Wednesday 29 March 2023

Taken for a Ride, by Peter Richardson, cortado - something with a kick

 Tom was pleased to see the official rickshaw stand. He’d read about unlicensed rickshaws overcharging, or worse. Five rickshaws were lined up waiting for passengers. He quickly crossed the road and headed towards them. He was lucky, there wasn’t even a queue.

‘Mister, Mister.’

A strange multicoloured rickshaw rolled along beside him.

‘Mister, you want a ride?’

Tom looked determinedly ahead without acknowledging the man.

‘Special price for Yorkshire man.’

That made Tom look up. How had he known Tom was from Yorkshire?

The rickshaw rider smiled. He was a thin man, coloured a deep bronze by the sun. He wore a faded T-shirt that looked a several sizes too small. Its tightness highlighted the man’s taught muscles. Tom looked down, inspecting the man’s legs. The bulging calf muscles reassured Tom of the man’s credentials as legitimate rickshaw rider.

He looked up. The man was smiling in what he probably thought was a reassuring manner. Tom was about to wave him away when his eyes fixed on the flat cap. He was sure the man had been wearing a gaudy baseball cap like every other rickshaw rider in the city. But now he could clearly see that he was wearing a sensible herringbone cloth cap in black and grey.

Tom’s body reacted instantly to the comforting sight and it wasn’t until he was sat in the rainbow striped faux leather seat that his mind had worked out how ridiculous it was to wear a hat like that in heat like this.

The rider pushed hard on the pedals and slowly gathered speed. Tom expected to see disgruntled faces as they passed the official rickshaws but instead all five drivers turned, smiled and give a small round of applause.

Tom leant forward

‘Ahem, excuse me sir. How much?’

‘Special price. Special price for you young sir.’

‘Yes, but what actually is the special price.’

‘One story.’

‘For how far?’

‘To the end.’

‘I’ve only got dollars. How much is one story in dollars?’

‘A story is priceless and has to be given away.’

‘I’m sorry sir. I don’t understand. I think you should stop.’

‘No stopping now young sir. It is too dangerous. Once a story has started it gathers momentum and cannot stop until it is complete.’

He thought about jumping out, but they had gathered more speed than he imagined was possible. The man didn’t seem to be straining but the ground was flying past. They were heading down a slight hill so that explained it. Ahead the ground rose and they would have to slow down. He would be ready to jump.

They started ascending but there was no drop in speed. If anything they seemed to be going faster. He thought it must be to do with momentum. Rickshaws were heavy and once started were hard to stop.

They seemed to be heading out of the city. He’d wanted a rider who knew the sites and could take him on a tour of all the famous places. He’d been warned. Why hadn’t he listened to what he’d read? Unlicensed rickshaws could be dangerous. They charged whatever they liked and didn’t always take you where you wanted to go.

‘What do you want from me?’ said Tom.

There was no reply.

‘A story? You want me to tell you a story. Is that what you want?’

The man seemed to relax. He appeared to have stopped pedalling and to have settled down on the bike’s saddle as if on a comfortable arm-chair in front of a fire in a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales with a small glass of brandy in his hand. At the same time his legs span round at a furious pace and the ground sped below the rickshaw’s wheels.

‘Start at the beginning,’ he said.

Tom gave a snort of laughter, ‘Once upon a time…’

‘Good. Good. A fine start.’

There was a pause.

‘Look. I don’t know any stories.’

Tom saw the man raise an eyebrow even though he was looking at the back of his head.

There was another, longer, pause and then Tom started to talk.

‘When I was a boy my dad told me that if you put your mind to it you could do anything you want. Be anything you want. Go anywhere you want.

He was wrong.

The world is not like that. I tried. I really did. At school I ran my hardest and never came better than third. I studied hard and never got better than a grade B. I mixed all the right colours but my paintings never looked real. I sang well enough but never made the choir. I acted in every school play but never got the lead.’

The rickshaw had slowed and was moving up the hill at a more traditional pace and then came to rest on a bend where they could look down at the city and its embracing harbour.

Tom saw multicoloured sails flapping in the breeze. That’s the kind of thing he’d tried to paint. Later he’d moved on to a camera and although the photos were good enough they never quite captured the essence of the place. The editor of the online travel blog seemed happy enough with them.

‘It has always been like that. I’ve always got on all right but never been at the top. Never been first.’

