The taxi-driver wound his window one third of the way down and put a priestlike, confessional ear to the freezing night air. I spoke the name of my village. Twelve miles. Twenty minutes. Forty quid normally, including tip. A decent fare, considering that the vast majority waiting at this railway-station cab rank require only the short ride into town. And yet an agonised grimace contorted his miserable, flabby, unshaved face. After an omnipotent pause, however, it nodded gloomy assent and I walked around the bonnet of the 12-year-old Mondeo and climbed into the passenger seat.
‘Busy?’ I said when we were in motion, to start the conversational ball rolling. He slumped forward on his steering wheel in despair and looked at me as if I was mad asking that on a January midweek night as cold and as wet as this one. ‘Good Christmas?’ I said, trying to force a cheerful word out of the guy. Not that either. He hadn’t had a good Christmas, he said, because last summer his wife had walked out on him after 20 years and gone to live with the boyfriend she’d had when they were at school together. He had come home from a busy day’s taxiing and found a note on the kitchen table saying, ‘I don’t love you any more. I’m going to live with Ian.’
He was still numb, he said. Indeed he looked it. Then I got the full jeremiad. For 20 years he’d worked his fingers to the bone. She and the two kids had wanted for fuck all. And then, right out of the blue, she’d done that, he said. ‘You ask me if I had a good Christmas?’ he said. ‘Waking up on fucking Christmas Day on your own for the first time in your fucking life? No, not really, is the answer to that one, my friend.’
The novelist Anthony Powell once said that the essential ingredient of any bestseller is self-pity. If true, this guy ought to turn his hand to fiction because he’d very quickly have a runaway success on his hands. Steering our conversation always towards the light, I asked him whether New Year’s Eve had been busy and profitable for him. The memory of New Year’s Eve depressed him almost as much as his wife leaving. He had been busy, yes. He didn’t stop from six o’fucking clock in the evening until ten o’clock on New Year’s Day. Then he went home and lay down on the bed too tired to take off his clothes or eat and he slept for 12 hours.
‘One drunk after another, I suppose,’ I said. ‘Was anybody sick in the back?’ No, nobody was sick in the back, he said, but he did have one interesting story. He’d picked up this couple, and the woman was climbing all over the bloke in the back for the entire journey. Couldn’t keep her hands off him. Two days later he picked up the same woman, only now with a different man — her husband, he thinks, because they weren’t touching at all. Also, for the entire journey she was meeting his eyes in the rear-view mirror pleading with them for him not to say anything. And two days after that he picked her up with the first bloke and she’s eating him alive again from the word go.
‘What did she look like?’ I said. ‘Would you shag her?’ He considered the question in all its various aspects and implications very thoroughly before coming to a decision. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Why not?’ I said. He pondered some more. Finally he said, ‘Because she was cheap, if you know what I mean.’ ‘Cheap?’ I said, genuinely surprised. ‘How do you mean — cheap?’ ‘Well, she was foul-mouthed for one thing,’ he said. ‘It was all “fucking this” and “fucking that”. Every time she opened her mouth. Horrible to hear a woman swearing like that.’
For 12 miles I tried to get this decent man to say something positive; to confess a delight in his life; but he was indefatigably miserable. In a last-ditch attempt to cheer him up, I said, ‘I’ve got cancer.’ He looked at me with redoubled seriousness. ‘Fuck off,’ he said. ‘But I have,’ I said. ‘Nymphs and shepherds dance no more.’ ‘Nymphos and what?’ he said. ‘Shepherds,’ I said. There was a silence between us while he tried to unravel my meaning. But of this unfair and incomprehensible world he was understanding less and less these days. ‘Oh, shepherds,’ he said. Then, darting his melancholy eyes between the radio and the road ahead, he turned the music up a couple of notches.
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