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The Million Pound Traffic Jam


eb took his place in the taxi rank, slowly moving to the front as the other cabs gained fares and pulled away. His cab gleamed, the immaculate blue paintwork attracting admiring glances from passers-by. It always drew attention. People still expected traditional London Taxis to be black.

He had chosen it carefully, not wanting a standard car for his work. It had cost him a pretty penny, despite having nearly 100,000 miles on the clock, but these cabs were work horses, made to clock up miles, built to accommodate passengers. It had worked. His income had increased by a quarter overnight. People trusted London Taxis, even out here in the sticks.

The fuel bills were crippling him. It was the same for everyone. Every week prices rose at the pump, but punters never seemed to understand. Any rise in fares would result in furious complaints and sometimes even assault. People didn't seem to understand that cabbies have to earn a living too.

He made the most of the break until he was at the front of the queue, enjoying a rest from the rash of roadworks that had broken out across town. Every road was gridlocked, tailbacks snaking and merging in a confused mess. Whoever gave the utility companies permission to undertake work all over town, all at the same time should be shot out of a cannon in Seb's view. As should the person in charge of filling potholes.

As soon as he reached the front of the queue the back door opened and the cab rocked as a generously proportioned gentleman clambered aboard. “Morning sir!” said Seb, cheerily. “Where to?”

“The Duchy,” the man growled.

Seb nodded and eased away from the rank, joining the traffic crawling along New Street. He glanced in his mirror at his passenger, who was rummaging in his briefcase and muttering to himself. It was always easier if he could chat with his fares, but this one was clearly not in a talkative mood.

They waited at the traffic lights at the crossroads, the traffic surging as they turned green. Seb just made it, the light flicking to amber as he drove through. Twenty yards along he had to stop for the next light.There was no point getting stressed about it, that's just the way it was in this town.

Others were less pragmatic, however, and horns blared angrily all around. He smiled to himself. Nobody knew who was tooting who, or why, in all this mess. He pulled through the next set of lights, then stopped again almost immediately at the first of the roadworks en-route to The Duchy. His passenger suddenly lunged forwards and rapped on the window, startling him.

Seb stretched back with his left hand and slid the window across. “Yes sir?”

“What the hell's going on?” demanded the man.

“The council's got half the town dug up, sir,” explained Seb reasonably. “It's like this all over.”

“Can't you find another way?” snapped the man. “I have a very important meeting!”

Seb shook his head. “Sorry sir, like I say, it's like this all over.”

“Be quicker to damned well walk!”

Seb suspected he could be right but, as a cab driver, he wasn't about to recommend it. “What time do you need to be there?”

“10:30!” snarled the man.

Seb's eyes slid to the dashboard clock. 10:26. Maybe if the man had started out earlier he might have stood a chance of getting there on time. “I'm afraid you're going to be late, sir. Can you call ahead to warn them?”

Seb watched in the mirror as the man pulled a phone from his pocket, noting it was an expensive touchscreen model. He had been considering one for himself, thinking that it could be useful when he was on a break. He could check news and emails, and even keep an eye on the traffic updates, but the monthly contracts were just too dear.

The man jabbed desperately at the phone. He swore and turned the phone over and glaring at it. Eventually he threw it down on the seat beside him.

“Bloody thing!” he snarled.

“You don't get on with these new touchphones, then?” asked Seb, hoping to divert the man's attention from the fact that the entire town appeared to be utterly stationery.

“No, I do not,” snapped the man. “Damned thing, you press the picture for the contact list and up comes the internet!”

Seb smiled. The man's pudgy fingers probably made it hard to tell where he was pressing. “You can borrow mine if you like,” he said, reaching back with his old slider phone. “It's an old fashioned one.”

The man leaned forward and took the phone. “I'm much obliged,” he mumbled.

Seb looked at the tall buildings around them, wondering if the man would be able to get a signal. He needn't have worried. Within seconds the man was bellowing into the phone, his face turning puce. Seb began to wonder if he should divert to the hospital. His fare was clearly a heart attack waiting to happen.

“What do you mean, you can't wait?” shouted the man, maintaining a white knuckled grip on Seb's phone. “It's barely half-past now!” There was a momentary pause. “Don't be so unreasonable! I can hardly be blamed for the traffic, Spencer!”

Seb sighed, wishing someone else had picked up this fare. The traffic nudged forwards about three feet, then ground to a halt again. If he didn't love his cab so much, he would probably look for other employment. Anything had to be easier than this.

“Well I consider your conduct utterly unprofessional!” snapped the man. He slid the phone shut and threw it back to Seb.

