A sneak preview of my next collection of short stories, Repent at Leisure, as read at the recent Evesham Festival of Words
“I wish you’d let me drive.” Martha leaned over in the passenger seat to get a better view of the speedometer. “It a thirty-mile limit here, you know. You’re not outside the city limits yet.” Stephen gripped the steering wheel tighter, despite the cold leather chilling his ungloved hands. Fleetingly, he considered how much warmer they’d be if gripping his wife’s throat instead.
“I. Know. I drive this route home from college every day. I do notice these things.”
It irked him that the red traffic lights ahead required him to decelerate. He hoped Martha wouldn’t take it as acknowledgment that she was right.
“You’re always the same when you’ve had one too many. You think the rules of the road apply to everyone except you. Typical man.”
Stephen pulled on the handbrake harder than he meant to, his hand slipping and rebounding from the gleaming chrome knob.
“I haven’t had one too many. Two glasses of red. That’s all.”
The lights changed quickly at this time of night, or rather, early morning, compared to his usual commuting times. He crunched the gear stick back up into fifth as he whizzed down the slip road to join the motorway.
“Yes, but what size glasses?”
“Well, you’d know, wouldn’t you, if you hadn’t spent half the evening dancing with that prat Barlow from Sociology. I don’t know what you see in him.”
Martha stared straight ahead, glad that she didn’t have to make eye contact with her husband.
“What I see in him is that he asked me to dance, unlike you. What happened to the eager dancer that I married? Couldn’t get you off the dance floor at our wedding. I remember my aunt saying to me at our reception, “Seeing you to dancing away like that together, I know you’re going to be happy ever after.” That’s what she said. Well, we’re not bloody dancing now, are we?” I can’t even remember the last time we danced together. Mind that lorry.”
“I am minding that lorry. Why would I not mind that lorry?” Reluctantly, Stephen flicked on the right indicator and pulled out into the middle lane, glancing briefly over his right shoulder to check his blindspot. Martha leaned forward and unlatched open the glove compartment.
“Got any mints? I’ve got a funny taste in my mouth. I need a mint.”
Stephen flung a hand dramatically across his eyes. “What are you flashing there? You’re not using the torch to look for mints, are you? You’re blinding me.”
Stephen swerved to make his point. Martha looked up at him puzzled, as she popped a lone Trebor mint in her mouth. It had been out of its wrapper and tasted a bit funny, but the result was a net improvement. “What do you mean, flashing? I’ve not touched your wretched torch.”
It was a bone of contention between them that Stephen insisted on filling half the glove compartment in his car with a large multifunctional torch. It had four distinct flashing patterns, in case of emergency. It had never been used. In her own car’s glove box, Martha stored only a tiny pen light, leaving plenty of space for essentials such as tissues, wet wipes, lip balm, handcream, foundation, mascara, lipstick, a hairbrush, and mints.
“Well, someone’s flashing at me.”
In a rare moment of marital unity, they both stared into the rear-view mirror, registering the flashing blue light behind them.
“Oh my God, no!” murmured Stephen, his career as a college tutor also flashing before his eyes. No driving licence, no job – not unless he moved house much closer to work, which he could hardly engineer overnight, not without great personal expense. There’d be removals, the solicitor’s fee, the estate agent…
By the time he pulled over onto the hard shoulder of the motorway, at the direction of the police car behind him, Stephen had already reached £40,000 as the likely cost of that third glass of wine that Martha hadn’t seen him drink, the one he taken as revenge when she’d gone up on the dance floor for the fourth and final time with that idiot Barlow.
As the police patrol vehicle pulled in behind him, he hissed to Martha, “Quick, find me another bloody mint.”
“I think this is the only one -” she faltered, before recognising his drift. Deftly she removed it from her mouth and posted it into his, a second before a policeman bent down to peer into the driver’s window. Stephen pressed the button to wind down the window and offered the policeman a minty smile.
“Good evening, officer, how can I help you?”
Martha patted his left knee in moral support and leaned across and to add her own most charming smile. “Yes, hello, officer, a very good evening to you.”
The police officer did not smile back.
“Good night out, sir, madam? I’m just asking, because I happened to notice your car swerving rather a lot after you joined the motorway at the last junction. A little dangerously, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir.”
