My father drove a taxi for 27 years. From 11am to mid-afternoon, he worked. A break for dinner at six. A nap and a wash followed. He was fastidious about cleanliness. Purification. A ritual to keep the soul clean while the body did dirty work. The rest of the night he was gone. As a lone driver he was able to come home for coffee and a smoke but otherwise he worked long into the night. Long into the years. Every day and night. 27 years. He hated it. So he says.
His work led to a slightly unusual routine in our house. With all of his coming and going, the house hummed into the late hours. Television and lights on. The ringing phone and my father’s voice. I was never told to go to bed, particularly on the long, cool nights of the summer holidays. Free to mooch off to bed when tired, I would often reappear after a sleep.
My father had many cars over the years and I knew each one by ear. I recognised the shifting engine sounds as he hit second, then third. They murmured through the clean, night air as he turned from the main road onto ours. He rolled the car up the drive, crunched across the gravel and turned the key in the front door.
Listening to late-night radio in the dark, I lay awake in anticipation. If I appeared at just the right moment, when he was ready to quit but too alert to sleep, we would head out for a night walk.
I had the whole thing timed perfectly. I’d hear the kettle’s click. The back door opening for a smoke. I would wait just long enough, then slide into the living room.
“You not asleep?”
“Will we go for a walk?”
We’d take the dog, who instinctively knew to keep his chops shut on these late excursions, and head out the back door, down the side of the house. Our footsteps thrummed gently off the gable wall. No people bar the occasional singing drunk. No cars except other taxis. Everyone else was sleeping. But we are night people.
Crossing the small road in front of the house, we’d struggle through the gap in the hedge of the golf course just beyond. A perfect unreality by day, by night it is a moonscape, the slopes and curves of the course rendered chalky. Manicured trees and shrubs like Christmas cake toppers. This place belongs to my father’s customers but they’re in bed, drunk. Now it belongs to us.
On these nights, the sky never went dark. It went navy instead. The air so clear and clean you could drink it. An occasional cloud would drift across the mountains, backlit by the moon, nosy and low. Mountains watched us, solemn as totems, the Cooleys on one side and the Mournes on the other. The silence hanging around us like spiderwebs. The only sound the drumming of the dog’s paws, at first distant then suddenly close and thundering with hot, busy pants. My dad sees and hears the hidden night things. An insect here, look. A nest up there, see? He grabs the secret things and they let him. A moth quivers in his hand. A curlew whistles back. A secret-knowing man. Taxi man.
The privilege of those evenings blew me away. While other children slept, I explored a world that most adults never even knew. We’d slink like foxes around the edge of the course; somehow walking across the open course felt too brazen. Slowly, we’d make our way to the other side of the course, climb the wall and out onto the carriageway beyond.
By day, the main road into the town buzzed with traffic both ways. But at 4am on a summer’s morning, the lanes are wide open. Stepping onto the road, I was always nervous, picturing a silent, speeding death heading towards me. My father would stand fearlessly in the middle, and took a long look each way, hands on hips. Calculating how many times that same night he’d driven on it. And the 27 years worth of other times.
I’d creep after him, pulling the dog close on the lead. Walk on the white lines of the lanes, step onto the cat’s eyes. A push with a toe and I learned that cat’s eyes are spongy and rubbery, designed to give way under the weight of traffic. The contrast of the soft cat’s eyes and the hard road was a discovery. The stones of the road retained the fury and power of the traffic that passed over them. The whole thing was a thrill.
At the other side of the carriageway lay the docks, with a busy commercial port and a paper factory. The factory was a focal part of the town. There isn’t an adult in the town today who didn’t at one time visit the factory on a school trip and receive a cardboard lorry printed with the factory’s logo. At night the factory hums with activity, busy but subdued. We’d walk along the perimeter fence, all three of us sniffing the hot paper steam.
Every Christmas the trees lining the fence were decked out in coloured bulbs. Seeing these switched on meant the beginning of Christmas. On a Christmas night walk, I could bask in their colour up close, close enough to see each bulb. On a summer night walk, I learned with a sour disappointment the bulbs were left up there all year round, only to be switched on at Christmas.
The docks were quietly active then too. Freight sailed in and out of the town regularly, the ferries fed by a stream of lorries and containers. The sea was dark and calm, the lights of the ferry blinkingly bright. Tiny figures move along the decks. The bright decks against the dark docks. No one stopped our ragged gang, the three-legged dog, my dad and me. I was always anxious. Will we get in trouble? My father never worried. We’d walk right up to the edge of the docks and I’d peer over the side, tugging the dog close to me. The inky water lapped the dock greedily. We’d stare at each other in silence for a while.
For several years, there was a British army roadblock at the end of our quiet road. Ostensibly to deter smuggling or other activities through the nearby docks, this normally consisted of a single Land Rover with a small number of soldiers, all young. To me they were alien men with guns. One night walk, one of them materialised suddenly in front of us.
“Can you tell me where you’re going?’
My father explained that we were only walking the dog. Merely a moonlit wander. He was tense but we both knew he must appear casual. I watched his hands move oddly in the air as he spoke, in a gesture that was not familiar to him. The lad allowed us to move on but I knew we were being watched. The curious locals.
The docks always marked the end of a night walk. Reaching the sea was usually what it took to relax my father. A short night walk might mean only a turn round the golf course. A trip to the docks was the longer version. When he tired, the walk had done its job, putting enough distance between ugliness and beauty. Besides, by then, the night walk would be moving into day. That wasn’t our time. We’d turn back, together.
Ciara McVeigh is a writer, thinker and red wine drinker. By day she works in digital content and PR for brands and businesses, creating content that has seen her clients featured in Fortune, The Financial Times and TechCrunch.
She was longlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize in 2015 and published in the reimagined The Suffragette magazine in 2018 as part of the Manchester suffragette centenary year, in an initiative led by The Pankhurst Centre. She is one of BBC Radio Manchester’s 100 Women 100 Years initiative, taking part in projects and events across the city of Manchester. She also appeared in the audio story project 100 Voices for 100 Years, where 100 female writers share their personal stories of achievement.