They say you can guarantee only two things in life, death and taxes, but I would offer a third; that your train will only be running on time if you are running out of time to get there and I was Wildeanly careless and in that situation twice in under 24 hours.
Friday night, car 13 came and picked me up from work. I was agitated and nervous that the rush-hour traffic would be a severe impediment to catching my train. The minicab firm assured me they had sent their best driver, that I had left enough time. I reiterated my destination and the urgency of the situation as I got into the car.
We sent off at a snail’s pace, and then, horror of horrors, car 13 turned left. I was convinced that turning right would have been the quickest, most direct route. My stomach was in knots, mentally I was forcing that acccelator down to the floor. But car 13 seemed to be much more content to chat away, and in the first 5 minutes of the journey he seemed to spend more time with his head turned looking at me than at the road.
I closed my eyes, breathed out and thought some floaty serene thoughts. Car 13 interrupted.
“How tall are you?”
“How tall are you?”
Well that is some ice breaker I thought. “5 foot 6 and a half”
“Your shoes make you look taller.”
No argument from me there, they were heels.
“How old are you?”
Now this is a question I normally avoid, mainly I think because I am in denial. “46”
“Really?” Cue a very long turn around and a good study of my face, he must have been very practised at staying on the road.
“You look much younger”
Wow this guy is really going all out for his tip.
Modesty prevents me for detailing the next part of the conversation, let’s just say he was being very complimentary whilst going the long way around to the station, and not troubling the speedometre past 20 miles an hour. I lifted up my arm in a very exaggerated fashion and stared very pointedly at my watch.
“My parents were always told the same thing” I said. “I would have gone down Roundhay Road”
“Roundhay Road, no no, this way good. Your parents, good looking?
“Errm, mmm I guess so, it has been mentioned by some”
In the next ten minutes, somehow Car 13 then had my full family history, hatches, matches and dispatches even divorces. I must have been anxious. Once the conversation got going he didin’t turn round as much, but didn’t get any faster. We approached Sheepscar Junction, I held my breath, would he do the City Loop, longer but potentially less traffic, or onto the inner ring road, more direct but currently masquarading as a car park.
He indicated…and made his move. We were throught the lights and City Loop bound. At last Car 13 and I were on the same route. I looked at my driver. He was, he had told me 6 years older than me. In traditional Asian dress, he had a open face, brown and lined , yet it looked soft. Weather beaten by the years to a smooth brown pebble fringed with a neat even white beard from ear to ear.
“I love my wife” as we sauntered along.
“That is nice”
“Oh yes I love my wife, she is small in stature, a great cook, and I love my wife”
Thinking he knew all my history I asked how did they meet.
“What did we eat?”
I asked again.
“How did you meet?”
Car 13 shook his head “I know what you are asking!” As we edged into the final tunnel before the station. “I love my wife, I have 4 wonderful children” he told me their careers, pharmacist, solicitor, studying bio-chemistry at University and the youngest, a shelf stacker in Asda. “The thing is he is clever to talk to but just doesn’t wanna study you know”. I could just imagine, the baby of the family, the apple of everyone’s eye, with the gift of the gab and no desire for books, especially when so much achievement had gone before him. I had sympathies.
We inched through the tunnel.
“My father was very good friends with my wife’s husband. We met when she was 19 and I was 23”
“You had an arranged marriage?”
“Oh yes, but I love my wife and she is perfect for me. I have never loved another woman”
“What was like when you first met? Where were you? What did you think?”
It might have been the sound of the exhaust emissions echoing around the tunnel, Car 13 might have misheard me, he definitely misunderstood me.
“She was 19 and I was 23, I was her first and she was my first, and I have never been with another woman. I love my wife so much”.
I thought about this, we hear so much negativity about arranged marriages, and of course forced marriages are abominable, unthinkably cruel and abusive, but it was so lovely to meet someone even as fleetingly this as this, who had good experiences. That the fates and their parents had achieved something good. I thought about the western equivalent, the whole head over heels falling in love with someone you meet by chance and hoping that a decision you make, when you are suffering what is basically a psychotic episode, will be permanent. Really on paper it is a no-brainer.
