Liam Copeland | The Driver’s Seat

The boy’s on his way to work when he hears the man call out. It’s a warm and sticky morning, sunlight gleaming off passing cars. The man doesn’t say the boy’s name, just ‘Excuse me!’ as loud as he can over the sound of traffic.

The boy stands at a busy intersection. He can see a fountain, the library, the shopping centre where he works. He can see a police station where uniformed men and women pass through sensor doors. And he can see this man, waiting at the red light, head poking from the window of his car. There’s confusion as other pedestrians assume ownership of the ‘Excuse me!’ But it’s the boy he wants. The man in the car makes that clear enough.

He’s not sure why he doesn’t just ignore the man, pretend not to notice. He thinks it’s probably got something to do with the way he’s been singled out. There’s something honourable in being handpicked from the street by a stranger. The boy puts a finger to his chest, mouthing, ‘Me?’ and the man nods his head furiously, waving the boy over. The light is still red as he worms between stationary cars.

‘You,’ says the man, sweat running down his face. ‘I need a favour. I’m not crazy. My name’s Robert Night. Now you know my name.’ The man never lets go of the wheel, and the boy notices a woman in the passenger seat and two children in the back, one of them a baby. He tries to focus on Robert.

‘Listen, I need a favour,’ he says.

‘A favour?’ says the boy.

‘Tell me your name. Let’s get some trust happening here.’

‘What’s the favour?’

‘Your name?’

‘Toby … Hutchings. Is that important?’ He can feel the myriad eyes of people in purring cars.

‘It’d be easier for you to screw me over if we were nameless. You could drive this thing anywhere you want,’ says Robert, glancing up at the traffic light, which is still red. ‘Names are important,’ he adds. The woman leans forward to speak, but he says something to her that Toby doesn’t catch, and she sits back in her seat, pouting. The baby is crying.

‘I need you to park this car. I’m not crazy. You know my name. I need you to park it because I’m late for a job interview and she can’t drive a stick,’ he says, becoming more urgent. The woman leans forward for a second then slumps back in her seat again.

‘I’ve been looking for a place to park the past thirty minutes. I’m already late. Will you do it for me, Toby Hutchings?’ says Robert, hunched over the wheel, a desperate man. A job interview. A woman who can’t drive a stick.

There’s something honourable in being handpicked from the street by a stranger, and Toby can’t look past this. He’s already forgotten about his own job at the shopping centre and how he’s supposed to start in ten minutes. It’s elating to be trusted solely on the way you wait to cross a road. What does he have that the others don’t?

The light goes green as Toby slides into Robert’s seat and watches him disappear between cars in the rear-view mirror.

The woman is wearing sunglasses and doesn’t say a word until they’ve passed through the intersection and are waiting in traffic on the other side. The baby has stopped crying.

‘I’m Bunny,’ she says. ‘My husband told me to tell you my name. You won’t kill me that way.’

‘Is that a real concern?’ he says, tapping the footbrake and forcing a laugh. His foot is the only movement in the car. The others can sense this—the woman, Bunny, and her two children. They’re crowded around the foot, trusting it with their lives. They listen to the plunging sound of the brake. He hopes she hasn’t noticed the way his legs tremble. ‘I was just on my way to work,’ he says. ‘The brake’s a bit clammy.’

‘I can drive a stick, you know’ she says, watching Toby change gears. ‘He just doesn’t want me driving his car.’

‘But he lets me? He doesn’t know me.’

‘I think that’s why. He knows what you look like, your name. He knows more than that about me. He won’t let me drive it. Trust is weird like that, don’t you think?’

‘Why me, though? He was clearly singling me out. Should you drive?’

‘You look harmless, maybe. You’re in work clothes. They are work clothes? A uniform operates like a name. It’s honest or something.’

‘They’re work clothes. I’m a cleaner. At the shopping centre down the road. The big one. Wait, should you drive?’

‘What do you think? What if Robert found out?’ she says, implicitly. ‘How old are you, Toby Hutchings?’

