“Foxtrot?” The operator’s voice crackled out of the radio.
Chrissie picked up the handset quickly and answered, “Roger?”
“Pick up at 9 Cinder Lane.”
“Roger that, Bev.”
Chrissie flew down the dual carriageway and turned into a narrow lane. She pulled up outside the red brick bungalow and waited in the shade of a magnificent flowering cherry tree.
She’d picked up here once before. If she remembered rightly, the fare was a well-built young man with a serious disposition, greasy skin and a nose and chin like Punch, the famously foul-tempered puppet.
She peered down the drive and looked in the front windows for signs of life. Impatiently, she jabbed at her horn and immediately a hand darted out and waved. She switched off her engine.
It wasn’t long before he walked down the drive and crammed his body-builder’s bulk into the passenger seat.
“Hi,” he said brightly.
“Hi. You’re going to Blackpool Nautical College, yes?”
She started the taxi up, uncoiled the handset and, pressing her thumb down on the button on top, opened the connection to the operator, “Foxtrot mobile.”
“Roger that, Foxtrot.”
She hung up the handset, turned on the meter and pulled away.
He sat back and looked out the window. The sunlight leaked weak and watery into a grey sky.
“What you doing at college then?” she asked.
“It’s an offshore survival course. Lasts a week. Once I’ve done it I can get a job on the oil rigs.”
“Bit lonely, eh? Out on an oil rig. Bit claustrophobic, too, I should imagine.”
“I suppose, but where I want to end up, out in the Gulf of Mexico, you make two thousand quid a week and once you’re on the rig everything’s free. They’ve got a cinema and restaurants. It’s like a little city in the sea.”
“Sounds a bit like a posh prison to me and with all that free grub you’ll end up fat as a pork pig.”
He looked down at his muscular frame and back at her. Pork pig he thought, thanks a lot. He looked out of the window again, hoping she’d shut her trap. He wished he’d sat in the back now.
“What about that disaster? What an unholy mess that was. Poor animals, I hate seeing them dead and dying, covered in oil.” She sighed and shook her head.
He didn’t want to get into that and changed the subject quickly, “Yeah, a mate of mine lives in Miami. He’s got a bar there. He loves it, says it’s a whole different life.”
He loved thinking of the bright future he had planned out for himself and his family. It gave him a warm glow.
“Me and my mate went to Miami once. Didn’t bother getting off the bus. Looked too dangerous. Apparently, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Castro cleared all the prisons and asylums and put them all on boats to Florida and, to be honest, it looked like they all hung around that particular bus stop. No, can’t say I fancy Miami.”
He frowned and looked back at her. She reminded him of a slimmer version of Dawn French, with as big a mouth.
“Yeah, well my mate loves it,” he replied defiantly. “All that sunshine and life’s so laid back out there.”
“Yeah, well it will be, won’t it? All the hurricanes they get.”
Her booming laugh grated on his nerves.
She was annoying him now, laughing at his dreams. Bloody taxi drivers. He tried to close his ears but found it impossible. She carried on, all doom and gloom.
“Yeah, they’ve got alligators lurking in the swimming pools, loitering in the sewers. I’d be scared to go to the loo!”
He screwed up his nose in distaste. She laughed. Alone.
“Yeah, well, it can only be better than here,” he muttered bitterly and turned to look out of the passenger window.
She could see his sullen expression reflected there and thought maybe it was time to keep her mouth shut. That was one of her better qualities, she’d always thought. Her sensitivity.
He looked back at her, a challenge in his eyes. “All anyone ever does here is moan and bitch and gossip. I hate this small-town mentality.”
Chrissie nodded her agreement and flicked on her right indicator as she slid out to overtake a white van.
After an uncomfortably long silence he spoke up again, “Do you like the taxi driving?”
“Yeah. It’s quite exciting in a way and you’re free. I couldn’t be stuck in an office or a factory. It’d drive me bonkers.”
He opened his mouth to speak again but Chrissie carried on, quickly forgetting her vow of silence.
“And you wouldn’t believe the stuff that goes on. I picked up this young couple outside a pub in Leyland. Dropped him at Blackgate Lane and her round the corner on Sutton Avenue. She wouldn’t let me take her right up to the house because she’d sneaked out to meet the other guy and left her husband and kid snoozing upstairs! How mad is that?”
