The Driver

I had a couple of hours to spare every day, especially in the morning before going to work and in the afternoon.  My guitar repair workshop was on the first floor of a large music shop.  The shop didn’t open until 9 o’clock.  I’d generally start working around 9:30 AM.  I was self-employed and could adjust my hours to accommodate any changes in my daily routine.  I had nobody to answer to, just the customers.  So long as I kept them happy by repairing their instruments on time, the rest of the day was mine.    

A job in the local newspaper had caught my eye.  Someone had advertised for a driver to take disabled children to a special needs school, pick them up at various locations and drop them off.  The hours were from 8:30 until 9:30 in the morning and then 3:30 until 4:30 in the afternoon.  Perfect for me.  I called the number in the advert.  A man answered.  We talked for ten minutes or so.  He lived less than a mile away.  We arranged to meet.  It took five minutes to drive to his house, which was a large three-storey terraced building in a road that wound its way down to Woolwich Town Centre.  A dark blue Ford Zephyr and a large people carrier were parked outside his house.  I rang the doorbell.  The door opened.

“Michael?”

“Yes,” I said offering my hand.

“My name’s Terry …”  His handshake was firm.    

He was neatly dressed.  Wore a tie.  Hair neatly combed back.  I reckoned he was in his 40s.  He invited me in.  “I’ve just made a pot of tea … would you like one?”

“Yes please.”

We drew up chairs around the kitchen table and began to talk.  “There are eight special needs children,” he said.  “One of them has a life-threatening condition.  His heart is unstable.”

I sipped tea whilst listening to him.  “Helen knows the route.”

“Helen?”

“Yes, she will accompany you at all times.”

You’ll start at 8:30, pick the children up at various locations and then drive them to school.  After you drop them off the day is yours.  You can keep the people carrier all day if you wish.  The kids have got to be picked up again at 4 o’clock and taken home.”

“Sounds perfect for me,” I said, then explained what I did for a living and how his job would have a negative impact on my work.

“First I would need to check your licence and then I’d like you to take me for a short drive.  I need to make sure you are a good driver,” he said.  “I have to indemnify myself.  Can’t afford to take any risks.  If the kid with the heart condition throws a wobbler, you will have to divert to the nearest hospital.  His life could depend on it.”

“I understand.  I have kids of my own,” I told him.

I finished my tea.  We left the house and got into the Zephyr.  It was the first time I had driven one of these cars.  It felt comfortable.

“I want you to go to the end of the street,” he said.  “Then take a left and carry on driving until we reach Plumstead Common.  When we get there you can drive back.”

I enjoyed driving the Zephyr.  It was in tip-top condition.  The six cylinder engine purred like a kitten.  It had power-assisted steering.  The seats were comfortable.  I felt totally at ease behind the wheel.

We arrived back at Terry’s place.  “Your driving is good,” he said.  “I’m going to hire you.  When can you start?”

“Tomorrow,” I replied.  “Is that ok?”

“Excellent.  I’ll see you tomorrow morning at around 8:30 AM.  Helen will be here.  She will guide you to the children’s homes and then to the school.  Your job is purely to drive.  Her job is to take care of the kids.” 

We shook hands.  I thanked him and then left.

The next morning I turned up on time.  Helen was sitting at the kitchen table and finishing a cup of tea.  Terry introduced us.  We shook hands.  She seemed pleasant enough, around five or six years older than me, blonde hair, average looking. 

Terry looked at his watch.  “Time to get going,” he said. 

Helen finished her drink.  We got up and left the house, climbed into the cab of the van and began our journey. 

As we drove along, Helen said: “Did Terry tell you about Alec?”

“The kid with a heart condition?”

“Yes.  We had to take him to hospital once.  He passed out in the back of the car.  It was scary.  The driver had to race through traffic, blaring his horn and flashing his lights so that other drivers got out of the way.  That was about a year ago.”

“Blimey, I hope he doesn’t throw a wobbler while I’m driving.”

“He’s a lot more stable now, but you need to know just in case …”

“Of course.  No problem.”

