his newborn baby, put me onto this. ‘Easy money. Easy driving. Just don’t look them in the eyes. If they want to talk they’ll let you know. But they won’t.’
The uniform too. Why make anyone wear this. Too tight around my chest and thighs. I’m already sweating. Like I’m back in school. Nervous for no reason. The hat too small for my big head. The head of a football player my dad used to say. And the white gloves. Is that so I don’t dirty anything inside the car? Am I a driver or a butler?
The first time I saw Alex he got into the back and without warning delivered a hard kick to the back of my seat. Giggy up. At first I didn’t know what it was. An accident. The second harder kick let me know. Hurry up. Let’s get going. That’s how I am to be treated. And that’s how he is to give instructions. I am a horse. A horse in a uniform that doesn’t fit. And a horse that better follow orders.
Alex is dressed in a uniform also. A private school boy. The best in the country. A briefcase by his side. He puts on his seatbelt and immediately takes out his phone. Short-cut blonde hair. A soft gentle face. Large blue eyes. Like a cherub all grown up. But he’s also stiff. Ten years old. Knows his higher place in society and isn’t afraid to remind anyone who might have forgotten.
He grabs the aux cord and links it into his phone. Has his own sound system in the back. He tries to play a song. But nothing happens. He might have his own sound system in the back. But I have all the controls in the front. And a night of heavy drinking has left me wanting silence just as much as my buddy had warned whoever I was driving would want it. My bloodshot eyes. Unshaved stubble. And the rasp in my voice would have given me away. But no one came to meet me. Never saw his parents and Alex still hasn’t even bothered to look at me.
Alex unplugs and again sticks the aux cord into his phone. Must be something wrong for it not to be working. Tries again. Tries to play a song but nothing happens.
‘Hey. What’s going on here? Why can’t I hear anything?’
I look back at him via the rear-view mirror.
‘No music. You just sit there.’ Why am I being so rude. I haven’t set out to speak to him like this.
Bang. Alex delivers another kick to my lower spine. There’s the answer. I don’t like this kid. And I don’t care if I get fired.
‘I want to listen to my music.’ Alex’s voice quivers. He didn’t expect me to talk. Now he looks at me. And I can feel him judging me. Like he must judge all men like me.
I snap back, ‘I like to drive in silence so you just be quiet.’
Alex is stunned. I’ve somehow gotten into an argument with a ten-year-old five seconds after laying eyes on him. ‘Listen here. You can’t talk to me like that.’
My heart quickens. ‘Of course I can. I have the wheel. I’m in charge. Now zip it.’
Alex grabs the handle to his door. But he’s stuck in between two thoughts. Fight or flight. Stay or go. I see his eyes zip back and forth as he tries to decide which one. But I’ve made him angry. I’ve dared to do something someone of my low social standing should never do. I’ve not done as I was ordered. If this was the army he’d be my general and he’d have me court marshalled and shot. But he’s just a school kid. He can’t actually make me do anything. ‘You’re not the regular driver.’ He tries another angle. ‘So maybe I need to explain a few things to you.’
I smile to myself. I’ve got him riled up. And the kicks to my spine have stopped too which is a bonus.
‘Regular driver on holiday. To get away from you I think.’ I start the car’s engine but don’t move it yet. ‘I’m doing this for one week and no more. And only as a favour for him.’
‘My father is your employer.’ Alex puffs out his chest. Is about to say more but I cut him off. ‘True but I’ve never met the guy.’
Alex’s face turns red. He waves his phone at me. He wants to hit me. But he’s unsure of the consequences. What would I do if he kicked me now? He’s never been spoken to by one of his so-called underlings like this before. He’s in uncharted territory and he doesn’t like it. ‘He pays your wages. To drive me.’ Alex reminds me. ‘Now put on my music.’
I move the car forwards. It’s time to drive. After all, I’ve still got a job to do. I focus on the road. Got to make this ride as smooth as possible. Can’t overtake. Can’t run red lights. Can’t stick my head out of the window to scream at cyclists like I would in the city. ‘He pays me to drive. Now shut up or you can walk.’
There. That did it. Finally it’s worked. Alex is dumbstruck but he’s silent. Mouth hangs open. Once out of view of the house I put my foot down. Smooth careful driving just isn’t for me.
