Whilst out working in the cab, London-based radio stations can be a useful tool.
As well as warding off loneliness and boredom, their news and traffic updates can provide key information to a London Taxi Driver, and as such I’ll often have the radio on as low background noise, quietly ticking away with the regularity of a metronome.
Once in a while, the traffic bulletin will warn of “massive delays” at one of London’s major railway terminals. This, especially when coupled with the complete closure of a rail-line, can be music to a cabbie’s ears and, if you’re anywhere near the doomed station, it’s wise to get yourself over to its rank.
As you dart there, cursing red traffic lights and tardy road-users (why, oh why do people drive so sluggishly when you’re in a rush?!), you’ll have wild dreams about where your luck will take you once you meet up with the inconvenienced passengers.
If the stricken station is Paddington, well that is where the ‘Heathrow Express’ runs from, so you’ll be hoping for a job to the airport….or, if you’re even luckier, Bristol or Cardiff (never happens of course, but one can always dream!)
If it’s Euston or St Pancras, then you might nab a job out to Luton Airport, Milton Keynes or even Glasgow (a once in a life-time job, but you never know; it may be your lucky day!)
Recently, the radio divulged that lines out of Liverpool Street station were closed. Being only a few minutes away, I hurried over, banking on a possible journey out towards the quiet roads of the Essex countryside; preferably Stanstead Airport.
Once I arrived, there was, unsurprisingly, chaos.
At the moment, most major London railway stations are an utter nightmare to get into and out of; a toxic combination of long-term building works, frustrating road closures, baffling restrictions and general overcrowding. Negotiating them is like trying to work out the infinite staircases of an Escher painting.
At Liverpool Street, the main taxi rank is on a road outside the station. This road is a dead end, forcing the cabs to pull up and queue around in a ‘U’ shape.
This thoroughfare is also a drop-off point, which creates major jams- after taxis and other vehicles have pulled up and dropped their passengers off, they’re required to turn around in order to exit. With the road being narrow and lined on both sides by black cabs, space is greatly reduced, thus making this far from easy!
As such, people attempting such a manoeuvre understandably take a long time; their woes compounded as more vehicles dropping off people nudge in, adding to the turbulent mix.
The traffic outside Liverpool Street station is therefore an awful jumble and a dangerous threat to one’s blood pressure. Despite this, I decided to rank up and persevere, eager to secure an enticing job.
As I approached my turn on the rank (what we taxi drivers call ‘being on point’), I could see a young man up front asking several cabbies for a ride. Two refused him and, as he approached me, I guessed that he was asking if he could pay by credit card (not all cabs boasting that facility).
I gritted my teeth as he walked up to my window. The fare looked agitated, tired and fed-up. My instincts suggested that he had the potential to cause grief.
“I need to go south… to Stockwell.”
It wasn’t quite the pastures of Essex, but it was still a good fare.
“No problem, Sir.”
“Thank you so much.”
And in he hopped; a tall, dark-haired man, dressed in a snappy suit. Looking to be in his late 20s, he immediately made himself at home, stretching out on the back seat as if he were laying on a chaise-lounge.
I immediately apologised for the traffic, and told the passenger that it would be some time before we could even leave the confines of Liverpool Street.
“No problem, my friend. It’s not your fault.”
It’s always a boost when passengers adopt this attitude; their patience and understanding does wonders for my stress levels.
As we waited, glowing red-traffic lights shining off of my cab’s black bonnet, I asked the passenger how his day had been.
“Exhausting, my friend. I just flew black from South Africa this afternoon.”
It turned out that this fellow travelled a lot for business, and had even spent time living in India and Russia; experiences which he described with great passion and enthusiasm.
“India blew me away; I lived in Mumbai for six months. Oh… just the colour and the intensity of the place. Cows walking through the streets. And the food; nothing like the curry-houses you get here. We were eating real, authentic stuff every night; food to die for. Mostly vegetarian too; but so, so good. You don’t even need to touch meat there.”
“It’s an especially interesting place at the moment; with the economy I mean. You’ve got real money cropping up there now. But at the same time, you’ve still got the crushing poverty.”
“Did you see much of that?” I ask. By now, we’re well on our way and have crossed London Bridge.
