Tinder - ch 4 - Barry
By Mark Burrow
Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. I’m not saying I’m always right. My wife, she used to say: “Well if Barry says it’s true, then it must be true.” Or: “That’s the gospel according to Barry, I take it.” I could be a bit of a rent-a-mouth in my younger days. But Pam knew how to handle me and she was only joking when she made those remarks. Joking but letting me know I should keep myself in check. Besides, that’s the closest Pam and I came to having crossed words between us after 20 years of marriage.
The punter in the back of the cab, he was going on about how much actors got paid. ‘It’s obscene,’ he says. ‘I like going to the pictures as much as the next person but they’re actors and yet they behave like they are actually significant.’
Posh as you like: "Actually significant!"
This chinless wonder, it turns out, was a surgeon and he’d definitely had one too many glasses of champers at a black tie bash in one of the hotels on Park Lane. Leaning forward in the seat, he goes, ‘What does it say about our value system when a person playing the role of a doctor or a nurse earns more than real doctors and nurses who are genuinely saving lives?’
He was the image of drunken earnestness. It must’ve been a conversation that started up during the posh meal with his bow-tied chums. I says to him, ‘That’s the power of entertainment.’
‘An age of absolute relativism,’ he replies.
‘Yeah but people want to be entertained, don’t they? It’s where the money is. Entertainment generates more money than healthcare.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he says, all high and mighty. ‘Look at the pharmaceutical giants.’
‘You’re looking down your nose at entertainment, though. After a hard day’s work, we want some release. We want to unwind and relax a little. Don’t you think?’
I was just firing off a couple of opinions…Just being sociable…He was gazing at a couple of coppers who had pulled over a car outside Selfridges. Snooty he may have been, but he was one of the more interesting types. A well educated sort who was entitled to opinions of his own. Not that you had to be a chinless wonder who went to a posh school to be allowed to think for yourself.
‘Some of them are alright,’ I tell him.
He’s day-dreaming about yachting or something and he’s going to fall asleep in the back of the cab, which I can do without (women falling asleep in the back of the cab are the worst as they might think you’re trying it on if you go in the back and try to wake them).
I repeat what I’d said.
‘Who are?’ he mutters.
‘I doubt it.’
We were bombing along Regent Street. The night was hot and people were searching for other places to drink now the pubs had shut. ‘For me, the bigger the star, the nicer the person,’ I says. ‘Take Dustin Hoffman, you couldn’t meet a friendlier, more personable bloke.’
‘A friend of yours?’
He was being funny – as they do when they’ve had a few (me included). ‘Oh yeah, me and Dustin go back a long way,’ I says. ‘But all I’m saying is that, when he was in the back of this cab, sitting where you’re sitting now, he didn’t act special. With Dustin, you knew that he knew that his shit stank the same as everyone else’s. Do you catch my drift? Whereas with lesser lights, as it were, they act like they’re the big cheese. A classic example, right, is Jimmy Saville. I’ve had Saville in my cab twice now and – pardon my French – but I’ve never met a bigger C-U-N-T in all my life. I swear, a total you know what. All he did was give one word answers. Telling me he was too tired to talk about Jim’ll Fix It. That he had an important meeting…which is okay….You think to yourself: fair enough. But he said the same stuff on two separate occasions. You see – I gave him the benefit of the doubt on the first job, but on the second, nah. I’m not having it. I’m getting angry just thinking about him. Who does he think he is? I’m sorry, but the man’s a total, utter cunt. There, I’ve said it. But he is. Well and truly. I tell you this, if I saw Saville hailing for me on this street and you weren’t in the back like you are now, I wouldn’t stop for him. No thank you. He could stand on that pavement waving his arm until hell freezes over for all I care.’
The surgeon wasn’t too keen on what I was saying. ‘Could you pipe down a bit,’ he says.
Well, I guess you do have to mind your Ps and Qs. I was going to tell him about the famous faces who have sat in the cab. Stars like Michael Caine (happy to have a chat). Russell Grant (moody). Robin Day (drunk as a lord). Robert Powell (surprisingly short). Susannah York (bit of a luvvie and not as pretty as you’d think – absolutely no arse on her). It can make the average fares I pick up feel like they’re somewhere special when I tell them who’s been in the back, but not the surgeon. I kept my stories to myself and dropped him off in Vauxhall, not far from where that whoring MP has a penthouse.
