The lorry's cab eased over the speed bump giving its occupants a gentle bounce. Mick glanced across to his side mirror, checking the trailer followed safely, and saw the security gate come down as he cleared the yard.
"This is it," he said. "This is the big one. After years of carrying crap, we've finally got us a job that's going to change our bank accounts and bloat our pensions. We've got to be careful, though. We've got to treat the load as if we're carrying fresh eggs, with the value of the crown jewels."
He approached the oncoming island with caution and traversed at low speed before building up momentum on the exit. He stole a quick look at the passenger seats. Beside him, his friend's legs stretched out with his feet on the dashboard while his fingers tapped on the illuminated screen of his Smartphone.
"Oii, Matey, are you listening?"
Matey looked up from his phone. "What?"
"I said we've done it."
"I know. I heard."
"Well, you could make it sound as if you're a little excited."
Matey's lips moved into the semblance of a smile. "You miss read me. I may look bored, but on the inside, there's a party going on."
Mick shook his and returned his focus on the road. "And it wouldn't have hurt you to have gotten off your arse and helped me just now."
"I thought we'd agreed on my level of participation."
"We have, but if you were with me, you would have seen there was some stuff you could have done. I had to secure the load all by myself."
Matey humphed. "It's not my fault I'm the size of a ten-year-old." He raised his T-shirt sleeve and flexed his muscles. "Look at that. You've seen more meat on a butcher's pencil."
Mick chuckled. "We need to get you eating the right foods and spend some time in the gym."
"Sod that. It's burgers and fries all the way. Gyms are for losers."
Mick burst out laughing. "You can't go through life on a diet of burgers and pizzas."
"Why not? You do."
Mick tapped his belly and grimaced, realising he'd allowed his waist to expand more than he should have.
"It's having the time to do something about it. I'm driving this bloody lorry all day. Anyway, I get more than enough exercise doing this for a living without having to go to the gym."
"Exactly," said Matey.
A car drove into the space in front. Mick tapped the brake pedal.
"You stupid . . . Are you fucking blind?" he yelled.
"Dozy bastard," said Matey. "You should have driven into him."
Mick recognised the car's model. "BMW. Well, that explains a lot."
"Bloody women drivers."
Mick shook his head and glanced over. "Nah, that's not a woman driving that. That'll be some young kid who's come straight out of college and into a junior management role. I bet he's gone from having nothing to earning loads, and now he thinks he's better than the rest of us."
"And another thing," said Mick. "I'm fucking fed up with people treating me as if I'm invisible. It's beginning to really piss me off."
"You should step into my shoes for a day. I get it all the time."
Mick's mind went into overdrive. It was time for a change.
"Then maybe we should show the world we're done with being stepped on. This new job of ours will bring a little prestige. Come payday, maybe we should get some new clothes and dress the part." He felt his belly rumble. "But first, we'll stop at the next services, I'm starving."
"Sounds good to me," said Matey. "And I could do with a piss."
Mick stretched his back as soon as his feet touched the tarmac. Then, walking to the front of the lorry, he scanned the service station car park.
"Hurry up. It looks busy."
He glanced back, expecting to see Matey still in the cab, and found him standing beside him. He flinched and smiled down at his friend.
"Fuck me, you're quiet. I didn't even hear you close the cab door."
"It's the bonus to being small." He raised his hands into a karate pose. "I'm like a ninja, silent and deadly."
Mick chuckled. "The only thing that's silent and deadly about you is your arse."
They headed straight for the entrance of the service station. The automatic doors opened, and the smell of cooked meats greeted them. Mick spied the cafe. The queue was short.
"I'm going for a waz," said Matey.
"Don't be long. The way I'm feeling, I could eat two meals. I'll meet you in the queue."
He joined the line behind a couple of pensioners. Before them, several families eyed the sandwiches and cakes. One family's children were well-behaved. Another's child pulled at his mother's coat while pointing at a slice of chocolate cake. The next family had a teenage daughter whose eyes were firmly fixed on her Smartphone. Matey strolled into the cafe area, closely followed by two young men in white shirts and ties. They stopped beside the young girl and exchanged small talk before squeezing into the queue behind the girl and her family.
"Are they pushing in?" asked Matey.
"They'd better not be," said Mick.
He glared at their crisp white shirts and gelled hair. He could feel his anger rising. All day he had to deal with the likes of them, either in an office or out on the road. He was sick of them.
"Keep our place," he told Matey. "I'm going to have a little word with those two."
As he passed the pensioners, he said, "Excuse my foul mouth."