Deep in thought I didn’t notice car 13 pulled up outside the station. With 20 minutes to spare. It had been like magic carpet ride with a side order of sociology. I thanked car 13, it had been a pleasure to be driven by him, and as I waited for my platform to be annouced, I thought well that was the stressful part of my journey over.
How wrong could I be?
Fast forward to 12.25 pm next day, Tower Bridge, feeling sick sick sick. The Northern Line was down, I had missed my minicab, this was careless on a Earnest scale. I had to get that train. I had a hot date with 3 Doctors in the evening. I scanned the horizon. Nothing. There were knots on my stomach knots. Finally a yellow light. Gone in seconds to a stick figure further down the road. I cursed them. Panic on a wine wuzzy head is not recommended. And then another yellow light illuminated and headed my way.
The black cab squealed a halt. “Kings Cross please” The doors clicked. I was in,
I looked at the clock in the cab.
“I need to get there by 1? Do you think I will make it?”
“We should do, that time” he nodded his head up the display currently at 12.32 “is a couple of minutes fast”.
We were north of the river, the sun was shining I closed my eyes again and took an enormous deep breath and sent up a silent prayer to the God of taxi drivers. Please.
“You gonna away for the weekend?”
“No back home actually”
There then followed a conversation about how London has changed since I lived there, for the better. More alive, vibrant, embracing the future not stuck in the past. This lead to Boris’ announcement the previous day to shut tube ticket offices and how 24 hour weekend services would affect my cabbie’s business. He was confident people would still like to driven home and not share the underground with a bunch of Saturday night pissheads. I could see his point.
“I’m from Stratford meself” ‘Cept I’ve moved out, we all ‘ave. When I go back there is no one there any more from my past. They’ve all gone now”
It was at this point I realised I might not have enough money for my fare. Sick and double sick.
“Umm. Can I pay the fare with my card”
“Well you can but me machine takes a few minutes to warm up. Do you want stop at a cash point?”
Oh God. Just why. just why I have done this to myself again. “Er yes please”
We drove on to Angel. I tried to remember the order of the stations on the Northern Line from London Bridge to Kings Cross. Where on that list was Angel. Was I close enough? I opened my purse and leafed through the receipts and counted my change.
“I used to work at BT. 32 years. And we still meet every 1 December in Smithsfield Market in the pub at 6.00 am in the morning. It’s an unwritten rule that everyone just shows up. Every year.” I imagined my ex- colleagues doing that. We would have to meet up in the Broadgate Colony in Bishopsgate. There probably wouldn’t be enough cheap white wine in the City. As a colleague once rather pointedly asked “Natalie do you buy your wine by the taste or the volume”. But I loved the idea of a unwritten reunion. No social media, no texts, no letters. Just show up and see. I wished I thought of it.
Then there it was, a forgotten fiver, nestled between a Sainsburys Brand Match coupon and a petrol receipt. God knows how long it had been there, probably a hurried present from relative squashing it into Nina’s hand as they said goodbye.
“I can see the roof of the station”
Relief washed over me.
“I have £19.00, just dump me when when the metre hits it, I am sorry I won’t have any money for a tip.
“Don’t be daft.. I’ll take you to the station my girl. When I said goodbye to my niece and nephew in Australia I burst into tears”
“Goodbyes can be tough”
“God I don’t know why I told you that” he said ” Sorry”
“It’s ok” I replied. And I marveled at how confessional both journeys had been.
Again we arrived at the station with minutes to spare. The fare was over. He didn’t want to take more than £15. “Don’t leave yourself short, get a drink on the train”
“No, no please take this” I pressed the rest of my change into his hand. “Thank you so much” and with that I was out and heading to the station and his next fare was in the car.
As I boarded the train to Leeds, I re-ran my brief encounters. Two completely different men. One a first generation immigrant minicab driver living in the North with his arranged marriage, and the second a born and bred Londoner driving that iconic black cab around the capital. Yet both had shown me a window into their world that I don’t think I will ever forget, and they both got me there on time. You can’t really ask for more.