In America: How to keep talking and stay in neutral

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The Independent Culture
I'VE JUST read Vicki Woods's Spectator diary in which she describes a brief exchange she had recently with a Brighton taxi-driver during the Liberal Democrats' conference. She responded to all his conversational gambits, she says, with 'the neutral paralinguistic noises that any woman over 26 has learnt to employ with male servitors and functionaries - neither too warm (she's asking for it) nor too cold (snotty bitch)'.

By reserving her caution only for servitors and functionaries, Woods runs the risk of sounding a wee bit snobbish. Polite remoteness is probably the most sensible tack to take with any strange male in a non-social situation.

But the thing that really worried me when I read this - or, at least, made me feel distinctly sheepish - was Woods's assumption that 'every woman over the age of 26' has perfected that calculation of manner - that balance of froideur and flirtation. I certainly haven't. I'm always finding myself floating ingenuously into informal conversations with male strangers which then take on a slightly weird, or at any rate 'inappropriate', timbre.

The last time I was in England, the cab-driver who took me to Heathrow was a cheerful 25-year-old who started things off by discussing the traffic. This led to a debate about the relative merits of north and south London, which led in turn to accounts of where we both lived. Slowly, a slightly impertinent note entered the conversation. 'Bet you smoke drugs, don't you?

You're just the type,' he said. And then: 'You got a boyfriend?' I smiled and told him the answers were none of his business, but that wasn't entirely fair since I had made quite a lot of other intimacy his business until that point. He wasn't daunted. As we neared the airport he became positively creepy. 'You like men a lot, don't you? I can tell,' he said; and: 'Can I come and stay with you in New York, then?' And finally: 'I've had this cab a year, but I haven't, er, christened it yet, so to speak - with a woman, you know.'

Doubtless I was foolish to have been drawn into this dialogue in the first place, but the thing is, I quite like chatting with strangers, and it seems odd to spend an hour alone in a car with someone without talking. There are people who manage to affect a complete detachment in these situations, who can behave as if the 'servitor' were not there. I have friends who will happily discuss their gynaecological problems with me, while we're in a cab.

And lots of men think a cab is a perfectly private venue for snogging. These people remind me of those 19th-century aristo- crats who happily wandered around naked, or defecated in front of their servants, imagining that the laws of modesty did not apply where less-than-human minions were concerned.

Sometimes, of course, indiscretion is unavoidable. This week, I got into a cab with a man with whom I was having a horrible row. Actually, by the time we got in, the bulk of the row was over. I was silently blubbing and the man was heaving tortured sighs, saying the odd thing like: 'You're a pain in the ass, you know that?' Eventually, he got out and I continued on to TriBeCa.

The cab-driver looked at me in his rear-view mirror. 'The snake]' he said.

'What?' I said. 'That man's a snake,' he said. 'You deserve better.' Now on this occasion, I really didn't feel like talking. What I really wanted to say was: 'Shut up, you old git, I didn't ask for your opinion.' But I remained silent, and the driver took this as an invitation to expand on his theory of relationships. He drivelled on for a bit about sharing and specialness, and then he decided I needed 'cheering up'. Every time we stopped at a traffic light, he would look out of his window and alert me to some point of interest. 'See that dress in that window?' he'd say. 'You like it?' 'Yes, it's fine,' I'd say, grimly. 'Yeah,' he'd say. 'I like it too] You like green? I like green. I don't know why I love green so much. You know, the Irish really love green. I don't know why they love green. It's their history . . .'

The solution to this, and all the above-mentioned transport problems, is to have your own car. Unfortunately I cannot drive. This is a huge embarrassment - I do not relish being a ninny - but I am truly scared of driving and always have been. Last spring I went on holiday with a boyfriend and he nobly offered to teach me. Every day we'd go out in a rented Jeep and I'd roll moronically round a deserted track, occasionally shrieking when I saw another car, a mile off in the distance.

Then, one night on our way back from dinner in the local town, I got cocky and suggested a driving lesson in the dark. My boyfriend looked a little anxious, but he said OK, and as soon as we had found a sufficiently lonely stretch of road, we swopped seats. Everything was fine at first. I crawled along at about 10 miles an hour, cackling wildly at the brilliance of my hand-brain co-ordination. Then I moved into second gear and that went pretty smoothly too. Then - I don't know - there was a synaptic snap and I lost control. I think I was suddenly struck by the momentousness of being in charge of an automobile and I freaked. I jammed my foot down on the speed pedal, thinking it was the brake, and zoomed straight into a lamp-post and a group of palm trees. The trees and the lamp-post keeled over; visions of my boyfriend being crippled for life flashed before my eyes; and then, magically, the Jeep came to a crunching halt. (Well, it wasn't that magical.

My boyfriend had practically yanked the hand brake out of its moorings.) He was very kind and forbearing about this mishap - he even suggested that I try reversing out of the situation - but, try as he might, he could never get me into the driver's seat again.

I don't suppose I'll ever learn to drive now. Technical incompetence and extreme cowardice are a pretty insuperable combo. All the more reason, then, to start working on those neutral paralinguistic noises, pronto.