You're not always better off in a Volvo

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The Independent Culture
AFTER 15 minutes I thought, fine. The guy's probably been held up in the late-night traffic, I won't even mention it. After half an hour? Well. I spent a few minutes clockwatching. Thirty-five. Forty. Bloody three-quarters of an hour] And then . . . then I started to get niggled. I fussed around, thinking unfair things. I was at a party. It was after midnight. I thought: these days, you call a cab, you expect it to be late. Why? Why? Maybe the bloody thing won't turn up at all. I've had that happen, I thought. God, I was feeling bitter.

That was after about an hour. Then I just decided to stay at the party. There had been a moment when I thought the taxi was late, which blurred into a general sense that it wouldn't come at all. The thought that the taxi wouldn't come at all was somehow better. So I began enjoying the party again. I drank more. And if anybody had asked me, like the Government is asking now, if minicabs should be looked into, I'd have said: for God's sake] How can you not know all this? Minicabs are run by some of the most crooked, corrupt, fly- by-night people around. A lot of the cars are buggered up and uninsured. The drivers are often appalling. They don't know the way. But do they even have licences? Not all of them, I can tell you. Which is really dangerous. Really bloody dangerous. But poor souls, you think. They can't help it if they're poor and ignorant and hopeless. Can they?

So I was sitting chatting to someone at the party, when someone came into the room and said: 'Taxi for Mr Lee.' I always give the name Lee. So this was it. But - almost exactly two hours late] I found my coat. I was drunk. I'd virtually resigned myself to not getting home at all.

Outside was a big Volvo. I thought: nice car. Is this the taxi? Because these minicabs, they're usually rusty old hulks. I got into the front seat of the Volvo, which smelt new - that showroom smell of the solvents they use to glue the carpet on to the floor, which is better than the usual minicab smell. Minicabs usually smell very bad indeed; they smell of a mixture of poverty and stress - people in a hurry wearing stale clothes. That, apart from the danger, is the worst thing about minicab rides. But this one was fine.

'Sorry I'm late.' He was black, well- dressed, smiling.

'You're . . . you're two hours late.'

'Sorry.'

'But two hours . . .'

'I've had trouble. Where do you want

to go?'

'But what happened to you?'

'Well, I, I had some difficulties. Where do you want to go?'

'Stoke Newington.' We were in Chelsea. It would be a trip from south-west to

north-east.

'I don't know Stoke Newington.'

'That's fine. I'll direct you from Islington.'

'Don't know Islington.'

'Holborn?'

He looked at me, shamefaced. This was worse than usual. This was much worse

than usual.

I said: 'Well, I'll direct you from the West End, then.'

'You'll have to show me.'

'I'll have to show you the West End? You don't know where the West End is?'

'No.'

I sat back in my seat. I looked at the road. The great thing was, we were pointing in the right direction. Also, at this time of night, there would be hardly any traffic on the roads. I said: 'Just along here, then.'

But he didn't do anything. He didn't check his mirror, or turn the key in the ignition, or take the hand-brake off. He just sat there. Then he said: 'I . . . I'm sorry, but I don't know how to drive.'

'What do you mean? You don't . . .'

'I can't drive.'

'What? So . . .' For a second, it was too much to take in. I sat, looking at this guy, who looked quite respectable. I wanted to laugh.

'I came from Nigeria this morning. I'm visiting my brother. This is his taxi. But . . .'

'Yes?'

'But he was upset. He had to go off and see his girlfriend, and he said he would lose his job if I didn't do his shift.'

'But - if you can't drive . . .'

He had, he said, driven a few times before in Nigeria. He had driven tractors a couple of times. But he never learned properly. He hadn't seen the brother for a while. The brother had been hysterical. So he'd helped him out. And it had taken him two hours of kangaroo starts, nightmare map-reading stops and near-misses to get to me - his first fare.

We established the basics. He knew about clutch-bite. He knew about the gear-shift. I told him I'd talk him through. He turned the key, pressed the accelerator. Then moved the clutch up . . . and the car shook, and sputtered, and stalled against the brake.

'I can't get this to work,' he said.

We went throught it again, with the same result. And again. After a few times, we eased into the road. Here I was, drunk, teaching a taxi-driver to drive, in the middle of the night. We moved towards the traffic light. I said: 'OK, now into second. Second.'

Can you remember what it was like at first? You master the clutch-bite, and then you have to think about gears? He pulled his foot off the clutch, stalled, momentarily lost control. The car came to rest at the kerb.

I said: 'Let's go through this again.'

Anyway, he improved. By the time we were through the West End, he was fine. Once, he got up into third. Stalled, but he still got into third. And I don't think I've ever seen anybody blank V-signs so comprehensively; it was almost as if he didn't notice them. When we got home, I tipped him. I hadn't enjoyed myself so much for ages.

In the morning, I woke up, sober. What would I do? Stop going to parties? Give up drinking? Or wait until the Government mounted an inquiry?-

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