The alarm woke Dancy. He punched it silent. He then pulled the clock to him. 05:00. He put it back on the side table and lay silently for a moment before reaching out with a hand. Quinn. Asleep beside him. His resentment returned. Why hadn’t she wanted to come to bed last night? She was normally more enthusiastic than he was. It was all now so different since… He sought reasons. Was it her internship? Why had her father found her the post at Number 10? Was he trying to ruin their relationship? He wouldn’t put it past the man. He’s a slithery bastard. He shook his head to clear his thoughts, groaned and sat up. His Uber would be along shortly.
He switched on the side light. Blinked. After the dark, it was dazzlingly bright. What had his boss asked him at the interview? What is the earliest you’d got up in the morning? He’d been initially foxed by the question until he’d remembered his school excursion to Snowdonia. It had been a 05:45 start. And here I’m setting a new personal best. He felt somewhat proud, until he recalled he was nowhere near his boss. What had Rocco told him in the interview after he’d answered the question? Three am! Who gets up at three am? You go to bed at three am. And now here I am, up at five.
He got out of bed and padded into the bathroom. He quickly did the minimum toiletries before dressing.
He pottered back into the bedroom. He noted Quinn had shifted in his absence to partly occupy his space. Wasn’t she the beauty? How did I manage to bed her? Uncalled for, a song his father used to play on his Hi-Fi sprung to mind. “When you're in love with a beautiful woman, it's hard…” How did the rest go? Something about friends… Her blonde hair caught his attention. I’m going to miss you. He had a dreadful thought. Could I trust my friends? Two weeks! Anything could happen.
He switched off the side light and stumbled out of the room.
The front door gave a noticeable clunk as he pulled it shut. Does she know I’ve gone? He stepped out onto the pavement. The Uber was there, waiting, its lights on to advertise its presence. A Prius. Aren’t they exempt from the Congestion Charge? I suppose if you’re driving round London all day, it makes sense. He signalled to the driver and got in the backseat.
‘Heathrow. Terminal Three.’
‘Righto, mate.’ The car edged forward silently.
Dancy got a good look at the driver. Foreign. No, not foreign. Of foreign origin. Were all Uber drivers immigrants? He opened the app and checked the man’s name. Ahmed Ebrahim. An Arab? He felt guilty. Really, he’s just as British as I am. The whole of the country was made up of foreigners, after all. As Camilla had once explained to him, it all depended on your timescale. Where are you now, Camilla? She’d been his first serious girlfriend. Sex and all that. They’d split up over politics. He’d voted Remain. When she’d asked, the morning after the calamity, he’d told her. How stupid was that? How was I to know you were a diehard Leaver? They’d never talked about politics before. No, I had been much too interested in the physical side of their relationship, to consider anything else. He squirmed. He’d an erection coming on.
Dancy’s thoughts leapt to Quinn. Oh %$@&!
He felt remorse. Why hadn’t she wanted to do it last night? His resentment bubbled up like the fizz in champagne. I’d told her I was going away. Isn’t sex something you did before you parted? He felt adrift. Women were so unpredictable. What had his father said? Marry in haste; repent at leisure. Well, it wasn’t as if I am married to Quinn, is it? But he was feeling repentant. What if I ditched her? I’d be alone. The thought terrified him. But living with her wasn’t such a bed of roses, was it? What if I asked her to move out but to keep seeing each other? He considered the possibilities for a moment. Every option looked bad. Just like Brexit.
The car’s horn blared loudly, interrupting his moody thoughts. Ahmed shouted something out the window.
‘What’s happening?’ They passed a white van that had stopped in the middle of the road for no apparent reason. No lights. Just typical.
Ahmed turned to him. Keep your eyes on the road! ‘It’s a bleedin’ barmpot. Bloody London traffic, that’s what.’ He resumed driving.
‘You’re new to this job?’ Just my luck, if you are!
‘Nah, been at it since the start.’ That’s a relief then.
‘Nice car.’ It looks almost new. Dancy checked the registration. Sixty-seven plates.
‘Not mine. Rent it. From a guy in Barking.’ He honked at an errant pedestrian who had stepped out not thirty meters away in front of them. The man had been hidden between a line of parked cars. ‘Effing people. Can’t effing see nuttin.’
‘Sorry, mate. Gotcha keep to schedule.’ Schedule?
Dancy glanced at his phone. They were making good progress. The app had said it would take about three-quarters of an hour to get to Heathrow. He would be easily on time. His mind wandered. He looked at Ahmed. ‘Am I your first ride today?’
‘Nah. More like the last.’
‘When did you start work, then?’
