Another wrong turning. Two junctions ago might have been a different route, the Sat-Nav’s intuition, but we are heading away from the centre now, I’m sure. I don’t know whether to mention it; don’t want to speak too soon if there is some sort of diversion. The driver is unperturbed, tapping his finger on the wheel as the lights blink from red to orange to green. We haven’t spoken beyond his question of where to go and my reply. The thought of my warm apartment nudges me.
‘Is this the right way?’ I ask.
‘Detour,’ he dismisses. ‘This way is quicker.’
I nod, trying not to dwell on the stories I hear of unwitting passengers faced with expensive journeys to add to the next day’s hangover. I am only tipsy. I scroll through my phone, skimming emails and news stories, but its battery is getting low. I don’t like his gaze in my periphery. The way it had lingered when I met it earlier. It makes my gut tug. I want to ease the silence that has fallen in the taxi. To apologise for questioning him.
‘Busy night?’ I wince.
‘The usual Friday night stuff. It gets worse as the night goes on.’
‘You wouldn’t believe some of the people,’ he says, more animated now. ‘Vomiting on the seats, forgetting to pay…’ He scans the streets as he talks and gestures to a group of women outside a bar. ‘Drunk girls wearing next to nothing, almost unconscious in the back…’
I nod; pull my coat tighter over my bare shoulders.
‘I suppose you’re offended by that.’
‘No, no,’ I protest, but he is already speaking over me.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’
‘Uh – no.’
‘See, some women lie. I can tell right away. Like they think I’m after them in their bimbo get-up – not like yours,’ he adds, nodding to my dress. ‘Can’t have a conversation nowadays…’
I wish I had lied. Another silence falls, and his shoulders fall with it. I watch the traffic. It is not usually this congested, at least not on the streets I tend to walk home. Tonight, my colleagues had wanted to try a new bar for a change, a long way from the office. A busier route back, I suppose.
‘Have you got plans tonight?’ He asks, and I am glad of the return to pleasantries.
‘No.’ I answer. ‘Just had a few drinks earlier, letting off some steam with my work mates…’
He hums, and doesn’t pursue the topic further as he indicates to turn off the main road.
We navigate down a series of side streets I don’t recognise. Homes and corner shops and takeaways. I open the map on my phone and watch my blue dot flashing further away from home.
‘Sorry,’ I say when I feel him glance over at the screen, ‘it’s just – is this the best way?’
‘It avoids the traffic. Unless you want to be stuck back in that lot for an hour,’ he points a thumb behind us. ‘I’ve been doing this for years, you know. I know where I’m going.’
That tug in my gut again. I lock my phone and count the turns we make so I don’t have to meet his eyes. Left, left, right, straight on at a roundabout.
I watch the metre tick over; the time moves past nine-thirty.
It is nearing ten when we exit onto a bypass, the lights of the city adjacent to us. I crane my neck to study the Sat-Nav angled towards the driver’s seat and he switches it off.
‘Useless thing,’ he says. ‘Trying to send us into Purgatory.’ Purgatory is the nickname for the crowded junction near the centre, nowhere near the road we are accelerating along. My neck tingles.
‘Oh, no…’ I say. I rifle through my bag.
‘What is it?’
‘My purse,’ I frown, ‘I think I left it at the bar…I don’t suppose we could turn around an–’
‘Not on the carriageway, obviously, but at the next roundabout–’
‘No, you haven’t.’ He snaps. ‘Forgotten anything.’
I freeze. The venom in his tone seeps under my skin, pools in my stomach, any trace of tipsiness gone now. I am light-headed in another way.
I don’t know if I imagine some mechanism clicking in the doors. I force myself to laugh.
‘Oh – you’re right’ another laugh. Silly me. ‘It’s in here – just hiding under a jumper. I swear, if my head wasn’t attached…’ I trail off. It is familiar, this performance. Picking the right words.
He studies me for a second before facing the road again, his jaw set. My breath is caught in my throat. I clear it, arranging my thoughts. It was just an outburst, a loss of patience: I am safe.
‘It must run in the family,’ I say.
‘Forgetfulness,’ I continue despite myself, ‘my dad’s the same. Always running through the whole family’s names before he gets to mine. Every time I visit he’s getting rid of another box of old things. Pictures and my old toys. Sometimes it feels like he’s packing up his memories and throwing them away too…’
I worry, in the pause that follows that I have gone on too long, that my rambling has made things worse. Then he speaks.
‘My father was the same.’
My relief dissipates as I watch the city’s lights shrink in the mirror. I look for some change in his face, some show of emotion, and I think of Scheherazade regarding the Sultan.
‘My mum’s the opposite, though,’ I say. ‘She’s more of a worrier.’ Was.
We are racing now, the speedometer climbing past seventy, eighty, ninety-
I keep talking.
