An Imperial Man
By Mark Burrow
The fare gazed out the back of the cab as we crossed the Thames, eyes fixed on the night black water. At first, I thought the tranny would be chatty and bubbly like they were on TV or in panto. Not this one. Getting a conversation going was like trying to get blood from a stone.
But I fancied a chat for some reason. Over my shoulder, I said: ‘Hey, how would you describe the feeling of losing someone you love?’
‘Excuse me?’ it said.
‘You’re in love with someone, right, and they mean everything to you – and I do mean everything and then – vamoose, they’re gone. They’re not dead but, as far as your future contact with them goes, they might as well be. How’d you say that feels?’
‘People cope differently.’
‘Nah, do they though?’ I said, biting into a BBQ chicken wing. ‘Suffering is what brings us together, no? We all bleed red when the day is done. Come on, tell me.’
‘I think that’s a personal question.’
That creased me up inside. My fares were generally the same: guarded and uptight. As if the idea of something “being personal” mattered in the grand scheme of things. ‘But in a hundred years from now, you’ll be brown bread – me too!’
The tranny returned to window-gazing. I drove along Embankment to Victoria Station. I’d told it straight that the station was closed at this hour but it’d wanted to go regardless. I knew that feeling of wanting to get away all too well. There comes a point when the reflections in the windshields, the shop windows and the mirrors everywhere turn you into this floating ghost, without bone, bereft of shadow, just a stranger cast adrift in some mass grave of glass.
We disappear without a trace.
A drunk woman. She weaved along The Strand in her short skirt by herself at three in the morning.
I pulled my vessel over.
‘Blam,’ she muttered.
Balham it was, then. She flopped onto the back seat. It took four goes to shut the door properly. Her head lolled from side-to-side as I went down Whitehall.
‘You’ll be alright, luv,’ I said over my shoulder.
She repeated the insult. Her accent quite well-to-do.
I nodded, using my teeth to tear the wrapper on a bar of chocolate. ‘Funnily enough, my missus used to say the same,’ I told the girl. ‘I’m a selfish pig and there’s no use denying it. That’s why Val upped sticks and went off with a bingo master from East Sheen… It’s what she wanted…There’s no set map when it comes to individual human happiness… It’s each to their own I’m afraid, hence the madhouse that is the modern world. Now suffering, that’s the exact opposite to my mind. But what are you gunna do, eh, except go with the flow? Am I right or am I right?’
Briefly, the girl had a second wind. Leaning forward, she slurred, ‘He’s cheating on me…Saw texts on his phone…Liar…and…I…’ The waterworks flowed and then she swore and rummaged in her handbag, pulling out a mobile. For a posh and pretty girl she left a right unlady-like message on her fella’s voicemail.
When London’s motley army of barmy druggies and drunks have retreated to their shelters, I often drive to my spot by St Pauls and take a stroll. I look at the rippled river in the fresh dawn light, criss-crossed with the velvety lines and swirls of lethal currents. I reminisce about the mighty sailing ships which used to go from here into uncharted territories. Navigating shark infested oceans to explore wild, mysterious lands with exotic names like where my daughter lived, teaching English. It must’ve been really something in the olden days, to be an agent of empire, an imperial man, bonded by the brotherhood of seafaring adventurers, travelling blind into the great unknown.
This river is wise to London’s every secret.
That tranny, the one I told you about, only went and reported me to the Carriage Office. They threatened to take away my license, my Green Badge, what with that and the other so-called complaints.
‘Inappropriate language,’ they said.
‘Do me a favour,’ I said.
‘Badge,’ they said.
‘Give me strength,’ I said, huffing mainly to myself, all 280 pounds of me running out of the building.
Let me tell you a funny story.
Before my daughter Roxy went to that country with the unpronounceable name, I treated her to a meal in a steakhouse off Leicester Square. It was a posh place with red seats, leather-bound menus and the waiters wore waistcoats.
We were seated at a table by the wide front window. I unbuttoned my jacket and then reached into my carrier bag to hand her the jewellery box I’d made as a gift for doing so well at university and then passing her course to teach abroad. ‘This is for you,’ I said.
‘What a surprise,’ she replied, sarkily.
It wasn’t the response I’d expected. I acted like she’d said what I had imagined when spending hours in the spare room crafting the box with my own hands. ‘You’re welcome, sweetheart,’ I said, leaning forward to peck her on the cheek.
‘That’s your present?’ She straightened her back, yet to touch the box, let alone let me kiss her.
There were piercings skewering her nose and tongue. A pendant of Africa hung round her neck and she had to carry a book about with her to show everybody she was an intellectual (this one was by some French bloke writing about evil flowers).
‘Woodwork,’ she said. ‘Can’t you think of anything original?’
I could see I was losing Roxy like I lost Val.
Anger got the better of me, which was the last thing I wanted. ‘This act of yours isn’t real,’ I said.
‘Sure,’ she replied.
