By Fran Clark
Henry Mills sat in his taxi, fingers gripping the steering wheel, back teeth clenched. The changing traffic lights reflected against the shiny black paint and lit up his cabin. He blinked each time they changed. Green, amber, red – again and again, as he stuttered his way up Fleet Street. He didn't even have a fare and it was five pm. By five-fifteen his nerves were especially frayed. His arteries pulsated in time with his diesel engine as it idled at City Thames link. His veins bulged like the underpass way back at Piccadilly Circus. The dreaded traffic lights were always against him, as were the cyclists. Their risk taking, weaving between all that heated metal and reckless driving, left him breathless.
He had had a terrible time falling asleep last night. Blinding headlights and sirens screeching plagued his dreams. He kicked at his blankets and talked in his sleep. He was tired and stiff at 6am when he left his flat. He had dark circles under his eyes and yawned all day.
Suddenly a well-dressed man waved a creased newspaper at him. Finally, a fare. The man sat heavily in the back seat and sighed like air escaping a tyre.
This particular rainy evening heralded Henry's last time tackling the grey and grimy city streets. New and quieter passengers awaited in the sleepy suburbs. It meant less cash in his wallet when his shift ended but at least he'd have his sanity back. He stuck his fingers up at St Paul's Cathedral as he inched past. Never again he mused.
In the back seat his fare read the newspaper and hadn't realised that Henry sat biting his nails in the creeping traffic. Minutes later Henry's neck flushed pink and then scarlet until it finally became a vivid red. This went unseen by the sighing man with his Daily Telegraph held high. An astute passenger might have detected the steam rising in Henry's cabin. A smarter passenger might well have seen that just ten metres later, Henry's cheek rested against the steering wheel and his eyelids fluttered. Very little air reached Henry's lungs. He was fading away and his last views were traffic and rain. Henry heard the clicking metre, increasing his wages while the man in the back turned the pages and became increasingly captivated by the finance pages. He squinted in the failing light at the fine print.
Behind the taxi, traffic was at a standstill. Ahead drivers pulled away and left the taxi sitting in the middle lane as cars queued up and beeped their anger at the shiny cab.
A few minutes later, Henry's passenger heard tapping. Surprised, he jumped and let the newspaper fall as a red faced lady peered in at Henry. The passenger then saw his driver slumped at the wheel. They had passed the Festival Gardens and the taxi had stalled.
The lady pulled at the handle, panic rising. She reached inside the cabin and gave Henry a shake. He slid sideways and fell against her. She shrieked and stared, lips slightly parted, at the passenger.
“We need an ambulance.” She breathed. The passenger was already dialling as the rain became heavier still.
Nearly thirty minutes passed. The passenger, still in the back, saw flashing blue lights as an ambulance zig-zagged its way up Fleet Street. When it drew nearer he gathered his newspaper and, using it as an umbrella against the blustery rain, slid away, heading east. He caught the Central Line at St Paul's. Newspaper print dyed his fingers as, sitting in a busy carriage, he watched his shaking hands.