“Muswell Hill Road, please.”
The boy kisses me goodbye and I slip into the seat.
We drive. “That your boyfriend?” “Yes,” I say, looking back at his coat moving away, the big collar lit up by the lights overhead. He’s not my boyfriend. I want him to be. He will be, and then he won’t be. It’ll work out just fine. Looking back now, I remember every moment of the journey.
“Good part of town for it,” says the cabbie. “Met my wife up here. Long time back. Used to go for a drink round the corner.” I smile to myself. He’s guessed, straightaway, that this thing’s early days. Does he still live round here? “No, Enfield now. Nice up there. Quieter. Better for the blood when you get older.” He laughs; his chest rattles. It’s a big, comforting sound. I feel warm, and laugh too. The red numbers by the rear view mirror change with a click.
I feel snug in the back, so I ask him his name. “Reg. Pleased to meet you. And you?” I tell him and we talk about that song by the Beatles. We share details for a while, give each other pocket-sized versions of our life stories: his family in Wales, how long I’ve been in the city. We’re as chatty as each other. Then I ask him how long he’s been out here. How long he’s had the badge. How long it’s been since he had his blue book.
We stop at the lights just outside Tottenham, and Reg lays an arm across the steering wheel. He turns and smiles through some big, gappy teeth. Another rattle, loud and lovely. “You mean The Knowledge, do you?” he smiles. “Well, love, it’s been a while since I’ve thought about that.”
Men – it’s almost always men – school round the Public Carriage Office like fishes. Some in yellow coats, fresh off their bikes. Others with shirts tucked in tight, thrust into smart trousers, hidden under shiny belt buckles. There is fidgeting, walking back and forth. Cigarettes stuck in their mouths. You guess that this is the quietest some of them have ever been. The tests take place here. Every morning, the end of Penton Street is thick with nerves.
Every morning, I see them. They stand in front of the Office, a bulky, white, modern hangar, one of those buildings the government made too quickly in the ’60s. This is where they come to learn their trade. Over the three or four years it takes to master The Knowledge, they’ll all have other jobs. After work and on weekends, they take a scooter, moped or motorbike, map fixed to the handlebars, and head out into the city to work their way through their runs. There are 320. Each run goes from Point A to point B, with pick-up points along the way. All the roads, streets, squares, hotels, pubs, clubs, courts, government buildings, police stations, railway stations, cemeteries, parks, open spaces: all the places someone could throw at you, like fishes at a seal, waiting to be committed to memory. Every detail of London, in a six mile radius from Charing Cross, must get into your mind, and sink deeply in, to earn the Green Badge. There’s a written test first, and then there’s the “appearances”, one-to-one oral exams in the Carriage Office’s “corridor of fear”. You’re graded according to how well you do. If you’re good, less appearances in future; if you’re not so good, more. This while living your life. And, after that, there’s the suburbs.
“If you’re in doubt, there’s the oranges and lemons.” Dave’s cab crawls slowly across Blackfriars Bridge. I’ve had one of those days. I’m ill, full of cold, and have to be in Hackney by eight. I can’t really afford it. “You get stuck, see. We all do. So you go for the main roads. Look at an A-to-Z. The main roads – orange and lemon. So we go round by that. Not often, mind,” he adds, pretty stiffly. “You tell me somewhere and most times and I’ll tell you where it is.”
I wriggle out of my cold for a minute. This sounds like a challenge. I try a moderate one. “The Lucky Seven Diner.” “Westbourne Park Road, by the Westway. The Paddington line’s opposite. You take…” The roads rattle out of his mouth. In a minute, I’m told how to get there by shortcuts. I try the name of a play. “New Ambassadors, love, you turn left…” He’s away. Then I try one I’ve seen online, on a Knowledge quiz website. A tricky one that might fox him. “The PC Blakelock memorial.” “The one killed over at Broadwater Farm?” “Yes,” I say, thinking about the estate out in Tottenham, how I’ve got old Dave flummoxed. “Muswell Hill Broadway, on the roundabout, between Boots and Pizza Express.” I give up. He’s too good. “You’ve beaten me, Dave.” I laugh, just like he does. He looks at me in the rear-view mirror, sticks his tongue out and raises an eyebrow.
