Rebwar grimaced into his rear-view mirror. A rotting tooth was pounding a dull distracting pain just behind his gold implant, a present to himself over a decade before back home in Iran. He tried not to clench at the memory of using a pair of pliers to pull someone else’s teeth out. Images of dark sandy trenches filled with waiting soldiers came back to him. His face flushed with heat and he felt little beads of sweat on his forehead. He wiped them with his handkerchief just as his cracked phone flashed – an incoming job. His finger hovered over the accept button. He sighed, took a deep capitulating breath, and pressed it. The phone spoke out cold robotic directions to where his job was to be found.
‘A mouse should eat you,’ he said, flicking at the device. What was wrong with radios? With the reluctance of an old cat, he pushed the gearshift into drive and stepped on the accelerator. The car whined slowly forward. He slammed his foot hard onto the floor, the engine jumped into life and the car lurched away. He knew it was some kind of electric petrol engine but somehow believed that, like a stubborn horse, it would one day comply with him. Before his thoughts could wander off, he remembered that his phone was going to tell him who his next passenger was. Forgetting where he’d put his glasses, he squinted at the screen. With the help of the flashing street lights, a blurred picture stared back at him. He let the voice guide him through London, which was glittering. Stopping on the corner of Coram Street and Woburn by the Yialousa restaurant, he lit a cigarette and noticed it was a Greek restaurant. He’d never been to Greece or tasted its food. His tooth pounded and the hunger left him like a puff of smoke.
The streets were busy with people and cars. Behind him was a stand for those rental city bikes, and some drunk students were about to set off on them. Glasses in hand, he confirmed his arrival by pressing the cracked phone screen. Laura Pinkerton was his upcoming passenger with a star rating of 2.76; this was indicative of the problematic passenger. He looked at the tiny profile picture of a smiling blonde girl. Was that her mask to the world? An innocent, happy soul searching for her path in life while being hounded by the demons of–
There was a knock on the window. A smiling blonde young man in an oversized crumpled up suit was waving at him like he was some lost driver. Rebwar looked around for the button to open the window. This gave the man another opportunity to knock on the glass. He looked like a wavering pole on a sandy beach as Rebwar lowered the button for the window and the man clumsily stuck his head through.
‘Uber?’ the man said.
‘That is right,’ said Rebwar.
The man holding onto the car waved frantically to a girl on a traffic island.
‘Miss Pinkerton?’ Rebwar queried.
The young man’s eyes squinted and he took a few moments to take in the information.
‘What? Oh yeah, yeah – that’s her.’ He turned back to the girl while trying to keep his balance with the aid of the car. ‘Come on, come on quick! It’s the Uber man!’ He waved to the girl on high heels and she tiptoed across the street as if she was on a tightrope. She had one of those suit dresses that hugged all the right curves. Her light blue shirt had two buttons undone. Rebwar wondered if the young man had unbuttoned them. Her white bra strap was on show. The man dropped like a sandbag into the back seat and she rushed in to fall on him as if he was an empty bed. They both giggled and groped each other fleetingly. One of those Tinder dates, no doubt. Back home this wouldn’t be tolerated. People would stop them and give them a piece of their minds. Then he would have to intervene and stop such street arguments – take them to the police station and interview them till they sobered up. But he had left all that back in Teheran.
He turned to them and said, ‘Royal London Hotel?’ He was faced with an awkward moment of indecision. From their nervous smiles, this part of the date hadn’t been discussed.
‘Who’s smoking?’ said the girl.
‘The Britannia International Hotel?’ said Rebwar, even though his anger told him to throw the cocky young man out and drive the young girl home.
The man took the lead. ‘Yeah, yeah, mate, that’s right, Royal National Hotel.’
‘National? Are you sure? Do you have postcode?’
The young man fumbled around for his phone. Rebwar watched the girl’s reaction through the rear-view mirror. He could see her eyes trying to focus on the information. Her drunken eyelids flickered as she continued to try to work out what was going on.
Rebwar put on his reading glasses and was about to input the postcode. ‘Did you say Royal National Hotel?’ His eye caught a large building in front of him. It reminded him of the Britannia Hotel, which was where he had been housed with his family when they arrived in the UK. He hadn’t been able to believe it – a hotel for refugees! This was the place to come to! ‘Are you sure? This one in front?’ He leaned in and pointed at the hotel sign.
‘Oh yeah, we’ve made it! Come on, babe.’ The young man opened the door and grabbed the girl. He propped her on his shoulder and they stumbled towards the hotel.
