Life becomes heavy as you cross the threshold into the final walk home; just sixty days of loneliness can quickly outweigh the sixty years of joy. She hadn't been out of the house in almost a month, so spending some time in the car would make a pleasant change. She'd been a widow now for exactly one year, though she still thought of it as Jim's car.
She tightened her grip of the wheel and arched her back into the seat. The vehicle was stationary, yet the grip was far more about keeping a hold of herself than controlling the car. She was going nowhere. The acrid smell of exhaust seeped into her senses and reminded her of the city she was trying to escape; the exhaust fumes, the single smell of this whole stinking city; as soon as you moved here and had your first breath of air that was it -- it was in you. The whole city racing through your lungs, waking, sleeping -- whenever.
The throbbing of the car's engine and the migraine raging inside her skull were now in complete harmony, a single rhythm of pulsating pain that was beginning to seep black across the edges of her tear and smog stung eyes. She darted her head to one side and then the other, attempting to find some view that was bearable, some isolated perspective of monotony that would placate her.
As she turned her head over every angle, a myriad of views and odours reached her: car leather, sweat, stale perfume -- but on each new found scent a fresh wave of exhaust would roll over her and choke the details of the moment from the scene. Her eyes darted around the dashboard, but the lights were too bright to have in view and the dark recesses were too black to focus on.
She reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a near-empty perfume spray. She read the label, as if mattered in some way, and then emptied it into the air around her. She managed to float her head in the cloud of scent for a minute or so, lost in its suffocating sweetness, before the next thick choking wave flooded the car's interior.
Soon, she'd be out of this place, gone for good. No more claustrophobic clawing through the mannequin crowds. No more mindless screaming just to carve out a breathable scraping of personal space. No more boxed-in loneliness for her analyst to unwrap.
She tightened her grip -- she'd soon be away. She revved the engine a few times as if to speed the situation up somehow. The exhaust poured in, relentlessly, tirelessly.
Muffled sirens sounded from somewhere out in front,
there was some commotion stirring ahead, but
she had no idea
what it was. She stared hard through the grubby
windshield. Was it the headache tightening up
and squeezing out
every last feeling of comfort, or was it just
the cloud of
exhaust? Either way, she realised that she could
no longer see the
garage door clearly.
Her very existence began to warp at the edges as it seeped from her consciousness. Sounds merged and blended into dull, distant echoes. Several slow droning voices dragged out in front of her and a reverberating thud sent a deep wave of sound buzzing through the car.
Another thud boomed out in front and then the satisfied clunk of stressed metal giving way brought a moment's silence. An ear-piercing scrape sent the garage door into a contorted angle as a dawning of light engulfed the whole interior. Four faces pushed their way in out of the bleached emptiness.
She tightened her grip on the wheel and slumped forward to stare at the newly arrived figures on the scene. The muffled voices were still echoing around the walls. Through the windscreen she could just make out the strip light on the hospital ceiling. She let go of the cars steering wheel and eased her head back onto the pillow.
Another day, another dollar.
Harry's day, Harry's dollar.
Harry's day began whenever he decided to rise and ended once he went to sleep. Sometimes, in this way, he managed to squeeze three short 'days' into 48 hours or drag out a good 'day' for longer than its naturally allotted time.
There was no routine to it all -- there was no plan. He lived to necessity. When he felt clammy, he showered. When he needed to leave the apartment, he dressed. When he was hungry, he ate.
He had started out life in exactly this same frame of mind, vowing to knuckle down as and when economics demanded further input. However, finances had poured in regardless and so the lifestyle had continued unabated. He had always vowed to change at some point, just to taste life on the other side, but now, at 72, the time for such exertion was long past.
The phone rattled into life just as he emerged from the shower. A quick check on the caller ID box showed that it was Carl. Harry didn't answer the phone but decided to get dressed instead. It wasn't that he didn't want to speak with Carl, it was more that he wanted something else to happen before he did.
Harry's abnormal routine wasn't born of laziness, it was a strategy of focus. The lack of unnecessary exertion and adherence to futile timetables made it easier to ensure that something significant and productive occurred every day. Carl was a lifelong friend who now lived on the other side of the country. Any phone call from all that distance was bound to be significant and Harry preferred to have Carl interrupt another significance that he was already engaged in, rather than his old friend introducing the first, and possibly only, significance of the day.
Maybe he'd visit the lot.
The car lot was one of the many businesses across New York that supplied Harry with his daily dollars. He hardly spent any time at any of his various interests, but this had nothing to do with age. He certainly hadn't retired, as he had never put in enough time regularly at one place to justify stepping away from it. He had lived out his whole life as if he had already retired and so there was no need for any change in lifestyle just because he was at some specific age.
Various relatives and business partners had taken over the day-to-day management of each arm of his entire empire. He never had to justify his continuing salary, as his ideas and creative energy had been such a driving force in the early establishment of each venture that he was viewed as some invisible, but critical, foundation; the timeless root from which everything had grown.
His house was very modest for the amount of money that was at its owner's disposal. Harry had intended on making this current abode a temporary place to rest, while he planned his next big venture in life. As it was, time had dragged out and he had become quite acquainted to the easy lifestyle that this 'transitional' dwelling provided.
