Mark’s taxi finally came off the stop-start city roads and because he finally could, he made the car go faster as it came out onto the A-road. The A-road was empty. Mark knew it well. He pushed the car up from thirty miles an hour to sixty as fast as he could and then even further. He knew that everyone drove at sixty down the A-road even though it was seventy and Mark put his foot down even lower and the car went even faster. He brought it up to seventy exactly and there he let the dial on his speedometer rest on the seven and the zero comfortably. Though it was a long fare that he was on and Mark wanted it to be his last and he wanted it done quickly, and even though he knew that most of the cameras down the road didn’t work, he kept to the speed limit as he knew it to be.
The A-road was a long one. It started out on the outskirts of Birmingham and then burrowed out into the countryside and ran between a long stretch of tall pine trees that sometimes had pines and sometimes didn’t. That night they didn’t and the bare pine trees running alongside the A-road bordered many more bare pine trees that were buried behind them. There were so many bare pine trees that if one wanted to, they might as well have described the collection of them as a forest, but nobody ever did. Countless tires had turned the fallen pines littering the road into mulch, leaving dull brown smears on the surface of the road. The brown smears of mulch were slippery for tires and Mark took great care, with delicate and elaborate turns of his wheel, to never drive directly through one. High above the car, the moon poked out from behind some black clouds for the first time of the night and Mark and his passenger noticed without noting their noticing to each other. They noticed silently that the moon lit the road up a little more than it had been lit up and that it was easier to see; there were no streetlights on the A-road, and it had been very dark without the moon there. The moon that poked out was full and its round face looked pockmarked by its dark craters, and the light drifting from its face made the road look silvery. A sign said that the A-road stretched for fifteen miles further before reaching a little town called Coleshill. That was where Mark was dropping the passenger.
The passenger was thin and tall and in the small passenger seat of the taxi his body looked almost crumpled up; like a ball of paper that had been squashed and then unfolded. He wore round, frameless glasses that seemed too big for his thin face and his nose was sharp and his mouth was thin and wet. His wet mouth bubbled as he breathed.
“You’re driving fast,” the passenger bubbled as he glanced at the speedometer.
“Just the limit,” Mark replied.
“Seventy is the limit? On this road?”
“Isn’t it sixty?”
“No. It’s seventy.”
“I always thought it was sixty.”
“People think it’s classed as a country road because of the trees. If it was a country road, then it would be sixty.”
“It looks like the country,” the passenger looked out his window.
“It’s an A-road. That’s what that sign with the A on it means.”
“Oh…still though…seventy! That doesn’t seem right.”
“There are a lot of accidents on these kinds of roads,” Mark replied.
“Have you ever had an accident?” The passenger asked.
Feeling like he should lie, Mark shook his head.
“Not even on these kinds of roads?”
The passenger nodded slowly.
“What’s the fastest you’ve ever driven?” He asked suddenly.
Mark scratched his chin.
“Well, I drove on the autobahns before.”
“It’s that road in Germany with no speed limit.”
The passenger gasped, his mouth opening wide enough for his teeth to catch the light of the moon.
“No speed limit? That isn’t a place is it?”
“Yeah. I think I drove about a hundred and ten down that. It’s hard to tell though because it’s in kilometres.”
“A hundred and ten! Good God. Weren’t you scared?”
“Maybe a little at first. You get used to it. Eventually, it’s just like driving at this speed. Easier in fact. The car feels weightless.”
Picking up a leather satchel from the floor of the car, the passenger pulled a small blue notebook out. Taking a silver pen out of a pocket in his lapel, the passenger opened the notebook.
“Are there any roads in England like that?” The passenger asked, making frantic and erratic movements with his pen.
“Not that I know of,” Mark said.
“This is all very interesting to me,” the passenger nodded heavily while writing.
Mark, seeing a roadworks sign with the number sixty surrounded by a red circle, slowed back down to sixty.
“Very interesting. Very Interesting to me. I’m currently writing a dissertation on this very subject.”
“The subject of speed in cars.”
Mark didn’t reply.
The passenger carried on.
“I call the study, ‘The Icarus Effect.’ It relates simply to the psychological effect of people having cars that can be driven at incredibly high speeds but being restricted on how fast they can actually drive them.”
“Why do you call it, ‘The Icarus Effect?’” Mark asked.