“Not at all, officer. Just doing your duty, I’m sure.”
Stephen’s smile tightened uncomfortably, and he realised he was grinding his teeth.
“That’s what we like, dear, isn’t it” put in Martha. “To see our boys in blue doing their duty.”
Stephen didn’t look at her, but hoped she wasn’t fluttering her eyelashes.
“So when do you think you last had a drink, sir? Too late for the pubs now. Was it a private party you were at?”
Stephen nodded. “End of term celebrations at the college where I work as a lecturer.”
Martha squeeze his knee encouragingly and leaned across to peer up at the policeman. “He’s Head of Department, you know. Head of Law.”
The police officer gave a wry smile. “So, sir, I suppose you’ll be aware then that I have to allow you a certain amount of time for the last trace of alcohol to disperse from your mouth before I can breathalyse you? I take it you consent to a breath test?”
Stephen nodded enthusiastically, wondering whether physical activity would make his system metabolise alcohol faster.
“Very well, sir. I’ll just go and fetch my equipment.”
With that, he strolled back to his vehicle,and Stephen closed the window.
“Oh shit,” Martha said on his behalf. Stephen didn’t speak, but crunched his sweet energetically, sucking every last bit of peppermint out in hope that it might neutralise some of the alcohol in his system. Then he realised he was mixing up the effect with toothpaste on bad breath. God, I must be pissed, he thought.
“Surely there must be some more mints in there?”
Martha switched on the big torch and rummaged with her spare hand in the glove box. “Nope. How about a wet wipe? To wipe around your mouth?”
“God, no, that might make it worse – they’re probably impregnated with alcohol.”
There was a tapping at the window. The police officer had returned with the ominous little bag, from which a small tube was projecting, in Stephen’s direction, like a sinister version of a child’s ‘s juice box.
With a cold sweat breaking out of his body, Stephen opened the window again and follow the officer’s instructions to breathe into the tube. Then the policeman took it from his hand, thanked him politely, and turned his back on Stephen to consider its verdict. Staring forward through the windscreen, Stephen watched the red rear lights careering past them of cars whose drivers were no doubt thanking their lucky stars that they weren’t in his shoes. Stephen reached for Martha’s hand across the handbrake. Her hand clasped in his, they presented a united front during the several long moments until the policeman bent down once more.
“Well, sir, you’ll be pleased to know that you’re just below the legal alcohol limit to drive now, so you’re off the hook this time. I should caution you though that your blood alcohol level may still be rising. If one of my colleagues should have to stop you again a few minutes down the road, you may not be so lucky.”
The policeman put his head in through the window to address Martha directly.
“Madam, could I ask, do you also hold a driving licence?”
Martha nodded eagerly. “Oh yes, officer, I love driving.”
“Then might I suggest, in the interests of both of your safety, you swap seats with your husband for the rest of the journey home?”
“Oh certainly, officer, I quite understand. No trouble at all.” She reached down to slip on her shoes. Her feet had been killing her after all that dancing. She was out of the car and round at the driver’s side before the policeman had even got back into his patrol car.
Meekly, Stephen opened his door and swung his legs round to get out. As Martha lowered herself into the driving seat, he held the door open for her, shielding her chivalrously from the passing traffic, which was sending up chilly spray as each car passed by. Once she was settled, he swung the door shut and marched round to take his place in the passenger seat. In silence, they fastened their safety belts slowly, playing for time, hoping the police are would pull out before Martha started the engine. It stayed put. Clearly the policeman was waiting to see them depart first.
“You sure about this, love?” asked Stephen gently, reaching his right arm round his wife’s shoulders.
Gritting her teeth, Martha slowly, deliberately put the car into gear, indicated, and pulled out as carefully as if on one of her driving tests.
“Well, what else could I do, darling?”she said once she’d moved up into third gear.
Stephen nodded and allowed her to drive the rest of the way home in silence, without his usual commentary on the best way to drive. After all, he didn’t want to distract her. She’d need all her wits about her to drive them home in one piece after all she’d drunk tonight to fuel her hijinks on the dancefloor. Six glasses of wine was it, or seven, that he’d noticed her drink? Not to mention any drinks bloody Barlow had slipped her when he wasn’t looking.
Next time, it would be a damned sight easier just to dance with her himself.