The previous owner had fallen on hard financial times and fled the property, leaving all his furniture and belongings to the mercy of the repossessing party. Before the property had been turned over by various financial vultures, antique auctioneers and other scavengers, Harry had stepped in and bought out everything. He had always intended to slowly clear out the old things and replenish the property at some point but, for various reasons, this had never happened.
For a start, he just simply didn't have the time, but the main reason was that he quite liked walking into this 'museum' of another person's life and making it his own. There was a certain nostalgic eccentricity about the paintings and furniture on every floor and Harry viewed it as a waste of time clearing everything out only to attempt to recreate exactly what had gone before.
The building had been a shop with offices on the next floor up and two flats stacked on top of each other above that. An attic and basement at the extremes of the building both remained completely unentered. Each of the four floors seemed to reflect a different mood. The first floor was very open plan and still had the feel of being a shop, the furniture was laid out as if it was intended to be displayed for sale rather than to be sat on. This was where Harry brought any unfamiliar visitors that came to call, as you were made to feel that you were here to buy or move on -- it didn't encourage long stays or casual visitors.
The look and style of the next floor retained the association with the lower one, being the shop's office space. It was very much a working space and was where Harry conducted and managed the day-to-day affairs of his various business wings.
Above this was the floor where Harry resided 'publicly.' It was set out as the personal space that Harry didn't mind friends and family witnessing and Harry often slept there. But every effort had been made to conceal the doorway that led to the next floor up, the portal from his public-private space to his private-private space. Because the lower living quarters were set out to give the impression of a top floor many people failed to ever comprehend that there was anything above this other than an attic. It was only when a few of his more astute acquaintances actually stared long and hard at the exterior that anybody became aware of the 'missing' floor.
It wasn't that Harry had any sinister secrets to be concealed from the world. He was just a private man who was concerned about maintaining an image of a man who was very open. He had tried to convince himself that he was in no way self-conscious, but in his previous home he had found himself rushing around the premises half-an-hour before anyone arrived to 'move' certain items. He reasoned with himself that he wasn't hiding these things, but merely placing them in a place where they were less likely to be seen by people who they were not relevant to.
In this new set up, Harry could live publicly in his lower lair without ever worrying about what visitors might see. He could appear as the most open and unabashed host possible, while in the upper domain, he could live completely relaxed and fully open to no-one but himself. He could keep this area as untidy as he felt comfortable with, knowing that not a single soul would ever witness the contents of these rooms.
The FBI had another view on the matter. Anyone with all that money, living like that, must be trying to hide it or at least hide where it came from. The fact was that Harry hadn't broken any laws in his entire lifetime. He was unorthodox but not a lawbreaker. His acquaintance with one notorious gangster was also another reason that Harry became heavily scrutinised. The mobster in question was Nino 'Uncle Tury' Turecco. Tury himself was something of an enigma, he was one of the ageing relics in the underworld whose age had passed. In fact, there had been two clearly defined eras within the Mafia that had come and gone since his contemporaries had died out. He was no longer involved in many of the day-to-day operations of the mob, but he wasn't retired either. He was tolerated, but largely ignored, by most of the younger hoods as irrelevant.
Harry rubbed shoulders with Tury simply because they both lived in the same neighbourhood, both had a lot of money and both were of a similar age. But that was it -- for all the countless man hours the FBI had put in to proving otherwise, all they could actually prove was that Tury had passed his time and Harry was just someone he knew.
Harry was never embarrassed or defensive when asked about Tury. He just saw it as irrelevant. Those that asked about his connection just received the kind, but dismissive, look a child gets when it naively asks an improper question. It was like asking an eskimo how they dealt with sand in their toes, it was merely a silly thing to ask.
He couldn't immediately think of any new projects that he fancied launching today and so he decided to go for a walk to get some fresh bread from the Italian store down the street. The lot and Carl's phone call could wait -- he could walk down the street and be significant without actually doing much at all.
He pulled on a shirt which he loosely tucked into his slacks and then draped a wide brimmed hat onto his head. Closing the door as he left, he strolled slowly out into the morning sunlight. Immediately he was recognised by some passing locals and he tipped his hat in response to their nods.
He walked slowly down the street, receiving a greeting from everyone that passed. He enjoyed this daily regal parade, as it gave him a sense of purpose, if even just to be someone for these people in the street.
Entering the shop was like walking into a new world. The air conditioning dropped the temperature drastically and enticed a shiver out of all those who walked in, despite the summer heat outside. There was also a strong smell of cheeses and hams.
He looked briefly around the establishment and then walked up to the counter. He stood for a few seconds very deliberately, concentrating very hard on being oblivious to everyone around him. Then he subtly unfolded a few long, thoughtful gestures in his hands before extending his gaze over the other side of the counter.
Hey Rocco, gimme' a piece o' two o' that
there. That bread there. Yeah, and that one."
" And maybe some nice cheese?" ventured Rocco.
Harry nodded and waved his hand to beckon the transaction along at a faster pace.
" This ham is fresh in."
Harry waved it into the bag. It didn't matter what products were offered or at what price, they would all get waved in.