I could’ve easily returned to the estate. I’d worked 13 hours straight. Going back to an empty place wasn’t doing it for me, though. It’s not that I mind my own company. I’m quite at ease being by myself. That’s what drew me to the cabbing in the first place. Answering to no one. I never did get on with bosses.
It’s the first few minutes when I step into the flat which are the worst, seeing everything exactly the same as I left it. That expectation of hearing her pottering around, or the muffled sound of her programmes in the living room…The clickety-clack of her knitting needles…Asking me if I want a cup of tea or telling me to put the rubbish out. Even when I used to arrive home and she was in bed sleeping or I’d worked a day shift and she had gone to the shops, the quietness in the flat wasn’t the same. Don’t ask me how but I swear it’s true. When I walk into the flat now, there’s a different kind of silence without her being here anymore.
I like to make things out of wood and that’s a comfort. Chairs. Jewellery. Tables. Ornate shelves. Desks. I got myself a City and Guilds and I sell bits and bobs at the car boot sale in Abbey Mills when I have enough pieces finished. It’s surprising how a hobby can be a comfort and take your mind off of things. That and the job. My boy says the flat looks like a warehouse. Perhaps he’s right. She never used to mind so long as the furniture and ornaments stayed in the spare room. And I make less than I used to. It occurred to me while taking a fare from Limehouse to Putney Bridge that one of the reasons why I make less is that I can’t show her what I’ve done. I liked hearing what she thought. Seeing that smile and receiving a quick kiss or a raise of the eyebrow and listening to her suggestions (which could annoy me now and then, I won’t lie). Reactions, that’s what I miss the most.
I wrote a receipt for the surgeon. He didn’t give me a tip.
Drive until exhaustion sets in.
We talked about leaving London a lot. Heading to Southend where her family live. We discussed buying a dog and taking long walks along the beach and promenade. She wanted a King Charles spaniel, while I was fond of Labradors. I switch off the “Hire” light and listen to the chassis rattle and the diesel engine turn, seeing traffic lights change to deserted streets and driving between high glass buildings patrolled by sleepy security guards. I thought about my boy. He was in his early teens when we talked of moving to Southend and being by the sea. He told us in no uncertain terms that he wanted to stay in London to be with his friends. I think he would’ve been okay had we gone. Kids adapt. Pam wasn’t so sure and we stayed on the estate. He went off to uni at 18 anyhow. The first in the family on both sides to get himself an education and use his brain instead of his hands. Now he’s finished and teaching English in some far off country I can’t pronounce. Teaching English sounded fine initially, but it’s not what I’d call proper teaching. He rarely gets in touch. I get an occasional postcard. I understand. I do. We’re both dealing with events in our own fashion. He called on Boxing Day, although he was supposed to call on Christmas Day (he made a poor excuse about getting confused about the time zones).
“Happy Christmas,” I said.
“Merry New Year,” he answered.
I could hardly hear him. “What did you do yesterday?”
There was a delay. “What?” he eventually replied.
I picked up on his slurred voice. “You been drinking?” I asked him.
Another delay. “Have you?”
He was drunk. “Are you having a nice time?”
“Yes…” He said something else which I asked him to repeat. “Nothing,” I heard him say.
“When are you coming home?” I said, slowly like I was asking for directions in a foreign country.
“Not sure,” came the reply.
“What are you going to do for work when you get home?”
“I can’t hear you,” he said.
“Have you thought about a proper job?”
“Terrible line. Have to go. Happy Christmas, Papa Ganoush.”
Then the line went dead. He’d hung up on me. All I had to do was mention the dreaded “C” word – career – and he thought I was cruising for an argument, when I wasn’t in the slightest. Pam said I had to let him find his own way but all he seemed to be doing was getting sloshed and taking god knows what else in a hotter part of the world. To my way of thinking, the worst thing you could do was waste your talent. He was smart. He had education. Surely he could look at me and see how you could end up if you didn’t get yourself into gear?
