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David Price
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reminder1.jpg
Art by Jeff Karnick

A Constant Reminder

 

David Price

 

          Pulling up outside his house, Fletcher gratefully killed the engine of his taxicab. It had been a long day and now he just wanted a shower, some food, and a few hours in front of the television.

 

          He had just slid his key into the front door when his mobile phone rang. He swore when he saw that it was Tessa, and he was tempted to ignore it; but as ever, he took the call.

 

          He closed the front door behind him, kicked aside a pile of junk mail, and then spoke to her as he walked into the living room.

 

          “How can I help you now, Tessa?”

 

          He tossed his coat over the sofa and settled into an armchair as Tessa jabbered away on the other end of the line.

 

          Ten minutes later he was driving towards the local shopping centre.

 

          “One day, bitch, I won’t just drop everything and come running when you call. And how would you like that?”

 

          The way she had ended the marriage still rankled: a solicitor’s letter citing “irreconcilable differences” . . . like that explained everything. Yes, they’d married because Tessa had wanted a father for her child, but things had been good.

 

          Until she’d started freezing him out.

 

          He pulled into a vacant space in the car park, then locked up the taxi and walked over to The Pasta Hut. Tessa was seated at a table by the window, studying a menu. She waved, smiled: almost as if the two of them were there on a date.

 

          He joined her at the table. “You’ve ordered?” he asked.

 

          “Tuna and sweetcorn, garlic bread, and a diet coke,” she replied.

 

          At forty she was still fresh-faced; a few crow’s feet, maybe, and the long blonde hair had lost some of its lustre; but he had to admit that she still looked good.

 

          “So how are you keeping?” he asked, falling into the usual small talk as a waitress placed a plate of garlic bread in front of him.

 

          “I’m keeping very well,” she said. “All things considered.”

 

          “And Mairwen?”

          These days, it always came down to Tessa’s troublesome nineteen-year-old daughter. Since the divorce, she’d gone off the rails big time. Fletcher had met Tessa when Mairwen was three, and for a time he’d prided himself on making a damn good stepfather. But then she’d left school and fallen in with a bad crowd; these days, a call from Tessa usually meant that Mairwen was in trouble again.

 

             “Yes,” Tessa finally said. “Mairwen. You’ve got to go and get her.”

 

             “She’s a grown woman, I can’t just . . .”

 

             “She’ll never grow up, that girl! She’s only gone and joined this commune. Probably stoned out of her mind by now, or . . . or worse. Don’t tell me she knows her own mind.”

 

          Not wanting to get into a public row (which, no doubt, was why Tessa had insisted on meeting at Pasta Hut instead of her house), Fletcher reached for another slice of garlic bread.

 

             Would it help to tell her to let Mairwen get on with her own life?

 

          No; it wasn’t as if she was working a checkout till, or doing secretarial work; that kind of normality would be a relief; but these days, Mairwen had trouble written all over her, and more often that not it was Fletcher who had to bail her out.

 

             “Alright Tessa, we’ll do it your way.”

 

           The waitress arrived with the pizzas, breaking an awkward silence.

 

           If only Tessa would settle down with a good man and place the onus on someone else, Fletcher thought. But for now, Mairwen was still very much his responsibility.

 

          “Let’s enjoy these pizzas,” he said, “I’m starving.”

 

          And so he ate, and resigned himself to yet more hassle.

 

          “She is a good girl, I’m sure she is,” Tessa said after a while. “It’s just a bit of teenage rebellion. We can turn her around, I’m sure.”

 

          “I used to think the same about our marriage. Just goes to show how wrong you can be,” Fletcher snapped.

 

          Tessa glanced away. “Don’t, Fletch . . .”

 

            “Don’t what? Make you feel uncomfortable?

 

          “This isn’t the time.”

 

          “It never is. When I want to talk.”

 

          “This is about Mairwen.”

 

          “Ah yes, Mairwen; your daughter when things are fine, our daughter whenever there’s trouble,” Fletcher said. “At which point you call me up and expect me to go galloping off to the rescue. And like a bloody fool, I do. Never mind that you slapped those divorce papers on me, just like that, no word of explanation.”

