The taxi driver is standing outside his car, surveying the ordered garden and neat box hedge at the front of my house. He smiles broadly and opens the passenger door in the back for me before returning to the driver’s seat.
‘I have the same plants as you,’ he says, turning the key in the ignition.
On the dashboard, the name Thanh appears below a photo of a smiling man, a front tooth missing.
As the cab pulls away from the curb, I shove a bunch of reports and folders into my briefcase. The meetings today are important ones, for me and for the company. I worked with my assistants at the office until the early hours of the morning, preparing the documents for them. For once, I missed my alarm. I will need to do my make-up and hair at the airport.
‘Those plants get a lot of snails,’ he says.
I am not really paying attention. ‘You can get poison,’ I say dismissively. The taxi turns to drive along the sea front. I think about asking the taxi driver to drive faster. The airport is close to my house, but if we don’t get there soon, I could miss the flight and the first appointment. A bee flies in the open window and circles the back of the cab. I swipe at it with my hand.
‘No poison.’ He says this firmly.
I am ready to end this conversation. The bee is a distraction. And yet, an innate sense of politeness – forced on me in childhood by my mother, and which resurfaces at odd times – urges me to respond. ‘Maybe there’s something that will scare them away.’
He speeds up at the approach to the lights, catching the amber as it turns to red.
‘What I do,’ he says cheerfully, ‘is I take an ice-cream container and I collect them. I put them in it.’
‘Good idea.’ I pick up my briefcase this time and swoop again on the bee. The briefcase is heavy on my arm.
Thanh changes lanes, swiftly, knocking me off balance as I bat at the bee. ‘I tell them I will take them to a place where they will have much more room.’
‘Aha.’ I check my watch. ‘Clever.’ For a moment, I think of the snails banging against each other in the ice-cream container. Trapped. No longer able to wreak havoc on anyone’s garden.
‘I take them to the reserve.’
Really? I want to ask. Why? The bee is starting to annoy me immensely.
‘I open the container and I let them out.’
So now they can destroy someone else’s plants. The city council’s.
The bee dives back for another circuit.
‘I say, now you have plenty of room to run about.’ His voice is soft and melodious. The taxi list sharply as it takes the turn into the airport drop off and my shoulder knocks against the window.
My elbow feels a sharp nip. I flick at the bee as it drops towards the floor. I am sure it is taking time out, getting ready to take aim and attack again. Vicious in its revenge. Then I recall reading somewhere long ago that a bee dies after it stings. It might be already dead. But just in case, I lift my booted foot and stamp on it. For good measure.
When I look up, I see that the taxi has stopped outside the airport doors. Thanh is gazing limpidly at me in the rear vision mirror. I can see where the skin around his eyes is crinkled from smiling. Or maybe the sun. I avoid his gaze and hand him my credit card, wait while he swipes it through his machine. The machine does not work properly. He has to repeat the action. I want to get out of the taxi and run into the airport but I must wait for my card.
I glance down and see the still body of the bee on the floor. I move my foot and sweep it quickly under the seat in front.
‘I am a Buddhist.’ Thanh hands me back my credit card. ‘I can’t kill my brothers,’ he says as if we were still mid-conversation. His voice is as soft as before, but it seems to me when he hands me back my card, much as I try to avoid his gaze, there is something different about him. He is no longer smiling.
I say nothing.
A cold gust of wind from the south coast almost knocks me off my feet as I open the door of the taxi. As I slam it shut, I feel a chill right through my body. I walk towards the airport doors. Something makes me turn around. But Thanh and his taxi have already gone.
The masked man in the black leather cat suit has huge talons for fingers. He prances on the pavement, mutely inviting people to pose with him. Some distance away on the street a pile of notes rest in a yellow pan beneath a handful of silver coins. Thanks, it says on the side.
A group of teenagers giggle, pushing each other into position. The slightly-built fair-haired woman with them, dressed in khaki cargo pants, grey t-shirt and combat boots, focuses her camera.
A man lurches forward, smelling of sweat and cigarette smoke, overdressed for a warm day in dirty oilskin jacket and worn trainers. He pauses to peer into the pan. He stretches out to touch it.
The woman with the camera moves. Her left foot swings out, swiftly knocking the pan away from his reach. Coins bounce on the pavement.
The man wheels around in surprise. His face darkens. He confronts the performer: ‘Have you seen me give you money before?’
The performer nods. He makes a gesture: thank you.
‘Huh.’ The man screws up his face. Spittle lands on the ground not far from the woman’s feet. He gestures dismissively before walking off.
‘Sorry.’ The woman reaches for the scattered coins. ‘I thought he was going to steal your takings.’ She hands the pan to the performer. ‘I’m trained to act.’
The performer says nothing. He looks into the distance. The other man is still in sight, shambling towards the river.
‘Like you, I guess’, the woman says, placating now. ‘I’m a police officer,’ she adds, turning away and gesturing for the bevy of girls to follow her. The girls look back at the performer. They are no longer giggling.
Kate Mahony is from Wellington, New Zealand. Her work has previous been published in Best New Zealand Fiction, Takahe literary magazine and International Literary Quarterly, and will also be featured in a forthcoming anthology, Sweet As: Contemporary Stories by New Zealanders.