The two guys laughed at a joke. The teen tried to ignore them, stepping in front of her parents while they tried to shield her.
Mick tapped the nearest guy on the shoulder. He turned and smiled. His friend was still laughing.
"You two look incredibly important in your nicely ironed shirts. On your way to a meeting?"
"On the way back from one. Why? Can we help?"
Mick forced his anger back and smiled amiably. "Maybe we can help each other. If you go to the back of the queue where you should be, I won't have to drag you there by your ties and ruin those nice clean shirts. How does that sound?"
Their smiles disappeared, and their eyes bore into him with clear intentions of violence. The family with the teenage daughter moved forwards with the queue, quickly glancing over their shoulder, hoping not to get involved.
Mick grinned. They weren't going to do anything. He knew it. They'd have responded already. "Now, I double-dare you, tell me to fuck off."
He smiled, hoping to goad them into action, but for all their bravado, they scowled and dragged their feet to the back of the queue. He followed them back to where Matey was grinning broadly.
"That was awesome," said Matey. "Although, there was a moment when I thought they were going to fire back."
"Nar, you could see it in their eyes. Cowards, the pair of them."
Back on the motorway, Mick pressed cruise control and reached for his coffee. Ahead and beside him, the lanes were getting busier, the vehicles driving closer, some out of habit, others from impatience.
"Everyone's in a rush to get home."
"Well, as long as they don't fuck with us," said Matey.
"Exactly. Never fuck with a vehicle bigger than your own."
Matey reached out with his fist. Mick did likewise, and the knuckle touch sealed their mutual thoughts.
"So, what you planned for tonight?" asked Mick.
Matey shrugged. "Not much."
"Not much? You've got to be doing something."
"What you doing?"
"I'm going to get a takeaway and watch some telly."
"That's what I'll be doing."
The answer baffled Mick. "Are you kidding me? It's the weekend! You should be out enjoying yourself."
"Spending money getting drunk?"
"Socialising, meeting girls, having fun with like-minded people."
"Is that what you did?"
Mick thought back. "Up to a point. Then you meet someone and settle down."
"And where does that get ya?"
Matey batted the question right back, and it felt like a slap in the face. Nowhere was the answer. Girls had come and gone. There'd been some fun, but every relationship had ended in disappointment. He grimaced. It was the job, he told himself. Too many nights away from home.
"Okay, but it still doesn't stop you from going out and enjoying yourself."
Matey's face screwed up like he'd bitten a lemon. "I'd rather stay in. Anyways, there are too many idiots about. Fights are breaking out all over the place. I don't feel safe."
"The secret to staying safe is keeping clear of the town centre. That's where the idiots go."
"But it's also where the girls go, don't forget."
Mick was about to answer when he was distracted by a vehicle moving parallel to them in the next lane. "Aye, aye, you'll never guess who I can see."
Matey leaned over for a look. "Who?"
"It's only those two pricks from the service station. Look, there, in the middle lane, in that brand new black Golf."
Matey chuckled. "Bloody hell, it is them. Shall we scare them?"
"You read my mind. Hang on."
Mick disconnected the cruise control and glanced into his side mirror. A vehicle approached in the next lane. He tapped the indicator and turned the steering wheel. In the mirror, the car indicated too and moved to the next lane. Up ahead, the Golf eased along. Mick guessed its speed to be about seventy-five.
His foot pressed the gas pedal, and the lorry responded, shooting forwards. The engine growled, becoming louder, exciting him further. He bounced excitedly in his seat as the distance with the Golf decreased.
Matey laughed. "Go, go, go."
The Golf's speed remained unchanged. Then, with yards to go, Mick honked the horn. The Golf swerved before righting itself and shot away into the fast lane. Mick burst out laughing, and Matey joined in.
"I bet our grill looked huge in his mirror," said Mick.
"Did you see the car wobble? He crapped himself for sure."
They watched the black Golf speed off into the distance.
"We'd better get off at the next junction and take a break," said Mick. "You can guarantee someone hasn't seen the funny side of that manoeuvre. And I'm not in the mood for dealing with the old bill."
An opening appeared in the outside lane. Mick pulled over and checked his mirrors. There were no police.
"Do you think they knew it was us?" asked Matey.
"I hope so," said Mick. "Fuckers deserved it. Did you see how they zeroed in on that girl at the services? I should have given them a slap for that."
They started closing in on the lorry in front, and Matey looked at it with concern.
"You need to calm down. If you have a heart attack, I die too."
Mick clenched the steering wheel and took a deep breath. It helped.
"Sorry. But people wind me up. They're so fucking selfish."