 

          Tessa wanted to explain, but Fletcher wouldn’t have understood. Women need affection, but he had never been one for showing a sensitive side. Occasionally, he’d grab her around the waist and nuzzle the back of her neck, or clap a hefty hand on her shoulder and tell her she was a “good-un.”

 

             Which had been fine when she was young. How could she tell him that she wanted a husband, not a “mate?” Fletcher was a man out of his depth if he couldn’t punch his way out of a bad situation.

 

          For a moment she looked at him, really wanting to put all of this into words. Then she just shook her head. What difference would any of it make now? All their bridges had been burned.

 

          “This is about Mairwen,” she said. “Our daughter.”

 

          Tessa took delicate bites of her pepperoni pizza, all the while talking about her daughter’s “redemption.” But Fletcher knew better; Mairwen had become just the kind of tearaway that Tessa had always warned her to avoid. Maybe, in time, she would come back; more likely she’d end up in prison, or dead from an overdose in some squalid flat. But there was always hope, and Fletcher could never give up on his stepdaughter.

 

          But he really didn’t need all this at his time of life.

 

*     *     *

 

          An hour later, he was driving into the suburbs, heading for a part of town he usually avoided.

 

          Time was, this would be no hassle at all; but Fletcher wasn’t as young, or as fit, as he used to be. At 43, the well-honed body from his amateur boxing days had given way to a beer gut, and his swept-back hair and unkempt beard were streaked with grey; but his imposing six-foot-two-inch frame was still a formidable sight, and his fists were still capable of packing a punch.

 

             “Bastards’ll fuck with me at their peril!” he growled into the rearview mirror.

 

          He found the address and parked across the street. It wasn’t a house, but an old Community Centre that had been abandoned, and then overrun with hoodies and druggies. A party was in full swing, and Fletcher didn’t doubt that inside, powerful uppers were being swallowed like Smarties.

 

          Well, fine, if they were stoned out of their minds, he wouldn’t have to batter his way through them looking for Mairwen.

 

             Getting out of the car, he slammed the door and marched across the road. By now he was in a cold fury, and certainly wouldn’t have thought twice about clobbering someone.

 

          He pushed his way through a rusty gate, ignoring a pair of furiously rutting teenagers on the grass, and then barged through the door and into the building.

 

          “Oi, Grandad! Where do you think you’re going?”

 

   The man facing him was as big as Fletcher, with a shaved head, thick, tattoo-covered arms, and fists just itching for a fight.

 

          “I’m looking for my stepdaughter.”

 

             “She’s not here, so fuck off!”

 

             Fletcher drove a fist straight into his gut.

 

          “Then you won’t mind if I look around, will you?”

 

          The thug collapsed like a punctured tyre, gasping and retching. Fletcher marched straight past him.

 

          In the main part of the building, a noisy party was in full swing, bodies scattered around the room. Fletcher’s sudden appearance caused a moment of consternation among the less far-gone, but he was concerned with only one person.

 

          He barged among the revellers and finally found Mairwen in a side room. She was stoned out of her mind. A teenage boy was undressing her.

 

          Fletcher boxed his ears before throwing him against the wall.

 

          “All right, you; let’s go.”

 

          He picked up his stepdaughter, threw her over his shoulder and left the room.

The party carried on as they left the building, past the still-retching bald man and the rutting teenagers.

 

             Across the road, Mairwen was thrown, none-too-gently, into the back of the taxi.

 

             “Think yourself lucky, kid,” Fletcher snarled. “If a passenger was in your state, I’d leave her in the gutter!”

 

          In the distance, a police siren was getting closer. Fletcher jumped in the car, checked on Mairwen, and then drove off, passing a police van less than five minutes later.

             “Timing is everything,” he muttered.

 

          He slowed down; no one would take any notice of a taxi.

 

*     *     *

 

          Fletcher pulled into a lay-by and lit a cigarette. His taxi being a place of work, he risked a hefty fine.

