She sits in their awkward silence, handbag on her lap and her shopping bags squashed down by her feet. He’d offered to open the boot for her, but she didn’t want to trouble him and besides, she’s rather keep her shopping close. She didn’t want to lose anything that might roll out of a bag and wedge itself into the corner of his car. Her hair is dishevelled from a day of rushing around, and her cheeks are a deep shade of red as a flustered heat envelopes her. She presses her lips together and sighs.
“So,” she says, trying to break the silence. Small talk has never been her forté. “Been busy today?”
“Meh,” the driver replies with a vague shrug. “So-so.” He doesn’t offer any more information and she nods an ‘okay’. His chin is dark with stubble and when he rubs it, the sound of ripping Velcro plays through the air. His balding pate is shiny with sweat or grease – she’s not sure which – and what hair he has left hangs lank and limp.
The air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror swings back and forth, keeping time with the rhythm of the car and sending its lavender scent sprinting up her nostrils. She winces. It’s overpowering and tickles her throat. She wonders what it is he wants to hide so badly that he’s willing to put up with it all day.
She moves her handbag and wriggles in her seat. The plastic of her shopping bags sticks to her bare legs and she slips her summer sandals on and off, spreading her toes in an attempt to cool her sweating feet.
His wedding ring tings gently against the steering wheel as he moves to turn a sharp right-hand bend and she grasps at the door handle to stop herself swinging into him. His nose is big, with hairs sticking out this way and that, and his eyes sag, old and tired. He sniffs and then swallows, his tongue slapping loudly against the roof of his mouth.
“Weather’s been lovely today, hasn’t it?” she tries, looking over to him and smiling. He doesn’t smile back. His t-shirt is covered in all sorts of stains – some old, some new, some dripped, some dabbed. Is that egg? she wonders at the brittle yellow one right in the middle. She shivers at the thought.
“Pft,” he says, blowing a disapproving breath threw his lips like a baby trying to blow spit bubbles. “Same old,” he says. She nods again and looks out of the window, watching the world whizzing by, colours merging into colours, faces a blur. She would normally walk on a sunny day like this, but her sandals bit into her tired feet and the weight of her shopping bags turned her fingers white.
The car slows and they stop at a traffic light. He drums his long, spindly fingers on the dash board, a melody to the engine’s beat, and stares at the lights, willing them to change. She unzips her handbag and reaches in for her purse. It’s way too soon to pay, but it’s something to do whilst the uncomfortable quiet drags on.
The swinging air freshener slows, its arcs smaller and smaller until the light turns green and he pulls off gently, smoothly, expertly. It starts its metronomic undulations once more.
He tuts a series of tsks from the roof of his mouth as he scans the busy traffic and then sighs and shakes his head. He knows she wants to chat but he doesn’t know what to say. He never did like chitter chatter; he knew this job wasn’t right for him. He had no choice though, not now the little ones have arrived.
“Er…,” he begins, his bottom lip twisting in question. “‘Ad a good day, ‘ave you?” She smiles at his question and pauses in her pointless handbag-rummaging but doesn’t pull her hands out in case she needs to start again soon.
“Not bad, yeah,” she nods and then wonders, what else could I say?
“Yep,” the driver nods, his eyes wide and his lips tight. Her attention returns to the old receipts that are scrunched up at the bottom of her bag, the ones that wouldn’t normally see the time of day, the ones that are suddenly interesting because there’s nothing else interesting to do.
They turn another corner – left, this time – and her shoulder bumps against the door. She picks up her purse again, and the snap as she opens it echoes through the car, making their conversation all the more stark. She pulls out a crumpled £10 note that crackles as it’s freed from its prison. She waves it vaguely in his direction. He ignores it. They’re not quite there yet.
“Sorry, I don’t have anything less.”
“No problem, love,” he says and sighs. “Are you at the bottom or top end?”
“Bottom please,” she says. “Number 14.”
“Right you are.” The car judders as he comes to a stop, double parking on an already narrow road. Cars queue patiently behind him. “Four eighty then, love.”
She hands him the crumpled note and he rifles through his money belt for change. She opens the door in preparation to pounce away the first chance she gets. He gives her two pound coins and the rest in twenty pence pieces. She sighs.
“Sorry, I ain’t got anything bigger.” A car in the queue honks.
“No problem,” she smiles, and clambers out, dragging her shopping bags with her. She shuts the door and steps away, waving an apologetic hand at the cars that had to wait. She watches the procession drive away and then crosses the road to her house, breathing a sigh of relief. Home at last.