It was at times like this, he realised, deep down, that small aspects of his nature were very much a deliberate act that he was playing out. But when you spend your whole life portraying a character, and that is all you are, then at some point this fact must mean that the portrayal ends and the reality comes into being. Nothing was over dramatised or put on in any way. He was now genuinely living as the very person he had always intended to become, but that implausible fact in some way threatened to undermine and expose his very existence as something contrived.
He sauntered out into the daylight again and began the regal return back to his home. More greetings were showered at his feet as he walked. A distant and ever recurring doubt suddenly eased into his mind -- although it was always nice when people visited and witnessed his status in the community, what exactly did he get from it? All these people said 'hello' but they probably said 'hello' to all sorts of people. Did he know any of their names? Had he ever said anything to any of them other than 'hello' himself? Would they even look at him if he had no money? Would they rescue him if he were suddenly attacked? Would any of them make the ultimate sacrifice and trade places with him if he faced execution?
A sense of urgency suddenly engulfed him as he thought of the call from Carl. His distant companion was certainly a man who would step in to his aide regardless of circumstance. He pushed his way hurriedly back inside and threw the bags onto a nearby chair. He pressed the key to auto-dial the California number.
The phone rang for a minute or so before there was an answer. "Hello?"
" Carl, it's me. Returning yours from earlier."
" Harry, good to hear you."
" You sound a bit shaken, is everything okay?"
" Er, it's Eve."
" What is it?"
" Don't panic because she's okay now. But she er..."
" What is it? What she do?"
" She tried to kill herself just last week."
" Oh my... I didn't..."
" Not like anyone saw it coming."
" I knew she was a bit down, but to..."
" I know."
" How she now?"
" More stable, but still a bit of a mess."
" Really? How did, I mean, what exactly?"
" Sat in Jim's car and filled the garage with fumes."
" Whoa. That's not nice. Oh my."
" She didn't even do it right, thought a hose was undignified and had the top down, as it was a sunny day, even though she's inside. Had the door to the inside slightly open too, to listen to the radio as she liked the song."
" She probably saved herself with those little details. So she with you now?"
" Yes, I wasn't going to leave her alone for one second, look we really need to watch her right now."
" We? You want me out there?"
" No, I mean, it's up to you, but no, I wasn't... Course I want you here but..."
" Heck look, we should all be out there, on my way as soon as I wrap a few things."
" I was just meaning to give opportunity, I wasn't telling you to."
" Well you should be, and the others too."
" Look, it'd be great but you got a lot to put down out there."
" Heck, it'd be as easy to put down an old flea-bitten mutt. We all lived out lives together, s'not right that we all drift and get strewn all over everywhere. We've had our lives, not like we're all planning for long futures anyhow. Shouldn't have taken this to do it though."
" Good you feel that way, I'll call the others."
" So besides this business, how you keeping?"
" So, so. Gonna be good seeing everyone again. Like the good days."
" You'd better have some cards."
" Oh don't worry, Eve's been taking my cash already. How's business in New York?"
" Ticking over, but still bringing in more than enough. Best come over and win some of yours while you still have it."
" Oh you think?"
" Reckon. Look, I'm gonna leave you now so I can get on and join you as soon as I can, be only a day or two. Tell Eve I'm looking forward to seeing her."
" Will do. She'll be excited about seeing everyone again, I'm sure. Do her good."
" And tell her... heck I don't know really, you're there, tell whatever she needs."
" Thanks. Look forward to it. Take care now."
" And you."
Harry replaced the handset and poured himself a beer, which he nonchalantly sunk without blinking. He sighed and dialled another number into the phone.
" Dawlish Autos?"
" Ah, Peter, my good nephew, so you're at the lot?"
" Of course I am! You employ me to work at the lot so where you expect me to be?"
" Okay, calm down, I was just saying hello. Look, I have a proposition for you and I need to come and talk it through quite quickly. You around in about 30?"
" Yeah, sure. You okay though? No trouble or nothing?"
" No, all's fine. Just a friend needs me right now. See you in a bit."
The car lot looked very deceptive, it was easy to miss its awesome size as you drove through. The area was so vast that it had two major roads intersecting it in a crossroads at the centre. Harry had even leased the thin strips of land along the inner edges of this crossroads, in between the road and the lot, and several small shops and a café had been built here. The car lot stretched out behind them all in every direction.
The very edges of the lot blurred into wasteland where there were several old cars that Harry had lost all record of, just left to rust away. Frequently homeless people would shelter in these wrecks and this vehicle collection regularly had stolen cars added to its edges when they were abandoned here. This all caused a lot of headache from the NYPD who were looking to keep the locality as trouble free as possible.
Of the four sections, Harry had already given his nephew
full control of the quarter furthest from the office, as
it involved crossing two major roads in order to reach
Harry's old car slumped down into the desert-like terrain of the lot and came to a halt as soon as the dust became severe enough to render steering anywhere too dangerous. His nephew, Peter, was already waiting to help him out of the car.
Good to see you at the lot," Peter's eyes raced
around the immediate vicinity, attempting to pinpoint any
recent change his uncle might disapprove of.
Harry just laughed and patted him on the shoulder. "Come 'ere. Let's go for a walk."
