SHORT STORY: Radio Silence

The taxi driver tapped the touch screen GPS on the dashboard and started the engine. He missed the radio pool. Janine and her harsh, clipped commands like a bunker General directing tank divisions. He missed the series of numeric codes the drivers hurriedly hissed over the line to request help with a passed-out drunk or cover a service break to placate an angry wife or girlfriend.  He wound the window down, then back up again. The evening chill had begun to set in.

The streets were quiet, not unusual for a Thursday. Rounding the corner at another deserted junction, he reached the address and pulled up to the pavement. The GPS device sounded a fanfare melody, announcing his arrival.

The taxi driver waited in silence, the car’s entertainment centre in a state hibernation. He liked music and had a sizable collection of jazz and blues records at home. It would have been welcome in most scenarios, but he had not turned on the car radio since his first week driving the cab. It rendered him relaxed and unfocused, too often driving on auto-pilot towards the family home before correcting his course.

This way, he kept the fare destination in mind and he could entertain himself with projected daydreams about the customer in the rear-view mirror without their knowledge. The pick-up was when he most enjoyed this unspoken game. He let his mind swim with incautious abandon at all the possibilities as he waited for them to show.

Perhaps they had been thrown out by dinner hosts, keen to see the back of them. Maybe they needed to replace an adulterous letter or item of clothing belonging to a departing lover to its hiding place. Probably they just could not find their keys. Of course, the taxi driver never tried to confirm whether these observations were correct or not. It would have spoiled the game.

A man appeared at the doorway. He wore a mid-priced business suit and carried a plastic shopping bag which looked empty, save for one or two small items. The man waved, as though hailing the already stationary vehicle to his aid and got in the back seat. He struggled into the seatbelt as the car moved off and set the bag on the empty seat beside him.

“16 Beech Elm View, please.”

The taxi driver tapped the dashboard device, the very address was in large capital letters on the screen beneath an animated road map.

“Super”, said the man.

They drove in silence. The taxi driver glanced back in the mirror several times to take in the detail of his fare. He seemed distracted and kept checking his phone. The taxi driver tried to imagine what the man did for a living. A small businessman, perhaps. Or an estate agent. As always, he did not ask. In part this was because he could never get the expected reaction right when someone said they were a teacher or a fireman or whatever it was they did. He never intended it, but the noise he made always sounded like something between scorn and suspicion and nothing will get a person’s back up faster than feeling they are being judged by a taxi driver. The man reached forward a piece of paper onto the empty front seat. A manifesto flyer.

“I’m a running to be Member of Parliament for this constituency, you may already know”, said the man without invitation.

“Uhuh”.

There you go, thought the taxi driver. That sound. He could see in the mirror the man had picked up on it, thumbing his jacket lapels and raising his chin in defiance.

“I’m just, going to meet a journalist. For an interview. I expect you get a few reporters in your taxi, right? Going to and fro?” He waved his hand in a peculiar regal motion as he said to and fro. The taxi driver supressed a smile.

“I couldn’t really say. It’s possible.”  The taxi driver knew he was being evasive. He was not drawn to this man, with his career in politics and his mystery bag and his ever-glowing smart phone.

“You must feel quite on your own now, in this day and age?”

“Sorry?” The taxi driver was in part perplexed by the question, but he was equally nervous about where this was headed. He couldn’t abide talking politics any less than making small talk, especially with a paying customer.

“It’s been at least a dozen calls since your company has sent me a proper British driver, you know. You must be the only one left there by now?

“Oh you know. Modern society and all that.” The taxi driver, as a younger man, would have dived carelessly into political debate, but he had learnt from experience that his words became brittle with emotion and soon crumbled into fury, so he now avoided such talk altogether. He could recognise a stubborn mind and the pained face of the man in the back seat was spoiling for an argument.

“Don’t give me modern society”, the man shot back with a growl, “we’re being overrun.” He said overrun with such force the taxi driver tightened his grip on the steering wheel. A rushing heat sensation rose from his chest to his forehead.

“If I’m elected, I’m going to make it my absolute priority to petition parliament for radical changes to immigration law. Would you back me on that front?”

The taxi driver looked again in the mirror. The man cut a somewhat pathetic figure, but he also carried a confidence, an air of self-importance would see him through. The taxi driver had come to believe most people were happy to let anyone willing to make decisions for them do just that.

“No. I would not”, said the taxi driver, before he had a chance to jam the words behind his teeth.

The man edged forward in his seat. The taxi driver sensed the warning signs of passenger aggression over his free shoulder, and in the days when he still fancied his chances he kept a short wooden bat under his seat to fend off an attack without swerving the car into a ditch. There was little chance this man was going to strike out, it was simply an act of posturing from a peacock whose show of feathers hadn’t been properly admired.