 

          “Fuck ’em,” he said, taking a deep drag.

 

          In the backseat, Mairwen stared into space, her head on one side.

 

          “You, young lady,” he said, “Are more fucking trouble than you’re worth!”

 

          A small girl, and almost unnaturally thin, she looked like a child. But her Goth appearance—black clothes, black eye shadow and straight black hair (dyed from her natural mouse-brown)—made her look like a zombie; even her lips were black; if Fletcher could get a hold of the bastard who’d led her down this path . . .

 

          But that wasn’t his immediate concern; Mairwen was on a fast track to an early grave, and if he couldn’t help her, no one could.

 

          He stepped out of his taxi, needing to clear his head.

 

          The truth was, he had no idea what to do next. Take her home, let her sleep it off, and then give her a good bollocking before sending her on her way?

 

          Yes, and she’d be back with her “so-called” friends in no time. If she could only see herself now! But Mairwen lived only for today, and it was by no means certain that she had a tomorrow to look forward to.

 

             Fletcher threw his cigarette into the gutter and leaned against his cab. “I fucking need this!” he said bitterly.

 

          He jumped when a young woman suddenly appeared at his side.

 

          “I need a lift.”

 

          He turned to her. “I’m off duty.”

 

          She was in her early twenties, with long blonde hair spilling out from under a thick woollen hat. She also wore a dark green Parka with a fur collar, and lace-up boots. Her skin was quite pale, and there was a distant, almost distracted look in her eyes.

 

          “I just need to get to the town centre.” And she opened the door and stepped into the cab.

 

          “Now just a . . .”

          But she slammed the door on him.

 

          What is this, he thought, the night of the fucking weirdos?

 

          He got back into the cab. “Are you deaf? I said I was off duty.”

 

          “I need . . . the town centre.”

 

          Was she on drugs? It was difficult to tell; maybe she was just naturally strange.

 

          He glared at her for a moment; then he just shrugged and started the engine. “Have it your own way,” he said; he just couldn’t be bothered getting into an argument.

 

          For a few minutes they drove in silence, Fletcher occasionally glancing in the rearview mirror. Who was this girl, and why was she wandering around in this neck of the woods?

 

          Was there something vaguely familiar about her?

 

          She looked like a backpacker, though she wasn’t carrying any baggage; maybe she had wandered off from a party, or walked away from a boyfriend after a furious row.

 

             Fletcher told himself to forget it; he had enough on his plate with Mairwen.

 

          Yet the blonde passenger had a vulnerable quality, and he couldn’t help wondering what her story was.

 

          “I’ve been gone for a while,” she finally said, after they’d been driving for about ten minutes.

 

          “I see.”

 

             Another silence.  This kid was a hell of a conversationalist.

 

          “Been abroad?” Fletcher asked.

 

          “No . . . just away.”

 

          “Ah.”

 

          A few moment’s silence, and then she really dropped a bombshell.

 

          “Your stepdaughter’s really been mixing it up tonight; Red Bull, uppers, cans of lager.”

 

             Fletcher almost jammed his foot on the brake; how did she know who Mairwen was?

             “What . . .” he said.

 

             “She’s going to die in two hours; choking to death on her own vomit. Two hours, Fletcher. Unless you can help her.”

 

             “Now, listen . . .” Fletcher glanced over his shoulder.

 

             Mairwen was alone in the back of the taxi; of the young blonde girl there was no sign.

 

             “Fucking hell!” Fletcher momentarily lost control, mounted the pavement and slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing a streetlight. “Jesus!”

 

          He staggered out of the taxi, looked around, wrenched open the passenger side door. But the blonde girl was nowhere to be seen.

 

          “She can’t have . . . she just . . .”

 

             Vanished into thin air.

 

          A cold feeling washed over him, as though the temperature had suddenly dropped by several degrees.

 

          Not havin’ that. Not havin’ it!

 

          He paced back and forth, lit a cigarette, and tried to calm down; he had to get Mairwen home.