‘Ten o’clock. I like the night shifts. Traffic’s not so bad. Get longer hires, too. Like this one.’ Yeah near sixty quid for a quick trip to Heathrow, not bad, really.
‘You’ll be picking up someone at the airport, then?’
‘Maybe. Depends. There’s usually lots of us there, so I’d have to wait. So, nah, probably go home. Missus is expecting me back for sooty and sweep.’
‘Ah, yes of course.’ Home comforts.
Sixty quid for three-quarters of an hour’s work. Dancy’s mind raced. He checked some facts using his iPhone. He mentally did some calculations. He couldn’t believe the numbers he was getting. It can’t be right? Surely the man should be earning more, for what he did. I’ve got it wrong. He checked the fee again. Twenty miles. About forty-five minutes. Fifty-seven quid for the journey—a bit of a tip. Factor in the cost of hiring the car. He did the math again. Yeah, the numbers were right, dammit. As they should be! I should be able to do sums. It slowly dawned on him that Ahmed was working for less than the minimum wage. So, who was making the money? Sixty quid for less than an hour’s work. Multiply that by the number of journeys. It had to be. Someone, somewhere was creaming off a lot of loot. He checked Uber’s market capitalisation on Google. About fifty billion or so. But not quoted. It didn’t make sense. It dawned on him: working for Uber wasn’t very profitable. His instincts kicked in. I should talk to Rocco about it.
He put his driver’s earnings behind him and settled down. He opened the Continental Telegraph app and started reading.
* * *
Quinn sat at the kitchen table eating muesli. Not even a farewell note. Why not? Because I wouldn’t have sex with him? Just because he was going away for a few days? Men! The oven clock told her it was 07:18. She was late. No Dancy to get me up. She took a spoonful of muesli. Better get a move on. Don’t want to get there after Aidan. The little shit would gloat all day. She’d hated him from the very first moment she set eyes on him. “Hello there, Quinn, I’m Aidan.” What a smarmy voice. His handshake. Bleh. She dumped her bowl in the sink. For a moment she felt guilty. Dancy liked everything to be squeakily clean and tidy. I’ll tidy up tonight. It’s not as if he’ll be back before me. She wondered what he would be up to in Dubai. She’d heard stories. What was it? Russian hookers. He’d better not!
She grabbed her handbag and coat and headed out the door. She banged it loudly before securely locking it. She half ran to the tube stop. The line of Ubers and taxis was still there. Did they ever move? She waved her debit card at the turnstile before scuttling down the elevator.
As usual, the tube was crowded. She was edged up against a rather smelly bloke who was reading the Metro. In her face. She was forced to half read the pages he was reading. Who is Jesy Nelson? The name seems vaguely familiar.
The train shuddered to a halt. There was a stampede to get out. As half the carriage got off, Quinn found herself being pushed and shoved. She followed the crowd. Along a corridor. Stairs. Up an elevator. More stairs. And they call this an interchange? More like an obstacle course. She got to the Westbound platform. Someone on the other side was plaintively playing the violin. She tried to spot the mystery busker. A train arrived on the opposite platform and blocked her view. When it had gone, the music had stopped. She scanned the platform: there was no one in sight. That’s life here in London, isn’t it? Chance encounters with…with the unexpected.
Her train arrived. She got on and – incredibly – managed to get a seat. Opposite her was a young man. Twenty-six? Or was it seven? She gave him the once over. A hipster judging by his straggly beard and nattily shaved head. Spotting her looking at him, he smiled. I’m not interested in your type. Look at you? Half beatnik; half skinhead. Was that a latte in your hand? She fantasied briefly about how she might snip off his overlong whiskers. Where had that come from? Fifty Shades Freed? Was she harbouring S&M fantasies? In her mind, the man opposite gradually morphed into Aidan. Tied to a chair. Naked. She was there, scissors in hand…
The train shuddered to a halt. Westminster. Quinn jumped up and scampered off.
She entered Number Ten and came face-to-face with Aidan. Blast. He smirked at her. ‘Late starting today, are we?’ Quinn glanced at her phone. 7:56. How could I be late?
She glared at him. What would be a witty riposte? ‘Do you work the night shift, then?’ Pathetic. Why can’t I give him, as he gives me?
‘What if I did? I’d still dress better than you do.’ She saw his eyes give her an up-and-down. ‘You look as if you’ve slept in yours.’
Instinctively, Quinn looked down at her outfit: plain black skirt, white blouse and matching jacket. It was all fine. This is what women wear to the office. She examined his clothes. He wore the latest chic casual attire: loafers, chinos, pale blue shirt and dark jacket. He looked as if he had just emerged from a nightclub. She could just imagine the flashes as the paparazzi caught him on camera.
