Tuesday, May 01, 2007


It was late on a week night. About eleven-thirty. I was coming back down the Strand when I got his fare.
I was stopped on the corner of Wellington street and Aldwych. There is a small shop there that sells sandwiches and drinks till late. Sometimes if having a slow night or in need of a break I stop. Most nights I work until one-thirty or two. It is after midnight I make the best fares. Then the black cabs no longer run.

This night I was coming out of the shop with a cheese sandwich and a coffee when I noticed a tall man trying to hail a cab. He stood out from the pavement in front of a bus stop and as I walked back towards my car, I saw three cabs pass by and then the man look at his watch.
I got in his car and ate my sandwich. I drank my coffee and then started up.
When I pulled out onto Aldwych he was still there. He was standing with his hands in his pockets. His raincoat was pulled tightly around him, its collar up.
I pulled over and rolled down the window. I showed my mini-cab badge and asked where he needed to go.

We drove across the river. The Waterloo bridge. I noticed, as I always did, the lights of the city, the river stretched out and the rise of office towers and banks to my left. This always made me feel good. In a way part of something big.
I had never wished to be a big fish in a small pond. I preferred to be a small fish in a big pond. It is better, I feel, to mark yourself against the best of things than to deceive yourself that you are something more than you are. In social terms I do not think myself to be much. Though I know too, social terms are transient. Sooner or later you have to look yourself in the mirror and decide what you are. That not to know what or who you are is to be lost. That many people get lost under the person they think they are. People who think a role is the same as individuality.

I drove down to Waterloo. The station stood quietly, the lights of its platforms were ghosts against the empty offices, the rise of glass and steel. And the stranger began to talk.

He was a man of about fifty. His hair was short and tight. It shone silvery in the street lights flicking past. In the rear-view mirror, I could see his build was long and angular, that he sat with his legs a little awkwardly bunched up. At first, he just made small talk. Asking about things, commenting on something we would pass. To me he appeared informed, had an air of thoughtfulness. He spoke with a north-American accent.

We came onto London Road and headed down to Elephant and Castle.
When young I found this a strange name. It suggested something vaguely absurd. I would imagine a string of colourful buildings, public houses, or a fair with tinny music and lots of rides. Nothing really prepared you for the bleak circular junction. For the depleted shopping centre, the high-rises, the run down council flats, the sense of having stumbled into a cage. A concrete and steel rent in the city's fabric. And then the New Kent Road running off it like an incision into south-east London.
Once, when younger I had a camera stolen here. An early spring evening when it seemed the city was in a sort of limbo. When the burst of shoots on trees, the sudden lurch of light into darkness, jarred against the smog and car fumes hanging to the air. The oil and petroleum fumes clinging to the brick work and asphalt around me.
I was to meet a friend. Outside the Underground station. As I watched her walk toward me, her blue jeans and green suede jacket, her hair lightly red with henna, two teenagers grabbed the back-pack that hung from my shoulder. They disappeared into the station. I pursued them. Running past the protesting guard, coming to a halt at the lift doors as they closed in my face. I took the next lift but when I reached the platform they were gone. There was only a departing northbound train. To cool my anger I returned to the street by the stairs, climbing the three hundred something steps only to find himself confronted by a guard on the last turn before the top. Demanding to see a ticket. He rolled his eyes and with a Caribbean lilt to his voice, insisted on the excess fare. I paid it and I found my friend, still waiting, her face white and anxious, I no longer had the energy for an evening out. Instead we took a taxi to where she lived and sat in the kitchen, talking and watching the light fall over the city, watching it fade and seep as if into the horizon and the stars come out, the stars forcing their way through the south London night.