Rebwar shook his head, idiots, it would all end in tears. Frustrated that he had been robbed of a fare he grabbed a cigarette from the top pocket of his shirt, got out of the car, stood in front of it and lit up. He puffed deeply on his precious little ‘coffin nail’, as he liked to call them. A sudden gust of wind caught him out and pushed him back and he dropped his cigarette. A scooter swayed from him like a ship in a storm. He had stepped out a little too far into the road. The scooter carried on lurching more violently till the little wheels gave way and it screeched and banged into the rack of rental bikes. Like a stack of plastic boxes, they cracked and shattered, bits of plastic flying in different odd directions. The scooter had swerved to avoid Rebwar; the rider had lost control and now lay next to the crumpled bikes. His delivery box had snapped off, bounced along the gutter and burst open. Ice glittered like a river of diamonds.
By Allah, the idiot! Rebwar rushed over to the rider, expecting him to be flat on his face. Instead, he was already lifting the scooter onto its two wheels. He jumped onto its seat and revved it. Its little wheels screeched away, leaving a cloud of tyre smoke. The sharp smell of the burnt rubber stung Rebwar’s nose – then a cab’s horn caught his attention.
‘Hey, mate! I saw that!’ A cabbie leaned out of the black cab’s window. ‘You just caused that accident. I’m reporting you. Not having my premiums go up because of you.’
‘I caused it?’
‘I saw it all. You bloody idiot! You should watch out before opening your bloody door!’
Sensing trouble, Rebwar tried to think of something, but he could only stare at the melting ice.
The cab’s passenger door opened. A tall, thin man with a neat side parting presented himself and said, ‘What’s the problem?’
Rebwar stared at him, trying to work out whom he was dealing with.
‘What’s just happened?’ The thin man stepped closer.
‘An accident. He was driving too fast,’ said Rebwar.
‘That’s right, just blame it on the scooter. He’s probably too scared to report it. Where are you from?’
‘I live here.’ Rebwar looked over at the cabbie wondering on whose side he was on.
‘Romania? Or fucking Syria?’ The thin man pushed up to Rebwar. He was a head taller and staring down his hawkish nose. ‘Just what we need… more immigrants causing crimes. Hey, cabbie, what do you think we should do with him? Call those righteous EU remainers? Show them what the real problem is?’
Rebwar was still sizing the man up, undecided if he was high on something.
‘Mate, I don’t want any bother,’ said the cabbie. ‘No one’s been hurt. It’s nothing. We should leave it. I’ve got a licence to keep.’
Pointing his long finger, the thin man said, ‘Yeah that’s right… Just ignore it. No, no, mate, this is how this country goes to pot. They’re all getting away with it.’
Rebwar decided to turn things up a notch to scratch at a theory that was milling around his head and stepped right up to the man. He could feel his chest heaving. ‘You want trouble? Is that what you want? Trouble?’
‘Don’t you start getting excited. I could punch your lights out. I–’
Rebwar pushed the thin man and stared into his narrow dark eyes. ‘You what? You think you can beat me?’
‘Sir! Calm the fuck down,’ said the thin man.
Game on, thought Rebwar. The thin man had shown his hand; he was a policeman, trained to be firm yet polite, and he’d just let that slip. Probably off duty and back from a few drinks at the pub not wanting to either go home and get off over some porn or find a fight. Right now, he was like an irritated scorpion in a bathtub. Rebwar now knew how to deal with him. He saw the cabbie sneak back into his cab.
‘Sir…’ said the thin policeman, before noticing the cabbie doing a bunk. ‘Oh! That’s right… Just leave me to deal with this rotten country. No need to call the cops, I’ve got this. All right, mate?’ The cab drove off in a cloud of black diesel smoke. Agitated, he turned to Rebwar who felt spots of spit as the man launched his abuse. ‘You know what your fucking problem is?’
Rebwar had worked out a few possible scenarios. He knew what kind of training the British police got, their defence techniques, their procedures, and processes, but there was an element of unpredictability about this man, who carried on prodding and shouting at Rebwar until he backed into a brick wall.
The man’s eyes fixed on Rebwar. He wasn’t going to back down. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, changing his tone. ‘We can work something out, you and me. Yeah, you understand.’
An ambush? Relax your victim, catch him off guard. Rebwar didn’t dare leave the man’s hungry gaze.
‘It’s OK, I’m calm. Yeah, mate, I’m calm.’ The policeman stepped back, loosening his arms like a boxer.
Instead of avoiding the copper’s punch, Rebwar had decided to take it. By giving him confidence, he would make a mistake. It was an old boxing trick. The punch went straight into his shoulder and the policeman’s hands were bony, like knuckledusters. His next one Rebwar ducked, and it missed. Even with lost pieces of old war shrapnel, Rebwar’s reflexes were still good. Angry at having missed his target, the copper swung harder and faster. Rebwar had seen it coming and moved his head out of the way. The copper’s fist crunched like a plastic pen into the brick wall, and he fell to the floor.
‘You’ve broken my hand! Fuck that hurts! You’ve broken my hand.’
Rebwar, ready to spit on him, took a moment to look at the scene. The policeman was rolling around like a baby needing his mother. Rebwar swallowed and walked away, his shoulder filling with pain.