When I pull up outside the Dharma Express its shutters are down, but a flat-capped man in his sixties emerges from a white Skoda and encourages me to ‘step into his office’.
“I’m here about the driving job,” I say, worried there’s been a misunderstanding.
He nods vigorously, chewing on the stem of a Meerschaum pipe. “Risky work, feeding the hungry. If you’ve just come for beer money and free suppers, think again.”
“Risky? On the roads, you mean?”
“Among other places.” He proffers a liver-spotted hand. “Bernard Ingram.”
“Colin Finch,” I wince at the strength of his grip, “and I break the speed limit now and then. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Think more sound barrier here,” he scoffs. “Everyone gets peckish at once.”
Without warning he removes the cap and taps his thinning bonce. “Inoperable brain tumour, so they say. Mind if I smoke?”
I crack the window and a blue-grey pall drifts out. November drizzle licks my forehead as we watch white van men stuff beer into boiler suit pockets and kitten-heeled women lob Lambrusco into hatchbacks before skidding away. The adjacent Spar shop heaves like a shanty town disco.
I plump for the direct approach. “So when can I start?”
He gives a bass cackle. “Had any experience?”
“No. How hard can it be?”
“You’d be surprised,” he says, leaning forward. “Tell me, Colin. Did you ever think you’d find yourself here?”
There’s no taunt to his tone, just a polite calm I resolve to match. “The world’s moved on, I suppose.”
“What’s in your past life?” He sizes me up. “No, let me guess – engineering.”
“How’d you know?”
He splays out a grizzled palm. “Oil and swarf. It lives on in the swirls of our fingers and the roughness of handshakes.”
“Centre lathes,” I say, warming to him. “You?”
“CNC machines. Diamond tips and punch tape.”
“Back when we had industry.”
He nods companionably. “But this…” He lifts a sturdy arm to encompass the exterior world, “…is how time treats us.”
I examine my own ragged nails. “Indeed.”
He jabs the glowing briar at the Dharma’s facade. “We’re all service providers today,” he observes without malice. “The game is the same, only the colours have changed.”
“Aye, and the concept of retirement.”
“Fortunately that’s a problem I won’t be facing.”
The car rocks with his mirth. Bernard is a big man whom cancer hasn’t quite managed to downsize. He catches my pity and waves it off. “Look, I’ll give you some tips, craftsman to craftsman.”
“Get yourself a head torch.” He sucks prodigiously on the Meerschaum. “You’ll spend less time wandering about with your poppadoms going soggy for a start.”
“There’s a maglight in my glove box.”
He wags a begrimed finger. “Head torch. You’ll need two hands. Juggling cash and kebabs and whatnot.”
“Fair enough,” I say. “What about the other risks?”
“Minimal, so long as you carry an implement.”
“Nothing too obvious. Something like this.” He slides apart the Meerschaum’s ivory stem to reveal a small, glinting blade.
I grasp for the door handle, but he sheathes the pipe and offers it up for inspection. With the smoke now cleared and his cap pushed back, I notice for the first time, a horn-like nub protruding from the space between Bernard’s eyes.
“What do you use it for?” I ask, hefting the bowl from hand to hand, feeling its weight and warmth.
He takes the pipe and rekindles it. “Protection.”
“Never heard of carb rage? On the plus side, you’ll get plenty of tips. Being white and middle-aged, trust me.”
“I’m not sure I can. No offence.”
He plucks at my sleeve. His grip is light but insistent. “Trust them, then. The customers. Trust their class guilt.”
I avert my gaze from the scaly protuberance. “I don’t get you.”
“From stockbroker belt to council estate, liberal handwringers and bigots of every stripe will see their future in you.”
“Slave to the darkie, slinging curry for peanuts when you could be at home watching Family Fortunes like them. And that’s your way in. The empathy vote.”
“Look, I think there’s been a mistake.” My fingers reconnect with the door handle.
“It’s not just food you’re delivering, its wisdom too. This is a selling job.”