They began to walk slowly across the huge expanse of dust that was strewn with the metal carcasses of various vehicles in every size and shape. Occasionally they would stop to run a finger along some paintwork or stare through the dust of a nostalgic piece that was still yet to be sold.
Harry stopped and sighed. "I've spent a long part of my life building this place up."
" Yeah, erm, can I just ask... Is this the obligatory 'I can remember when all this was fields' type of talk coming up?"
" That once-in-a-lifetime talk that means everything to you but just goes straight over my head till I'm old too and then I inflict it upon my nephew."
" I send you to college to learn wisecracks? Just listen up and don't make me change my mind."
" Okay. I wasn't meaning to sound rude or nothing, just I wanted to take it all in and that, if this was it."
" Sometimes you're too wise for that small head o' yours."
" We aim to please."
" Just shut it. Lost my thoughts now. Look, I'm not gonna be around forever."
" You're not ill?"
" No, I mean I ain't gonna be in New York forever. I got plans."
" Yeah, friend needs me big time."
" Well, you gotta do what you gotta do."
" So I want you to see to this place for me."
" Well, no worries, I kinda see to the day-to-day already."
" I'm talking more than that. I want you to have this, all of it."
" Have? I knew you always said... but... I mean I didn't think... whoa." He surveyed the decaying lot with a newfound pride.
" When I say it, I mean it. You know that."
" I just never really expected..."
" And I want you to get with the books too. So start expecting, and start tidying up too. You know there's half-hinched heaps rusting on bricks right up that far edge."
" No problem Unc." He smiled, the sentimental moment was now over and Uncle Harry was back to his old self.
" And as for that paper work. There's uurgh..." Harry clenched his chest momentarily and wheezed himself back to composure.
His nephew sprung to support him, but was flapped off by a strong arm that was ready and waiting to fend off the inevitable attack of a concerned relative. "I'm okay. Get back, don't smother me with all that messing."
" You still chubbing on those fat cigars. You can't do that with your heart 'n' all that."
" When d'I send you to medical school all of a sudden?"
" It's what your Doctor's said Unc. S'not me, your Doctor said it."
" Look, it's what Matt and Carl's Doctors keep telling them too, and the others. They dropping like flies? Nope. So I get the odd twinge, heck, what am I? Teenager all over again?"
" You need to look after yourself. Promise me you'll go easy."
" Yeah? And you need to look after this place." He kicked a tyre on a nearby car.
His nephew sighed. "Actually, been thinking. Maybe we ought to have a website."
" A what? Like for what? People drive their cars away, what you wanna website for?"
" We can sell all over the States, and the world."
" The world? These are cars, not boats."
" Yeah, well plenty of people in Europe wanna buy cars from here."
" What the? Like you wanna have to drive these heaps all over there?"
" We ship them, third party."
" You been to Europe? Very beautiful country, might even retire there. What I wanna fill it up with these wrecks for, huh?"
" Well, there's plenty of space. Europe's not one country."
" Thought I might get a cottage over there, away from all this craziness."
" Yeah, but it's not like we have to sell all over, it ain't one country."
" What, you nuts? You seen the size of it? You telling me that ain't just one country?"
" But they all speak different."
" You been to California?"
" Well, they speak different out there too."
Plane lands, then into a taxi, and finally a helicopter.
Plane, taxi, helicopter.
Plane, that was inevitable and negotiably acceptable. Crossing long distances and keeping the whole journey as brief as possible took flight. It did involve crowds and so a conscious effort had to be made not to view the vehicle as in any way coach-like. Yes, there were rows of seats, but it was long travel that had to be done, there was no other way. Taxi, this was acceptable, but had to be pitched right, as it wasn't exclusive in any form, but it was a one-to-one transaction between driver and client. It was a private deal and didn't involve anyone else. Helicopter was very welcome, very exclusive and mercifully brief.
Matt Harcombe was an ageing recluse whose lifestyle required travelling around unnecessarily. It frequently forced him into the proximity of the masses of 'Joes' all bustling far too close to him, prodding and poking him with their glances and mutterings.
Matt survived life by breaking everything down into small pieces and negotiating with himself the acceptability of each segment. Journeys were particularly bad, as they involved an awful lot of time/distance waste. Basically, to get from A to B actually involved all that area in between A and B. Matt was only ever interested in the destination, but the whole in-between space dwarfed the destination to such an extent that he frequently questioned the economics of going anywhere at all. It wasn't that he lacked any confidence, he was just apalled by all the 'unnecessariness' that everyone conspired to throw at him on a daily basis. It may have been that he was claustrophobic, or agoraphobic, or just phobic. But he certainly wasn't lending any credibility to that theory, as applying any tag to it would just empower his doctor to engage in yet more prodding and poking questions.
Matt was also constantly aware of the difficulty that friends proposed in introducing unforeseen events without due notice. It didn't make much difference whether it was a happy or sad event, Matt always managed to separate the friend from the event and view the two separately.
This current trip was just such an example. Eve was a dear friend to Matt and the thought of her being that depressed or hurt in any way wasn't something that he thought of lightly. But the very event of the suicide attempt and this current trip to see her was a separate matter. It didn't belong in Eve's life, it shouldn't have interrupted his own life and so should not have ever occurred in the first place.
