Authors: Janet Davey
Two men meet by chance in the taxi queue outside Paddington station one January night. Richard is in his mid-forties, apparently happily married, with two children. Abe is young, and casually manipulative. The men share a taxi and, on impulse, Richard invites Abe into his home â an action that sends ripples not only through his own life and that of his wife, but also through the fragile existence of Abe's younger sister, Kirsty, who is herself unsure of the best way to settle down â¦
Janet Davey is the author of
(2004). She lives in London.
TO MY SISTER, ELIZABETH
WHEN THE OTHER
passengers stood up and bunched in the aisle to leave the train at London, Paddington, Abe Rivers stayed put. What was the rush? People streamed past the windows and then they were gone. Abe waited. He waited until the electronic indicator at the end of the carriage stopped rolling off destinations and showed
âEMPTY TO DEPOT'.
Then the lights went out. Abe sidled between the abandoned seats and stepped off the train. The doors slid shut behind him. As he walked towards the ticket barrier, along the cold echoey platform, he could see people in the distance penned up on the station concourse. Only the trains seemed at liberty. They departed, one after another, for their own good, to rest in sidings and sheds.
Moving into the crowd, Abe was rammed by a man in a luminous orange safety jacket and two women â arm in arm for maximum aggression â who formed an advancing wall. They were already suspicious of the revised winter timetable. Now it had vaporised. The departures board was blank. Using party-going cleavage, under fake fur, the women shoved the safety jacket in case the man inside worked for the railways and should have been out sweeping snow from the track. They shoved at Abe because he was in their way and should never have been born. They abused their country and the Mayor of London with mouths wide open, showing the bumps on their tongues and dispensing alcoholic fumes. Abe felt sickeningly hot. Tipping his head back to gain more air,
he noticed a dingy mist, formed by the covering of snow on the station roof, hanging low under its arch, and imagined it descending. Until the crowd loosened enough for him to be able to squeeze through, he breathed deeply and tried to keep his nostrils out of the women's hair. Once he could feel some give in the bodies, he edged his way to the exit, sidestepping, finding a random path, as water finds a way through rocks.
Outside, Abe ran into the taxi queue â another mass of people but differently configured. They stretched into a line that vanished into the distance. Iverdale Road, where Abe lived, was a few miles away, on the Willesden side of Kensal Rise. Usually he caught a bus but tonight the buses would be full; he preferred to walk. He pushed past the queue and set off up the slope towards Eastbourne Terrace. As he emerged from the shelter of the station canopy, he took a hat out of one of his pockets and pulled it down firmly over his hair. At least his head would be warm. His skinny-fitting coat was fashionable enough but light as a graze. He tightened the knot in his scarf and tilted his head, letting the flakes fall full on his face. He felt as if he had rubbed a dark patch in a steamy window and was seeing winter for the first time. He had always enjoyed snow. He carried on walking. Trudging.
Somewhere along Eastbourne Terrace, Abe reached the far end of the taxi queue. He registered the person in this position, as he noticed the ultimate place names on the tube lines â now just names â currently inaccessible. Someone has to be last, he thought. The man was about forty â older than Abe â conventionally dressed. He was carrying a corporate golfing umbrella which, like the flag of a recently invented country, represented something, though no one knew what. Abe disliked corporate golfing umbrellas but the way the man was standing â a separateness that was hard to define, but which Abe had a nose for â made him take a second look at the face underneath. In the shadow, he caught something
in the expression that appealed to him â a sense of loneliness, more or less under control, that didn't just come from being at the end of the line. The man saw Abe looking and returned the glance. Abe walked a few paces on and came back. He joined the queue.
After a few minutes the man said, âPeople ahead seem to be organising cab shares. I'm going to Sudbury Hill. Is that any good to you?'
âThat's cool,' Abe said. âThanks.' He knocked the snow off his wet shoes and put his hands in his pockets. Taxis were turning down the ramp sporadically, not in a regular stream, their headlamps and âfor hire' lights hazy in the snow.
âWe've only just got through Christmas and New Year,' the man said. âNow another shutdown.'
âYeah, it's part of a plot.'
âDo you work near here?' the man asked.
âNo. Reading. Reverse commute. But I'm thinking of leaving.' Abe mentioned the name of a health insurance company. He was on the marketing side, he said.
The man said he had come from a client meeting in the new Paddington Basin development. He worked for a City-based firm of chartered accountants. His voice was matter-of-fact but friendly.
âGood meeting?' Abe asked.
âNot too many surprises.'