That was my Christmas conversation. I was supposed to stay with my older sister, but I didn’t get on too well with her fella. He’s too flash for my tastes. Once, he showed me his “wardrobe”. Not the actual wardrobe, mind, which was a quality piece of teak workmanship, but the clothes inside…His clothes…I thought he was having me on at first as he held up a shirt. “Guess how much that costs?” he said, totally obsessed by money. My sister had become the same. Going on about their fireplace, car, television…Money, money, money. Pam and I could laugh about it together, but the joke wasn’t funny anymore with her not there to share it with me.
So I left my sister’s and drove the cab on Boxing Day. It was either that or sitting in front of the box, getting sozzled. There were no fares to speak of and before it got dark I headed for Battersea Park and fed the ducks. The branches of the trees were bare, except for a delicate white fringe of frost. Pam liked for us to go there. She was scared of the swans and their snapping beaks. We would stay near the ducks and toss bread onto the water for them to eat, shooing the swans away. I wasn’t the only one in that park on that crisp, cold Boxing Day. I saw couples and families, children wearing gloves and hats in thick, quilted coats, some riding their shiny bicycles, others learning how to fly kites. I watched them without trying to seem like I was watching, self conscious of being a man alone in the park.
Driving is sort of a comfort. Watching the road. Spotting a fare. But this is a weeknight and there’s no one about in the City and the West End. The waiters and bar stuff have shared a few drinks at the end of another shift, cashed up the tills, placed chairs on tables, swept the floors and put out the rubbish long ago. Even the bouncers have gone home to wives and girlfriends and warm beds.
I switch on the “Hire” light as I near Streatham Common. Working all hours, I’d discovered that the brasses worked the common. I drove by very slowly. They craned forwards, faces bright with paint, beckoning with curled fingers, blowing kisses, stepping off the curb and onto the road, loosening buttons, touching the cab, almost naked in the pressing heat of the night.
Then I could see one properly hail me. I sped up to her and the bloke she had picked up was paraletic. The brass told me to head for a B&B in Colliers Wood. I started driving and the bloke was pawing at her ruffled blouse and I had to tell them to pack it in.
There wasn’t an ounce of fat on her. She was as thin and as cold looking as those trees in Battersea Park. I reached the B&B and the bloke, who was in a suit, was too legless to count the fare. The girl took his wallet, paid the exact amount and pocketed a wad of notes for herself and returned a much lighter wallet. Her stonewashed, drainpipe jeans were baggy on her. It was painful to see someone that skinny. Seeing her so stick thin brought back memories of Pam. God knows what this girl was on. ‘Why’d you keep gawping at me?’ she asked, in that way of flirtiness and no-nonsense that they have after being on the game for a while.
‘You remind me of someone,’ I says.
She put her hand on a hip, trying to be sassy. ‘Who’s that then? You’re good looking. I like you.’
‘Sure you do, love. You should eat more.’
‘I’ll eat whatever you want me to,’ she goes.
Her punter was on the far side of the road, supporting himself on railings. ‘I won’t be long with him. Wait here and we can have some fun.’
She couldn’t have been older than 21. Beneath the dried make-up and dark circles there once lived the face of a pretty girl. ‘I’ll give you a lift home, but that’s it,’ I says.
‘It’ll cost you.’
‘I’m a taxi driver, love. I don’t pay to drive people around.’
‘It doesn’t work like that. You’d be getting a free lift home. Me paying you would be like you paying your punter for whatever it is you’re going to do.’
She was leaning on the door now. A bit too close for my liking. I checked my takings were out of reach. The sign in the B&B saying “Vacancies” hung at an angle from a single chain. She placed a hand on my thigh. I placed it back on the door.
‘Don’t be like that,’ she said.
‘You’re barking up the wrong tree.’
‘We can have fun. Wait for me. I won’t be long. He just likes to be peed on in the bath and then he does the rest himself.’
‘You’re having me on?’ I says.
She let out a dirty laugh. ‘See you in 15 mins,’ she goes and with her handbag swinging off her shoulder she crossed the road and led him up the front steps of the B&B.
I switch off the engine. The light came on in the reception area and then it was off again. I sat there and thought about taking her to mine and making breakfast. We could have fried bread, bacon rashers, eggs, beans, buttered toast, bangers and a pot of tea. She could tell me her story (they all had their reasons). But then it occurred to me that I hadn’t been shopping and the shops wouldn’t be open for ages.
