Authors: Joan Smith
The heat was so intense that Loretta felt it on her skin like an invisible presence, folding her unwilling body in its damp embrace. She had been in the taxi for only a few minutes but a patina of sweat was already forming on her bare arms, while a remorseless wave of heat seemed to be directing itself on to the back of her neck. The taxi was old and cramped, with black plastic seats; Loretta felt as though she were trapped in a small room with a fan heater going full blast, yet without any possibility of turning it off. She had paid no attention when her Californian friends had warned her that July was the worst time of year to visit New York, knowing that if she did not stop off there on her way home from San Francisco she was unlikely to get another chance for months, if not years. Brushing their objections aside, she had booked an air ticket whose only condition was that she had to spend a Saturday night in New York before continuing her journey to Heathrow, and deliberately avoided the weather section in the
San Francisco Chronicle.
She found out what she had let herself in for a few minutes before her plane came in to land, when the pilot welcomed his passengers to New York and reeled off some alarming statistics; it was 92 degrees in the city, he announced cheerfully, with 75 per cent humidity.
âI hope you guys like it hot,' he finished as the âfasten seat-belts' sign came on and the cabin staff patrolled the aisles checking that hand luggage was stowed away and seatbacks were in the upright position. Loretta didn't know much about humidity but she guessed that 100 per cent was rain, and that 75 per cent was much higher than she had become accustomed to in breezy San Francisco.
She took out the money to pay the bridge toll and lay back in her seat with the folded dollar bills in her hand. Her eyelids fluttered and closed, swollen from lack of sleep and the recycled cabin air which had dehydrated her skin and irritated her sinuses. Within a couple of minutes she was in a fitful doze, half aware of where she was but also experiencing hallucinatory snatches of conversation from the previous evening when she had attended a farewell party in San Francisco thrown by her colleagues at Berkeley. She was still in this waking dream when an overtaking car gunned its engine and her left foot shot out, frantically seeking the brake. For a few panicky seconds she trod air and it was relief when her shin collided with the hollow plastic bench seat in front, jerking her back to reality. Her heart beating wildly, Loretta took a deep breath and sat up straight, forcing herself to stay awake for the remainder of the journey. She had slept a little on the plane, not as much as she would have liked because the man next to her got up to go to the loo or summoned a member of the cabin staff with some trivial request every time she settled down. Halfway through the flight she had considered offering to change places with him, giving up her aisle seat in return for an hour or so's uninterrupted rest, but then a baby began to grizzle in the row behind, its thin but persistent wail putting sleep out of the question.
The taxi slowed as the traffic got heavier, giving Loretta time to read a poster suspended from a bridge: âWe haven't suffered enough!' it announced enigmatically, âRe-elect Cuomo.' The taxi swerved into a faster lane and her bag slipped off the seat, disgorging its contents on to the floor. Loretta leaned forward with a âtut' of annoyance and saw that her purse had come open, sending nickels, pennies and dimes in all directions. It took her a while to retrieve them all and when she sat up the car had left the expressway and was bowling along a high-sided suspension bridge. With an inkling of what she was about to see, Loretta turned her head and got her first, heart-stopping view of Manhattan.
The familiar skyline floated in a light mist, defying her
knowledge that she was looking at solidly-made constructions of steel, glass and concrete. Loretta's tiredness evaporated as she stared in wonder and delight, trying to make out landmarks like the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. One skyscraper blended into another, creating a jagged line which appeared resolutely two-dimensional â like the studio backdrop of Oxford used in TV current affairs programmes, she thought inconsequentially. The image was so over-used in films and on postcards that she could hardly believe it retained its power, yet what she felt, winding down the window and craning her head to get a better view, was an almost sexual charge of excitement. She marvelled at how compact and shining the island was even as she experienced the illusion that it was rushing towards her, individual buildings becoming solid and visible through the heat haze. She guessed she was on the Triborough Bridge, whose right-angle course into the city she had followed on a map of New York a few minutes before coming in to land. The only one she had previously heard of was the Brooklyn Bridge, familiar because she had recently seen a revival of
A View From The Bridge
in San Francisco, but she now knew that LaGuardia airport was in Queens and linked to Manhattan by the Triborough. She reached in her bag for the map, wanting to get some idea of how long it would take to get from here to Toni's apartment, and recalled as she did so that the taxi driver had merely grunted when she gave him the address at the airport. She felt a momentary flare of anxiety, a familiar but unwelcome reaction to the fact that she was travelling alone in a foreign country, even an English-speaking one, and dismissed it with the common-sense observation that there couldn't be a single cab driver in New York who hadn't heard of Riverside Drive.
She had an uneasy sensation that she was being watched and her eyes flicked up to the rear-view mirror just in time to catch a fractional movement of the driver's head as he returned his gaze to the road. She frowned, recalling the other warnings she had been given by her Californian friends when she had announced her intention of stopping over in New York. They had talked
endlessly about the soaring crime rate, about teenagers who carried guns to school and shoot-outs between crack dealers, until a weekend trip to Manhattan began to sound about as safe as a guided tour of the headquarters of a Colombian drug cartel. One woman, a history lecturer at Berkeley, had graphically described an encounter with a psychopathic cab driver who sped off in entirely the wrong direction when she asked him to take her to a conference at NYU; the cab screeched to a halt, she said, only when she flung open the passenger door in heavy traffic at considerable risk to life and limb.