Following Helen’s directions we soon arrived at the first child’s home, which was actually a shop.  He was about nine years old, Asian, came out of the shop hobbling on crutches.  I immediately warmed to him.  He had a broad smile on his face.  Hellen helped him into the van.  She introduced me, referring to me as the, “New Driver”.  His name was Advik.  The three of us waved goodbye to his dad, who was standing outside the shop and waving back.  I slipped the handbrake and we drove off.  It didn’t take long to reach the house of the next child.  Gradually the van filled with chattering children.  The last child was Alec, the boy with a heart condition.  He came out of his house with a blue bag around his shoulder.  Helen met him half way.  I was surprised.  He seems perfectly okay.  I was expecting a feeble boy, white face, blue lips and struggling for breath.  

As we drove towards the school, Helen kept looking back and making sure that all the children were okay.  We arrived at the heavy main gates before 9 o’clock.  I had to park the van, get out and open the gates, drive forward, stop and close the gates behind me.  Only then could I pull into school’s the car park.  I helped Helen get the children off the van.  There were rows of similar vehicles, drivers and carers helping children out of their vans.  The other drivers looked so ordinary.  Most of them were in their 40s or even older.  They were dressed casually but tidily.

The school was a single-storey building, with no curb stones or steps leading up to the entrance doors.  I waved goodbye to the kids as they stepped inside.

Helen and I drove home.  It didn’t take long to get back.  I dropped her off, then drove to work.  I was in my workshop by 9:40 AM.  Perfect.  Knowing that I had to leave work at approximately 3 o’clock to collect Helen and the kids, I concentrated on the urgent repairs first. 

At 2:30 PM I entered Barry’s office.  He was the boss of the music shop.  We had a good working relationship.  I told him all about my new job, said I would be gone for an hour and asked if he would take any telephone messages.  “Please ask customers to phone back after 4:30,” I said. 

Barry was leaning back on his adjustable office chair, his desktop strewn with paperwork.

“No problem, Mike,” he said sucking on a filter-tipped cigarette.  “Seems like you’re doing a worthwhile job.”

I thanked him and left.

The school pick-up went without a hitch.  We dropped the kids off one by one, Advik being the last child.  Leaning heavily on his crutches, he struggled to walk towards the shop.  It didn’t stop him smiling, though.  Beaming happily, he turned back and waved goodbye.  I couldn’t believe how cheerful he was.  He acted as if there was nothing wrong with him.  What wasn’t there to like and admire about these children?

As the days went by, I gradually got to know the route and the children.  One afternoon, as I dropped Advik off, I climbed out of the van and followed him into the shop.  His father stepped round the counter and shook my hand.  I looked at the display of sweets and asked for a round lollipop, the type Kojak sucked.  He gave me one and said no charge.  I thanked him.

“Would you and the carer like to have dinner with us tomorrow afternoon?”  

I was surprised but pleased to be asked.  “I’d be glad to.  I’m sure Helen would, too.”

“Please come …” he said, clasping his hands.  “You really would be most welcome.” 

I told Helen.  She jumped at the idea.  How could we refuse?

The next day we followed Advik into the shop.  His father had arranged for somebody else to serve the customers, probably a relative. 

“Ah … you are here.  Very excellent.  Please come …“  Advik’s father led us to the stairs.  They were quite narrow.  The passageway at the top of the stairs was lined with boxes.  Stock for the shop, I guessed. 

We followed him into the dining room.  A table was in the centre of the room, the condiments and dishes resting on a pristine tablecloth.  His wife entered with a steaming bowl of curry.  She put it on the table, left the room and came back with another bowl filled with rice.  Advik’s father helped her to dish up.  Like his son, he was always smiling.  Advik sat at the table with us.  He passed a plate of nan bread to Helen, who took a piece and then passed it to me.  The food was delicious, the conversation friendly and sometimes humorous.  I could hardly believe I was eating a curry made in the traditional way, served by Indian people.  The hospitality of Advik’s parents was humbling.  They were lovely people.

From then on Advik came out of the shop with a Kojak lollipop in his hand, a gift from his father.  It made me feel special.  He obviously liked me and I liked him.

On the last day of term I decided to dress up special for the kids.  I left work early, went home and changed my clothes.  I wore a clean pair of jeans with healed shoes, a white shirt and a black tie.  Before leaving the house I put on my top hat and tails, bought at the Portobello Market a couple of years ago.  What I didn’t realise was that the cat had peed in the hat.  It stank.  I sprayed it with perfume, which made the smell more palatable but a bit odd — a mildly revolting mixture of cat’s urine and women’s perfume.  A minor setback to my plans but I doubted that anybody would notice.