“I’m glad you asked that. I call it ‘The Icarus Effect’ because by giving you the power to drive faster than you’re allowed to, the car manufacturers and government are essentially giving you wings and telling you not to fly. You’re all being coerced! They’re coercing you into breaking the rules by, metaphorically, flying. But, of course, since you’re not allowed to, metaphorically, fly, and you do so anyway, you, once again metaphorically, fly too close to the sun and are punished. Punished by…” the passenger pointed dramatically at Mark like a quiz show host but didn’t wait for an answer. “Being given speeding tickets! Right! And this punishment involves, of course, paying the people who set the laws.”
The passenger, breathless from his speech, wiped his bubbling wet mouth on his sleeve before asking.
“Tell me, have they ever punished you for using the wings given to you? Have you ever had a speeding ticket?”
Mark laughed, leaned across the passenger’s body, and tapped his closed glove box.
“Have a peek in there,” Mark said.
The passenger, laughing as well to keep Mark company, opened the glove box. Inside were three letters dated from the previous year. All three letters were speeding tickets.
As the passenger looked through the tickets, Mark, seeing the road works had finished, gently pushed the throttle down again and brought the car back up to seventy.
“They let you still be a taxi driver with all those points on your license?” The passenger asked, resting his notebook on top of the speeding tickets and keeping his pen ready to make his frantic notes.
“Sure. I took the driving course for the first one, so I didn’t get any points for that and the second one my brother claimed he was driving for me. I’ve only got the three points from the last one and you can get six points before they take your license away.”
“What if you get any more?”
“I heard there are people you can pay to take the points for you if the photo of who’s driving isn’t clear,” Mark shrugged.
“But they could stop you driving for a living?”
The passenger was writing furiously. Mark drove carefully. The road was getting thinner and the turns tighter. He had to slow down a little on the really tight ones. The mulch on the road made the car’s tires skid softly if he was going too fast.
The passenger read the latest speeding ticket and gave a low whistle.
“Doing eighty-two on a sixty. Why were you going so fast?”
“It was late, the roads were empty, I wanted to get home and all the cameras on that road were supposed to be broke.”
“You did it because you thought you’d get away with it?”
“Isn’t that why we do anything.”
There was a low bang as the passenger slapped the glove box shut in excitement.
“Exactly! Exactly! Exactly! That’s what I’m talking about! That’s coercion! An everyman breaking the speed limit because he thinks he’ll get away with it. And you think you’ll get away with breaking it because? Yes! Right! Because you’ve been given the ability to break it!”
The passenger shut up his notebook and smiled triumphantly.
“I’m glad I got to speak to you tonight,” he said. “You’ve given me a lot of useful information.”
“I’m glad I could help,” Mark said.
“Yes, it’s very useful speaking to drivers. See, I’m not a driver. I never learned. So, it’s hard for me to understand without your knowledge.”
“Why did you choose to write your dissertation on driving speeds then?”
A sign told him to slow down for a very sharp bend at the same time he spoke. He saw the sign late and he had to brake hard. He had to brake so hard that both the driver and passengers’ heads snapped forward before jolting to the left as Mark went around the corner at twenty miles an hour. It was a dangerous corner because there was a metal barrier on the turn separating the trees from the road and it cut off several meters of treeless dirt that could have been used for more mobility. They swerved slightly into the wrong lane as they turned, and the passenger gave a squeal of fear. The light of the moon for a moment resembled one huge blinding headlight peeling towards them before Mark got back into his own lane.
“Sorry,” Mark said when they were safely around the corner.
Mark gently eased the car back up to speed.
The passenger, clinging to his door handle, carried on speaking as if nothing had happened.
“I never learned because my mother was killed by a driver going one hundred and twenty on the motorway. He went into the back of her when she braked for a lorry. I never blamed the driver who survived actually. I was old enough to not blame him. I even sympathised. His punishment of taking someone’s life was even more extreme than a simple fine or points or the removal of his license. I blamed the people who’d set the motorway speed limit at seventy for cars and sixty for lorries. If that lorry hadn’t had to slow down and if my mother hadn’t felt that she should slow down for him than that man who felt that he should exploit the speed he’d been given and paid a lot of money for, wouldn’t have been going so fast.”
There a brief silence as the trees blurred around their heads. Mark was driving at sixty even though the road was straight and it was still seventy. His heart was beating fast with nervous little beats from the sharp turn. His hands, sweaty on the steering wheel, felt sticky from the oil coating the leather.
“I never speed on the motorway,” Mark finally said to break the silence.
The passenger flung his notebook back open.
“Now that is interesting,” he said.
