Sunday, 27 October 2013

Short Story – Queen of the Road

This is the story from which I was writing the lyrics for a song, when I had to have some of my medication upped in dosage for a couple of weeks and could no longer concentrate on the task in hand. Not letting the backing music go to waste, its composer has now had Japanese lyrics written for it, so this probably means that mine will no longer happen.

Here then, instead, is the fuller story of the lady whose tale is sad but probably less untypical than we might realise, in today's hectic world...

Queen of the Road

My fare (as we call our passengers) is silent, as most are, I have found. Usually they either gaze out the windows, watching the world skip by, or – nowadays – they often sit there working away at a laptop computer or tablet.

I always offer them a chance to engage in conversation, right at the start, and judge from their response (if any) whether to press on. Many reply to my greeting and follow-up – which is usually about the weather, or anything that happens to be hot news that day – almost dismissively, and I know they have no wish to talk during the drive.

Even the longer journeys to one or other of the London airports tend to be like that. The ones coming back from the airport tend to be jet-lagged and sleep most or even all of the way...

I am convinced that it's at least partly because the traditional 'London cabbie' has been a man, and this also tended to be the case out here in the collar of counties surrounding the capital. There still aren't more than a handful of us women cabbies here in this part of Kent where I am licensed to pick up fares in the street (my taxi is known as a 'Hackney Carriage') as well as when someone 'phones the taxi firm and they radio the details to this box of tricks mounted under the dash. Oh, yes, that button on there really does say 'squelch', by the way: it's a technical term, I gather.

Anyway, my stint ends soon, so I shall do the usual Friday evening stuff half an hour from now: get something tasty and filling, if not actually all that nutritious, from the drive-in takeaway I frequent, ring Brad again and hope that this time he'll answer rather than getting his voicemail, and head over to his place on the near edge of the peninsula for a romantic evening.

Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you who I am. I'm Ginny, coming up fast on forty years old (though I've always looked much younger than my actual age), and I've been doing this job in the Five Towns and the peninsula for nearly half of my life. Eighteen and a half years I've done this now.

I have the full 'knowledge', so was able to get a full Hackney Carriage licence after just a couple of years as just a 'phone-in cab. I am very proud of my 'top box' (the For Hire sign on the car roof), the plate at the rear with its 'H' (for Hackney carriage) number, and the two side panels, all magnetic so that they can be taken off when I'm not on duty.

Anyway, I hope Brad will be at home this evening. It'll be good to get out of this car for more than a few minutes, which is like when I'm visiting the ladies' room at the Services on the motorway, or filling her up with petrol. Yes, that's 'petrol', not 'gas' as they say on the other side of the Atlantic, or pond as we Brits often like to call it. Words are funny things; and who but the Americans would call a liquid 'gas', especially when there's already a distinctive and non-confusing word for it? They can be a funny lot, sometimes...

Words can be odd, but names can be the strangest words of all. My real name is Virginia, but it really doesn't suit me. It sounds too upper class, and has a Finishing School air about it. I can hardly be thought of in those terms! So, Ginny it is, which seems appropriate as I have to admit that I do like a few gins when I'm not on duty...

Now, my fare is shuffling about on the seat behind me. That usually means he knows he is getting near his destination and is probably checking his trouser pockets for any coins he can give me as a tip. It's easier than trying to work it out from the change from the fare, which sometimes is just a few pence. Regular taxi users tend to get the tip ready first, then pay the fare from notes out of their wallets. I've learned to recognise the signs, and the muffled chink of trousered coinage being disturbed...

Passengers usually think you don't notice them, as they are behind your back and they expect your entire attention to be focussed on the road and driving the cab. They are partly right, but we do notice things. Don't get me wrong: I am a very safe driver, and I'd say I'm better than most of the other cabbies I know; but I can still tell much of what's going on back there.

And we cabbies need to know! Anything could be happening in what is, after all, our vehicle. I once got a faint whiff of weed, and had to pull over and chuck the middle-aged couple out, without even stopping to take their money. I left them in a road that was just garage access, but close to 'bus routes and main roads, so when they came to their senses they'd have no great difficulty getting where they were going via other means.

Took me two hours to clear the pong out of my car, and I parked in another garages-only road (there are quite a few of them around these parts) near Tramways, with the windows and doors open. I had to radio in to the firm's office to tell them I couldn't take fares for a while because I was having 'starting problems' with the car. I certainly wasn't risking having the local Boys (or Girls) in Blue even getting a whiff (literally!) of an idea that I might be involved with any kind of drugs..

My takings were well down that day, and I was not best pleased!

That's the problem with this business. Whatever your passengers do to your car, you are the only one who will have to deal with it and cover the costs. Sure, there's insurance, and I have that; but it's not cheap and there's a fair-sized excess before they'll start paying. The paperwork is a bind as well, and there just aren't enough hours in the day to deal with all of that. Most of us just shrug our shoulders and live with it, without claiming and bearing the costs ourselves – unless it's something really serious and expensive to get fixed.

It's nowhere near as easy making a decent living at this game as most people probably think. It's no great surprise that some of the others add to their incomes by ferrying what I'd term 'suspect packages' in their cabs' boots, as that pays better and doesn't involve people damaging or puking in your pride and joy.

I think the cops are well aware this other business goes on; which is why I am so sensitive about being squeaky-clean myself: I know they'd probably home in on me, at least when I am not 'For Hire' – as those other cabs spend most of their time also being. That fact at least means more legit business for the rest of us who are available, though, so there is a silver lining to that cloud.