When Helen saw me she was rather taken aback.  “What’s all this, then?” she said, puzzled but smiling.

“The kids are breaking up for their summer holidays today and I wanted to make it extra special.”

“Well you’re certainly going to make an impact,” she said.

When the kid saw me they were thrilled, amazed.  I knew they would be.  My own kids loved it when I dressed up in my top hat and tails, stuffed a cushion up my back and pretended I was a hideous old man called: ‘Hunchback Harry’.  It was family game that we used to play — a bit gruesome but the kids loved it.  I acted the part of a social deviant who devoured children.  “Quick, go and hide,” I’d say.  “I can hear Hunchback Harry.  He’s coming, so you better be quick.”  The kids would scatter all over the house, crawl under the beds and hide in cupboards.  They were both terrified and thrilled. 

I’d quickly dress up in my top hat and tails, stuff a cushion up my back and cry out in a hideous voice: “Hunchback Harry’s here.  I think I can smell children.  Where are they?”  I would creep around the house making hideous noises as I searched them out, drag them one by one from their hiding places and pretend to bite them.  Then I’d tickle them until they screeched.  They were ecstatic.

We arrived at the school just before it opened at 9 o’clock.  I parked the van, locked the handbrake and helped the children out, respectfully doffing my top hat and bowing to each one.  I wished them all a good day.  I could tell by the looks on their faces that they loved it.  I doubt that they had ever before been treated in such a special way.  Such a simple gesture which bought so much pleasure to such deserving people.  Job done.  We drove away.

Helen and I were slightly early for the 4 o’clock pick-up.  We sat in the car park for a few minutes chatting.  I told her what I was going to do.  She warned me against it but I didn’t listen.  “I’m going to make this a memorable occasion for the kids, that’s all that matters to me,” I told her.  “Here goes …”  I got out of the van and then strode towards the school.  Stepping through the entrance doors I searched for the kids classroom.  Two doors along the passageway I could see them through a window in the door, earnestly peering down at their school books.  They were unaware of my presence.  I knocked.  Opening the door, I introduced myself.  The teacher — about my age — seemed a little shocked.  Smiling nervously, she asked me what I wanted.  “Would you please inform the children that their driver is ready and waiting,” I said.  She looked at me as though I were some kind of mad-man.  I smiled, thanked her, bowed, and stepped back out of the classroom, quietly closing the door behind me.  When the closing bell sounded the children came running out, huge smiles on their faces.  They were laughing and praising me.  “You’re our best driver, ever,” they said.

I climbed into the van and started up the engine.  Before I pulled away the kids said they had a present for me.  One of them passed Helen an LP of Dionne Warwick, which she handed to me.  I was tremendously touched.  I sat behind the wheel studying the cover.  “This is wonderful, a great surprise …”  The kids were really pleased.  They knew I liked Dionne Warwick.  They had asked me who my favourite singer was just a few days ago.  They’d obviously planned this. 

We pulled away from the car park.  The kids were still chatting excitedly about the classroom incident.  Just before I reached the main gates, I took my top hat off and tossed it out of the window.  “Goodbye hat,” I said as it sailed through the air, over a brick wall and into somebody’s garden.  I admitted then that the cat had peed in it.  The kids laughed.  I laughed with them.

After dropping them off, I headed for work.  I was thinking about the children and how thrilled they were to see me entering the class and speaking to the teacher, dressed in my top hat and tails.  That special moment had really brightened their lives, bought a bit of humour and mirth into their young imaginations.  What a memorable ending to the term.

After work I drove the van back to my boss’s house.  He asked me in.  I sensed something was wrong.  “I’ve got to lay you off,” he said.  “The school had issued a complaint.”  Apparently they told him that I had acted inappropriately.  I was devastated.  I was expecting praise but instead I got a cactus up the arse.  I thought about the kids.  They would be really upset when a new driver picked them up after the holidays.  I wondered what the next driver would be like?  He certainly wouldn’t be like me, that’s for sure.  To this day I wonder how they are all getting on.