He glowered darkly. “My wife ever did that to me, I’d bloody kill her,” he growled. He looked out the window. God, motorways were so boring. Not a thing to see. Just thousands of noisy, stinking metal boxes, bumper to bumper.
“The taxi drivers are just as bad you know.” Chrissie continued, getting into her stride now. “It’s a right den of iniquity, that cab office.”
He shifted in his seat and leaned towards her, his eyes suddenly alert. “Go on. Tell me about the den of iniquity.”
She smiled, glad that she’d finally piqued his interest. “Well, just the other night one of the operators had to bring her mate to the office because her husband had smacked her one, she was weeping and wailing, hysterical really.”
He shook his head, disgusted. “That’s bad. The guy deserves a good kicking.”
She looked at the towering green sign and got into the left lane to get off the motorway. “Yeah, I know. Poor Bec.”
“What, Rebecca Johnson?”
“Yeah, I think that’s her name. You know her? Apparently her hubby’s a right wife-beater.”
His face went the colour of red brick. He could barely speak through his anger. “What a load of crap. Andy would never lay a finger on her and, besides, he’s in Iraq.” He looked out moodily at the filthy buildings lining the road.
“Well someone had hit her,” ventured Chrissie, looking at him surreptitiously out the corner of her eye, fishing for information.
“Look she’s a trouble magnet and a slut and I’m sick of hearing about her. She’s like some sad, Z-list celebrity, for God’s sake. All the gossip, she loves it. She’ll do anything to make her own mundane little life that bit more interesting, when really it’s all just a sack of shite. Well, I’m taking my family outa this bloody Sodom, the sooner the better.” He looked down at his big hands and shook his head. “Could be anyone that hit her. She’s a dirty slag. I feel for Andy, I really do.”
“Yeah, me too,” murmured Chrissie, keeping her eyes on the road.
“Poor guy, but what can I do? If I tell him it’ll break his heart.”
Chrissie shook her head in sympathy before continuing, “Anyway, that’s not all. This operator friend of Bec’s, she’s just as bad. She’s supposed to be religious, she’s married with two kids, but she’s got the office fridge loaded up with plonk, she’s snorting coke and she’s shagging one of the night drivers. He’s like a hundred years older than her, been married for aeons, got three kids himself and they’re having it away in the attic over the office. That’s how we found out we had mice.”
She felt a deadly undercurrent in the air and as she turned to look at him saw the blood drain from his face.
“You OK? You look a bit sick.”
He squeezed his hands into fists and exhaled loudly, his eyes troubled and tearing, his brow folded down into an angry V.
Eyes ahead, Chrissie carried on regardless, “Alpha said he caught them snogging one night…” She stopped mid-speech when she heard a pained groan escape her passenger. She reached out to him, concerned, trying to keep her eyes on the road. “You OK? You look really ill. Do you want me to pull over?” She checked her mirror to make sure she could stop safely if he needed to vomit. “All the colour’s gone from your face. You’re not gonna puke are you, ’cos it’ll be fifty quid on top if you do.”
He shook his head, “Just get me there, will you?” he muttered through gritted teeth.
“No worries, it’s not far now.”
She pulled out into traffic again and continued breezily with her monologue, her tone confiding and gloating at the same time. “Anyway, Alpha told me Katie’s mad on Mr Taxi Man, who, by the way, is totally minted. He also told me Katie would dump hubby no problem but Mr Taxi Man won’t leave his wife and kids. Says family’s important. Ha!”
She shook her head, her eyebrows raised in disapproving disbelief, her lips twisting into a sarcastic grimace, but when she looked over at him her foot slammed down on the brake pedal even before he groaned a barely audible “Pull over.”
She screeched to a halt, uncaring of the angry beeps from alarmed drivers, and lowered her voice as if she was speaking to an invalid, “You’re a really funny colour, are you sick or something?”
He let out another low, guttural groan and, wrenching the cab door open he fell bodily out of the car only inches from the roaring traffic. Retching noisily, he emptied his stomach contents on to the ground only inches from his nose.