‘Is this like the name thing?’

I’m thirty-four, If that helps.’

He says, ‘Twenty-one,’ even though he’s eighteen, and is not sure why he lies. Maybe it’s because he’s just noticed her legs, the way she looks at him. He wonders if this is breaching the trust that Robert Night has invested in him.

The clock in the dashboard says 8:53. He’s bumper to bumper when he readjusts the seat, settles into his role. Would the radio be too much? Too comfortable?

‘Do you mind if I put the air-con on?’ he says when the baby starts to cry.

‘Halfway. It stinks of cigarettes,’ she says, undoing her seatbelt, attending to the baby. She lifts it from the capsule anchored to the back seat. The little boy doesn’t say a word as he watches his mother handle his sibling. Toby guesses the boy to be seven, the baby is practically a newborn. Toby wonders if he’s in a position to tell Bunny to put her seatbelt back on.

‘Say hi to Toby, Cole,’ says Bunny, talking to the seven-year-old now. ‘His name is Cole,’ she says to Toby, cradling the baby in her arms. ‘Do you need this one’s name?’

‘I’m not a k-i-l-l-e-r,’ he says, smiling, spelling it out. ‘I was on my way to work.’

‘Hi Toby,’ says Cole, an innocent voice from the backseat. The boy’s feet dangle as he writes something in the window dirt with his finger. The baby is crying.

‘Pull into that McDonalds,’ says Bunny, undoing a button on her shirt, letting a breast drop to the baby’s lips. The silence is instantaneous. The nipple is red and inflamed, the breast full and pale. Bunny’s hair falls around it, framing the glorious milky bulb. She never removes her sunglasses.

‘Robert told me to park the car,’ says Toby, tightening his grip on the steering wheel, trying to accept the presence of the single breast. ‘I should really do that. Only that.’

‘We don’t have to stop the car. That’s what the drive-thru is for. Fast food. Yippee,’ she says, manipulating the baby’s head into a better position. ‘You don’t look convinced.’

He nods without looking at her and crosses a double line, pulling into the McDonalds. A car beeps, loud and brash, extending into a haze of monotonous traffic noise. Cole is ecstatic when he sees the golden arches, the playground. He bounces in his seat, dragged from his stupor. ‘Dad never lets us eat here,’ he says, digging a foot into the back of the driver’s seat.

Toby manoeuvres the car around a low hedge, clipping the gutter, a scraping sound—an utterance of damage. The front right wheel lifts momentarily before dropping back to the road. The suspension breathes in and out.

‘Is your plan to crash the car? Call it an accident?’ says Bunny.

‘The brakes are clammy,’ he says, the ‘sinister’ jokes grating on him.

They pull up alongside the intercom and Toby winds down his window while Cole stands on his seat, pushing his head through a gap. Cole pretends to be reading the menu board, but he knows what he wants and shouts it at the speaker grill when it asks, ‘How can I help you?’ Bunny doesn’t look up from the child suckling at her inflamed nipple. She crosses her legs, repositions the baby, and the small shorts she’s wearing slide up her thigh.

‘Order me something,’ she says to Cole, handing her purse to Toby, who accepts it without a word, kneading it in his palm. The transaction is subtle and natural, trust earned, names exchanged, favours played out.

At the first window, Toby reaches into the purse and hands over a twenty. He recognises the cashier from somewhere, and as she reaches over with the change, he reads her nametag: Meagan. She’s younger than him—she’d be slightly removed from his circle. The name is definitely familiar.

‘Dylan,’ she says, peering into the car, eyeing the woman breastfeeding nonchalantly. ‘Do you remember me? Is this your … family?’

‘I’m Toby,’ is all he says, easing the car to the next window, collecting his food, and pulling away. Meagan appears behind the second cashier to watch him go, her face vacant. She mouths something, a collection of words he can’t make out. Bunny doesn’t look up. Cole is rummaging around in the bag of food, slurping on a thickshake, saying, ‘I won’t tell dad,’ over and over.

