The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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2nd Prize

Kathryn Clark with:

The Delivery Man

Dunno why tonight’s different. Done this a thousand times, drivin’ through the dark, but there’s somethin’ about this one. She’s on her own, an’ that ain’t normal. There’s usually a whole load squashed in the back. No space for ‘em to be separate, like, only legs an’ hair, an’ that unwashed smell. This one’s right up close to the bars behind me, starin’ through the gaps. I can see her in the rear view mirror, eyes shinin’ like black plastic in the headlights of cars goin’ the other way.

I’m tryin’ to keep awake; get on with the job. It’s an extra. I weren’t s’posed to be workin’ today. Could’ve done with bein’ home, what with everythin’ goin’ on, but you don’t say no to Bento. Somethin’ about him. He’s always smart; wears a suit, no tie; dark shirt, chunky watch. He’s calm, you know. It’s his voice what does it. There’s grit in that voice, and his face, skin pitted, like tired tarmac. You don’t say no to Bento.

He’s bin good to me. Keep your mouth shut, head down, you’ll be alright, but he ain’t afraid to make an example. Like Crusher. Always did have a big mouth when he’d hadda drink. Didn’t know that much; just wanted to be bigger than he was. Crusher don’t talk no more. I try not to think about that. It were a long time ago.

He does stuff proper, Bento. Do right by him and he sees you right. Nice new van waitin’ for me when I got out. This job. There’s a load of us. Blokes like me, all over the country. Gotta keep your licence and your vehicle clean. Check it over daily. Don’t wanna get pulled over for some stupid thing, light out or whatever. An’ you gotta be ready to drive any time of the day or night, so no drinkin’, but the pay’s good, and who else was gonna give me a job?

There’s rules, you know. Don’t carry the girls too many miles in the one van. Vary the routes. No speedin’. Phones – you get a new one every month. We meet in quiet places; swap the girls out in the country, late at night. Viktor’s in charge of it. Runs like clockwork.

Sometimes you get ‘em fresh off the ferry. They’re excited, like they’re off on their holiday. Sometimes you get ‘em at the end. That last bit. Then they’re quiet an’ tired, dirty, startin’ to realise somethin’ ain’t right. They don’t know where they are and they can’t ask. No English, most of ‘em. Sometimes, the odd bruise. That’s off the other drivers. I never touch ‘em, meself. S’pose I got me own rules. Don’t touch, don’t speak. Don’t look ‘em in the eye. They’re mostly starin’ at the ground anyway.

If it’s the last leg of the journey, you take ‘em to these houses. Hand ‘em over to women waitin’, always dressed nice, but faces hard, like concrete. They seen some things, those old birds. Used to wonder how they could do what they do, gettin’ these girls ready, like, for the shit kinda life they had themselves, but it’s all they’ve ever known and they got nowhere else to go.

Starts out you do a favour, a little job for Bento. Deliver a package; pick one up. Don’t ask no questions. If it goes alright, he gives you cash. You do another little job, then it gets bigger. Maybe back up his guys when they need a hand collectin’, or wait in a car with the engine runnin’ while somethin’s goin’ down. Maybe it don’t work out an’ you end up inside. He keeps an eye on things at home, gives you more: a new van, like me, or a place to live if you’re one of these old birds whose luck’s run out, whose looks have run out.

You get used to the money. You think it’s alright, I ain’t hurtin’ anyone. Drivin’ and deliverin’. Then one night, it’s time to prove whose man you are. He gives you a job like you never done before. A job what leaves your hands coated thick with somethin’ that looks like motor oil in the moonless night, but it ain’t. A job what shuts a mouth for good. I try not to think about that. It were a long time ago.

I check the rear view again. Her face is pressin’ against the bars. Outta nowhere, I’m thinkin’, I could let her go. How hard would it be to pull in an’ set her free? Could say I’d stopped for a slash and she run off. But where’d she go? She’s got nothin’. What if she did get away an’ manage to find someone what understood her? She’d tell ‘em about me. I can’t afford no trouble. Not now. Too many mouths to feed. No, I can’t let her go.

Maybe I could get out the business meself. Why not? I’ve more than paid off the van. Bento takes it out your earnin’s, first few years. There’s loads a stuff I could deliver. Other people I could work for; meself, maybe.

It ain’t really a choice, I know. I’m in too deep, lost in a dark pit of tar. Can’t get out. Even if I did, there’d still be bits stuck to me. You know what tar’s like. You never get rid of it.

Can’t stop yawnin’. Catch her in the rear view, but she ain’t seein’ me, ain’t seein’ nothin’. She’s off in her head, somewhere, but wherever it is, it don’t look good.

Where I’m takin’ her, I ain’t bin before. There’s an intercom on the gates. Press the buzzer. Wait for the voice. It’s Bento, gritty.

“Come on in, Mickey.”

Never bin here, but I know not to pull up at the front. I go round the side. There’s a garage. The door’s slidin’ up an’ Bento comes out. Black shirt an’ trousers, bottle in his hand. The security light shows the pits in his skin, the shine on his smoothed back hair.

“Alright?” he says.