Chrissie looked away, disgusted. Splashback.
He slid back into his seat and slammed the door hard.
Chrissie peered at him worriedly and passed him a tissue. “Damned lucky we’d got off the motorway, man,” she muttered, more to herself than to him.
He looked over at her, tears standing out in his empty eyes.
“Dodgy curry last night, eh?” she asked, compassion in her eyes. She looked in her rear-view mirror and pulled out slowly. “Apparently Katie’s husband’s got the temperament of a rabid dog and he’s absolutely huge so I suppose she’s got pretty good reason for wanting rid.” She looked at him thoughtfully, “You’re pretty huge actually, aren’t you?”
She jumped when a car whooshed by, its horn blaring. “Jesus, who’s pissed on his chips? Some people!”
He turned to look at her, disbelief in his eyes. Did she never shut up?
“Anyway, Alpha told me, on the last works do, Katie was out back with Sierra who’s a hideous, fat git, so it seems Katie’ll go with just about anyone when she’s had a few.”
“Aaaaaaaaaaargh!” He let out a huge groan. Chrissie turned to him, alarmed.
“You ok? Your face is red as a beetroot now.” God, she was so relieved to be dropping this guy off. What a weirdo. She’d never realised he was such an oddball. “Anyway here we are, Blackpool and Fylde Nautical College. You going to be OK?”
He smiled ruefully, something hot and dangerous flickering in his eyes.
“Yeah, I’ll be OK,” he said, his tone icy cold. “Well, thanks a lot and keep the change. It’s been a very enlightening journey. You really are the soul of tact and discretion, should have been in the diplomatic service. We could have done with a few more wars.”
He slammed the door hard and walked off unsteadily.
Chrissie hesitated before she drove off. Surely he meant a few less wars?
She talked into the handset, “Foxtrot, clear.”
“Roger that, Foxtrot, thanks, nothing else today. Alpha and Bravo have got it covered. See you tomorrow.”
Chrissie drove to work the next morning with a solid sheet of grey rain slamming into the windscreen, the tarmac shining greasily under her headlights.
She could hear sobbing as she approached the office.
“Hey, Bev,” she asked, puzzled, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Katie,” Bev mumbled.
“What about Katie?”
She looked around at the shattered faces of the other drivers. Bravo, Katie’s suspected bit on the side, looked bereft.
Chrissie gasped, “What do you mean she’s dead?”
“She was killed. Her husband. He strangled her. Then hanged himself. In the garage.”
“Jesus Christ,” Chrissie muttered, the shock gouging a hole in her guts. “Poor bloody girl.”
“It’s such a shame, Foxtrot. Her and the kids meant everything to him. I can’t believe he did it. He seemed such a nice lad. Did he seem a bit strange to you yesterday?”
Chrissie was completely confused, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Bev, I’ve never met the guy.”
“Course you have. He was the one you took to the nautical college in Blackpool. Moving to Florida they were. It was a new start for all of them.”
The colour drained from Chrissie’s face.
Bev gave another little whimper. “It’s such a shame, Foxtrot. All those hopes and dreams down the pan. Those poor kids.” She let out another breathy sob and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “And they really loved each other too, Katie was mad about him.”
“Foxtrot?” Bev frowned. The expression on Chrissie’s face brought an unnerving silence to the whole room. Nobody said a word.
“But Alpha told me Katie and …” squeaked Chrissie, before the words were stopped in her throat by a croaky little sob. She gulped down her guilt and looked across at Bravo, her eyes questioning.
“What?” he shouted, but understanding was swift in coming. “Aw, no, Chrissie, NOOO! You’ve not been listening to that total dickhead, have you? Don’t you know you can’t believe a bloody word that idiot says. He is so full of shit he could fertilise the fuckin’ Rift Valley! There was nowt between me and Katie, for God’s sake. She was a good girl. Her and Tom’d been together since they were kids. Aw, fuckin’ hell, Chrissie, what the hell…”
Bev furrowed her brow in concern and stared at the white-faced Chrissie who looked on the verge of collapse.
“Foxtrot? Foxtrot? You OK? You look a bit sick.”
Sharon Yarwood asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work