This is the first part of a fiction serial, in 790 words.
I bumped into Nicky again that Friday night in a Bermondsey pub that I liked to hang out in occasionally. Between girlfriends, most mates married or shacked-up, it was nice to be able to go for a drink where people knew your name, and you had more than a few nodding acquaintances propping up the bar.
He was playing the records in the corner, on two decks. Not exactly an official DJ, but he knew what people liked, and the owner slipped him a few quid for his trouble. He grinned as he saw me, and I bought him a beer and took it over. Same old Nicky, slim to the extent of having no spare flesh, and that nervy way of moving that was just shy of a twitch. He was called Nicky because his surname was Nicola. His dad had come over from Cyprus, and he had that black hair and sallow complexion from his genes.
Nobody ever called him anything but Nicky. To be honest, I don’t think any of us knew his first name.
For over a year, I had been working the cabs in South London. Unlicensed taxis, pre-booked only. One of my other mates had got me into it, when I saw how much money could be made, and you could work when you liked. Pay the boss of the cab company a fixed fee to have the radio in your car, show him your taxi insurance and driving licence, and that was it. Everything else you earned was yours, in cash. You got a number that was your callsign to use on the two-way radio, and anytime you wanted to work, you just booked on. I bought myself a new Hillman Hunter, and the next day I was a cabbie.
Despite the music, it wasn’t busy in the pub that night. Tony the owner was upstairs in the flat, leaving the bar to his wife. I managed to have a chat to Nicky when he took a break, and he finished playing the records just before the official closing time of eleven. There was going to be some after-time drinking and card playing, but I didn’t have the money to lose on Three-Card Brag. So when Nicky’s cab failed to turn up, I offered to give him a lift to his place in Thamesmead. It wasn’t exactly out of my way, as I had gone back to living at home, and my parents’ house was in a more genteel suburb a few miles further on.
On the way, Nicky didn’t stop talking. He seemed wired, and I felt sure he had been snorting coke in the pub toilet. When we stopped outside his block on the estate, he was adamant I should go in with him for a drink. “Patsy will love to see you, Paul, and you have never seen little Suzy, she’s two now”.
Up in the flat, you could be forgiven for thinking you were anywhere but Thamesmead. The interior was nothing like you might expect to find in that huge social housing complex on the edges of South London, just inside the Borough of Greenwich. Everything was first rate, from the latest fridge-freezer, to a state of the art TV. Patsy was pleased to see me, and I was able to not look too doe-eyed at the woman I had a terrible crush on. Her mum Janey was there too, and despite the late hour, both the kids were up playing. Little Suzy (with a Z) and five year-old Marky.
It struck me as I sat there with my beer that I was the only person in the flat whose name didn’t end in Y.
Once the kids were in bed, and Janey had gone home to her flat in the same block, I was sat there chatting with Nicky and Patsy, when he suddenly put a proposition to me.
“Look, Paul. You know I’m banned from driving, and it is really affecting my business. I have things to do most weeknights, and I just can’t rely on cabs being available. How about you drive me around instead? I will pay the cab fare, whatever it comes to, cash every night. You can come and have dinner with me and Patsy about six, then drive me around during the night while I do my thing. What do you say?”
Thinking it over, I knew for sure that whatever Nicky’s thing was, it would be illegal. I told him I lived a very straight life, and couldn’t afford to get nicked by the police. He nodded frantically as I spoke, his mouth ready with the answer as soon as I stopped talking.
“But you will only be the cabbie. Just the driver”.