I open the van. She’s waitin’ right by the door, not hidin’ in the back. She steps down by herself, stands up full height; taller than me, taller than Bento.

“This one’s for me,” he says.

First time I ever seen him smile.

“Picked her out from the photos. Viktor takes a gander. If there’s anything he thinks I might like he sends ‘em through,” he says. “What d’yer think?”

She’s pale in the white light, with long legs, blotchy. A tiny skirt made of stretchy stuff. Only there’s nothin’ to stretch over. Needs some meat on those bones. Blonde hair growin’ out dirty. Guess she could scrub up alright. Wouldn’t want them eyes on me, though.

She stands facin’ Bento. It worries me she don’t seem scared of him. She don’t give a shit no more. I don’t wanna think about what she’s bin through to end up that way.

Bento’s laughin’, like stones rattlin’ down a well.

“Got my work cut out for me with this one, eh, Mickey?”

I move my mouth like a smile, but it ain’t.

He shrugs.

“If she don’t behave, she can go back where she come from.”

She moves her head.

“Yeah. I thought yer understood,” Bento says to her. “An’ I don’t mean home. I mean I’ll send yer back where yer just come from. Wanna go back to that, do yer?”

There’s like a ripple what runs down her body. She shakes her head.

“Better behave, then, yeah?” he says.

I wanna be gone but Bento fancies a chat.

“How’s the missus? Alright?”

“Yeah,” I say, lookin’ at the ground.

“Got another nipper on the way, Viktor tells me.”

Bloody Viktor, always sniffin’ round. I don’t wanna tell Bento the baby’s here already, came early, so I just nod.

“Yer a good man,” he says, swiggin’ on his beer. “Thinking of moving yer up the ranks a bit. What d’yer think?”

He’s watchin’ me close, head tilted to the side. I nod quick, say thanks, but I feel me heart dropping’ like a pebble into me trainers.

“Yeah?” he says. “Good. Be in touch then.”

He hands me a load a notes rolled up.

“Here yer go. Thanks, Mickey.”

I wanna say it’s Mike, not Mickey. I wanna grab that girl’s hand and take her away from him, but I don’t know how.

Walkin’ back to the van, I hear him ask what her name is. Her voice is low, but I catch it anyway.

“Katya,” she says.

I wish I hadn’t heard. Don’t wanna put a name to her. Never known any of their names before.

Back in the van, close me eyes a moment. I could sleep here right now, but the gates whir open. I drive into the night. No street lights on these lanes, hedges high on either side. Johnny Cash is on the radio, voice like black treacle. I’m yawnin’ again. I was up the hospital all last night with Megs havin’ number four. Bit of a surprise gettin’ a girl this time. Thought we only made boys. I held her, right after she slid out, while they were stitchin’ Megs. My baby girl so tiny, wrapped in white; innocent an’ perfect.

When I got home with that hospital smell still stickin’ to me, I didn’t know how the boys were gonna take it, havin’ a sister. It was five in the mornin’ but they were awake, the two little uns jumpin’ around all excited and wantin’ to go an’ see her right then. I took ‘em straight back up there. No time for a kip.

Jordy’s me eldest. He’s nearly as old as I was when me and Megs made him. Then there’s a gap. I was inside, but Megs was a good girl. She waited for me. An’ Bento kept an eye.

Jordy was dead quiet when he saw the baby, holdin’ her, arms tense like he was heftin’ gold bars. Not that she’s heavy, but he was scared he’d drop her.

“You alright, mate?’ I said.

“Yeah…no. It’s weird.”

“What? Havin a sister?”

“Yeah. I got this funny feelin’,” he said, hittin’ his chest.

“Good or bad?”

“Both,” he said. “Thinkin’ about girls.”

I laughed. That’s what you do at his age, think about girls.

“Gotta look out for her,” he said, serious. “I ain’t lettin’ anyone near her. No-one’s gonna lay a finger on her.”

 

I’m speedin’ now. It won’t matter, this once, goin’ over the limit. Van’s empty. I got this urge to get home now, back to ‘em. To Megs an’ Jordy, the little uns and to my new baby girl. I feel it, too, what Jordy said. No-one’s ever gonna hurt her, I won’t let ‘em.

When I delivered Katya tonight my baby girl was less than a day old, an’ I already knew I’d do anythin’ to make her safe. I mean, what happened? Where’s Katya’s dad? Where’s her brothers? Where’s anyone what loves her? Cos, sure as shit, Bento ain’t the man you’d want for your daughter.

I bin up thirty odd hours straight. The world sorta warps when you get so tired. Things move in the darkness, but they ain’t really there. Me head’s all over the place, wanderin’ down murky alleyways where I don’t wanna go. Drivin’ and deliverin’, just a job? I bin kiddin’ meself, thinkin’ I ain’t hurtin’ no-one.

There was a minute tonight, I thought I could do it, get away, be me own man. But no, Bento’s got me trapped as much as Katya is; her, an all them other girls with no names and no-one what loves ‘em.

An’ it don’t even matter about Bento. If I did walk away from him somehow alive, I’d still know. It ain’t just a job. I deliver them girls straight to hell. The devil pays me wages, an’ that’s whose man I am.


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