I had the whole day to myself. But I’ve also spent the whole day thinking of this return journey. Alex sits in the middle of the back seat now. Leans forwards to get a better look at me. I could even swear he took a sniff too. His arms are folded and he sulks. Sulks hard. Didn’t get the toy he wanted for Christmas. No one came to his birthday party. Didn’t get the last, biggest slice of pizza. Major sulking.
I glance over my shoulder, can’t help but smile. ‘How was school today? Learn much?’ I was genuinely interested. His school looked like a converted Victorian prison. Better security than some airports I’ve been too.
He’s ignoring me. After a couple moments of silence I go in again. ‘Can’t imagine what they teach in those fancy private schools. You’re all children of millionaires. What do you need to know that you can’t pay someone else to tell you?’
‘I’m going to give you one last chance to play my music,’ Alex warns. Arms still folded. ‘Or else.’
My smile instantly disappears. As though ripped from my lips. I don’t like to think of myself as having a temper but enough people have told me that I’ve got one that it must be true. Well here comes that temper, ready to boil over. ‘Or else what? I don’t very much like being threatened. Don’t ever react well to it.’
Alex has a temper too. And he loses his before I have a chance to really lose mine. ‘I’m giving you a chance. Do what I tell you or lose your job. My father is a very powerful man. And he can make things very difficult for you.’
‘I told you not to threaten me.’
‘It’s an order or you’ll be sorry.’
An idea pops into my head. Where it came from, I just don’t know. But it’s as clear as day. A brilliant shinning idea. Burning bright. I shake my head at him. ‘You should have listened.’
I turn the wheel and make a sharp right turn. Alex slides across the back seat. His eyes wide with panic. ‘Hey where are you going?’ He looks around him. Ever since he’s attended that school it’s been the same route day after day. One straight line there and back. I know where I am and he doesn’t. ‘This isn’t the way home.’ His voice shakes. I ignore him. I speed up and let him squirm in his fear.
Open rolling fields on either side of us. I bring the car to a stop on a dirt track. Switch the engine off. I still know what I’m going to do. If I stopped to think about it for even a second maybe I would have changed my mind. But I don’t stop. And I don’t think. I just do.
I get out of the car and Alex gets out with me. He comes to me. I tower over him. He looks up with bright emotional eyes. ‘Where are we?’ he asks.
I move around to the back of the car and pop open the trunk. Growing up with a dad and two uncles as mechanics makes all of this so easy. Like second nature. I find the jack and the tyre iron. I kneel down on the floor and get to work. Lift the car up with the jack and begin to remove the back wheel with the tyre iron. The first couple of turns are always the hardest. Can’t embarrass myself now. Finding some inner strength I’m able to remove the bolts. How embarrassing it would have been. If I had not been able to do it.
I get the wheel off and roll it out of the way. Kick it into the field. I stand up and slap my hand against my legs. Eye Alex up victoriously. ‘There.’
The car remains up, but with only three wheels.
‘What do you mean there?’ Alex speaks with incredulity. ‘What have you done? How are we supposed to get home now?’
I honestly couldn’t care less. I sit down, crossed-legged and lean back against the car. ‘That’s not my problem.’
Alex walks around and stands in front of me. I can tell he is thinking about kicking me again. But doesn’t know what I’ll do next. He puts on a brave face. Shakes off his fear. Hides it by pointing at and shouting at me. ‘Oh yes, it is when my father finds out.’
I smile at him, enjoying myself. ‘I’ll say I blew a tyre. And what? Cars break down all the time.’
I point a finger right back at him. Wag it. ‘And I don’t think you’ve ever had to do anything for yourself. Not once in your life have you had to lift a finger.’ I suddenly sound like my own Dad. Would I make a good dad? Do I want kids? What would my wife be like? A rush of thoughts I’ve never had before sprint through my mind as I’m lecturing this kid. ‘I think maybe that’s why you’re so rotten.’
Alex is taken aback. ‘Rotten?’
‘Go ahead. Call your father. Tell him to come pick you up. I’m done.’
Alex looks down. He searches for the right words to say back to me. His mouth again hangs open. Instead of words, tears come. He gives up. Sits down on the ground beside me.