Toby pulls back into traffic, brakes for a car changing lines, thinks to beep his horn but doesn’t. A police car pulls up alongside them at the traffic lights, a woman speaking into a radio, the man making brief eye contact with him. The light goes green, the traffic thins and Bunny is pointing at a car park, saying ‘There, there,’ between mouthfuls of food. Milk is trickling over the baby’s downy cheeks. Cole says, ‘I won’t tell dad.’

Toby reverses into the spot, concentrating hard, and the engine is dead before he notices the handicap sign. ‘I can’t park here,’ he says.

‘It’ll be fine,’ says Bunny, undoing her seatbelt, redoing her shirt button. The breast disappears. ‘I won’t tell dad,’ she says smiling, as he looks around for the police car.

‘Can’t,’ he says, turning the engine back on. ‘You’ll get fined. He’ll make me pay it. I told you I’m a fucking cleaner.’ He moves off the gutter. The baby is crying. Bunny is staring at him.

‘You’re taking this very seriously. Good for you.’

‘He trusted me,’ he says, sweating.

‘I think you need to keep driving. You like the power. You could take us anywhere really. You’re the one in the driver’s seat.’

‘What’s the job interview?’ he says, turning back onto the main road, changing the subject. The clock in the dashboard says 9:12. He thinks about the word: fuck. Why did he use it? Has the trust been shattered? Has he taken it too far?

‘I don’t know exactly. Is this something you need to know? Will more information prevent you from killing us?’

Something darts beyond the bonnet of the car and he doesn’t get a chance to reply. The glint of colour gets his attention. The thud is heavy and dense and he feels it through the steering wheel. Cole screams. It doesn’t take long for Toby to realise he’s hit a cyclist. The bike is on its side, bent at the frame, its back wheel spinning at an odd angle. He can feel the myriad eyes of people in purring cars. Everything’s on hold, the crowd waiting on his next move—time waiting to recommence.

Toby steps from the car. He’s alone in the middle of this scene, he and the twisted figure in bright coloured Lycra. He approaches the man stuck to the road, supine.

‘Shit. Are you ok?’ he says, running his hands through his hair.

‘I think so. How’s the bike look? The car?’ the man says, sitting now, undoing the clasp on his helmet. Blood seeps from a cut on his knee, collects at his sock.

Toby pretends to look, says, ‘Fine, don’t worry about that.’

‘It was my fault,’ says the man, gently rising. He looks Toby in the eye for the first time. ‘Dylan?’ he says, confused.

Hastily, Toby helps the man wheel his bike off the road, and traffic resumes. He looks back at Robert Night’s car, Robert Night’s family—everything he’s been trusted with. He can see Bunny’s face, contorted into a silent scream, yelling at Cole in the back seat.

Dylan?’ the cyclist calls out as Toby races back toward the car, refusing ownership.

He slides back into the driver’s seat, turns the key in the ignition. The key belongs to him now—he’s earned it. The key is what operates the car, so he’s earned that too. Is she right, does he like the power?

Soon they’re back in traffic, then pulling off onto a side-street.

‘You’ve really abused the trust now,’ says Bunny. ‘Is there blood on the bonnet?’

He ignores her, keeps looking in the rear-view mirror.

‘Did you know that man on the bike?’

It’s a warm and sticky morning, sunlight gleaming off passing cars. The clock in the dashboard says 9:34.

He thinks about trust. There’s a weight to the word, an expectation, a pressure. It can end up in the wrong hands. A misuse. Trust exists between Robert Night and Toby Hutchings. Dylan was never entered into that agreement. Dylan is met with other expectations. Is she right, does he need to keep driving? Can he take them anywhere?

‘You know, Robert’s probably done with the interview by now,’ she says.

He doesn’t reply, just takes another detour, venturing further out of town.

‘Your name’s not Toby Hutchings,’ she says to herself.

Everything’s quiet and the passengers hear the child-lock come on.

 

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