Loretta told herself she was being silly, that the driver was probably just checking that she was all right; she knew she was paler than usual, having caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror in the airport loo, her features flattened by tiredness and her pallor accentuated by the washroom's harsh strip lighting. She wished she hadn't stayed so late at her farewell party the night before, leaving herself very little time to finish packing, but she had hung on in the vain hope that Sean would arrive. Their affair had lasted only a few weeks and it had been comfortable rather than intense, an agreeable summer diversion, but she was dismayed when he told her he had to work late on Wednesday night, and if he got to the party at all it would only be towards the end. Loretta was as cross with herself as she was with Sean when she finally accepted that he wasn't going to appear and took a taxi home to Cow Hollow. Her bedroom looked like the aftermath of a burglary, clothes strewn in piles and every pair of shoes she owned sitting on the floor waiting to be stuffed with tissue paper; she had had to make a hasty, late-night decision about what to take with her and what to leave for her landlord, Alberto, to airfreight to England after her departure. The problem was that she had no idea how long the box of books and her trunk would take to arrive, and she needed several of the books for an article which had to be finished within two weeks of arriving in Oxford.
Trays of food had circulated at the party but all Loretta had managed to grab was a couple of chewy white parcels which tasted faintly of prawn and some
smeared with roast
garlic. The garlic had left a peculiar taste in her mouth and she also had an uncomfortable furry sensation on her tongue caused by drinking too much wine on an empty stomach. She was no longer used to over-indulgence, having become accustomed after three months in San Francisco to raised eyebrows every time she poured her second or third glass of alcohol, and she still remembered the expression on Alberto's face when she had arrived home from her first trip to Safeway's with a case of red wine. It had crossed his mind, he admitted when he got to know her better, that the charming English academic with perfect references to whom he had rented his spare bedroom was secretly a lush.
Loretta moistened her lips, longing for a cool drink or, even better, a cup of tea. She became uncomfortably aware that the driver was watching her again, his eyes in the rear-view mirror as cold as stones, and she had to suppress a childish urge to stick her tongue out at him. Instead she turned sideways, resting her arm along the back of the seat, and stared out of the rear window, simulating close interest in the long expanse of bridge stretching behind the cab. Her ears picked up an odd noise, like the beginning of some large industrial process, and a moment later she realised it seemed to be emanating from two sinister figures on bikes who were rapidly gaining on her cab. The noise rose to a roar, puzzling Loretta until she realised that the heat haze around the riders concealed the fact that there weren't two bikes but a dozen, riding in two-by-two formation and taking up as much of the road as the stretch limos she had seen waiting in line at the airport. The big machines gleamed with chrome, their riders' arms spreadeagled to grasp handlebars bristling with wing mirrors, and Loretta observed their progress with involuntary fascination, intrigued by a display of masculinity which was at once menacing and comically absurd. Suddenly the lead riders broke formation, fanning out to surround her cab like a cloud of buzzing, malignant flies until the noise level was unbearable; as Loretta lunged to wind up the open window, which was admitting acrid fumes as well as the ear-splitting roar, she
remembered reading somewhere that the Hell's Angels habitually ripped the exhaust cylinders off their Harley-Davidsons precisely to achieve this intimidating effect.
âUh,' she gasped, falling back against the seat. The bikers stared unnervingly ahead, close enough to touch and pacing their engines to the speed of the taxi without acknowledging its existence. Loretta thought of the rock stars who used to arrive at open-air festivals with a similarly alarming escort, the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin, and her mind leapt effortlessly to Altamont, and the murder of a member of the audience by a gang of Angels. Her earlier anxiety returned, focused outside the cab this time rather than inside it, and her hand grew clammy on the forgotten dollar bills.
âWhat?' she demanded, leaning forward as the cab driver muttered something unintelligible. âWhat did you say?'
Instead of replying he put his foot down on the accelerator, a hopeless gesture as the old car had nothing like the speed of the big bikes. Loretta clutched her bag to her, thinking of her credit cards, her air ticket, her passport â not that they could do much with that â and the sizeable sum in dollars she had withdrawn two days ago from her bank in San Francisco to see her through the weekend. Apart from anything else, getting it all replaced by Sunday evening, in time for her flight home, would be a nightmare. She turned and glared at the man immediately to her left, her fear overlaid by a healthy burst of anger, and at once her expression changed. Uncertainty flickered across her face, followed by astonishment and then outright amusement: the biker was
, grey-bearded even, more ZZ Topp than
Wispy hair straggled under the rim of his helmet, curling over the collar of his ancient leather jacket, and Loretta almost laughed out loud at this proof that even the Hell's Angels were subject to the laws of time. His companions were of a similar vintage, she now saw, and their uniformly senescent appearance made her wonder what had happened to their children â whether they were busily rebelling against their parents by getting Harvard MBAs and working on Wall Street. As if they had
picked up her silent ridicule, the front bikes abruptly accelerated, signalling a rapid advance and leaving the yellow taxi to rattle on its way unmolested for the remainder of the journey into Manhattan.