On this night I was the controller for King’s Cabs, whose shopfront office lies on the southern reaches of the Caledonian Road. I was the man who watches the phone line, directs the drivers, greets the punters. I sat under neon. I read a lot of stolen books.
The shift began at ten, in time for a plastic cupful of tea, a roll-up, and some pages of What Is To Be Done? before the pub closing rush, which had always been the only rush of the night. If it was a rush.
First action struck shortly after eleven, when a couple of red-jowled, sweaty-eyed men strolled in, bellies straining against football shirts and tongues wagging in keen debate.
“That black one, fuckin hell!”
“Nah. Sparrow tits? Nah. The fuckin Russki, I tell you.”
They’d come from the strip pub at the bottom of the road. The soles of their shoes still trailed sawdust. They laid their elbows on the counter and said they wanted a car for Hornsey. I called Dave to drive them, and when they’d seen me do it the customers went back out to smoke. It was a dry night.
Dave made the pick up, and I rolled another. I’d just sparked when a chubby Russian woman in a long raincoat tottered through the door to ask how much it was to Heathrow. I told her. She said “fucking hell” in such a poor accent I wondered why she didn’t swear in Russian. Easier, surely. Then she tottered out again. Her cheeks so pale they were blue, like bruises.
And that seemed to be it for the night.
Very quiet. Very slow, for this entrepreneurial city. I wondered what the rent of the premises cost, with phone and electricity bills. I wondered if the cab company was a front for something else. But there was no sign of anything else. No further activity.
Shortly after midnight Lucas phoned. “Listen please,” he said. “Is Tony there? Please don’t say he isn’t if he is. I need payment. I have not been paid for three months. This is an urgency. Please. I am a working man. This is not respectful. It isn’t right, morally. It is not Christian. Please.”
Lucas was a suit-wearing, clean-shaven, neatly undemonstrative, church-going man from somewhere in west Africa. Perhaps Nigeria. He was short and bald. The first time he met you he showed you photographs of his children.
“Lucas,” I said firmly. “I’ll do what I can.”
I dialled Tony’s number and let it ring 27 rings. Then I hung up.
I rolled another cigarette, as spindly as I could make it. Because there was more paper to my cigarette than anything else, I wondered what paper-gas did to my lungs, how much worse it was for me than tobacco. I hadn’t been paid for three months either. True, I wasn’t really a working man. I was on supplementary benefit. Housing benefit paid for my bedsit. I had no dependents.
After I dropped the butt to die in the plastic cup, adding ash and sodden paper to the last spurned drops of tea, I examined the tar stains on my fingers – actually coarse brown burns where I’d smoked, like an enamoured moth, too close to the flame. They smelled shamefully good. Then I gazed at the large-scale laminated map, shaded by postcode, which was sellotaped to the wall above the phone. I’ve always liked maps. I can spend hours with them, measuring, tracing trajectories, fantasising. Much more fun than Lenin.
A tapping to my right. The face of my acquaintance Kenneth loomed longbone white against the window. I’d put the snub on the door after the pub rush so I had to get up to let him in, and he followed me between the upraised arm of the counter and the wall. He was tall and drooping. He wore a long brown-green coat of some heavy, traditional material, an almost aristocratic coat, but one which lacked the dry room and hanging space an aristocrat required. Therefore it was always damp, somewhat fungal, nourishing malodorous life. Kenneth sat on the plastic chair diagonal from mine and looked at me. He had no luggage.
“Long time no see,” I said. “Do you want a cab?”
“I haven’t won the pools. There’s a nightbus in half an hour. I’m just visiting.”
Kenneth coughed. The eco-system of his coat trembled. I pushed the tobacco tin towards him and he made one hastily, far fatter than it needed to be.
He talked for a while. I didn’t offer tea. He talked about “the Party,” which means the Socialist Workers Party. Our hopes for a brighter future lie in such hands as his. He told me which books he’d stolen since we last met, and how much they would have cost if he’d bought them. He told me he had a girlfriend now. Her father was doing a long stretch in a high security establishment, for IRA activity. The daughter was historically disturbed – she partitioned her forearms with kitchen knives if Kenneth stayed out late. I wondered what her definition of late was. It was almost one now, and Kenneth still had a long journey east.
“She can be violent at times,” he frowned. “But she’s a good girl.”
I was moderately glad to hear it.
When he’d gone I rolled a tight spliff, two papers. Just stick and dust really. I didn’t earn enough to share a spliff with Kenneth. I didn’t earn anything at all. I only benefitted from state scraps. At that time the state wasn’t spending so big on foreign wars, so I had cause to feel guilty for wasting its money. Someone had earned it. Someone deserved it.
I balanced the spliff, a promising little bandage, on top of the telephone receiver. I watched it. Twenty minutes passed and still it waited to be smoked. I’d planned to wait for the phone to ring before I lit it. I’d wondered if the ring vibration would shake the spliff enough to make it fall. But the phone never rang, so my decision came down to the clock. By the time it said two I felt I’d dug sufficiently deeply into the night to celebrate its part passage.
I stepped away from the phone into the room’s private recesses, too dark to be visible from the window, and opened a wooden door. This gave on to a stairwell stooping down in gloom to a wooden shadow basement which I’d never properly visited. Down there was excess furniture and things in boxes.
I’d been at work for four hours. Done forty per cent of the shift. Had six hours to go. Was well into the second trimestre of the night. I blew smoke through the wooden door.
Later I called Tony. Tony was large and he had a lisp. He was born in Zaire and always wore a leather jacket over his shirt and tie. He answered after two rings. I didn’t mention Lucas. Better one request at a time.
