This is a small excerpt from the short story Keep the Change, available now as part of the book London Eyes: Short Stories.
"Where to, love?"
She was short, young and pretty, and she held a perfect pout on her lips. The kind all the girls who got black cabs in South Kensington wore so well.
"You off out tonight?" I glanced in the rear-view mirror. She looked up from her phone.
"Yes. Friend's birthday."
"Very nice. You going to one of the bars on Walton Street, then?"
"Yes. Groove Lounge. I can direct you."
“No need, love. I know this part of the world like the back of my hand.”
She didn’t even look at me. Instead she looked out of the window, not seeming to look at anything in particular. There was something different about this girl and I was intrigued.
For one thing she was dark. Her skin was the colour of brown bread, the really healthy, organic kind. My kids would tell me off for saying that. But honest to God, that was the exact colour of her skin; posh brown bread, toasted, and just about to be buttered.
“Big celebration then?”
“Not sure. I think we're going to dinner."
"There's a good Italian on the corner. Forget the name of it now."
"Sorry, I don't really know the area." There she goes, apologising for nothing. Lots of posh women do that.
We're stuck in traffic. There's always traffic down Pelham Street. It's why I went this way, to be honest. So we could sit in it and talk.
"I'll point it out to you."
"No, it’s okay. I think we have reservations somewhere…" She was looking at her phone again.
I knew she wasn't going to be a talker. Not many of those I pick up around here are. Others would call them ‘stuck up’ and yes, I suppose they are. But me, I prefer to think about them just being aware of the gap between them and me. They don't like that I'm something they will never be, because I can talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere, and they can't. I see them as a challenge. I like to get them talking, and connecting with me, and remembering me after they’ve left my cab.
That's why I keep talking to them. That's why I kept talking to her, too.
"So, how old is she? Your mate? Twenty-one again?"
She gives me a smile. A real smile.
"But you can't be much older than that. Don't go calling yourself old, love, you'll offend me."
"I'm thirty-two." The smile didn’t disappear completely.
"See, you’re really young."
I'd thought she was younger, but I wasn't about to say that.
“And your friend? The one whose birthday it is, how old is she?”
“Twenty-seven. That’s how old I was when I got married,” I told her. “Thirty-one years ago.”
She turned to stare out of the window again. I edged the taxi forward a few feet.
“I’m not married anymore, of course. Who stays married these days?”
I hesitated, like I always do. “A few years ago now.”
“I have a friend who’s thirty-four and she just got divorced,” the girl said flatly.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
She shrugged her shoulders and the pout crawled back. “She’s getting married again next year.”
“Sucker for punishment then?”
“Or just much better at meeting men than me,” she said to my rear-view mirror, where my eyes were waiting for her.
“Are you joking? You have problems meeting men? Well, that don’t make any sense to me. You’re saying you don’t have a boyfriend?” The bus in front rolled forward and I followed.
“No, I don’t.”
“What is wrong with blokes these days, eh?” I smiled at her, the one my kids call my ‘cheeky grin’. “Anyone on the horizon?”
“Not really,” she sighed and turned her phone over in her hand. The screen coming on lit up her features; narrow nose, large eyes, and thin brows all flowing down into a point at her chin. It was a very pretty face.
“Well, I have a date next week,” she said, not looking up.
“I love that you lot all go on dates now. When I was first seeing my wife, we just went to my local pub. The same pub I went to every night. There was no need to organise anything special. I mean, I took her out for dinners and stuff, but people would have laughed if we’d called it a date. But I like how it’s done now. It’s very romantic.”
“It’s a first date,” she said, turning the screen off again. “First dates are never romantic. It’s also sort of a blind date and he wants to meet in a bar I’ve never heard of in Elephant & Castle, of all places, so I’m not optimistic.”
“Did you meet online?” I asked. “I love the idea of internet dating. It just cuts out all the crap.”
She fidgeted in her chair, putting her phone in her bag and tightening the belt that pulled her coat in at her waist.
“This traffic isn’t going anywhere. I’m better off walking,” she said.
“It’ll get moving again soon,” I said a little too quickly. “Besides, we were just getting to know each other.”
She stared at me through squinted eyes and with a pout so tightly pinched, it reminded me of a cat’s bum hole.
“I think I’ll get out now,” she shifted forward and opened her handbag. I heard her place a collection of coins in the small dish that is hollowed out of the glass panel behind my head. Unless I slide open the window, it’s the only route for air to pass between me and my passenger.
“You can keep the change,” she said.
She was half-standing in the back of my car, her hand going for the door handle. She soon realised it was locked.
The traffic ahead moved on so I pushed down on the accelerator and teased the clutch up a little and we rolled forward.
“Can you unlock the door please?”
I looked in the mirror and saw the long creases in her forehead. I wouldn’t have described her as scared – I know what that looks like – but she was definitely beginning to get anxious. I pulled over as close as I could get to the pavement and once the handbrake was on, I switched the lock off. It’s automatic you see, for the passenger’s own safety.
It’s not like I lock them in.
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Frances M. Thompson
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