“You can’t avoid it when you’re there, my friend. The slums… man, the thing about them is just the sheer smell; these people live beside raw sewage. But the odd thing is, many of these people actually seem really happy. They’ve got their communities established, the slums have an infrastructure. A lot of people run businesses from those places. And they’re such decent people; never met a nation so polite.”
“How did you cope with the heat?” I enquire.
“I didn’t!” he laughs.
“The heat was searing; knocks you out. That was the one thing that made it difficult for me. It’s cooler the further north you go though; up towards the Himalayas.”
I remark that his extensive travels must have provided him with a trove of wonderful experiences.
“They do, my friend; but I’m getting tired of it now. A lot of the time- on short trips- you’re stuck in offices; don’t see much of the place you’re in; may as well be stuck in an office here. My wife travels a lot too; we miss each other. She’s a great woman.”
I ask if he’s lived anywhere else apart from India.
“Russia,” he responds instantly; “lived in Moscow last year. “That’s why traffic in London doesn’t bother me, my friend. Moscow traffic is hellish. We once took a ride to the airport, and were stuck for about four hours.”
“Did you pick up any of the language?”
The passenger answers by conveying a long sentence in fluent Russian which, judging from the many Russian passengers I’ve heard in the taxi, sounds authentic enough. He then returns to his native tongue.
“You have to learn the language when you’re there. Especially if you want to chat up women. I used to go this nightclub in Moscow; ‘The Soho Rooms’. So expensive… but oh, the women that go there…amazing…”
The passenger then goes onto speak about the various women of the world, concluding that his favourite members of the female sex are Italian.
“Sleeping with an Italian woman…. Man, it’s like bedding a Da Vinci painting. The quality of it, you know; the class…”
Reading between the lines, it sounded like the fellow frequently cheats on his wife whilst abroad. This was partly confirmed as we approached Kennington, and his mobile phone rang.
“Excuse me, my friend.”
There’s a *beep* as the phone is answered, its little, illuminated screen floating around in the darkness of the rear compartment, bathing the fare’s face in a blue glow. Over the intercom, I can clearly hear the tinny voice of a young woman.
The man grabs his knees and grins.
“Where are you?…. Shoreditch?….Hmm…. I’m tired… South Africa; yeah just got back today…had to pop to the office. In a cab now”
“Aww…. Come on, hun” tinkles the voice north from of the Thames, “it’ll be fun…”
The businessman continues to smile inanely, as if under some form of hypnosis.
“Well… I am tempted….but I’m nearly home now.”
After more verbal arm-twisting, he finally relents.
“Ok… which bar are you in? I know it….sure…”
The phone beeps off, and I have a feeling as to what is coming next.
“Excuse me, my friend…. I know we’re nearly there, but do you mind turning back and heading for Shoreditch?”
He pinches his head and nods, as if considering a vital question on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’
“Yeah…. Go for it.”
So, I spin the cab and aim back towards the area we started from. As we head back north, the passenger slumps back into the seat, a curious mixture of guilt and pleasure apparent on his well-groomed face.
“You meeting friends up there, then?” I ask innocently.
He laughs abruptly in a sort of barking way, rubbing his face like a naughty child who’s been caught red-handed stealing cookies.
“Yeah… you could say that…ahhh…. They’re women.”
“Oh, work friends?”
“No….just… you know, two women. Oh dear…what am I doing?”
As we head for the secondary destination, the fare leans forward, elbows on knees, head in his hands. After the cheeky phone conversation, his personality has now taken on a split form; a sort of benign ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’
“I love my wife, you know…” he announces. “I’m going to regret this in the morning….oh, dear….”
But as we continue, he’s back on the phone.
“Yeah…yep. I’ll be five minutes; get the drinks in. Don’t know- you choose. I’ll give you the money when I get there.”
I’d enjoyed hearing all about the passenger’s exotic experiences abroad at the beginning of the journey, shame it had to take a seedier turn. Of course, I’m a cabbie and it’s par for the course; I’m the back of a head and two eyes in the mirror…. None of my business; discretion is key and I have to know when to switch off.
When we finally arrive, the fare springs up; remorse in his eyes and temptation on his lips. He gives me a substantial tip and taps the Perspex divide with the parting words;
“Nice chatting to you my friend… live life!”
A nice sentiment perhaps, but as I headed back off into the night, I couldn’t help but think his conscience will be suitably stung come morning!