Once I’d been a passenger in his car, driven westward past the central mosque. Tony took a long sideways look at me before smiling softly on the road. “So you’re an Arab, yes?” He lisped every time he said yes. “The Arabs are an ancient people.” He paused to agree with himself. “And the thing about Arabs, they always stick together.” I wondered where he gathered his evidence. Certainly he didn’t follow the news. There was Iraq-Kuwait not very long ago. The Lebanese war quiet for a couple of years. The Palestinians abandoned for almost fifty. “Yes,” he continued. “Arab back up. One of them has a problem, boom! There’s twenty cousins and brothers backing him up. You know?”
I nodded. “I know.”
On the phone now I asked him could I have my money. Rent and stuff, I mumbled. Food. Basic provisions. He said, “Yes, let’s talk about that later,” and he hung up.
I read ten pages of What Is To Be Done, and I read them quite quickly. I forgot the clock. Then I boiled the kettle with the grey suphur floating about inside and had time to sort out a plastic cupfull before the pimp slapped a palm on the window. The usual pimp. I let him in, him with his long arms hooked over the necks of two whores. He tumbled deliberately to the floor, dragging the girls down with him. I heard his instructions rising from across the counter. “When we get back there’s work to do. You, darling, will build me one. And you, yeah, you’ll get me into the bath. Give me a good scrubbing.” The girls were too thin to look at, and scabby, and had desperate eyes. But they made pleasant chirpings. Then the pimp said to me: “Oi, Squire. Cab to Edmonton. Make it snappy.”
I called out. In ten minutes Malik tapped on the window. I sent the pimp and his girls out to the car and saw Malik spit darkly at his feet before he got behind the wheel.
After that the bloke from above came home. I pretended I didn’t see him waving. He stumbled upstairs behind the wall. I could hear him up there crashing about drunkenly. He was Irish. He was queer.
Once Tony sent me up to deliver an office chair. The neighbour was drunk then too, in his pyjamas, mid-afternoon.
“Have a cigarette,” he said.
I took one.
“Watch some porn?”
The man didn’t seem to have had his breakfast yet. I said, “I have to get back to work.”
Then he licked his heavily stubbled lips, as if he was the porn, and said, “The way we’re getting on, we’ll be getting it on. Before too long.”
Which is why I ignored him. He’d gone quiet upstairs, but I couldn’t relax. The night’s most menacing hour had come, the hour when the neighbourhood crack man jerks up and down this stretch of pavement, gangling his spangled arms and legs. Tonight as every night there was a gun-shaped bulge in his pocket and a mad finality to his glare. I couldn’t help but watch him, even if watching might attract his attention. Lenin couldn’t compete with the scene. I needed something to pull me away. This is before the internet.
Lucas phoned. Had I seen Tony? I hadn’t. “It is not Christian,” Lucas said, but he didn’t drag it out.
Time passed. Quiet outside, quiet on the line. At five I had a second spliff. I read What Is To Be Done.
At twenty five past five Tony arrived.
“It’s very important no-one knows I’m in.”
“All right, Tony.” I took my feet off the table. I was half asleep.
I wondered who was chasing him. He had a nice girl from Mauritius thinking she was going to be married, and he had other girls as well. And Lucas wanting cash, of course. Plus the other drivers. Everybody without exception found Tony a difficult man to pin down. You had to struggle to hold his attention. He had a permanent air of distraction which sometimes heightened towards an inaccessible, silent wistfulness. Also he had a certain power. But he was a nice bloke despite it. You felt sympathy for him.
Tony sniffed meaningfully at the vegetal atmosphere, but chose not to chide me. He sat instead where Kenneth had sat, and smiled.
“Now, you have waited for so long for your wages. You have waited very patiently.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “It would be good.”
“It’s a flow problem, yes? Probably by the end of the month. You are my priority.”
He unpalmed a ten-pound note.
“Go get milk and the papers. Get yourself some chocolate.”
It was good to go out, although a drizzle had started. You could say morning was here. A slow misery of dawn, and some serious people on the streets for a change.
I brought back the Sun and the Guardian. Tony drank a plastic cupfull of milk, and then zoomed off with the Sun under his arm.
I tried reading the paper but I was tired. I put my forearms on the table and my nose on my forearms.
I jumped when Lucas phoned. He spoke in a higher pitch than before. “Is Tony there?” Then he began weeping, talking and weeping. It was about his wife lying in hospital and how he had no money to buy food for his children. “I am in the hospital now,” he shuddered. “We have lost the baby, you see.” He talked about God and Jesus, and then he wept too much to talk. He didn’t ask me to do anything specific.
I was only starting to understand the situation when he rang off. That something should be done.
“Yes,” he said. “Has a car for Clapham been requested?”
“All right. I’ll be there in a minute.”
By seven forty two, when he finally arrived, I’d worked through to the nervy other side of my sleepiness. I was wide awake, wide-eyed. And I thought, why not?
“Tony,” I said before he greeted me. “You remember once we talked about Arabs, how they stick together and that?”
“Yes.” His head shot up and his lisp became a whistle. “I remember. Yes.”
“Well, about my money. I know these people, people in Queen’s Park, friends of my brother, and really I’m holding them back. They want to come round and, you know, take action. I don’t want them to, but,”
I trailed off.
Tony rubbed his scalp, observing me the while. I stood impassive.
“I understand,” he said. “Yes.”
His voice had hardened to businesslike.
“Give me fifteen minutes, yes? And no hard feelings, my friend.”
Tony looked at me as if I were a man.
The phone rang. Neither of us moved to answer it.
In fifteen minutes the shift would end.
I began to think of breakfast.
Robin Yassin-Kassab. August 22nd 2009