Seb fumbled with it for a moment, then slid it back into its holder on the dash. He looked in the mirror at his passenger, wondering if he should still be trying to reach The Duchy. “Sounds like it didn't go too well, sir,” he said cautiously.

The man growled and glared out of the side window, scowling at the display in Rymans window. “Bloody fool!” he muttered. “Do you know what he said? He said if I'd been serious I'd have been there at 9 o'clock!”

Seb gave what he hoped was a sympathetic shake of the head. The man carried on. “He said he had plenty of other offers, that this deal was so outstanding he couldn't believe I was being so cavalier! Me! Cavalier!”

“No-one has any patience these days, sir,” said Seb. “See it all the time in this job.”

“I dare say you do,” grumbled the man. “It's hardly the same though. I mean, this was a million pound deal! I had everything in place, months of work!”

Seb tactfully ignored the thinly veiled dismissal of his own problems. He encountered a lot of people like this, so wrapped up in their own lives they couldn't see the trouble all around them. The man shook his head, staring at the pedestrians hurrying by, making considerably better progress than those in cars.

“My granny always said things happened for a reason,” said Seb, inching the cab along to close a gap that a BMW was trying to muscle its way into. “She said when you look back you can always see it's better things happened the way they did,” the man snorted. “Amazing how often she's been proved right.”

“I hardly think your granny was thinking about million pound business deals when she was offering her sage advice!” snapped the man.

Seb bit his tongue. His granny had been a very clever lady, whose wise words had come to his rescue many times, even after her death 5 years ago. He still missed her. “So, where do you want to go now, sir?”

The man sighed. “Take me along Greenchurch Street. I might as well have one last look.”

Seb raised his eyebrows. “Greenchurch Street?”

“Yes. I was about to purchase a very large regency property. I had plans to convert it into a very upmarket hotel,” he shook his head sadly. Seb couldn't prevent the grin that crept across his face. “You think this is funny?” spat the man irritably.

Seb shook his head quickly. “No sir,” he took a deep breath. “You're talking about Abbercorn House, right?”

“Yes. Abbercorn House. Even the name's perfect!” sighed the man.

Seb squeezed down the inside of the traffic, pushing his way through to a left turn. “Abbercorn House has been derelict for years, sir. It's only the Civic Society preventing it from being demolished.”

The man sucked in air. “What?” he snarled.

“All those regency properties around there are the same. I had this mate, oops hang on a sec,” Seb stood on his brakes as a dog cantered across the road. The dog's owner rushed after it, waving a hand in gratitude, or possibly apology.

“My mate bought one of those old places on Greenchurch Street. Proud as punch he was. But then we had a bout of bad weather and his cellar flooded. He'd just converted it into a games room too. Had a widescreen TV down there, pool table, the works. Tragic,” Seb shook his head and turned the cab through a sharp right into a narrow residential street, lined with parked cars.

“His cellar flooded? That's hardly a disaster of Titanic proportions,” muttered the man.

“True, but it turns out that underneath Greenchurch Street is a network of underground streams. Every time we get heavy rain all the houses flood. He paid thousands to get the cellar lined, but the damage was already done. The place was crumbling around him. He ended up virtually giving it away just to get it off his hands. It's been pulled down now.” Seb swung into Greenchurch Street and pointed to a block of modern apartments. “See, that's where it was.”

Further down the once elegant street stood Abbercorn House, surrounded by boarding papered with 'Keep Out” notices. The man stared at it through the windscreen, eyes wide, his earlier colouring draining away.

“No! No Spencer said the place needed work, but that's to be expected in a place so old!” insisted the man.

Seb smiled. “Who is this Spencer? Is he from the council?”

“Spencer!” cried the man with a chuckle. “Spencer's a developer! He's had this place on his books for a couple of years but hasn't got around to doing anything with it.”

Seb smiled, giving the heavens a wry grin. “Seems granny's right again, sir. That place has been owned by the council for a good 40 years. They wanted to pull it down and build new offices, but the Civic Society protested. They're fighting for a preservation order.”

“You mean ….” the man stared at Seb in horror. “Spencer was ….”

Seb nodded. “You were being hustled, sir.”

The man let out an explosive sigh and sat back, shaking his head, staring at Abbercorn House as they drove passed. “My God!”

Seb chuckled. “Bet you're glad we got stuck in traffic now, aren't you?”

Five minutes later they pulled into the station. The man stared into his wallet for a moment, then pulled out two crisp fifty pound notes. He passed them through the window to a very surprised Seb.

The man clambered out. “You saved me a million pounds today!” he called over his shoulder.

Seb grinned, kissed the notes, then shoved them in his pocket and pulled into the rank to wait for the London train to arrive, disgorging people in need of a ride into town. Oh yes, he loved this job!


© 2011 Kay Lawrence.


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