 

          A second cigarette soothed his nerves enough for him to resume the journey, but as he drove home he was still distracted.  Men like Fletcher didn’t have paranormal episodes.

 

             “Forget it.” He concentrated on Mairwen; getting her home and keeping her safe, that was all that mattered.

 

*     *     *

 

          He carried Mairwen into his house.

 

          Still she stared into space, oblivious to everything. He placed her on the sofa (on her side, in case she really did start choking) and then retrieved a plastic bucket from under the kitchen sink.

 

             “Can’t believe I’m doing this. Fucking can’t believe it!”

 

             Pulling his armchair close to the sofa, Fletcher made himself comfortable and prepared to watch over his stepdaughter all night.

 

             “Tomorrow, bitch, we are really going to talk!”

             Mairwen closed her eyes, and her breathing became regular. Sleep finally came, and in this state she looked more like a child than ever.

 

          After a while, Fletcher started to relax; the central heating had warmed up the room, and as he watched Mairwen sleeping peacefully, he started to drowse.

 

*     *     *

 

          After a while he began to drift, and an image of his blonde passenger came to him…

 

          Two hours, Fletcher . . . unless you can help her.

 

          The dream troubled him, for he knew, deep in his subconscious, that he had seen her before.

 

          . . . reaching out to him, pleading for assistance…

 

          A face he knew— a face that was confused, glassy-eyed and lost.

 

          “I need a lift . . .  I just need a lift.”

 

          In an instant he was awake, alerted by a sound: Mairwen, asleep, but in some distress, flecks of vomit flying out of her mouth as she gasped for breath.

 

             Fletcher flew out of his chair, dragged her over the arm of the sofa and held her face over the bucket, slapping her back.

 

          A stream of vomit shot out of her mouth, but she was still choking.

 

             “Come on,” he yelled. “Come on!” He slapped her back a few more times, and then forced a couple of fingers down her throat.

 

             “Puke.  Puke, you little cunt!”

 

             Suddenly, she gave a gasp and was violently sick, throwing up again and again until she was dry retching.

 

             “That’s right, Mairwen, get it up . . . all of it.”

 

             Fletcher held her until she was breathing normally, and then he cleaned her face with a damp flannel and forced her to take a few sips of water.

 

             Finally, she settled down. Fletcher, badly shaken, lit a cigarette. “Jesus Christ!” he said. “Jesus!”

 

          No longer able to sleep, he went into the kitchen and made a cup of coffee. I don’t need this, he thought, but he knew he’d have to take a more active part in Mairwen’s life.

 

             “Something” had to be done.

 

          He drank his coffee and reached for his cigarettes.

 

          Three left, he smoked them in quick succession: not great for his health, but at least it stopped him shaking.

 

          Oh yes, Mairwen, we are definitely going to talk!

 

*     *     *

 

          And talk he did, showing no mercy for her “delicate” state. Wiping the floor with her as she bawled her eyes out, making her clean out the bucket and scrub the carpet. Then driving her back to Tessa and making her sit through the whole shaming story again.

 

          He left her to face the music for a second time.

 

             Switching off his mobile phone, Fletcher made for the racetrack; watching a load of greyhounds chasing after an electronic hare was just the kind of distraction he needed.

 

*     *     *

 

          But he found himself drifting back into the suburbs. There was hardly any reason to go back there; and yet he felt . . . compelled.

 

          As he’d watched Mairwen cleaning up, the memory of his ghostly passenger had gnawed at him. And, for some reason, he’d felt a sense of guilt.

 

          Why?

 

             Fletcher was a hard man, and he could never show weakness. His father had instilled that in him at a very early age. A tough dockworker, he’d had no time for sentimentality.

 

          But the dockland was a rough area, and you had to get tough to get by; Fletcher didn’t know any other way.

 

          He had never been one for casual acts of kindness, especially in work; taxi drivers just couldn’t afford to be fobbed off with sob stories, and too-drunken revellers were treated with an almost callous indifference.