But he didn't hold any form of resentment towards Eve, he was genuinely concerned and looking forward to checking how she was.
The travel from Chicago to California was unnecessary, it would be good to finally arrive, but the whole long monotony of the time in-between was a colossal waste that made him squirm.
Matt's deepest inner thoughts were shattered by the PA crackling into life. "We hope you have all enjoyed your flight, we shall be touching down in San Francisco in just over fifteen minutes."
Now why did they have to announce it like that? Talking like the airport was your final destination -- as if you've arrived. Like everyone was just going to stop and unpack once in the terminal. This was just the beginning for many people, the beginning of some hellish trek through musty cigar smoke and stale sweat. A blissful cruise through screaming children and stifled midnight sobbing.
Still, there would be no more crowds once through the terminal. A taxi driver and then a helicopter pilot. Both there to transport him as quickly as possible, no chat. The taxi driver might prove a bit more difficult in the 'no chat' area, though the continuous blank stare should send out the clear message.
As the plane prepared to approach, the pressure began to send a stabbing pain through his ears. He wanted to thrust his fingers into his head and wrench the pain out. A stewardess was hovering nearby, checking seatbelts, so he set himself wooden, frozen in the most nonchalant pose he could manage. The last thing he wanted was some over-fussing painted doll stretching her suffocating concern into his space. Then would come the stares and the muttering and continuous glances from the children.
The plane began to descend and everyone pushed back into their seats, feeling safe and yet knowing it wasn't a done deal until the craft came to a stop. This was the best part of a flight for Matt. Even the birdlike stewardesses were nested down in their jump seats and not hopping from person to person, pecking their smiley concerns all over you.
He was now completely alone, as were all the other passengers onboard. No-one was looking at anything bar their own innermost fears, everyone was attempting to look as relaxed with it all as possible. But there was that tiny niggling speculation that although it was a near certainty everything would be okay, it was still possible that you were about to become tomorrow's headlines.
The wheels thudded onto the ground and the rushing sensation began. Matt tried to savour this as long as possible, like a slither of candy in your mouth that you're desperate not to crunch. The rushing eased to a gentle shudder as the plane began to taxi towards the main terminal. Each person relaxed into their seat and made a few reassuring sighs in order to plug themselves back in with those around them. The crowd was morphing back to full size.
Now came the whole trick of when to get off -- get out first and you might get stuck at the door before it opens, you might feel like you're leading this herd of nothings. But if you waited for it all to clear then you'd have to endure the whole lot of them pushing past you and looking. Then you'd have to walk, forever seeing them all ahead of you until you were clear of the airport. The optimal position was to leave about fifth from the very front. Imperfect but tolerable if negotiated right.
He was near to the front and so, picking his moment, lunged into the aisle, dusting off the disdainful looks with as nonchalant a posture as he could manage.
The stewardess was fiddling with the door, but nothing was happening. She wasn't trying hard enough, tiny inadequate gestures as if her fingers were delicate glass and would snap if she pushed too hard.
An engineer was summoned.
A surge of commotion was swelling somewhere behind Matt. Having tried from the outside to release the door the engineer had entered the plane and was pushing his way down the aisle to try from the inside. The tidal wave of awkwardness finally broke over Matt, and he was pushed into the woman, sitting next to where he was standing, as the engineer struggled past. Matt stared hard at the engineer's large, non-glass hands, willing them to surge with power and wrench the door off its hinges.
The stewardess brushed herself down and smoothed the front
of her skirt, as if she'd actually exerted herself
in some way.
" Ladies and gentlemen. Unfortunately we're having a problem with the door. I do apologise for this, if you could all turn round and head towards the nearest exit behind you. Thank you for flying with us and we hope you enjoy the rest of your journey."
He was now at the back of the queue. He took a few deep breaths to renegotiate this whole turn of events into something vaguely acceptable. Pacing was the all-important factor here, walk too fast and you become too close to the person in front with the person behind likely to close the gap. But walk too slowly and there would be some inconsiderate animal yapping at your back, bulldozing you down the aisle.
The wide open concrete of the airport was a welcome sight. Matt glided down the stairs and took in the sheer magnitude of solitude that was possible, if unachievable due to the signs restricting casual strolls across the runway.
He walked across the flat open terrain at a slow enough pace to take in the beauty of the space, but not so slow as to attract some "Are you lost sir, can I help you sir?" type of help from one of the sharp beaked Barbie dolls hovering nearby.
He numbed himself into robot mode and surfed the crowd, allowing whatever official action was needed at each gate in order to pass through as quickly as possible. They could have robbed him or performed a full body search and it would not have made any difference. He was switched off and just going with the flow. He didn't do this very often, as it felt like holding your breath underwater and allowing a strong current to sweep you away.
He could make out the taxi rank just outside, the bright rays of sun illuminating the dust and smears on the glass so that they became golden gates. He pushed through this divine exit, savouring the anticipation and showing the moment all the respect and gratitude he felt it was due.
Placard reading 'Harcombe.' Where was it?
No placard. No man waiting.