If they recognise my cab then they'll usually ignore me, as they know very well that I'd never get involved in such activities myself. But if all they see is a white car with a top box they'll assume I am just another possible drug-ferry. I'm always hoping they'll notice the doors, but usually they're behind me or in front so can't see them.

When they pull me over, it's too late to do anything but go through the motions, as these days all their activities are logged and recorded somehow (I don't know the details) so they have to follow-through.

Anyway... Y'know, it's a funny old way to view the world, from in here, inside this taxi. The people on the pavement outside don't notice me, and they certainly can't see me through the slightly tinted windows. I had the tinting done to enhance passengers' privacy, and they often seem to appreciate it. I can see the pedestrians outside, but I can't hear them. It's like we're in two completely different worlds, meeting along just one edge where each world gets a very small glimpse of the other....

Another strange thing: I haven't seen the inside of my flat in nearly two weeks – again! Sometimes I'm away for even longer, just because of this life of mine that keeps me in the car and all too often away from this area overnight. I am good for airport journeys, see, so I tend to get a lot of those radio'ed through from the office. It's gotten more this way in the last two or three years, so most nights I now spend sleeping on the back seat, parked in a lay-by not far from one or other of  the big airports.

I miss my flat...

Tonight, though, it'll have to wait again, as I really need the warm embrace and comforting conversation that Brad provides, so I shall head out to his place on the off-chance that he'll be there.

Brad. Now that's another funny name-word. He tells me it's because he was born in Bradford (and he does still have a residual West Yorkshire accent) and it's supposedly short for that. If I mention a certain famous actor with the same name, he always refers to him as 'Pitt the Much Younger' – a reference to Pitt the Elder, and Younger, from history. I suppose technically he's right: the Hollywood Brad is a lot younger than the others...

Right, it's now the end of my duty period, so I'm off to the fringes of the peninsula, to the west and north, to Brad's place. I've already tried ringing him, just a minute ago, but got the voice-mail again. I know all the timings of the traffic lights from here to there, and how to beat the system by racing through much of the journey, where there are lots of signals fairly close together.

Don't worry, I am very safe. After a car crash took out both my parents, and I miss them terribly to this day, I vowed always to be ultra-safe on the road and have never let that slip. I have an acute awareness of all that is going on around me, even in my peripheral vision, and can calculate all possible scenarios if any other driver were to do something stupid.

I was chatting to one of those rare passengers, one who'll talk to you, who turned out to be a psychologist, about this very thing. He said it might mean my brain operates in 'free association mode', whatever that is.

Whatever, it serves me well enough, and I've never been in an accident myself.

Watch those heads turn as I pass! This always happens when I pass pubs and such places where the smokers congregate on the pavement outside. My sleek all-white (apart from the shocking-pink doors) sports-saloon Manta Ray whipping past at speed always gets the boys' attention. They just know there's a lady driver – the pink gives it away, of course – and most of them would like to have a car like mine.

Okay, okay! I know the pink doors aren't officially acceptable for a Hackney Carriage in this council area; but it's not a big deal, especially as many cab doors are completely covered in multi-coloured adverts anyway. Even the council official who licensed me chuckled at my doors and said that, exceptionally, they'd let it go – but that I wasn't establishing a precedent for others to follow, no sirree! I still smile at that memory...

These still quite new cars have really taken off in this part of Kent, and many cabbies around here have now switched to Mantas, though they always play safe and go for the ordinary saloon or hatchback models. I have the only sporty model, which – by very clever design – looks like an ordinary saloon when parked or at in-town speeds, but somehow  takes on a different look at speed. I have never managed to suss out how they've managed to do that...

Okay, there's Brad's modest but really quite pleasant detached house. He got it, he says, so that he'd never disturb the neighbours through the wall if he was up in the night – which, with his job, is a frequent occurrence.

There is just the hall light on, from what I can see as I approach the drive at the front, and his car isn't there. It could be being serviced, of course, but my hopes aren't high as I trudge up to the front door and ring the bell.

And nearly a minute later I ring it again.

And once more, for (hoped-for) luck.

No: no response. He's out again, probably off somewhere in the south-east region, flogging those supposedly remarkable machines to plastics companies on his patch. It's quite a step up from door-to-door selling, which is where he started; but he has the 'gift of the gab' and can sell anything to anyone, or so it often seems. He even 'sold' himself to me, and that's no easy task, I can tell you...

I look around at a peaceful night-lit scene. This back street isn't a Close, so cars do pass through here every now and then, but it is calm and quiet overall. There are no front fences or walls here: the front lawns lie right next to the footpath (what Americans I have had in my cab call the 'sidewalk').

I can see the line of trees behind the houses that I know border woodland. I have stood on his rear balcony late at night and heard the barking call of a fox from those woodlands, and it sent a wonderful cold thrill down my spine and literally made my breath catch in my throat.

It's amazing! Here, at the border between a new urban growth and the countryside that has been here more centuries at least, is a magical world in which we can share. It's a privilege; and I think it was up there on that balcony just then.that I first understood the true meaning of the word.

Not tonight, though! As I head back towards the heart of these Towns, already going over in my mind the bars, clubs and dives that I know will be open now and for the next several hours, and especially those that admit females free of charge, I know I shall have a good night anyway, Brad or no Brad. It will also get me out of this metal box on wheels for a while, something that is far too infrequent for healthy living, I often think.

One day all this will change. Hopefully it will be better: at this stage of my life I feel it needs to be. For now, though, although I think of myself (with some justification!) as the Queen of the Road, I am also the Woman in the (metal) Box. A life on wheels is fun for a while, especially when you're young, but one day we all need to grow beyond that.

I just hope I shall be able to find a way to break out of this box and settle down to a less crazy lifestyle. I think I've earned it...

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