‘Excuse me.’ She brushed past him and headed for the kitchen. Argh! The slimy toad. She tried to not let her irritation get to her. Coffee!
The staff kitchen wasn’t huge. More than two and it felt crowded. Quinn had it to herself and quickly helped herself to a large coffee. Dancy usually made her coffee at the flat and she’d been in a rush. With him away, she’d gone without, so she was looking forward to her first cup.
She was stirring her brew when a slightly bald man sauntered in, mug in hand. He grinned at her. Who is he? She had been introduced to him on her whistle-stop tour on here first day. Was it really less than two weeks ago? She couldn’t believe it. Ah yes! Morton. Heads up the International Section. She ignored him. No one had said he was worth cultivating.
She reached to pick up her cup. She felt a hand grasp her bottom. ‘Excuse me.’ What are you doing? He guffawed.
She brushed past him and out the door. Did he just grope me? Quinn couldn’t quite believe it. She was shocked. She glanced back at him. The little twerp is grinning. He did fondle my bottom. How dare you!
‘Hello there Quinn. You’re looking a bit lost.’ Her mentor James was striding in her direction. At least he hasn’t tried to caress me.
‘Still finding our ways confusing.’ He laughed falsely. Not where you’re concerned. ‘Got a mo?’
He quickly checked no one was in earshot. ‘Heard the PM’s given you a project. We should talk it over, given you’re new here. I can offer you a lot of help.’ Yeah, I spill the beans, so you can decide whether you should steal it and deliver. Just so you can smarm up to the PM. You little @$%&.
She gave him an innocent smile. I’ve been warned about you, James Carberry. ‘That’s a wonderful idea. But not now. I’m busy. I’ve got a meeting. I’m already late.’
‘This afternoon then?’
‘I’ll put a time in the shared diary.’ It’s going to be full up till Monday, you creep.
‘You do that. See you later.’ He stomped off. Was that a swagger, Carberry?
It was all too much. Two weeks into my internship and now this. First Morton and now my mentor out to shaft me. She made her way towards her workstation.
‘You look dejected this morning.’ Quinn startled at the voice behind her. She turned. Anna. She’s the concerned one.
I must tell somebody. ‘Do you know what just happened in the kitchen?’ Anna shook her head. ‘If I was to tell you Morton…’
‘Say no more.’ She held up her hand to cut her off, then took Quinn’s arm and led her towards her desk. ‘Here, sit down and tell Momma.’ Quinn described her earlier encounter.
Anna shook her head. ‘You’re not the first to tell me Morton’s touched them inappropriately. You might like to know his nickname with the girls is “the grabber”. He tries it on with all the new ones.’ She patted Quinn’s hand. ‘You’re lucky it didn’t happen on your first day.’
‘But isn’t anyone going to do anything about his behaviour?’
‘What? Launch our own #MeToo movement at Number 10?’ She laughed. ‘Let me explain. Morton’s powerful and has connections. You’ll just have to put up with it. The last complainer was out of here double quick.’ But that’s appalling. ‘My advice is, if you want to stay here, forget it. But from now on, keep out of his way and make sure you’re not alone with him. Not ideal, I know.’ So, I should let the dirty old perv place his hands all over me, is that it? She had a momentary vision of Morton at the park in a dirty old brown raincoat flashing at some young kids. Why do I feel sullied?
‘Thanks for the advice.’
‘Anytime.’ She sauntered off.
Well that’s something, isn’t it. Quinn sat looking at the blank screen as she tried to calm herself. I’ve got work to do. She activated her desktop and started reading her emails.
‘Hey, need a hand.’ She looked up. Aidan had sneaked up on her unseen.
‘I’m fine.’ Go away.
He leant over and peered at her screen. ‘Tsk-tsk. You should delete all that stuff. It’s just cluttering up your inbox.’
‘Here let me show you how.’ He leaned right over her, forcing her down into her seat. His arm brushed against her shoulder. You’re just another Morton!
Her mobile pinged. ‘Hello Daddy.’ She waved Aidan away. I’ll deal with you later, you little pervert.
‘Hello Quinnie.’ Dad, you know I hate it when you call me Quinnie. You make me out to be a little girl. It’s Quinn. Quinn! ‘How are you finding things at Number Ten?’
‘Busy. The PM has got me preparing a legislative brief for the cabinet.’
‘Well that’s good. I’m sure its an important proposal. I have faith in my little girl.’ I’m twenty-three, Daddy. I haven’t been your little girl for ten years.
‘It is. But all this law stuff, it’s quite difficult to get my head around.’
‘There. I told you, you should have done law at Cambridge instead of that worthless degree in history of art.’