I scratch my head. “Like cold calling?”
“Hot calling. Tasty calling. You come bearing gifts, it’s all about the dharma.”
“But I’m not Indian. Neither are you.”
He makes a face. “Do we need to be?”
I pop the passenger door. “Yes, I think we do.”
He pulls down the cap again, massaging his forehead through the material. “Ever had an itch you couldn’t scratch. Maddening, isn’t it?”
The relief of cool air yields a sudden epiphany. “You’ve only been like this since you were ill.”
He twinkles darkly. “Less of an illness I think, more of a gift.”
His lack of guile is compelling somehow, and I find myself sliding back into the faux leather seat. “You have exactly one minute. First, why take a shiv to someone’s door?”
“Like I said, people get angry.” He pokes the windscreen. “Look at them, it’s Friday night. They just want to go home, get wasted and forget their shitty week.”
He plucks at his chin. “Hunger and anger go together. As a provider of sustenance, punctuality is king, or they have too much time to think. But it isn’t carbs they’re hungry for, it’s knowledge.”
I observe the spread of humanity outside, as practised and unaware as iron filings under a magnet. “Knowledge?”
“Of themselves. And in its absence, on a given night they might feel compelled to get physical over a tardy Massala instead.”
“I came to deliver takeaways,” I growl, “not for argy bargy and God-bothering.”
He chuckles. “God is the last thing this is about, trust me,” then lapses into a coughing spasm that culminates in a fine spray of blood on the visor.
“Then what is it about?”
“Ever think about space, Colin?”
“Sure. The stuff we’re made of. The nothing that’s everything.”
There’s a curious, refracted look in his eye, and I wonder how big that horn will have to grow before he is struck mercifully dumb.
“What about it?”
“How did they know it’d work?”
“The moon landings, for example. If we’d barely been out of earth’s atmosphere before, how were they able to navigate a tin can through that black void and return it to within a mile of a boat in the Pacific?”
“I dunno. Maybe it was all faked, like they say.”
That deep-set cackle again. “Colin! I had you pegged for less of a mug than that.”
“You tell me then, Stephen Hawking.” My affinity for Bernard has finally found its limit.
“Ok I will. See, they couldn’t predict how far Armstrong’s boot would sink into moondust, but the laws of space?” He taps his bulbous head, “are all in here. We know how to access them when it matters.”
“If you say so,” I shrug, “but isn’t there a time and a place?”
“Yes, and this is it. We are surprisingly receptive when hangry. Things can slip through.”
“Angry and hungry at once. It is in this state that knowledge can be digested, slowly, with saffron rice and a Peshwari naan. Do you see?”
“I see your minute is up and I’m none the wiser.”
“And yet here you still are.”
“You’re a sick man,” I sigh. “What do you want me to do?”
“Fill bellies with food and space with ideas, that’s it.”
“Ideas about what, specifically?”
He winds down his window and taps out the Meerschaum’s cold embers on a steel bollard.
“About the hundred billion neurons in our brain that mirror the stars of the universe. About the fact a big black hole may come along any minute and start sucking down matter like a thirsty drunk.”
I strain to catch his words above the clank of ascending shutters.
“About the atoms in our bodies being the same distance apart as planets in the solar system, and above all, about feeling a bit less sad with ourselves over things that are, ultimately, all in our heads.”
The shutters of the Dharma Express finish rolling to reveal Set Menu for Two offers and neon signage. From within, a swarthy man in chef whites points angrily at the Skoda.
The penny finally drops. “You don’t work here, do you?”
“Not any more.”
“At least have the decency to look sheepish!”
Bernard turns his key, gunning the engine. “I just need you to keep them warm for me. Some of them were really starting to get it, you know?”
The chef bustles out into the car park, arms waving and remonstrating in Arabic. By the time he arrives, Bernard has peeled away onto the brilliantined streets and I am left alone in the mist and drizzle, occupying the space that was once his.
(“Dharma Express” was short-listed for the 2016 Deana Morris Prize for Fiction)