He pressed cruise control, and their speed reduced to sixty.
"Tell me about it," said Matey. "The roads are filled with inconsiderate bastards."
"You know what? I'll be glad when the day's over. The way I'm feeling at the moment, it wouldn't take much to push me over the edge."
"I'm safe, aren't I?"
Mick glanced at his friend and smiled. "Fucking hell, Matey. If it weren't for you, I'd be in prison by now. You keep me sane. And I'd have no one to talk to. Do you have any idea how boring this job is without having company?"
Mick leaned over and playfully punched Matey on the arm. "And we think alike."
A gantry sign indicated the next junction was in a mile.
"There's a small services that I know just off the motorway. How about I treat us to a cup of tea and a cake?"
"I've got no money," said Matey.
Mick laughed. "You've never got any money. What do you spend it all on, anyway? And don't say beer because we know you don't go anywhere."
Matey blushed, becoming coy.
"Don't be shy," said Mick. "I won't tease you. Look at me, for Christ's sake. All l do when I'm off work is stream movies and binge-watch the latest TV series."
"That's what I do. I get some cans in and some snacks, and I put my feet up."
"Sounds good to me. Although, I think my cupboards are empty. I'll get some snacks at the services."
They left the motorway and headed east for five miles. Signs for coffee littered the roadside and marked the way to the services. Mick indicated left and steered the lorry to the long vehicle parking. He stretched his back as soon as his feet touched the tarmac. Matey met him at the front of the vehicle and yawned. Mick noticed. "You've had such a hard day."
Matey smirked. "Believe it or not, being a passenger is tiring. It's all right for you, you're doing something."
"Well, don't fall asleep just yet. I'm paying you to keep me company, not to hear you snore."
As they walked across the car park, a woman and her three young children left the restaurant. The kids fooled around, hyper on sugary drinks and cakes. Their mother appeared not to notice; instead, she scanned the way ahead for moving cars.
"That was lucky," said Mick. "I don't think I'm in the mood for kids running around."
Matey agreed. "Is it me, or has today felt like a real battle?"
"That's one way of summing it up, I suppose. But you're right. It's been an ordeal."
He opened the door allowing Matey to go first. Only half the tables were in use, and a gentle hum of voices hung over the room. Mick could feel his stress melting away.
"Just what the doctor ordered. We both need this. Grab a seat, and I'll get us a pot of tea."
Matey nodded. "Don't they say that tea helps you unwind?"
"I believe they do."
As Matey chose a seat by the windows, Mick headed to the bar. A huge blond-haired guy and his pretty girlfriend peered through the glass display at the cakes and pastries. Mick passed them and smiled at the lady behind the counter.
"Two teas and two slices of chocolate cake, please."
Mick leaned back against the counter. Behind him, hot water poured into teapots. Outside, a Corsa drove past with five young men squashed inside. Thumping music blared out the open windows. Everyone stopped talking to peer outside. Matey rolled his eyes and shook his head.
"That'll be twelve pounds, please," said the serving lady.
Mick reached for his wallet. To his left, the automatic doors slid open, and laughter spilled in. He retrieved his debit card and then quickly glanced over. The occupants of the Corsa swaggered in, swearing loudly.
The serving girl whispered to her colleague. "Here we go."
Mick heard the comment but pretended he hadn't as he paid for the drinks. He picked up the tray and turned to find the young men at his table next to Matey. Matey was squashed in the corner rubbing his upper arm, his face filled with pain.
"You've got to be fucking kidding me?" growled Mick.
He walked over, his heart racing, his anger itching to be set free. His approach went unnoticed as the young men larked around. Even as he placed the tray down, they never gave him a cursory glance.
"Oii," said Mick to the one sitting next to Matey.
The young man's head slowly turned, seeing Mick for the first time.
"We were here first," said Mick.
The young man's lip curled. "Fuck off."
A tray full of dirty plates and cutlery lay waiting to be collected. Mick grabbed the table knife and plunged it into the man's eye. There were gasps behind, but Mick's mind was focused. As the man's four friends recoiled, Mick used the heel of his hand and rammed the knife deeper.
"Tell me to fuck off."
A hand grabbed his shoulder. Mick yanked the knife free from the man's eye socket, releasing a spray of blood. In one swift motion, he spun around and drove the knife into the huge man's neck. Shock filled the man's eyes as his girlfriend screamed. He gripped his neck, trying to stem the flow of blood.
Mick turned back to the young men still cowering in their seats.
"You fucking see me know, don't ya? You pieces of shit. This is all your fault."
Two policemen raced in through the automatic doors, batons in hand.
