Copyright 2008, Sarah Hartwell

Lillian Watson was awoken in her chair by a loud knocking at the front door. She'd dozed off watching Richard and Judy on TV and the end credits were rolling. Her customary afternoon cup of tea and custard cream biscuits sat on the side table.

"Dear me, Lil," she chastised herself, "Asleep before 6 o'clock? Anyone would think you'd been out on the tiles last night!" She grinned at the thought. As a young girl she'd spent many a night out late at dances with young men, much to her parents' disapproval. They were a lot less disapproving when one of those young men courted her in earnest. She'd been such a naughty girl! The baby was already two months along when theyd exchanged rings. Nowadays young people didn't even bother with a wedding. Lil hated to admit to herself that she was hooked on daytime talk shows where people discuss things considered scandalous when she was their age. Such as homosexuality .

The knocking came again, louder and more urgent this time.

Lil chastised herself again, this time for allowing her mind to wander, something it did increasingly often as thoughts became more elusive, slipping from her like butterflies. It was a sign of getting on in years. Her granddaughter, now expecting Lil's first great-grandchild, always put it more tactfully when Lil lost her train of thought or forgot a name "Gramma, you've been using that brain for over 70 years, it's bound to have a few worn parts!"

Lil yawned again, "My, I am dozy, when I've seen whos at the door I'd better open the window and let some fresh air in." She got up and trotted into the hall to answer the door. Her body was still spry despite the odd arthritic joint. Lil smiled to herself. Did the youngsters realise that older people still felt only 17 inside their own heads? That white haired wrinkled face in the mirror wasn't really her. On the inside she still had auburn hair and soft pale skin with a dusting of freckles.

She cracked the door open as far as the security chain would allow. Her memory may have hiccups, but she was well aware of police warnings about bogus callers. If her family needed emergency access they had keys to the 5-bolt security lock on her back door.

A man, fiftyish with hair greying at the temples (Lil still noticed such things, in fact she only really watched Richard and Judy because of Richard Madeley), in grey uniform glanced at a card and then at the visible part of Lil's face. There was a black cab parked on the road at Lil's front gate.

"Mrs Lillian Watson?" he asked, "I've been sent to pick you up."

"I haven't ordered a taxi," Lil answered. She was dead certain her hospital appointment wasn't until Thursday. Then again her son might have ordered it. She hadn't checked her phone messages since last night.

"That's right. It's a courtesy taxi service." The driver handed her his card.

"I need to get my reading glasses," said Lil, but squinting at the card she found she could read it perfectly well. "Charon Cabs. I use taxis every month for the hospital and I've never heard of you."

"We'd be very surprised if you had," said the taxi driver, "Charon Cabs is only for the recently deceased."

"Impertinent man," Lil snapped, "I'm a long way from deceased."

"I'm afraid you're currently in the denial stage, Mrs Watson," the cabbie replied, "Most of our clients are disoriented when we call. According to the dispatch notice you suffered a stroke and heart attack while watching Coronation Street last night and expired early this morning."

"But I've just been watching Richard and Judy!" Lil retorted.

"There is a customary grace period before we call. We don't like to barge in if you've already made arrangements. Or indeed should the medical services pull you back."

"What other arrangements?" Lil's mind was starting to feel more sharp, the thoughts less elusive.

"The Roman Catholics have their own service for example," he replied, "and then there's the Valkyries, things have been a bit slack for them in recent times, but the resurgence of Odinism means it's picking up again."

"So who do you represent?"

"We're nominally C of E," the cabbie said sheepishly, "Ignore the classical references in the company name, we've changed hands several times and never got round to changing it."

"Well I'm not interested," Lil said crossly as she did with all religious callers that turned up on her doorstep offering the path of salvation.

"Aaah, there's the rub," the cabbie replied. "Look, can I come in? My credentials are sitting in your favourite armchair under a crochet lap blanket next to a cold cup of tea 2 sugars and 2 stale custard creams."

Somewhat shocked rather than merely confused, Lil relented and unhooked the door chain. The cabbie seemed very reasonable despite his odd conversation and Lil didn't feel threatened. In fact she was warming to the idea of a taxi ride though she wasn't quite sure why.

"Many thanks, Mrs Watson," he said with a polite smile.

"You might as well call me Lil," Lil said, "everyone else does."

"I'd hate to presume," the taxi driver replied, "most of my older clients prefer a degree of formality as far as strangers are concerned. Now, as for not being interested I'm afraid I'm not optional. All of the others are. You can turn away the Roman Catholic Bentley and you can refuse entry to the Valkyries. Once you've turned away the transport of any other religions or cults you might have shown interest in during your lifetime, it's up to me to pick you up."

"You said you're C of E. I'm not C of E. I'm not anything. I only went to church for weddings, funerals and christenings you know, the old hatch, match and dispatch routine."

"And what gets put on your records if you dont fill in the religion box? C of E. Unless of course youre very obviously some other readily identifiable faith." the cabbie sighed and looked at his wristwatch, "We really do need to get going. You seem to be coming through the disorientation stage. I'm a trained counsellor you know? That's how I got this job."

Lil had to admit she was feeling unusually perky. The mist that normally fogged her mind had gone and her faculties were much sharper than they had been during the last 10 years. She'd even read the Charon Cabs business card without her glasses. And the niggle of arthritis in her joints wasn't niggling at all. However she wanted to make sure .

Lil trotted to the living room door and looked round it. An old lady, wrinkled and shrunken, slouched in the comfy chair in the corner. A crochet lap blanket, made of square crocheted by her granddaughter, was on her lap. Was that really her? Apart from the bluish tinge, she looked very comfortable which would be reassuring for her daughter-in-law when she popped in with the groceries.

"I'd better pack a few things then," she said with a sigh.

"No need Mrs Watson," the cabbie said, "In fact we're not able to take luggage."

Lil shrugged. "Whatever," she said., "I just need to check my face before we go. Can anyone see me now?"

"I'm afraid not, but please feel free. As our client you're entitled to look your best on the journey."

Lil looked in the oval hall mirror that had once belonged to her parents. Her face was smooth-skinned and there was a dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Wavy auburn hair fell to her shoulders and her once-rheumy eyes looked clear and sharp. Instead of her old housecoat and loose cardigan she was wearing her favourite green dress, the one that hadn't fitted after the children were born.

"You see," said the Charon Cabs driver, "That's who you've always been inside your head. Shall we go?" He pointed through the open door to his waiting taxi and Lil noticed there was another passenger.

"Is that Bernie?" she asked and the driver nodded.

Lil strode to the taxi with the sway of hips that had caught Bernie Watson's eye 55 years ago.


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