‘Even more so since I moved away. And when I had Alfie, god…’
‘My son.’ Dog. ‘He turns three next week,’ I say, turning away to hide the tremble in my smile. Drops of rain streak across the window. The road is a blur. I try to remember the way my brother speaks about his children; my mother’s conversations with friends stood in supermarkets or at family gatherings, watching us play from the side-lines. ‘It seems like only yesterday he was born.’
‘I thought you said you were single.’
‘I am – well, I’m seeing someone.’ I stumble. I have never been good at lying. ‘Not his dad, he’s…not in the picture.’
I wonder if he is the type of man who would disapprove of a single mother, or worse, a single, dating mother, cursing myself as I speak. Cursing myself for not saying I had a boyfriend and not saying I had plans tonight. For dismissing the tug in my stomach. It feels as though I have failed some test that my life has been preparing for. I search for some clue about him, something to grasp onto, but there are only the bland contents of the cab and his strained hands on the wheel.
‘He’s called James,’ I smile. ‘He’s good with Alfie.’
He has stopped responding.
‘We’re taking it slow, though. He hasn’t met my mum yet. I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me if she already knows about him – she likes to keep tabs. She’s got this app that lets her see where I am, which she’s glued to,’ I shake my head. ‘As if I go anywhere other than work or day-care these days. I can’t complain, though, it gives her peace of mind. It’s just,’ I sigh. ‘Mums.’
‘Mh-hmm,’ he says. Then: ‘what are you doing?’
I have inched my phone out of my pocket, clicked on my recent messages. ‘Hmm?’ I say. Call me, I type without looking, and press send. ‘Just checking the time.’
‘It says it there,’ he points to the dashboard display.
‘Right,’ I say. ‘Sorry.’ Again, that need to apologise, to smooth things over, to be tentative, polite. An easy target. But if I were to be rash, to make a scene – to be difficult – would be just as dangerous. I am on a gallows stool, teetering; Scheherazade waiting for the sunrise.
We are racing past cars that are impossibly far away and I regret being distracted on my phone when I got in the car. I regret saying yes to that third drink, regret not demanding that we turn around, regret getting in the cab alone or in the cab at all.
I try to steady my breathing. I am afraid to speak, to say the wrong thing. Afraid of saying nothing.
A shrill ringing fractures the silence and I fumble for my phone. His hand twitches on the gearstick beside me.
‘Hello?’ I recognise Hayley’s voice. ‘Is everything okay? You said to call.’
‘Hey, James,’ I cover the speaker as much as I can.
I interrupt her. Yeah, I’m just on my way back now.’
‘No, I’m not still at the bar,’ I roll my eyes towards the driver. ‘Message my mum if you don’t believe me, I’m sure she’ll be happy to spy on me.’
‘What? Are you drunk?’
‘No.’ I pause. ‘No, I shouldn’t be long now – what time do you think we’ll be there?’ I turn to the driver and he looks from me to the black screen of the Sat-Nav.
‘Half past,’ he says. Curt.
‘Do you need help?’ Hayley says in my ear.
‘Yeah, I’ll be home in fifteen minutes. Tell Alfie hi from mummy.’
Hayley is silent, and I realise my battery must have given out; the call has dropped.
‘Bye,’ I say to dead air. ‘See you soon.’
I put my phone back in my pocket with shaking hands. His gaze fixed on me like a noose.
We are nearing a roundabout, another barrier between myself and home, and I think of the people who kick out brake lights or hurl themselves out of passenger doors into traffic. Anything but stay in the car. This is the moment, as he slows to turn. I brace myself to reach for the handle as we approach the turning towards the dark motorway and all the horrors I am imagining beyond it and–
We pass it.
I hold my breath and hold onto the seat as we veer towards the last exit leading back to the city. Its hazy skyline in front of me again.
His face is illuminated as we pass beneath streetlights, expressionless.
I daren’t acknowledge his route back into the city, as though doing so would unravel the fiction I have created around us. The illusion that things are light and airy.
I wonder if I have let my imagination run away with an innocent detour, then, separately, if he is really taking me home.
It has been nearly an hour since I got in the car. A ten-minute commute.
Even as we near my street I am poised, and when I reach for my bag I feel him watching me.
I smile. Swallow.
The car has barely stopped before I am sliding out, paying no mind to the price as I tap my card.
‘Thanks.’ I stammer as I shut the door, and I don’t know if I am thanking him for a scam or for my life.
He only nods. The cab doesn’t move as I walk up my steps, and I stumble up the last of them into my apartment. I slide the deadbolt between us; lean back against the door. Breathe.
My legs fold.
Lydia Waites is an East Yorkshire based writer and Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Lincoln. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Tether’s End Magazine and former fiction editor for The Lincoln Review. Her work has been appeared in Door Is A Jar, The Abandoned Playground, and FEED. Find her at @lydiawaiteswrites on Instagram or @waites_lydia on Twitter, or being dragged around the Wolds by a springer spaniel.