“Not really. It’s only because you can see the speed cameras. You know, they’re so big and yellow. It’s hard to miss them and you see them flashing all the time, getting people. I don’t trust the motorway cameras.”
“Now that’s really interesting,” the passenger murmured while writing.
There was silence again between the men. The passenger carried on writing in his book. Mark noticed sweat clinging to the passenger’s brow when he glanced at him. An owl sitting in a tree close to the road took off before the car could pass, but neither the passenger nor Mark noticed. Mark gradually brought the speed up to normal as his heart slowed down and his hands dried. He checked the time and thought about how tired he was.
“Do you ever speed when you’re working?” The passenger asked suddenly.
“What do you mean?” Mark asked.
“If you have passengers I mean?”
“No. I could get reported.”
“What if the passenger asked you to?”
“Well…it depends on the person they are. If someone’s in a rush and I think they’re on the level, then sure. No one’s asked me yet though,” Mark said.
“Never! That seems odd.”
“Why does it seem odd?”
“It just does. I’d ask for someone to speed if I was in a rush.”
“I guess I would too,” Mark said, scratching his cheek not sure what else to say.
“Would someone have to pay extra for you to do it?”
“Someone pay me to speed? Not likely, mate.”
“So, they wouldn’t have to?”
“I wouldn’t turn it down if they offered.”
The passenger rubbed his chin. He closed his notebook and put it along with his pen back into his leather satchel by his feet. Stretching his arms out, he rubbed his knees. He looked as nervous as his voice sounded.
“Can I ask you something?” The passenger said.
“You’ve already asked me a lot,” Mark smiled at him. “But go on then.”
The passenger didn’t smile back.
“Have you sped tonight? With me in the car?”
Mark shook his head furiously.
“Of course not. Never. I told you I don’t when I’m working.”
The passenger blinked hard and swallowed as if he’d been building up to what he actually wanted to ask.
“Will you?” He sounded almost desperate.
“You want me to?”
“Just for research,” the passenger threw in quickly. “If I can understand the feeling myself, then it will give me a better contextual analysis.”
“Contextual what?” Mark looked at the passing road signs and saw thankfully there were only two miles left before the end of the road.
“It will just give me more understanding. You understand that right?”
“Surely you’ve been in a car going over the speed limit before.”
“Probably. But not with me knowing about it. By knowing about it, by asking for you to do, it makes me an accomplice of sorts. As if I was speeding myself. Right now I know that people speed and why, but I don’t know how it feels to speed.”
“I don’t know about this,” Mark said and shifted in his seat. Mark didn’t like the hungry look in the passenger’s eyes or the way his tongue was flicking out against his horribly wet lips.
“Look, you don’t have to go that fast. Just ten or fifteen miles over the limit,” clearly thinking he was wearing Mark down, the passenger was getting excited, giggling like a maniac and bouncing in his seat. “Go on. Go on. Go on, go on. I bet the cameras down here don’t even work.”
“It’s not a joke you know,” Mark snapped. “I know I’ve had a few tickets, but I’ll lose my job if I got caught whilst working. The cameras might not work, but a police car could go down here at any point.”
Mark gestured to the empty road, feeling very aware that there wasn’t another headlight in sight. The passenger stopped bouncing and twisted his face into an expression of sincerity. He placed a veiny hand on his chest.
“I understand that. I do. But this is in the name of research. Of science. Research that could help people. Maybe laws will be changed because of this research. Maybe every road could be the autobahns. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“I just don’t want any trouble.”
The passenger threw up his hands.
“Look I’ll even pay you. Double whatever the fare is at the end? Triple?”
Mark glanced at the meter and did a quick calculation. He looked at the passenger’s clothes to make sure he looked like he could afford it; the corduroy blazer told him he could.
“Triple the fare?” Mark asked.
“Triple,” the passenger swore and even made a little cross over his heart with a delicate pinkie finger.
Cursing himself and the passenger, Mark looked in the rear-view mirror at the silvery road he was leaving in his wake. It was a cold night and the smoke from his exhaust was visible as it steamed out into the air. He couldn’t see any cars behind or in front of him. In the very distance, Mark could see the orange flicker of the streetlamp that marked the end of the A-road.
“Alright, I’ll go up to eighty until the end of the road alright?”
“You couldn’t do ninety? I mean, I am paying for this.”
“Ninety! Fine, ninety. Jesus.”