Now that he properly surveyed the view, it was clear that there were no taxis at all. The sign that presumably said 'taxi' had a large plastic bag taped over it and there was no rep to be seen anywhere. There should at least be a rep, a uniformed piece of cannon fodder to squeak out the company line in between the yells and punches. No rep, but surely his taxi would be here. He wasn't just browsing the rank on the off-chance of a passing cab. He had booked one -- a driver, a waiting car, a piece of card with his name on it.
He stormed back through the tarnished gates of gold, toppling
the pile of parcels balanced on top of a woman as he went.
He looked around for the smarmy red logo of his travel company, but the comforting arbitrary twists were nowhere to be seen. Spin the wheel -- pick a number, any number. He marched up to the nearest desk of another travel operator.
" Where are the taxis?"
" Can I have your customer and flight number sir?"
" My?... I don't have it to hand right now."
" Did you fly with us sir?"
" Of course."
" What time arrival? I can call up your details here."
" Do you need to bother with that? I'm not looking to fly, just want to know where all the taxis have gone. I have one booked."
" Did we book it for you?"
" Does that matter? I have a taxi booked and it isn't there. Does it matter who put the call in?"
" Can I have your name, last first." Her fingers were poised above the keys, ready to plunge his identity into the depths of their database.
" Uh. Look you won't find it. I flew with someone else in the end."
" Did we transfer your ticket?"
" No, I booked with them and flew with them."
" You'll need to speak with your correct rep then."
" You do book taxis for your customers?"
" Yes sir, we can do."
" So presumably you're advising them as to where all the cabs are?"
" We provide all our clients with whatever information we have with regards to any delays, industrial action or other concerns."
" So you know why there are no taxis."
" I believe there is some form of action on today due to a local incident."
" At last, thank you. So how do I get to the heliport now?"
" You'd have to speak to your rep who should make alternative arrangements."
" Do you know where the FastJet helpdesk is?"
" If you go back through towards departures and then bear round to where they sell the fresh juices, they're just in between there."
He broke off from the desk and turned to find himself staring at the FastJet rep with a small angry crowd mobbing her. He spun back round to shoot an accusing look at the girl on the desk, but she was already feeding some other corporate polished nonsense to someone on the phone.
Matt reluctantly pushed his way into the crowd only to find that a group of idiots had managed to get to the front and monopolise any proper interrogation of the FastJet Corporation. All they seemed bothered about was why there were no taxis. That wasn't an issue any more, how are we going to continue our journeys was the only question that mattered. Becoming wise about the local cab driver politics was futility itself.
Matt waited for the crowd to clear, which took quite a while, as each individual insisted on continually repeating the same questions over and over again, as if the rep had a different set of instructions for each person.
He finally reached the quivering rabbit, who was attempting
to hide behind the tiny logo pinned to her blouse. She
braced herself and took a deep breath, glad to get the
final speech out the way.
" Due to unforeseen industrial action by local Taxi drivers, FastJet apologises that those people who booked taxi cabs will be unab..."
" Yes, I know, I heard," Matt interrupted.
" Where are you needing to get to?"
" I need to be at the heliport as soon as possible."
" Come with me, I'll make some calls."
" Can't you just get another firm to pick me up?"
" There's no cabs at all."
He followed her in silence. He could not believe that there were no taxis available in the whole of San Francisco, but he didn't want to delve further, as he might actually start getting curious as to why all of the taxis in the city were off the road. He did not want to know. Whatever political melodrama the drivers were playing out, he wanted no part of it at all.
The rep was already talking away on a tiny mobile phone that she had discretely palmed from somewhere. The conversation seemed very one sided and Matt couldn't see how she could have adequately conveyed the situation to the other end with so little noise. Had she explained that he actually had a taxi booked, with a driver, with a placard with his name on it. How could the other person appreciate any of this, unless she had a small pocketful of mobiles and this was the special 'man has booked a taxi, but there isn't one' phone.
I've got you a place," she said reassuringly
as she dragged him off towards a small office door.
" A place?" he wheezed. "What on?"
" It's a coach. Driver will meet us in the office"
A coach, why did it have to be a coach?
" Was there nothing else available?" he pleaded. He tried to imagine another type of vehicle that wasn't a taxi or a coach, but would be readily available from an airport to transport him. He couldn't think of anything other than a couple of strange new vehicles that looked as if they belonged in a Dr. Seuss book.
Inside the office, the coach driver was already waiting and looking impatient.
" I'm not supposed to stop near the heliport, but Helen
has persuaded me to go out of my way and drop you off."
Matt was taken aback, why should he feel guilty about the airline's mistake? It was this Helen and her wonderful company that was making him go out of his way and yet he was being made to feel like the awkward one just because he was the old man and not the young pretty rep that the coach driver dreamed of bedding.
The driver produced a small bundle of forms. "I need
to get all these filled out for you first."
" I'll help you," offered Helen as she sat down at the desk.
Matt just simply dropped his ticket and details in front of her. Of course she would help, she is the rep, that is what she is supposed to do. Why did they train them to have such a martyr complex?
" Why all the extra forms?" Matt queried.
" Regulations," said the driver. "Need to get you all logged in with your details before you can get on the coach. Insurance and all that, especially with the unauthorised drop off."
Matt was getting increasingly annoyed at the double servant act that was being pushed in his face. "And does your wondrous vehicle fly?"