‘It’s not worthless. Some of my friends are now assistant curators.’
‘Make work for useless graduates. In my day…’
‘Well, that’s not why I called. There’s a do at the Commons tomorrow night,’ But I’ve just told you I’m busy, ‘and I would like you to attend.’
‘I don’t think I can. There’s my work.’
‘No Quinnie, I insist you come.’ Stop calling me Quinnie. Please! There was a pause. ‘Why don’t you bring Dancy? He’d enjoy it.’
‘He’s gone to Dubai.’
‘Ah, I see. Well tell him to keep out of trouble.’ Russian hookers, you mean, don’t you? ‘I’ll expect you there. Seven-thirty sharp. Don’t be late.’
‘It’s important you’re there. If you’re not there, there might be a problem with Bank of Dad. Capiche?’
‘Yes.’ He hung up. I know why you want me there: to flaunt me in front of your friends. Isn’t that right? “This is my daughter Quinn. She works at Number Ten.” Because you pay me an allowance, you think you own me. She nearly resolved not to go. She dialled Dancy’s number. It rang a few times then she got his voice mail.
‘This is Dancy O’Donnell. I’m busy right now. Please leave a message and I’ll get right back to you.’
* * *
‘Yes, Mrs Patel, I heard you the first time.’ She’s quite deaf, ain’t she?
‘I’m deaf really sad to see what happen.’
‘Yes, yes, Mrs Patel, I understand. The Council will take the matter up.’
‘My’n friend live blocks in Battersea; he don't have fire alarm. He’s deaf! See that!’ She waged a finger at him. ‘Very important peoples have fire alarm and check every month; check bolider, they do.’
‘I’m sure the council is checking on the boiler, Mrs Patel.’ Are they? They say they are? How do I know?
‘You make sure all OK. I really so shock that block don't have alarm and cheap make block.’
‘They assured the Council they’ve got all the safety improvement works underway. It’ll be alright.’
‘Well, goody to know.’ She turned to go. ‘So’s goody evening to you, Mr. Ebrahim.’
‘And a good evening to you, too, Mrs Patel.’ She pottered off down the corridor towards her flat. Phew! Why did Fatima consort with the old twist an’ twirl?
He banged the front door shut. He could hear the kids screaming in the living room. Again? The bloke downstairs will be up complaining again. He ignored the noise and made his way to the kitchen.
Fatima was holding a bag in her hand. ‘Ahmed, I’ve made a packed dinner for you.’ She deposited it on the kitchen table. ‘Shawarma, your favourite. Lamb.’
‘That’s great.’ All I wanted was to stop off later and get some Bernard Langhers. Now this!
There was a cry from one of the boys in the living room.
‘I’ll deal with it.’ He went into the lounge. Two of the kids were fighting. ‘Now cut that out.’ They continued their brawl.
He grabbed them and pulled them apart, their arms and legs flailed wildly. ‘Stop it.’ He shook them.
‘He started it.’
‘She kicked me.’
‘Alright you two. Out.’ They scampered. Why can’t they just sit down an’ watch the tele? He went back into the kitchen. Fatima was kneading dough. He glanced at the clock. 19:52. ‘Gotta go.’
‘You’re going a bit early tonight, ain’t yah?’
‘There’s a problem about me Andy McNab I need to sort out.’ The text said he should get there early. No explanation. Well, if you’re told that’s that, that’s that.
‘Now you be careful. Call me later.’
‘Will do, if I can.’
Ahmed pulled in against the curb. A hire at last. Westminster to Islington. He punched in a fee and waited. Ping. Got it, great. Business had been slack all evening, so this was something. Where’s the pick up? He checked his app. Whitehall, Horse Guards Parade bus stop.
He started the motor, checked for traffic and pulled out into the lane. He followed a Merc in front of him. Nice motor. The hire company had provided him with a Passat saloon. It felt unfamiliar compared to his usual Prius. But a Merc. I should see if they can get me a Merc. Cost a bit more but I could go UberLUX. It swerved towards Lambeth. He turned into Whitehall, passed Downing Street and slowed. There, that woman looking at her phone. He stopped. She came over. Looks foreign, like one of ‘em Russian hookers. He was not best pleased.
She got in, settled in the back seat and fastened her seat belt. She looked at him. ‘Mrs Hard Court Smith Years?’
‘It’s Miss Harcourt-Smithers.’ Speaks good English, but then they all do, don’t they?
She glanced at her phone. ‘Ebrahim?’ He nodded. ‘Do you know where to go?’
Of course, I do, it’s right here. He glanced at the destination on his app. ‘Islington. Cloudsley Street. Number twenty-five.’ She nodded. He swung the wheel and headed North.