‘Dressing like you do, pretending to be an artist who is above everyone else… It’s fantasy.’
‘How would you know?’
‘Join the real world.’
I kept talking when I knew I should shut-up and give it a rest.
‘And what is that, dad: boring yourself senseless in a job you hate? Getting married and having a family with a person who mistakes control for love?’
‘This isn’t you.’
‘As if you’d know.’
‘Cabbies are stupid, is that it?’
‘Who’s shouting? Am I an embarrassment?’
‘You are if you keep shouting.’
‘I have 25,000 streets memorised up here,’ I said, tapping a temple.
‘Big whoop – people use Satnav now anyway.’
‘It’s not the same.’
‘No one cares about memorising roads, dad, and I’m
not talking about that…Mum was tired of you and your stupid woodwork, locking yourself in that room whenever you weren’t cabbing…It was one of the reasons she left…You were never there.’
The waiter rested my dish of prawn cocktail and Roxy’s bowl of something or other onto our respective mats.
‘You give us these presents because you like making them.’
That floored me. ‘Is that what you think?’ I said.
‘Mum hated your woodwork,’ she answered, hand rolling a cigarette. ‘Not that you ever bothered to ask her how she felt.’
I scooped up a prawn in the mayonnaise and ketchup sauce. ‘You’re reading too many books, that’s your problem. When are you going to find yourself a boyfriend?’
‘Jesus, haven’t you figured it by now?’
‘Girls, dad. That’s what I like. Not boys, girls.’
I nearly choked on a prawn.
‘At least mum and Tom would never bring me to a steakhouse – they know that I’m a vegetarian.’
‘Since when?’ I blurted.
‘Hold on a second…Tom,’ I said. ‘You’ve met mum’s fella?’
‘But…What’s he like?’
‘I can’t handle this,’ she said, taking her book and hurriedly shuffling along the seat, knocking over her glass of red wine.
‘Roxy, don’t go, I didn’t mean it,’ I said. ‘We’ve already ordered. We can’t let the grub go to waste.’
She ignored me.
The waiter placed serviettes on the floral carpet to soak up the spilt drink. I stared out the window, clocking the mobbed reflections of the nosey restaurant diners floating in the glass behind me.
I threw the box.
In some ways, my carpenter’s instincts have been a curse. It’s not easy, driving my taxi to the edges of the night and then hearing the inner call of the handsaw and the lathe, tape measure and spirit level. Val never truly understood my needs.
Few ever did.
How could they?
Only now do I fully understand myself.
Go with the flow – you bet I do.
Coloured lights shimmer on the Thames like silent fireworks. I returned to my cab and unloaded the sections of the vessel I had spent months carving since Val decided her future was elsewhere. When I locked the cab, I paid my respects to the good times we’d shared and the people we’d ferried home. I carefully gathered the sail and walked. Some of the office windows were lit up. Security guards lazily conducted scheduled patrols. Immigrant cleaners vacuumed and tore off fresh bin liners for the office workers set to arrive after sunrise.
I tossed my keys into the river.
It was high tide.
I held my Green Badge. The paintwork scratched and faded. That was an amazing feeling, passing The Knowledge and driving a shiny new taxi back to the estate, seeing Val waving from the second-floor balcony and Roxy’s little smiling chops. Our troubles were over, moneywise. Finally, I was my own boss and could earn a decent living for my family. ‘I’m so proud of you,’ Val had said, giving me a whopping great kiss.
She made a cracking spag bog to celebrate.
I couldn’t chuck the badge. I hung it round my neck and slotted the segments of the boat together. It was a well-drilled process as I had practised often enough in the wee hours by the boating lake in Battersea Park. When complete, I set the boat on the water, tossed in my supplies and climbed aboard, careful not to capsize my Golden Hinde. The final task was to slot in the mast and then I raised the white sail with its red cross on the front like the flag of St George (I’d made the sail from Val’s wedding dress and her smashing red silk undies).
A gust of wind filled the sail and the boat was moving. I opened a bag of spicy chilli flavoured crisps and then grasped the tiller, heading toward Tower Bridge. Oh, I knew the risks such a voyage posed. But was it really a hardship to be lost at sea? To succumb to a typhoon or a hurricane and to sink to the seabed like a flake of food in a fish tank?
Besides, if luck was with me (now there’s a thought), I could land on the island where Roxy taught English. She might appreciate me striding ashore and showing my weather beaten, bearded face. My tattered, ripped clothes. Seeing the price I was prepared to pay for trying to rule the waves. She might even tell her mother about how I became a one man navy.
Sailing by Traitors’ Gate, water slopped and splashed over the sides and into the boat. I imagined the fate of shackled bingo masters in Tudor times, frogmarched to the Tower and never seen again…
For a map, I had the spinning globe from Roxy’s bedroom that I’d bought for her seventh birthday…Not that navigation really mattered…I was on the greatest of waterways, a river that had carried countless ships of men to the farthest corners and most remote stations of the earth.
Men like me.