“So you’re in favour of unregulated migration? Open borders and no idea who’s coming in to the country?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“It is indeed, exactly. What else can it be? Can you make a single argument for continuing this state of lunacy we are living in right now?”

The taxi driver felt a sting of pain in his temples. He was angry at himself for letting the discussion get this far. He glanced at the GPS map. Four minutes to destination. He could ride it out for that long, he thought.

“Well, I’m not sure I really understand all the issues.” He even added a flash of a smile into the rear-view mirror and felt immediately ashamed as a result. The man lifted the plastic bag onto his lap and looked out the side window of the car as the grass verges became dotted with new-build houses on the suburbs of town. He had a satisfied grin on his face that made the taxi driver want to shout a stream of vile curses. The car rounded a corner and the polite recorded voice on the GPS device announced their arrival at destination.

The man handed forward a £20 note and waited patiently while the taxi driver counted out his change in full.

“Thanks”, he said opening the car door, “and hopefully you’ll come to your senses before the election.” Another wave of the hand. He shut the car door and the taxi driver waited to turn into the next junction before the curses finally escaped his tightened throat.

The taxi driver slept poorly that night. What began as a mild itch of irritation from the encounter with the man in the taxi grew to writhing indignance, and he was soon a twisted form of sleepless exasperation. He finally got up around 4am and sat by the window in his flat facing the greenbelt land on the other side of the main road. A sign had appeared several weeks earlier announcing another housing development, complete with an artist’s rendering which willed you to take a giant consumerist leap of imagination, given the contrast with the shape of the land as it stood. He sipped at a cup of black tea – too early to go out for milk – and tried to shake the man in the taxi from his mind. Soon a low, piercing sun broke the horizon and his wife and children rose from their beds at intervals. His shift did not begin until 4pm so he had most of the day to fill, starting with a walk to the corner shop for a carton of milk for his wife’s coffee and children’s breakfast cereal. He read the papers, smoked a couple of cigarettes through the kitchen window and paced the room. It was the sort of day that feels wasted yet appreciated, and for many in the habit of night shifts, entirely necessary. He left to clock in at the depot just after 3.30pm, and with the light already fading, turned on the headlights. But not the radio.

The taxi driver had mostly forgotten about the candidate for MP and many more fares after that. He had said no more than a dozen words combined to everyone he drove in his taxi since. One day, just after 6pm the call came in on his GPS device, pick up on Beach Elm View. An ominous, unnameable feeling settled in his gut.

He parked up outside number 16 and confirmed arrival on the device. The door opened. The taxi driver saw his grey suit and that plastic bag. The man got in the back seat, set his plastic bag to one side and took out a small notebook from his jacket pocket.

“Town hall, please”, he looked up and smiled with recognition. “I expect you read I won the election? I’m off to a committee hearing with the local council just now, in fact.”

“I see”, said the taxi driver.

“Yes well, you see now I have mandate. You know, a democratic mandate?”

He did not wait for the taxi driver to answer.

“Yes, I can really get to work now. It’s only the back benches of course but there’s a reshuffle coming in the spring and I’ve got growing support. You’ll warm to me too, I’m sure.”

It was said with a smile, but it felt threatening nonetheless. They drove on. Past a takeaway.

“See? This is what I mean…”

Past a newsagent.

“The prices they charge…”

Past a woman pushing a pram.

“It’s about shared values…”

It continued as they snaked through heavy traffic into the centre of town. The taxi driver did not respond. He did not tell the man about his grandfather who had first come to the country as a refugee in the 1930s. He did not tell the man about his wife who was born in another country and now worked up to fifteen hours a day as a trauma nurse. He had, however, had enough. He braked hard, and the man’s plastic bag shot forward into the front passenger seat footwell.

“What the bloody hell are you doing?”, the MP shouted.

It was only now the taxi driver realised he had brought the vehicle to a complete stop in the outer lane of a busy roundabout. A blare of car horns and angry curses came from the drivers of other passing cars.

He spoke quietly at first. “Get out.”

The man stared at him silently. His arms held the passenger seat in front of him in an awkward embrace.

The taxi driver’s voice grew louder with each repetition. “Get out. Get out.” His voiced cracked and strained until the man climbed across the back seat, abandoning his plastic bag, and climbed out, hunched and hurried like a soldier exiting a troop helicopter onto the battlefield.

The taxi driver indicated left and pulled the car off into the inside lane and took the slip onto the motorway. He looked in his mirror and saw the newly elected member for his own constituency, cut off by traffic and crushing a municipal flowerbed under his feet, the master of his own small island.

The taxi driver turned on the radio and tapped out the beat on the steering wheel. He switched off the GPS device and joined in with the chorus.

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