The Midnight Fare
Gregory drove through the ill-lit square, drizzle compounding the confusion of the anomalous numbering. He drew up at 13, a squat, half-timbered house more suited to a cathedral town than the outskirts of Islington. He waited until one minute to midnight before stepping out, walked down the slippery path and rang the doorbell.
His pride in his timekeeping was one of the reasons he preferred to work at night. Another was the glut of young men willing to brave the daytime traffic but with family commitments. His only commitment was to an Aloe Vera plant his landlady had given him for Christmas. Above all, driving at night gave him a sense of belonging that he never felt during the day.
He caught the strains of conviviality filtering through the door and shivered. Some of his colleagues objected to even a momentary wait: Andrej was prone to drive away, but then he had been a doctor in Kosovo and was sensible to every slight. Greg, however, had no complaints. It felt right that other people should be enjoying the warmth while he was left out in the cold.
The door opened on an elegant woman in a furry collar. ‘So sorry to keep you waiting,’ she said in a voice that pierced his heart.
He stood as still as the gryphon on the balustrade while she exchanged the regulation thanks and kisses with her hosts. He gazed at the beautiful face, half-hidden in the shadows, and knew that the star which had guided him ever since he had struggled to rebuild his life was shining directly overhead.
‘No matter, madam,’ he said softly, ‘it does me good to stretch my legs. Is there anyone…?’
‘Just me,’ she replied and strode down the steps with reckless confidence. He held open the rear door as she slid on to the seat with a grace that put the upholstery to shame. He noted the large diamond on her ring finger and felt a mixture of sadness, reassurance and pride.
‘Flask Walk, NW3 please,’ she said.
‘I’ll go up through Highgate unless you’ve any objections,’ he said. ‘It’s quickest this time of night.’
‘You’re the boss,’ she said, settling back. As he adjusted the mirror, he saw that she was closing her eyes and made a snap decision to rouse her.
‘Am I?’ he asked in a tone that demanded attention. ‘It doesn’t feel that way to me.’
‘Oh my God! It’s not…. It is…. It can’t be…. Greg!’
‘But this is incredible!’
‘What? That we should meet or that I should be the driver?’ he asked, more confident of negotiating the streets than the conversation.
‘Both. The chances must be one in a million.’
‘People win the lottery.’
‘How long have you been doing this?’
‘Eight years come September.’
‘Do you like it?’
‘It’s a living.’
‘But you were a great chef! I know everything went up in smoke. But you could have picked yourself up. You had talent… friends.’
‘I had a wife and children once. I lost them. Why should the friends have been any different?’
‘They didn’t live with you, Greg. We did.’
He drove in silence down the Caledonian Road. Her eyes in the mirror were both wary and wet with tears.
‘Can anyone become a driver?’ she asked tentatively. ‘Even if you’ve…?’
‘Lost your licence?’
‘You can get everything back in time. Licence. Sobriety. Self-respect.’
‘I’m glad to hear it. Truly.’
‘Everything but people. But then you never really have them, do you? It’s just an illusion to make us feel less alone.’
‘That’s a very one-sided way of looking at things. I have…. I’m….’
‘Married?’ he asked.
‘Second time lucky,’ she replied. ‘Oh, that came out all wrong!’
‘But you’re alone tonight?’ he asked, refusing to help her out.
‘My husband’s in Beijing. Otherwise he’d have been at the dinner.’
‘And you’d have had no call for me.’
‘It would depend if we’d both wanted to drink. We’re very strict about that.’ ‘You’re very wise,’ he murmured and concentrated on the road. ‘How are the children?’ he asked, breaking the silence as they reached Archway.
‘They’re quite grown-up now,’ she said slowly. ‘Leonora’s a houseman at Barts. And David’s at Oxford reading law. You’d be proud of them.’
‘The question is “Would they be proud of me?”‘
‘You never gave them a chance to find out.’
‘I messed up their lives twelve years ago. I’m not going to risk it again. You needn’t think I’m being noble. A clean break is the only way I can survive.’ As he drove up Highgate Hill, it felt as though the drizzle were in the car.
‘And you?’ she asked. ‘Do you have anyone special?’
‘Me? Oh no. I’m a loner. I exchange the odd word with the other drivers… my landlady… the people at my meeting.’
‘It sounds pretty bleak.’
‘It’s a life.’
‘You said that already.’
‘No,’ he said sharply. ‘What I said was it’s a living. But it’s late. You must be tired. Rest. I’ll let you know when we’re there.’
She respected his wish for silence but remained alert. As he drove into Hampstead, the air was thick with unspoken thoughts.
‘Home,’ he said, drawing up outside the house. ‘Your home that is.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, opening her bag self-consciously. ‘I was told: £22.50.’
‘Would you be offended if I said keep the change?’ she asked, handing him two £20 notes.
‘Oh no, I’m long past taking offence,’ he replied with a smile.
She hovered at the car door. ‘I’d ask you in for a drink, but it’s so late.’
‘Understood. Besides I don’t drink any more. I’ve not touched a drop in twelve years.’
‘That’s wonderful. Really. But you won’t call round or try to get in touch now you know where I live?’ she asked hesitantly.
‘Don’t worry. There’s one golden rule in my book. It never pays to grow attached to a fare.’