Still the names of the city intrigue me. Even after so many years I still relish each name with a freshness. Each name speaks to me with a lucidity. I hear Forest Hill and see a hill with a grove of trees on it. Or the forest nearby and the countryside rolling around it. How it looked before the city was ever dreamed off. As in the stories I heard as a child. Alfred the Great or the conquering Romans. The ancient Celts and their tapestry of dreams that still shoot through the mind, still tug away at the roots of commerce, the weight of cement and activity.
It was the stranger who brought the subject up. Love and what it really means. He asked if I had ever really thought about that.
I had, and replied, 'that I often thought of what it meant and most when I got home to my empty apartment'. Not that I felt sorry for myself, just that was when it was hardest to hide it. To hide that there was someone you missed.
The stranger nodded turning his head to the passing pavement. He stretched his legs out and sighed.
"Love," he said, "is a powerful thing. Nothing like how it is portrayed. It is always portrayed as sweetness. A sentimental attachment to others, to safety and acquiescence."
He leaned forward, his face filling the rear-view mirror, his blue eyes animated.
"But," he added, "it is a powerful and even sometimes shattering force. Sometimes it comes to you and is a wave crashing through everything you consider to be your life. A wave that sweeps away everything you thought was you, everything you built up to protect you from misfortune, but is only protecting you from life.
"Love," he said, "is not something you can compromise with. It does not stop when it meets resistance. Like a wave it retreats and then sweeps forward again. And again. Until resistance is worn down. And like a wave it does this for no other reason than this is its nature."
I adjusted the rear-view mirror and smiled. The stranger sat back and leaned his elbow against the ridge of the back window. Then placed a hand under his chin. He breathed in deeply.
"So what are we to do," I asked.
He laughed lightly.
"Go with it. Live with it. Once you understood that, once you understood that the things it sweeps away are in fact things you no longer need, you live with it. It enriches you. You gradually get the hang of the new things coming into your life. At least this is my experience."

We were coming onto Peckham High Street. We passed the bus garage and came around onto Hanover Park. In the dark, the shop fronts, the centre, were quiet. An occasional figure staggered along.
Only last week I read there had been a shooting in broad daylight in a fast food restaurant on these streets. A gang of youths was in a fight and one produced a gun. Then it was all over. With the ring of gunshot in the anodyne atmosphere, all pretence of happy meals, of a cheerful and bright commercialism, fell away. All that remained was a harsh core of anger and desperation. A dark lining to the plastic and fluorescent.

I asked the stranger where he needed to go. He said to keep going along the Rye then to Forest Hill and onto Honor Oak Park.
As the empty expanse of the Rye came into view, he spoke again.
"Some years ago," he said, "I met my present wife. The moment I saw her, I knew she was someone with whom my life was involved. And that moment was not like a movie, a novel. There was no soft music, no misty lights, no poetic description. Instead I felt I had come to a deep river. As if I had come to something stronger and deeper than anything I had ever known. And with the strength of feeling there was fear. The realisation that my understanding of things would never be the same again.
"But we got separated. For some years I did not know if I would ever see her again. Yet I never forgot her. Sometimes I would be somewhere and I would feel her to be beside me. Or I would be riding the Underground and would catch the eyes of another woman and it would be as if I were looking right at her. It was as though in every other woman all I saw was this woman.
"Then one day I met her again. By chance. As I looked at her I knew she was the person I truly loved. Because as I saw her walking toward me, I felt such a sense of rightness that she was well, that she was in the world and living. I felt I would have been happy just to have remained watching for that moment. And I understood how my life had changed.
"All the time we were apart I was unsettled. I felt I was two different people. A person who automatically fulfilled their obligations and another person. Someone in a constant state of flux, someone being turned inside out, someone on a secret and difficult journey. Yet I realised that love, even in its absence kept pushing me along. Kept denying me resolution of our separation and yet not letting me forget until I came to the point where I understood that loving her was not conditional on anything other than that I loved her. I loved her regardless of whether she was there or not. And this love had changed me. I loved her in a way that had nothing to do with daily life. My small dreams and ambitions were just that. All the values I placed on things were as scratches on a giant sphere. Time, all of my existence was that sphere. And the scratches I made on it were minute. Did not amount to much at all."
The stranger leaned forward again.
"Life is a richer than can be imagined. Only a fool thinks it is obvious."

I stopped the mini-cab on Honor Oak Park. I switched on the light over the rear-view mirror.
The stranger leaned over and handed me the fare. For a moment I was on the point of saying there was no cost. Yet seeing his face, the quiet and determined look in his eye, I knew I should proceed as the rules indicated. I changed the note and took the customary tip. Then with a smile he got out of the car and bent down to the driver's window to wish me good-night.

I watched as the he crossed the road and disappeared around a corner, his light raincoat blowing in the breeze, his silvery hair catching the headlights of the car.
I thought to my life and what he had said. Only a fool thinks life is obvious.
Then smiled to myself as I noted I was stopped on Honor Oak Park. And with that lucidity with which names of the city spoke to me, thought of a great oak, of the oak that meandered through tales, the Oak that often formed the assembly squares across northern Europe. The Oak, a symbol of endurance and immortality.

Later as I crossed the river, headed toward Farringdon, I thought the deserted streets looked less unfriendly, that the city in its emptiness looked like it had been washed clean. That the stars above buildings were a wave that had come to renew and refresh the city through sleep.

I stretched and yawned, thinking of getting home and into bed.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington.

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