“Looking for a COP in or around BOW or East London area. On 9 points on 56s at the moment”, it says on the website, like a personal ad in a curious tongue. Another site asks cabbies for stories about people they’ve ’ad in the back of their cab. You read the questions in Cockney. “Did they give you a good tip? And were they a pleasure to take to their destination – or did they give you the raving ’ump?” Another features various anagrams (“A London Black Taxi Driver: lax, erratic, blind on vodka”). It’s a language that belongs completely to cabbies. They have a special camaraderie, a kinship that works between people who spend most of their days sitting out on their own, in the company of those they meet only for a moment, often once and once only.
“Tell me again where you mean,” Alan calls through the partition. We wait behind a night bus that’s full to capacity, flashing its indicator, but stuck to the spot.
“On the 134 into town. We’d always get caught around Camden.” The bus finally moves, and Alan follows as I yammer on, drunkenly. “One morning, passing Mornington Crescent, behind the billboards opposite, I saw a big car park FULL of taxis.” I slouch a bit in my seat. “And this café, or something.” “The Granby Grill, that is,” offers Alan, broadly, as the bus turns to the right. “But why’s it hidden?” “It’s not hidden,” he corrects me, then pauses a moment. “But it’s only for us – you have to have your badge to get in. It’s closed at the moment, but it’s only for us lot.”
I pass there sober one day, and walk round the corner. It’s open again. There’s a purr in the engines, a jokey swing to the voices. I feel bad for coming near. I’m not one of them, I’m one of us. I leave them be. We all need our free time.
A few days later, by chance, I walk past an old dark green shelter in Russell Square. I hear laughter inside. Cabbies come here for a break – for a warm drink, a joke, and maybe something to eat. There are other shelters dotted across town, tiny little things, like marooned beach huts. A cabbie wanders outside, and I smile at him. He raises an Arsenal mug, calls “Afternoon!” and salutes as I go.
“Took me three years,” says John. “Only three or four years ago. Before that I worked for my dad.” We approach Shepherd’s Bush, go round the roundabout with the white and blue water tower. “I couldn’t get decent work. The pay’s not great doing this, but the freedom’s all right.” I say the hours must be good; you can work when you want to. “But I never see my wife. I’m always out in the nights, ’cos the fares are much better. The days, I prefer. Better when you get a long fare.” I’m going to Heathrow from town, and I’m getting expenses, my favourite kind of journey. “It’s easier at night. Less bloody idiots.” A minute later, two schoolgirls run blind across the road, shrieking with laughter. “Apart from them, mind,” he shouts, shoving his hand on the horn. “Watch yourselves, ladies!” And he shrugs. “But what can you say? We’re all young once.”
Once a year, the Public Carriage Office has an Open Day. I go with a friend. “Would you like a balloon?” says a man as we enter, and I nearly shout “YES!” and run round the corridors like a child at a tea party. There’s the corridor of fear, the booking-in and booking-out booths, the big area where the cars are inspected. Today it’s full of stuff for aspiring drivers, and stands for cabbie charities that help underprivileged children. At the front of the yard is a stage with a projector screen, where a Knowledge quiz is underway. It’s in the style of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Bill Askwith is asked how we know when the Queen is at Buckingham Palace. One of the answers is “when the lights are on”. Mark Cooper talks about when he picked up Frank Carson. Another cabbie mentions picking up Joan Collins, and the crowd goes “Whooooo!” She was, he says proudly, “a very nice lady.”
We walk outside and sit in the backs of old cabs. I’m told off for leaving a door open. I pick up an application pack and flick through some runs. A single page turns my brain to jelly. I say this to the woman manning the stand. “That’s what it’s like!” she laughs, quite politely. I smile and thank her and wander downstairs; I look at some video screens describing other “cabbie characters” (“he had Sting as a fare – a very good tipper”). I go back outside. I look over to where I work. I want to wave to show that I’ve emerged, safe and unharmed, from the place that makes all those big men so terrified.
What’s your favourite thing about London?
“Waterloo Bridge,” says Dave, with a sparkle. “You see everything – Westminster at night, all the City, Canary Wharf at the north side.”
“Albert Bridge,” says Alan. “Lit up like a fairy. And it’s on the way home.”
“It changes by the week,” says John. “It used to be Whitehall, down there. I like Smithfields right now. Not much fare up there, though. You’ve got to keep that in mind.”
Reg turns into Muswell Hill Road, and the rain starts to dance down the windows. “It letting me go home at the end of the night!” He laughs broadly again and pulls over. “And there’s the passengers who chat to you like you’re a proper human being.” He smiles. “Thank you for that, love. You get in that house safe. And you best ring that boyfriend to tell him you’re home.”
[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 6.]