"There he is," said one.
They cautiously moved closer. One separated from the other, stepping further to the left.
"Easy there, fella," said the first policeman.
"Well, you got here quick," said Mick. He pointed to the young men. "I take it you're here for these arseholes?"
"Actually, we were checking on reports of a lorry's erratic driving. Can my colleague attend to that wounded gentleman behind you?"
"Be my guest," said Mick. "He accidentally walked onto a knife."
The victim lay still. His grey hoodie stained with his girlfriend's small, bloody handprints. She was kneeling beside him, sobbing.
Matey watched from his seat, nervously biting a fingernail.
The first policeman took a step forward, reaching with his free hand for his pepper spray. "What happened to that young gentleman?" he asked.
Mick looked at the still figure near Matey. Blood covered the side of the face with the ruined eye. "He attacked my friend, so I taught him a lesson."
"And what lesson would that be?"
"Maybe I should readdress your question. I taught these fuckers the lesson."
He pretended to lunge at the four young men. "Boo." They shrunk into the seats as far as their chairs would allow them. Two began to cry, which made Mick chuckle. "Look at them. They were lions when they walked in. Now, look at them. Fucking teddy bears. The lesson was to teach these fuckers that there are other people on this planet, it's not just them. That prick there." Mick pointed to the dead guy. "He told me to go fuck myself."
"So, you killed him?"
"I sure did. It was his own fault. If they'd behaved like normal people, he'd still be alive. Unfortunately for them, our paths crossed when I've had one of those days. As my friend Matey said earlier, the world is filled with inconsiderate bastards, and today I've just about had my fill of them. Now there's one less."
The policeman stepped closer. Mick eyed the baton and the pepper spray. Not wanting to be outdone, he picked up the little pot of tea he'd just bought. The handle was hot, and steam rose from the ill-fitting top.
"If you try that spray on me, you're going to have a face full of boiling water. Look, why don't we both do each other a favour. I've got a very important load on the back of my lorry, so if it's all the same to you, I'll be on my way."
The policeman stepped to his left, blocking Mick's exit route.
"Put the teapot down, sir, and we can discuss this safely."
Mick smirked. "Safely? You're approaching me armed with a baton and pepper spray."
"It's for my safety. I just want to get you in the back of my car without getting hurt."
"Using that pepper spray will get you hurt."
The policeman edged closer.
"Are you a fucking idiot or something?" asked Mick, raising the teapot. "Do you think I won't do it?" He smiled and braced himself. "Go on, just one more step."
The policeman was young and well presented. Mick imagined he had a pretty girlfriend and a nice house. Walking into scolding water was not a good life choice, but hadn't he given him enough warnings?
"Take it easy," said the policeman.
Mick read the man's posture. He was about to take another step. Well, you asked for it, he mused.
He pulled his arm back and felt an explosion of pain on the back of his head.
As his vision cleared, Mick sensed himself being hauled to his feet. His head ached. He attempted to reach back to touch the wound but found his hands bound.
"He's coming round, sir," said someone.
Mick looked about him. The restaurant was empty. Tables filled with dirty plates of uneaten food were exactly where the customers had left them. There were policemen everywhere too. A ranking officer stood before him.
"You're in a whole lot of trouble, son."
Mick blinked. The customers may have gone, but Matey was still there. He stood frowning and biting a nail, nearby. He wore no handcuffs.
"Matey had nothing to do with this," said Mick.
The first policeman Mick had dealings with stood beside the officer. "He mentioned Matey earlier."
Mick turned to Matey. "Go and wait in the cab. Make sure no one tampers with our freight."
"Ah yes, your load," said the ranking officer. "Apparently, you mentioned earlier you were carrying something of importance. We were worried there could be significant value on your trailer, so we had someone open the back doors."
"You had no right," Mick snarled.
"We had every right. As it is, all you were carrying was a stack of pallets."
"Rubbish. You idiots looked in the wrong trailer." He turned to his friend. "Matey, go and show them how blind they are."
Matey didn't move and continued to cast his eyes from Mick to the policemen.
"Who are you talking to?" asked the officer.
"Matey, he's stood right there."
"There's no one there."
Mick let out a laugh. "Fuck off? He's stood right there."
"I can assure you there's no one there, sir."
Mick looked at his friend and burst out laughing. "Matey, they can't see you. You're invisible."
He watched Matey biting his nails. "They can't see you. Ha, ha, ha . . ."
Mick laughed like he'd never laughed before. He laughed into the officer's face and at the policemen who'd stopped their investigation to look over.
"Matey, you're invisible."