For forty minutes I sat there. She wasn’t coming. I headed back to the estate, neither happy or sad. The air was warm and smoky as I went over Vauxhall Bridge, glancing at the moonlight on the surface of the swirling, heavy river…(That river had such stories to tell)…Pam asked me at one point to put her out of her misery. We both knew the end was inevitable and it was pointless to prolong the agony. I couldn’t do it, though. I wonder about that aplenty.
As I drive nearer to the estate, I see an orange haze in the black sky and assume there has been a riot. Two police cars block the entrance to the estate. I park the cab where I can and go and speak to a copper, telling him I’m a resident. He tells me to stand with the crowd of tenants by the shops. Rubber hoses criss-cross the streets. Firemen climb onto a fourth floor balcony from a ladder. The flames attack the walls of the estate mercilessly. The block where Pam and I used to live was disappearing in a mass of red and yellow. There are explosions and a fireman wearing a white hat shouts at a policeman to move us farther back because of gas. A woman shrieks as a fireman tries to carry an old lady, still in her nightdress, down a ladder. I stood and watched the rapid, beating flames engulf and destroy the flats.
Returning to my cab, I checked I had the wedding photo of Pam and the photo of us together taken at the booth in Hammersmith tube. I had the photo of the boy’s graduation too. As for the other possessions, the sofa, the TV, the clothes and curtains, savings, rent book, they could go up in smoke. After all, only death lasts forever.
Some say it’s what you do in life that makes you. I think that’s for documentaries and American movies. For the rest of us, our actions don’t amount to much as we virtually make the same choices. There’s no legacy as such. It’s a case of not leaving behind too many debts and hoping others can overlook the arguments and recriminations you’ve had. We go to school and learn the three Rs. We pass or fail exams and then hunt for jobs or some kind of means to earn money that won’t crush our spirits too quickly. We leave home and find a place to live because we’ve met someone or what we’ve called home was a feeding ground for tension and raised voices. We get married and think about having kids. Perhaps we try and find a place where the roof doesn’t leak and maybe there’s a garden too. In our own fashion, we make upgrades, improvements. We try to better ourselves.
But it’s opinions that allow us to be ourselves. Or that’s how it seems initially. Nearly any fool can buy a new pair of shoes, but to express an opinion, that’s the mark of an individual and active mind! When you’re younger you’re keen to let others know what you think. You eagerly cast opinions on teachers, classmates, colleagues, friends, films, bosses, sports, wars, politicians, catastrophes and who’s wearing what. You begin every sentence with: “I think that…” If you can be opinionated and funny too, then you’re made…You’re a regular, genuine raconteur…Quick witted…A splash of cynicism with a dash of crudity and bam!…There you have it…Social dynamite…You’ll be a hit with the ladies in the bars and the lads on the factory floor or office …“It’s funny, but true,” they’ll coo about your pearls of wisdom.
To your face, you’ll be liked…Popular…For a while at least…As you grow older, you learn to accept that what they’ve whispered all along behind your back is true…You’re not as funny and original as you thought…You never did quite make the grade…Worst of all, you discover that what you think doesn’t matter that much to anybody, let alone yourself. Those observations and diatribes were just mating sounds, a beating of the chest…So you go quiet…You say to yourself: “What’s the point?” You’re not sure what to think...Those certainties and convictions were just castles in the sand…Besides, you’ve said it all before and you’ve gone nowhere. The sound of your own voice makes you sick. Better to let the others around you make the noise…But even they go quiet too after a while…In other words, you and your friends have grown up.
But there will be a few people who you listened to and who lent their ear to you…One or two who you became close to through the passing years…And then that closeness wasn’t built upon penetrating insights and great thinking. At best, you made each other laugh. You got along. You meant something special to one another but you didn’t quite always realise how you felt during the day to day. At the very end, it’s not your house or expensive shirt or your job that matters, but your opinion of a person and their opinion of you. That’s not to get too carried away or sentimental. Personality doesn’t count for much when worms are living inside your skull...Hardly anything, really.
“That Barry, he could be selfish alright and he wasn’t the best of dads, but his heart was in the right place. His intentions were good.”
“Barry never liked woodwork at school. Funny how he got into it like he did.”
“Pam was the kindest person you could ever meet. She was funny and thoughtful and no one had a bad word to say about her. It’s cruel how the good ones always get taken early. I miss her.”
Now that’s a real legacy.