I am a very occasional taxi user. The taxi journeys that I do take are largely limited to holiday transfers when my usual reserve has been left at home, and drunken solo journeys home when all constraint has been buried under a polystyrene tray filled with chips and gravy. If I go anywhere beyond walking distance I will generally drive myself or be chauffeured by my wife. We take ill-tempered turns at being teetotal for the evening. There is no rancour between us on the silent, sighing journey home, just a latent brooding antipathy that lingers deep into the following day.
Unfamiliarity, though, always leads to uncertainty and, in this particular instance, a sea of taxi dilemmas. From the start I am havering. If I am en-taxi with my wife, I join her in the back of the cab, but if I am alone is it good form to join the driver in the front, or is it taboo? I do not know. I know that when you are alone in a taxi conversation must be made with the driver, and hollering over their shoulder is not always easy. Realising that he/she is replying whilst staring fixedly into the rear-view mirror is a little discomforting. And anyway, what should I say? How do I stop myself from asking, ‘So, what time did you start?’ ‘Are you working all night?’ ‘What time do you finish?’ If I am drunk I struggle to sound sober, if I am sober I struggle to sound coherent. I would like to have something that resembles, at least, an adult conversation with the person beside me; to not be the person that asks neither about health, family or enjoyment, but questions only the length of a working day. ‘So, what did you do before you started driving taxis for a living?’ is usually what finds its way out of my gibbering mouth. ‘What’s your favourite car?’ ‘Would you sooner be a polar bear or a penguin?’
I once travelled home from a boozy meal with two friends, both of whom left the taxi before me. I was the most sober of the three of us – possibly of the four of us – and was in the front seat alongside what I quickly realised was a very odd lady driver indeed. She patted my leg. ‘I know a quick way to your village,’ she said making a sound, I swear, like someone drinking Chianti and eating fava beans. ‘I know these country roads like the back of my hand.’ I noticed she was wearing gloves. ‘I know all the shortcuts, I found them on a Top Secret Ministry of Defence map,’ she continued before speeding into what turned out to be the not-very-long drive to somebody’s front door. ‘Ah,’ she said ‘I think this must be new.’ She reversed unsteadily, and I jumped out to help nurse her back onto the road. It transpired that her maps were, in fact, a 1930’s pencil sketch of the nearby airfield made by her grandfather who ‘laid the runway’ and besides, she didn’t normally work in the evening, because her night vision was not what it used to be. She generally stayed in town these days. ‘It’s lighter. Normally I just go from pub to pub.’ I guided her to my home, best I could, getting us onto lit main roads at the earliest possible opportunity. When we arrived outside my house, she thanked me and I gave her the fare plus a tip, although I couldn’t help but think that she should have been tipping me. I couldn’t help worrying whether she would find her own way back to town. Perhaps I should have gone with her…
And the tip. I always tip a taxi driver – even though it sometimes seems embarrassing to do so – but my daughters never do, arguing that nobody ever tips them for doing their jobs. ‘Keep the change’ is such an easy option, but sometimes the change is just too much and you have to wait for the driver to carry out the over-elaborate hunt for seven pounds in five pence coins, before you can count fifty pence back into the still open palm whilst he/she sighs cheese and onion crisps into your face.
It is never until you get to your front door that you realise that your keys are in your coat pocket on the back seat of the cab along with your phone, the photograph of the driver’s ID and the name of the company you have used, and you wish that you’d come home two hours earlier whilst your wife was still awake enough to drive you, knowing that you would have no worries at all about whether you should speak to the driver or not.
Almost certainly not.