The passenger gripped his thighs tightly before Mark even sped up. The passenger’s knuckles were white he gripped them so tight. His leather satchel knocked against his legs until he held it still with his feet. Mark pushed his throttle further down and the car picked up speed. The engine stopped growling and whined instead. There was a high-pitched whistle as wind squeezed itself through cracks in the windows. The car sped up quickly. It quickly got to ninety miles an hour.
For Mark, there wasn’t much difference in the speed. If he hadn’t been looking at his speedometer, he wouldn’t have even really noticed. It was only when he glanced at the passing trees and saw how their shapes had become so blurred that he noticed a difference. The orange glow of the streetlamp was approaching faster, but it still lay several miles away. The moon was slowly drifting back behind some clouds and the road was getting darker and Mark had to be careful. Mark noticed that he felt nervous and he was surprised. He was fine driving fast usually. He supposed it was the passenger who was making him nervous. Mark had expected him to be making notes again, but instead, he was dribbling and he kept giving off loud low groans. Mark saw that his thin wet lips were curled upwards and his bottom lip was caught between his teeth. The passenger’s eyes were closed, and his head was angled towards the roof of the car. His head shook from the vibrations of the car and made him look blurred.
“Are you okay?” Mark asked. “Do you feel ill or something? I can slow down. Do you want me to slow down?”
“Noooooooooo!” The passenger gasped around his bitten lip. “Don’t slow down. Please don’t slow down.”
The passenger’s voice was choked as if it was struggling to get around his tongue. He didn’t open his eyes when he spoke. Mark slowed down slightly, thinking of the mess there would be if the passenger threw up. He didn’t want to clean again. He’d cleaned it only a few days before.
“I cleaned the car a few days ago. I don’t want to have to clean tonight. If you feel sick, just tell me.”
“If you slow down before the end of the road then I’m not paying you triple,” the passenger snapped at him.
Mark sped back up to ninety.
There was a small hill on the road that Mark had to put his foot down even further to get up while maintaining the same speed. When they got to the top and began the small descent downwards, they got a little faster than ninety and Mark noticed that the passenger’s groans getting louder. His breath was fogging up the passenger side window. The passenger had pulled his blazer around his lap, but Mark saw suddenly that his hand was moving frantically under the material.
“What the hell are you doing!” Mark shouted.
The passenger’s eyes snapped open at Mark’s shout and as he looked desperately out the windscreen at the rushing pavement, his only response was a final groan of release that sent him slumping back in his seat. He twitched a few times and smiled happily to himself. The blazer fell back away from his lap, but there was nothing to see apart from a small stain next to his open fly.
Mark’s mouth fell open and he scuttled against his door as if that would help him get away. Braking hard, the car skidded before coming to a stop. They weren’t at the end of the A-road, but the streetlight signalling its end lay a hundred meters away from them. Its orange light bathed their faces in the car. It showed the beads of sweat clinging to the passenger’s head and the beads of sweat clinging to Mark’s neck. They sweated together and they breathed heavily together.
Mark pressed the button to unlock the car doors.
“Get the fuck out!” He shouted.
The passenger looked at him lazily and without rush. His eyes were bright and peaceful, and his hand was already on the handle of the door when Mark yelled.
“I really am writing a dissertation, you know,” the passenger said. “I really am. The Icarus Effect is a real thing. It’s the reason cars go fast.”
He was almost laughing as he opened the car door but didn’t climb out.
Mark opened his own door, got out and walked to the other side of the car. The passenger had already scrambled out of the seat and ran a few metres down the road by the time Mark got there.
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!” Mark shouted at him. “YOU’RE DISGUSTING.”
“Don’t you want your triple fare?” The passenger laughed so hard that he had to hold his stomach.
Mark ran towards him, and the passenger practically skipped away from him. He skipped and ran towards the flickering orange streetlight at the end of the A-road.
Getting back in the car, Mark saw that the passenger’s leather satchel was still on the floor and he picked it up. It was a good satchel. The leather was thick. The satchel was empty apart from the notebook. Mark opened the notebook and read the messy scribbles the passenger’s pen had made on its thin pages. It was the same sentence over and over again, from the start of the book to the last used page. ‘Shut up and drive fast, shut up and drive fast, shut up and drive fast.’ Occasionally a sentence would be crossed out and over the top of it in capital letters, there would be scrawled, ‘I WANT TO FEEL GOOD.’
Mark shook his head, tossed the notebook out onto the A-road and drove. He kept the leather satchel.
William Hayward was born in Birmingham, England in 1999 and is currently studying at university. He has been writing for seven years when his passion for short fiction was ignited by the writer Leonard Michaels.