" You what?"
" Well, I have just been on a plane. It carries hundreds of people at once, it can drive along the ground and even fly. But there seem to be far more pointless forms to fill out just to get me onboard your little cramped coach, why is that?"
" I don't make the rules."
" No, that's obvious."
" Come on," Helen interrupted. "Let's get this done and we can get you on your way."
The final form was completed in a fast scrawl that provided no more information than when the boxes had been blank. A third martyr, dressed as a porter, had now arrived to join the procession to the coach.
However many smooth contours there were on a coach, however many luxuries were affixed inside, however many fancy graphics were splayed across its sides, a coach was always the simplest and most basic form of transport possible. It was simply an empty metal box on wheels filled to capacity with chairs for people to sit in. With a car, you drove or chatted as a passenger. On a bike you rode, with the wind in your hair. With a helicopter you flew and experienced breathtaking scenes from the air. But what was a coach? It was merely a large uncomfortable waiting room on wheels for people looking to get from one place to another without being able to afford any form of travel experience en route.
Matt walked up the steps and found himself staring at a sea of faces that all carried a clear, unified, 'so you're the one who held us up' expression. He glanced around to see if the lovely Helen was anywhere nearby to step in as corporate cannon fodder, but it seemed her martyrdom quota was spent for the day.
The old weary traveller found a half-empty seat next to a particularly large pregnant woman who perhaps didn't even realise she was expecting. With any other person in the seat next to him he could play the old man card and hope to get the person to move along a bit and let him rest his frailty, but with his current seated companion it would not only be impolite, it was also physically impossible for any sort of shifting to occur.
He balanced himself on the corner of the chair and stared forward, attempting to mimic the lemming posture of the other passengers and blend into the scene of impatience. He made every effort to adopt a facial expression that suggested he had been sitting here all along and wasn't in any way connected with the delay to the start of everyone's journey.
The coach driver appeared at the front of the coach thumbing through the forms as noisily as possible, just to re-emphasise the cause of their current delay. He then added to the delay by announcing it to all the customers onboard and telling them they had been forced to make an unscheduled stop due to an old man missing his taxi.
Missing his taxi? Wasn't it far more accurate to point out that the whole of San Francisco seemed to be missing its taxis? And as for the 'forced to make an unscheduled stop' nonsense, was he some kind of geriatric terrorist all of a sudden? Just because the realisation had hit the coach driver that his conversation with Helen was just a favour being asked and did not include an invitation to a night of rampant sex, there was no need to take it out on someone else.
The coach hissed off of its brakes and lurched into motion, accompanied by a collective sigh from all the passengers onboard. Matt attempted to find a safe view to stare at that didn't involve meeting the glare of another passenger. With the mountain of pregnancy still largely eclipsing the window he opted for the ceiling in front of him. The coach was already hot and sweaty inside and staring up at the mini-fans inset into the roof was the only reminder that air existed outside this metal goldfish bowl. A faint breath of cold breeze occasionally met his cheeks, but it seemed to be set at an angle that was impossible to locate and hold on to.
The coach shuddered painfully along the road in a way that suggested the vehicle viewed the trip as a million separate journeys rather than one long smooth ride. Matt was also wary of the human cargo being carried next to him, with the coach vibrating like a pneumatic drill, he was sure the swollen woman might explode at any given moment.
After what seemed an eternity or two, the sound of helicopters overhead broke through the shuddering drone of the coach's engine. The vehicle jolted to a halt and the driver announced -- "Extra, offload."
The doors wobbled open and Matt stepped down onto the dust, his footprints on the outside of the coach seeming as significant at that moment as Neil Armstrong's imprints in the lunar landscape. The heat of the Californian afternoon felt fresh and welcoming compared to the tin oven blast that he could still feel scorching his back through the doorway behind.
No sooner had his bags been turfed out onto the roadside, four staff from the heliport were rushing out to assist him. They picked up his bags and escorted him inside. Just being made to feel human again was worth the cost of this flight alone. He was pampered by all the staff and treated like a hostage that had been freed from a group of terrorists and was being taken home.
" We're sorry to hear about the transport problems
in getting here. If FastJet had notified us a bit earlier
than they did, then we'd have sent a car, but you
were on the coach by the time we were called about the
Matt brushed the comments aside, as nice as the thought of coming here by car was, it didn't matter now, the whole ordeal was over.
" Are you ready to depart now or would you like a breather first?"
Matt's gaze was transfixed on the rotor blades
he could see turning majestically out on the pad. "I'm
ready for the off now."
The experience of walking out to the pad today felt extra special. The seat in the helicopter was copiously more accommodating than the ledge he had balanced on in the coach. He let his head rest back into the seat, enjoying the smooth ascent as the craft gently lifted itself off the ground and glided into the vast blue sky overhead.
Staring down at the insignificance of the world below, he could imagine his foot stretching down slightly and squashing one of the tiny neighbourhoods below. At this height he was quite literally above caring, the entire country below could suddenly disappear into the sea and he wouldn't even give it a second look.
The houses and signs of civilisation began to thin out as they continued on and the scenery opened up to vast plains of bare terrain. The sheer emptiness of it all looked like a welcoming duvet lying in wait to be jumped into and immersed in. Matt was squinting through the opening in the side to fully take in the view.