 

          I’ve got a living to make, got that?

 

          There were no exceptions to that rule . . . ever.

 

             Fletcher drove past the community centre and on towards the lay-by; but he knew, instinctively, that he needed to go further.

 

          He pulled up next to a gate leading to a local beauty spot.

 

          The place had hardly been used in months, the appearance of toxic algae in the pond making it a health hazard. He stepped through the gate and headed towards the park.

 

          High levels of blue-green algae still infected the pond, thriving in the wintry weather. With dog owners avoiding the place and parents keeping their children away, an eerie silence hung over the whole area.

 

             Fletcher shivered, zipping his leather jacket up against the cold. But it wasn’t just the weather that lent the park an air of desolation; there was an atmosphere of gloom, as though the whole place was decaying.

 

          He strolled over to a bench and sat down.

 

             “Okay,” he shouted. “Show yourself.”

 

          The trees rustled at a hint of wind and Fletcher looked up. The blonde girl was standing by a copse of bushes. When he stood up, she walked away, and he naturally followed her.

 

             Through the bushes, into a slight clearing . . .

 

          Was that a bump in the ground?

 

             Fletcher grabbed a thick branch, started scraping away at the bump, and within minutes he had uncovered a laced-up boot.

 

          More digging revealed a Parka coat. There was little doubt now that he had found his passenger.

 

          He reached into her coat pocket and found her purse. A driver’s licence and a few other papers told him she was Colleen Williams, a twenty-four-year old medical student. Maybe her disappearance had made the news at one time. But whatever the story, she was overdue a proper burial.

 

             Fletcher replaced her purse and left the park. There was a public telephone box in the centre of town. If it hadn’t been vandalised, he could’ve used it to call the police. Or his mobile.

 

          Of course he was walking away from the scene of a murder, but Colleen had only asked to be found.

 

          Was it that easy to turn his back on her?

 

          No matter what, she’d saved his stepdaughter’s life, and Colleen certainly seemed like the kind of girl he hoped Mairwen would become.

 

          He stopped, looked back.

          “If there is anything else,” he said suddenly.

 

          When he returned to his taxi after calling the police, a familiar blonde figure was sitting in the back.

 

*     *     *

 

          A year passed, and (with no small amount of bullying) Fletcher finally got Mairwen to clean up her act.

 

          But his responsibilities couldn’t end there, for others still needed help; the kind of people he had coldly turned his back on in the past.

 

             People like Colleen Williams, a young student on a backpacking jaunt in her gap year. A new arrival in town, no one had told her there were places where a young girl on her own just shouldn’t go; places where a man might “slip a little something” into her drink.

 

             Sorry, Kid. I don’t do piss-heads.”

 

          Those had been Fletcher’s first words to Colleen, on the night of her death, when she’d staggered out of a nightclub and towards his cab. Drugged-up and desperate to get back to her hostel, she’d only wanted a lift.

 

          But he’d driven away as she collapsed to the pavement.

 

             Minutes later she’d been dragged into the back of another car and taken to the park . . .

 

          Now Fletcher had to live with that. His callous indifference had cost a bright young student her life, and it was something he would never be allowed to forget.

 

          Every time he took his taxi out, he did so in the company of a silent, blonde passenger that only he could see: sitting on the back seat and to the right, always in the periphery of his vision; a constant, itch-like reminder of his responsibility.

 

          Never again would Fletcher refuse a young student in need a ride in his taxi.

 

          Never again would he ride the streets alone.

 

          For Colleen would always be there, a permanent reminder of his guilt.

 

          His passenger. His conscience.

 

             Always.

 

 

 

 

David has been writing for the indy press since 1996, with over 70 stories published since (in Midnight Street, Not One of Us, Enigmatic Tales, The Dream Zone, Xenos, Kimoto, and others, plus websites such as NightBlade and Whispers of Wickedness.

 

Between 1997 and 1999 he edited a magazine called Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. In 2001 a collection of his stories, Evil Eye, was released by BJM Press (Now Rainfall books).

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