FICTION: Round About Midnight by Lee Hamblin

Round about midnight The Duke arrived at the airport. He was running a few minutes late. To be fair, punctuality never was his strongest card, but poor timekeeping had yet to get him fired.

He’d been driving a limo for Ride In Style for over fifteen years, and sure there’d been altercations, but the mention of a multi-car pile-up or a make-believe roadblock would more often than not cover his tricksy ass, and if that ever looked like falling short, then good old-fashioned charm could be called upon, and that’s one thing The Duke had in spades.

The company kiosk was at the far end of the arrivals lounge, over in the backwater. It was a plasticized semi-portable coop, sandwiched between a home-baked cookie trader and a rival taxi firm. A woman was stood there with her back to him, alone with herself. She was tall and slender with her hands interlocked behind her back. She was easing them earthwards, stretching out her shoulders. He sure hoped she hadn’t been waiting long, because he knew this time of night she’d not find any help, the kiosk’s fluorescents having long since been switched off for the day. She’d get nothing from the surfer-dude manning the buck-a-pop cookie kiosk either. The kid was always wearing this Do Not Disturb frown, headphones clutching his ears like limpets, customers this end of the hall rare as snow in April.

As though sensing his presence, she released her arms and spun round. She was wearing a marigold-yellow raincoat waist-belted up tight, a no-frills vermillion headscarf tied in a bow beneath her chin, and jet black-rimmed sunglasses in the shape of bug-eyes. Even from this distance, he saw her cheeks were as pale as vanilla ice cream, her lips as red as the first kiss of sunrise. The Duke feathered his finger and thumb along his moustache and down the tapered silver goatee on his chin. He slowed his pace as he neared, cleared his throat, and dabbed his forehead with a fresh Kleenex pulled from his trouser pocket.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ he said, pointing at the lanyard round his neck bearing his credentials, ‘my wife was always telling me I’d be late for my own funeral.’ He tittered; though he thought a tad more than is cool for your own wisecracks. The woman looked at him nonplused, almost quizzical, as though wondering if she knew him from sometime before.

He asked her where to.

‘The Delfini,’ she said with assurance, as though she’d been there before. It was a mid-range hotel, a bit passed its heyday, over on the upper eastside.

He guessed by her courteous tone that she hadn’t been waiting for too long, or if she had, she hadn’t at all minded.

‘It’s a five-minute walk to the parking bay,’ he said, ‘let me take your bag for you, ma’am.’

She said that she was fine and that it wasn’t heavy, that she was only staying for the one night, leaving late tomorrow. She thought, for no apparent reason – or maybe it was something in the rhythm of his words – that he may be a musical man. He was surprised to hear that she was as American as apple pie.

‘You’re the boss, Mrs. Paparizou,’ he said, labouring his pronunciation just as he’d rehearsed on the way, ‘it’s this way to the car. At least it’s stopped with the raining.’ He added, as he skipped around a shallow pool of rainwater.

She declined the offer of the back seat, preferring to sit up front. She lost the coat and scarf before getting in, folding them neatly and setting them down on her lap. She kept the sunglasses on, adjusting them snug, and finger-combed out inky-black hair that shined like a moonlit ocean.

There were questions The Duke was itching to ask, there always is for someone for whom silence is not a friend, but for whatever reason, just a feeling, he would have said, he checked himself. He decided it more prudent to switch on the radio. A soul-searching soundtrack of late-night jazz carried them a few blocks, the silky soundscape punctuated by obnoxious street sounds that couldn’t give a damn. It was she that started conversing. She told him her name was Ruby, and she asked him his. He told her they call him The Duke, and she asked how he came by it. There were two versions he kept up his sleeve, the long and winding, and the short. Feeling he’d been given the green light, he pulled out the long one, figuring she was either in need of some distraction, or simply wanted the comfort of hearing a stranger’s story. Whatever the reason, the bright lights big city hustle, full throttle even at this late hour, didn’t seem to be doing much for her.

So he told her how he came to the city as soon as he’d saved up a few bucks, knew how to fix a Manhattan, how not to look back.

‘Working deliveries in a grocery store just weren’t cutting it for me,’ he said. ’But really I came here for the music,’ nudging up the volume on the radio as Charlie Parker blew a solo from that place saturated with suffering.

He told her that he’d straightened out his small-town way of talkin’, giving the line a big slice of country twang.

‘Folks then thought I sounded British, “like them old black and white movies from England rife with upper classes,” someone said, and for that reason they decided on calling me The Duke; confident no doubt, that I’d never be confused with a certain Mr. Ellington.’ She smiled at that. It was an honest smile, not one of those given out of politeness or confusion or fear.

He told her he learnt to play guitar, a Gibson L7, getting pretty good; not half as good as the greats, but well enough to have sat in with some real cool cats on occasion.

‘There was this one time,’ he went on, ‘back in seventy-one, or maybe it seventy-three, I can’t remember exactly, but it was the same year Billy Cobham dropped Spectrum…’

It never mattered to The Duke if his audience was one or twenty-one, he told a story the same way; the way that made you want to listen.

When they reached the hotel, Ruby hesitated on stepping out of the car. She thought she’d left this place behind long ago, tried to leave all the memories back there too, but they weren’t yet ready to be buried forever, that was plain as day to her now.

She turned to The Duke and asked if he wouldn’t mind driving around for a couple more hours, least until she was tired, maybe skirt around the park, or down by the river, maybe even get a nightcap. He stroked his beard, smiled, and said okay. He told her he was finished for the night anyhow, and she asked him if in his playing days if he’d ever come across a drummer by the name of Boots.

‘You know Boots?’ The Duke asked, ‘my, my, have I got some tales about me and Boots.’ The sudden lump forming in his throat cut him to the quick. ‘God rest his soul. I only heard the news yesterday.’

Ruby removed her sunglasses. The Duke saw loss in her eyes. She saw he saw it. And there was that smile again.

He switched off the meter, turned the radio down low, and pulled away from the curb. ‘Right now, where should I begin?’

Lee Hamblin

Lee Hamblin is originally from London, now living in Greece. He’s had stories published with F(r)iction, Flash Frontier, Spelk, Storgy, Reflex Fiction, Platform For Prose, Sick Lit, and elsewhere. Stories forthcoming in Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, Stories For Homes Volume 2, Ellipsis, and Fictive Dream. He occasionally tweets @kali_thea and puts words here: https://hamblin1.wordpress.com

If you enjoyed Round About Midnight, leave a comment and let Lee know.

You can read Lee’s previously published short story ‘Lipstick’ here

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