The two of them waited without speaking again; falling into a listless rhythm of standing still, moving a couple of metres, stopping again. From time to time, announcements from inside the station boomed â though indistinctly. Abe's phone was silent and Abe went off into a dreamlike state partly induced by the weather. After about half an hour, they were under the station canopy and in another twenty minutes at the head of the queue. Other people were now behind â proxies, it seemed, for all those who had previously been in front â clothed in the same uncertain colours under the murky light. A taxi pulled up.
âOur turn,' Abe said, opening the taxi door.
The man, a woman and Abe got in â in that order. Abe was unprepared for the woman but she sat down quickly and was firm about wanting to be dropped off at Perivale. She smelled rather strongly of fresh musky scent as if she had sprayed herself shortly before leaving the office. The man and the woman settled next to each other on the bench seat, Abe facing them. He glanced from one to the other â the briefcases resting on the knees, the leather gloves placed on top. He had thought he and the man had something in common but looking at the matching arrangement and the expensive black coats, Abe wondered if he had guessed wrong. The other two might start discussing offshore funds and
would be discounted. The man seemed to avoid meeting his eyes. Abe wrapped his own thin coat with its sharp lapels more tightly round himself. He pulled off his beanie hat and shook out his hair. He stared out of the window.
The woman snapped her phone open and was then on it constantly â talking dates and arrangements, checking whether the next morning's flights to New York would take off. When they crossed the North Circular she made a call to say she was on her way home. Whoever she was speaking to must have passed her to a child because she changed her voice. Poor kid, Abe thought. Shortly afterwards, the taxi driver called through the hatch and said he wasn't going to risk the side streets, he would only stop on the main road. The woman leant forward, filling up the space with her coat. A sleeve brushed Abe's cheek. He batted it out of the way but the woman remained close, pitched towards the hatch, while she told the driver that she would get out after the next junction. She sat back. She squeezed her hands into the gloves, moulding the leather over her rings. The taxi pulled across two lines of slow-moving traffic to the inside lane and stopped by the forecourt of a petrol station, blocking the exit. The woman got out and walked away. They set off again. Abe moved across to the bench seat.
He felt the warmth left behind by the woman and shifted slightly.
âCheapskate,' Abe said.
âYes. Odd behaviour.' The man looked at him. Abe stretched out his legs and put his hands behind his head. The man seemed to relax. It was quiet in the cab without the woman, though her scent persisted. In the darkness, illuminated on and off by slow flashes of light from oncoming headlamps, Abe noticed the man's shoes â highly polished, resistant to water â the trousers with an apparently weatherproof crease, the knuckles of his hands firm and pale, as they rested on the briefcase. The snow on their clothes had lost its frostiness and drips from the umbrella were making a pool on the floor.
As they drove further into the suburbs the temperature fell. The office blocks and parades of shops were left behind. There were only houses now; rows of thirties semis that gave way to larger properties set further apart from each other, their roofs and gardens thickly white. The street lamps became sporadic. The road, which had been straight and wide, began to curve and rise. The taxi driver dropped his speed to ten miles per hour and kept changing gear â but he carried on driving. Abe could feel the covering of snow on the road. There was padding beneath them. The wheel paths of other vehicles were no longer present. They struggled on upwards.
The taxi stopped abruptly and the driver pulled down the sliding window between his cab and the carriage. He looked over his shoulder, moving his upper body round with his head, to show that the stopping was permanent. He said he wouldn't go any further. They'd have to get out and walk it. Abe's companion said that that was all right for him, his house wasn't far away. He turned to Abe, âBut what about you?' Abe said he lived in Harrow.
âWhereabouts?' the driver said, interrupting.
Although he didn't fully understand the geography of places
further out west and had never been to any of them, Abe knew, more or less, that starting from Paddington, Perivale was west of Kensal Rise where he lived, Sudbury, where they were heading for, was beyond Perivale, and Harrow was right out of London, almost in the country and perched on a hill.
âOn the Hill,' Abe said.
âForget it, mate. It'll be like Switzerland up there,' the taxi driver said.
So the man offered to put Abe up for the night.
âI'm Abe,' Abe said, as the taxi turned in the road. The cab engine chugged in the silence and the tail lights glowed red against the snow. Abe bent down to tuck the bottom of his trousers into his socks.
âRichard,' the man said. He moved his arm so that his umbrella was over Abe but Abe shook his head. He distrusted umbrellas; he didn't want his eye poked out. The taxi went back down the hill and the chugging grew faint. The two men began to walk. They were much the same height, both long-legged, but Abe had a lazier, more loping style of walking. The snow was crunchy but not slippery and creaked as they stepped into it.