‘No,’ he sighs defeated. ‘It’s OK.’
Now it’s my turn to be stunned. My turn to be taken aback. ‘What’s wrong?’
Alex breaks down. A flood of tears stream down his face. The flood gates have been opened. And I’m the one who opened them. His shoulders shake. Utterly devastated. Loses all control. Openly weeps.
‘My father wouldn’t come,’ cries Alex. Hard to work out what he’s saying. ‘Not even if I was dying. He still wouldn’t come.’
All the colour leaves my face. My mouth becomes dry. ‘You shouldn’t say stuff like that.’
‘Why? It’s true.’
‘Hey. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s OK.’ Why couldn’t I have just taken the abuse and taken the money. Would a week of being kicked in the back been worse than this? A crying boy beside me. A car with only three wheels. How would I explain this to his father? Or anyone else for that matter?
Alex puts his face in his hands. Blubbers. ‘He’s always busy. I hardly ever see him. I’m always so lonely.’
Lonely. That cursed word. Haunted me for nearly a decade. Alone in a taxi. All by yourself. Maybe your next fare will speak to you or maybe they won’t. And even if they do it’s the same old questions over and over again. Lonely. I know it all too well. And this child too knows its pain.
I put an arm around him. Even find myself kissing the top of his head. There must be a way to get him to stop. To get the tears to end. Where’s the off switch?
‘Hey I shouldn’t have got upset at you’ I’ve still got my arm around him. Hug him to my chest. ‘It’s been a tough week for me.’ That was true. Split up from my then girlfriend of two years. Which wasn’t pretty. Especially as it was her house. Moved back in with my parents. And now dressed in an ugly uniform trying to make friends with a kid who I hated only this morning. ‘And I had no patience. I’m sorry. Don’t cry. I’ll help you. You want to learn?’
The tears stop. Were they a put on? Well if they were he’s a good actor. Because I believed it. Now he looks up at me with excitement. ‘Learn?’
I laugh. ‘Well that wheel isn’t going to put itself back on. I can show you.’ Something my dad insisted on teaching me. Wanted me to fall in line. Work alongside him. But I somehow ended up inside a taxi speeding around the city.
Alex wipes the back of his hand over his eyes and nods. Well, I’ve said it now so I really am going to have to do it.
We’re both down on our knees. I reattach the tyre. Alex helps. Well, in truth he gets in the way. But he thinks he’s helping. Seeing the warmth on his face, I’m glad he’s here. I’m touched I’m able to share this with him. Maybe I’m taking a moment away that he and his father should have shared, but I doubt it would have ever happened. When you have so much money. The desire to do things for yourself gets less and less.
The wheel is back on. I take away the jack and the tyre iron. Alex does a sort of overexcited fist bump celebration. ‘I did it.’
I reach over and rub the back of his head. ‘Of course you did. Maybe I was wrong about you. Not so useless after all?’ Maybe I really would make a good dad? I don’t mind this at all.
‘Thank you.’ Before I have a chance to react Alex wraps his arms around my waist and buries his face into my stomach. I take off my hat and white gloves. Discard them out into the tall grass and hug him back. He squeezes me tight. He’s quite strong for someone so small.
‘You’re not so bad.’
He’s now on the front passenger seat beside me. I drive. Slow and cruising. I’m not ready to say goodbye to him just yet. Make the journey last a little longer. Alex has his eyes locked on me. Smiling. I can feel his happiness emanating from him.
I glance over and laugh. All I did was show him how to take a wheel off and now he adores me. ‘You can play your song now if you like.’
Alex shakes his head. ‘No. That’s OK.’ He looks down at his dirty fingers. ‘Will you show me more things?’ He looks back up at me. ‘How to fix more things on a car?’
I laugh to myself. If only my own dad could be here now and hear this. He’d get a good laugh too. Couldn’t get me into the family business and now here I am with the son of a millionaire who wants in.
‘You think maybe you’d like to be a mechanic?’
Alex shrugs. Suddenly the possibilities are endless. ‘I guess so.’
‘A big fancy education and you want to play with cars?’
‘Will you show me?’
I can feel a pride rise up inside of me. This is a pretty cool kid. And I think I might have a new best friend. I nod. I’ll show him. Teach him anything he wants to know.
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