" We're nearly upon it now." The pilot's words were lost between the crackle of the microphone and the intense buzz of Matt's inner thoughts.
As the descent began, the roar of the rotor blades began to echo back at them off the ground below. A small twister of dust kicked up to shield the actual touchdown and Matt sat contentedly, mesmerised by the turning blades as they stalled to a halt. It was a while before he noticed the small Jeep carving out a trail of dust that had already merged with the cloud the helicopter had created.
Matt looked to the pilot for a signal that it was safe to get out and then dropped himself out onto the desert floor. He pushed through the gritty haze and found himself looking into the familiar, weathered face of Carl Whitt.
Carl wrapped a stocky arm around his visitor and led him off towards the Jeep; there was no point even attempting to begin the greetings and questions just yet, as the helicopter was already whining to life and disturbing the freshly settled dust. Carl gave a quick wave behind him with his free hand and hunched himself forward in preparation for the inevitable choking cloud that would soon envelop them.
He guided Matt into the passenger seat of the Jeep and then felt his way around to the other side. Once the helicopter became just a distant feature in the sky, Matt swiped a finger along the metal in front of him and held up a thick cap of dust.
You wanna get a girl in to clean." Matt's head
swung around the surrounding landscape. "Look at
it all, covered in dust. You haven't cleaned this
place in months, have you?"
Carl laughed. "If you dusted the whole desert I don't think there would be anything left."
" True, the space out here is good though."
" So how was your journey?"
" About as well as I expected."
" That bad, huh?"
" I guess I'm not the first to arrive."
" Harry got here last night and Leo was just pulling in as I came out to fetch you."
" So how is she?"
" Still walking around like an empty shell. Kinda wish she'd just snap out of it. Recovery of any kind shouldn't ever drag out."
" Just adds damage of its own."
" Bet you could use a break yourself."
" Mmm, I really appreciate you all coming out like this."
Matt just nodded. The thought of discussing or reliving the journey again wasn't favourable.
Carl fired up the Jeep's ancient engine. "Get you back to the house."
Carl's house was as weather-beaten and as much a part of the desert as its owner. The original house had been built about half-a-mile down the road from a small community built around a truck stop in the middle of a lonely highway that cut across the desolate wilderness. Carl referred to the nearby ramshackle collection of wooden huts and caravans as 'the village.' The man who had originally built the house had deliberately set it away from the village in order to disassociate from this bohemian outpost. Looking to put this right, Carl had decided to extend the house and build upon the side that faced the village so as to stretch himself back towards them as a gesture of reunification.
The construction work started while Carl was on a gambling trip to Las Vegas and he returned to find that the work had been started on the wrong side of the site. He then requested them to leave this as it was and restart from the correct part of the building. This had commenced until the building firm suddenly disappeared without a trace. There was talk of financial irregularities, rumours of a Mafia deal that had turned sour and other talk of just plain stupidity finally catching up with the company.
This half-finished construction work jutting out from both sides of the property gave the house an uninhabited look. Most of the rooms around the outside of the place were just empty walls -- there were no doors in the archways or any roof above, just empty courtyards. The work that had been done was very neat and clean and so rather than looking like a building site, the property took on the feel of an old disused temple; a collection of bare facades; a maze echoing the still silence of the desert around it.
Rather than paying anyone else to complete the work Carl left it untouched as having rooms that were 'outside' proved to be ideal for the long summer days -- you could sleep outside under the stars, but still have the secure comfort of four walls around you.
The Jeep pulled up inside one of the less complete of the many rooms and the two men got out. Matt wandered through into the main living area as best as he could remember, with Carl giving the odd hint as they reached each new door and hallway.
In the largest central room, Harry and Leoluca were sitting on a large U-shaped sofa sipping some iced drink. They both heard the new arrival walk in and got up to greet him.
Harry looked slightly fatter than Matt could recall and seemed to move a little slower. Leoluca was a man of unknown cultural origin, everyone assumed he was Italian from the name, but he looked a lot darker than most people from a Mediterranean climate. Whenever somebody new met him they would try and ascertain where in the world the clan of Dumatti had sprung from. Leoluca himself just claimed that he did not know, as it didn't interest him or his family. Most people failed to accept this and could not comprehend that any family would not be aware of its own historical geography. The others here now knew better than to ever talk about it, it was in the same category as Harry's association with Nino Turecco.
"Awful journey?" asked Harry with a knowing, but welcoming,
" The usual," Matt responded.
" Here," said Leoluca, handing him a drink. "So how you doing?"
" Me? I'm fine really. So how is Eve? And where is she?"
" Sleeping," said Harry. "She wanted to see you get here, but she came over drowsy right after lunch and just went off. She seems to sleep right through the afternoon heat and wake up in the early hours."
" I can understand that in this heat."
" Carl's worry is that she's often up and about long before anyone else is there."
"Well, we're all here now."
Carl came in from the kitchen with a fresh bottle of water. "Just the right number for an old game. I hope someone brought some decent cards."
Harry smiled. "I'm sure that's no worry. Bet you've got several packs here anyway. I just hope someone brought some legit cards."