‘And is that what you want?’

The man stood up on the pedals and pushed. The rickshaw slowly edged back onto the road and up the steep gradient.

‘I had a girlfriend once. I’ve had more than one actually, but only one that mattered. She knew what she wanted. She’s in London. That’s the place to be if you want to work in fashion.

'I don’t mind London, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I like the people. You get all sorts of people, but they’re all out of place. They’re all Londoners, even if they come from Marrakech, or Madrid, or Mombasa. You don’t see the real people. Not unless you’re lucky.’

The rickshaw stopped in front of a small building that looked like a temple built for children. It had classic Ionic columns, with their scrolled capitals, which were easy to inspect as they were at head height.

There was no door. Tom bent down and entered the cool interior. He could just manage to sit on the stone bench without his head striking the roof.

‘What is this place?’

‘It’s a one-man temple. A cathedral you would say, but not quite on the scale of your York Minster. It was built in 1974 by a man called Ahmed. One day he had a vision of building a great cathedral in the sky. Something that would inspire people and bring them closer to God.’

‘But why so small?’

‘Have you ever carved an Ionic column from stone? It takes time. Ahmed was one man. But Ahmed set his mind to it and his mind said, ‘Are you mad? You’ll never build a cathedral at this rate.’ Ahmed realised that he could carve six small columns in the time it would take to make one large one.

And voila! A one-man cathedral, completed by one man, in one life time.’

Tom emerged back into the bright sunshine, ‘That’s a sad story.’

‘How so?’

‘Ahmed didn’t achieve what he wanted.’

The rickshaw rider helped Tom back into his seat with a knowing smile.

‘You are right. The cathedral was not what he planned. It wasn’t a grade A. It wouldn’t win in a race against your York Minster.’

The rickshaw dropped over the kerb back onto the road and started to speed up as it descended the hill.

‘But you are also wrong.’

Tom looked back and through the dust thrown up by the wheels the tiny cathedral looked full size. In a photo you wouldn’t even know that you had to stoop to enter.

He turned meaning to ask to stop for photos, but instead he shouted urgently to stop because of the speed.

Stunted trees flashed past. The front wheel seemed to bounce off the ground as if it was part of Santa’s sled readying itself to take to the sky. Ahead was the first of the many hairpin bends.

‘Stop. Stop.’

The rider wasn’t stopping. He was pedalling frantically as his legs tried to keep up with the enforced pace of the ride.

They reached the corner. Tom hung on tightly. The wheels on one side tipped up. He leant his weight against them. The rider leant into the bend and miraculously they were safely in the middle of the straight section of road heading down the hill.

Down the hill towards the second hairpin bend.

‘What are you doing?’

‘We are going to be the first. The first to descend with no brakes.’

‘You’re going to get us killed.’

‘It is possible that we may be the first rickshaw to fly. Although the flight may be short it will still be the longest.’

‘You’re mad.’

‘Is it not right to aim to be the fastest? The first. The biggest. The best.’

‘No. No. Not like this. No.’

‘How so?’

‘Please slow down. I don’t want to be the fastest. I just want to get down.’

The hectic speed had gone. The rickshaw was suddenly sedate. Tom looked back. Even the dust was settled and undisturbed.

‘Ahmed’s cathedral was not the biggest but it has certainly inspired many, many people to come closer to God.’

Tom was silent until the rickshaw was safely back on the city streets. They approached the rickshaw stand and stopped by the side of the road.

‘I feel that you have been teaching me something,’ he said, ‘but I’m not sure what it is?’

‘Teaching? Me? No sir. I am just a rickshaw rider. I am no teacher. My life is no lesson. I get up each morning. I ride all day and sleep all night. I have friends. I have family. I have food. I have fun.’

‘And is that what you want?’

‘A fine question young sir. It is what I have. And I can’t see what’s wrong with that.’

Tom walked past the five plain rickshaws.

‘You want a ride?’

‘No I’m walking.’

‘A rickshaw gets you there quicker.’

‘Walking is fast enough.’

Yes, thought Tom. It is, isn’t it? I don’t need to get there faster. I don’t need to get there first.


About the author  

 Peter Richardson is a writer based in Leeds. His stories often take you to unexpected places.

Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)


  1. A really good read with a lesson behind it....

  2. Aye up, a reet grand story, with a moral at t’end. Brilliant!