An extract from ‘Thirteen’

ThirteenIt was at around that time that I began to be intrigued by ‘Valerie’. She was perhaps in her late twenties and obviously ill. She travelled from 13 Wish Road to the Cornerstone Community Centre on Palmeira Square every Monday and Thursday evening for her’positive thinking’ classes. Her scent of lavender and citrus was one of those lingering smells that would surprise me long after I’d dropped her off. I would get a haunting echo of it, reverberating somehow as it diminished throughout the evening.

One of the things about Valerie that I found shocking was that, although I could see that she was deteriorating, I was still totally unprepared for the first time I saw her genuinely, desperately sick. She was helped out of the house by a nurse, who smiled at me appreciatively when I opened the cab door and said:’Could you get them to help at the other end? They’re expecting you, and they’ve got a wheelchair ready.”Of course,’ I told the nurse, whose dark blue uniform made Valerie’s illness seem suddenly, intensely real.

Valerie herself was as serene as ever. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so she was the first to break the silence. She spoke in a new-whisper.

‘Snowdrops are going to be out soon,’ she said.’The shoots are coming up in the garden. I hope I’ll get to see them bloom. They’re so delicate.’

I glanced across at her, at her frailty, and wondered at how gracefully she could refer to her impending death.

‘Yes,’ I said, and added after a pause:’though I think I prefer bluebells. Have you seen some of the bluebell woods out towards Haywards Heath?’

‘Yes,’ she said with pleasure.’I really think that, in profusion, they are the most… wonderful colour.’

When I stopped the cab I said,’Do you know when your class finishes this evening? I’d be happy to come back and collect you.’

She smiled, and leaned over slightly to pat my arm.

‘It’s okay,’ she told me,’Malcolm, the man who runs the course, will be giving me a lift home this evening. But thank you.’

The next time I saw her, she had to be helped down the path by the nurse, who accompanied her in the taxi and who went off to get a wheelchair at the other end. I got out as usual and opened the passenger door and Valerie took my hand. And, as I helped her up, her body buckled slightly so that I had to catch her round the waist. She was emaciated, and clutched at me slightly as she righted herself, and she smiled with gratitude and said’Thank you’. I looked at her, just looked at her, as the nurse came down the ramp with a wheelchair and whisked her away.

I was never asked to collect her again.

A couple of weeks later, the subject of Valerie came up when I radioed Sal at the office, to order a return lift for the fare I’d just dropped off. Sal was one of the night staff in the radio room and had often allocated me the Wish Road job. As it was a soporifically quiet evening, I knew she wasn’t busy, so I chatted for a while and then asked,’Oh, by the way, Sal, do you remember that sick girl who used to go to the Cornerstone Community Centre? Did she die? I haven’t picked her up for a while, and I just wondered.’

‘Doesn’t ring a bell, Stephen,’ she said,’where did she live?’

’13 Wish Road.’

And then Sal said the words that would change everything.

‘But Stephen,’ she told me,’there’s no such address. Wish Road doesn’t have a number thirteen.’

I stared at the hand set.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yup,’ she told me.’Sorry I can’t be more helpful, Stephen. This one hasn’t come through us. Are you sure she wasn’t one of your private clients?’

I drove to Wish Road, mystified by Sal’s assertion that there was no number thirteen. But she was right. Someone had been sufficiently superstitious to make sure there wasn’t a number thirteen. The odd numbers went: 7,9,11,11a,15 17… There was no thirteen, and number 11a was a totally different house from the one that I’d been visiting all this time to collect Valerie. It was a plain building, from the fifties probably, with a built-in garage that had a brand new metal door painted white and a small garden, full of roses. Number 13 had been a standard 1930s semi, with diamond-leaded windows and peeling green windowsills in need of a lick of fresh paint.

If the house I’d been collecting Valerie from wasn’t on Wish Road, where was it? I felt a curious feeling of horror at this thought, because it seemed so bizarre and impossible. Okay, I would agree that I’ve led a sheltered life and because of that, I can accept that there are some things I haven’t experienced. But houses that disappear?

My first reaction was to assume that I must have been waiting in an adjacent road, mistakenly thinking of it as Wish Road. But no, Wish Road was beside Wish Park, and there – as I looked round – was the tree whose shade I’d so often parked beneath as I waited for Valerie’s bookings to come through. And, though Sal had said so casually that it must have been one of my private clients, at this stage in my taxiing career I had no private clients.

I sat at the wheel of my cab and logged the computer onto’manual’, so that I was off-system, and sat looking at 11a Wish Road and thought, What does this mean?

And then I remembered. The driver. Phil. Who’d said those enigmatic words to me when I’d talked to him about my oddly altered perception when I was exhausted.

What had he said?’Don’t go there.’

He’d known something.

I radioed Sal once more.

‘Is Phil on this evening?’ I asked her and, when she told me that he was, I drove back to Boundary Road and staked out the office. I parked up by the Audi franchise near the tennis courts, where I could be inconspicuous, then logged out and waited. If anything was guaranteed to make me feel strange, it was sitting in my cab in silence as the calm of the dead of night settled precariously around me. The only sound was that of the engine, which I would run every now and then to keep the cab warm. It seemed that I had to wait an incredibly long time, but it can’t have been more than an hour or so before I saw Phil park up and go into the office. I got out of the cab, crossed over, and followed him in.

He was by the coffee machine as I came down the corridor.

‘Hi, Stephen,’ he said,’coffee?’

I nodded and he pressed a button on the machine and I watched the desultory trickle of coffee dribble down into the brown, ribbed plastic cup.

‘Quiet night,’ he said.

‘Phil,’ I said,’I'm glad I bumped into you, because I wanted to ask you something…’

He glanced at me questioningly as he passed me my coffee.

‘Something’s happened,’ I said.

He saw my expression, raised his hand to silence me and said,’Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.’

He was glaring at me. I was so surprised by his reaction that I was speechless for a moment.

‘I can see,’ he said,’that you’ve crossed the threshold. I did it once or twice in my early days as a driver. A lot of drivers who’ve done the night shift have come pretty close to it, though most of them will deny it. One or two that I’ve known over the years have dabbled in it. But I’ve only known one person who really tried to find out about it. A good friend of mine.’

‘What happened to him?’ I asked

‘He died.’

© Sebastian Beaumont 2006