Wednesday, September 22, 2004



Taxi offices are another world. A world populated by drunks, psychos and middle-aged chain-smokers who, for various reasons, the bus is not an option. And like its close relative the Pizza Parlour, where the casual observer may find themselves disturbed at the seedy origin of their meal, it is a place no reasonable person should frequent. Taxis, like takeaway pizza, fill an important hole in society; nevertheless your well-being entirely depends on your not knowing where they come from. Taxi offices, then, are not just another world - they are also a gateway to the Filth Dimension.

A taxi office, found at the end of the zig-zag path that only the truly drunk can walk. A shop-front, once brightly painted, now grey with dirt and neglect. Inside: three plastic chairs and a fruit machine on a lino floor pock-marked with cigarettes burns. The dried-up remains of a kebab which found its way to its present location after temporary residence in a previous punter's stomach.

Behind a grimy, barred window sits a chain-smoking woman of indeterminate age and the foulest humour. Dyed hair, ears pierced more times than an Amazonian tribesman, the act of raising cigarette to mouth - hands weighed down by sovereign rings - the only exercise she gets. Armfuls of lucky charm bracelets purchased from the back pages of Sunday newspapers and Old Moore's Alamack in the hope that her fortunes will change. And they have, if only for the worse. A prisoner of the dispatcher's radio, she can never leave.

With her behind the window, in badly-tuned FM, Errol Brown sings "You don't remember me do you? You don't remember me do you?" He's right. Everybody else is too drunk, too bored, too dead to pay him any attention.

The walls, once white, are yellowed with nicotine, the only colour a torn poster advertising a travelling circus that has long since moved on. Eyes, however, are drawn, hypnotised, to the flashing lights of the fruit machine. Play me! Play me now! Only 20p, a small fortune only a couple of nudges away. Unshaven, unwashed and reeking of sweat, one of the drivers feeds his last fare into the hungry slot and watches it disappear forever. There's no way he'll take you home, he's "on his break" - nicotine, a plastic cup of coffee and a bout of grim-faced, humourless petty gambling where the machine is the only one having any fun.

You read the list of fares, a typewritten A4 sheet stapled to the plywood wall next to the imprisoned dispatcher's window. The first few destinations are for the local prison, police station and casualty unit, all places the buses don't serve, at least, not the kind with windows. The prison is offered as a return fare. The others, worringly, are single only. And in the unlikely scenario that you are willing to part with a three-figure sum in the course of placing your life in the hands of a fat, sweaty man with a beaded seat cover, they may even get you to the airport.

"Patron's are warned there is a ten pound surcharge for the fouling of the companies car's, rising to fourty pound's for interior cleaning. Have a Nice day. The Management."

Time drags, as it always does in proximity to despair. From the inside, the world beyond always looks better, brighter, more welcoming. The rain smears down the huge "A1 Cars - 777777" logo, blocking charming views of the chip shop opposite, its own fruit machine blinking secret messages to its friend over the road.

Waiting outside is your only option, the rain failing to wash the office's stench from your clothes. You shelter in the doorway of the neighbouring double glazing showroom. Cardboard cut-out displays, cut out in the seventies, unpolluted by contact with customers ever since, the pile of mail and freesheet newspapers jammed through the door, fanning across curling carpet tiles shows they will never return.

At last, a car arrives. Another portly, sweating driver behind the wheel of a Mercedes which has clearly seen action on the streets of Beirut. He gets out to reveal a cheap, shining suit once given to his father on his demob from the war, Brylcreem stains on the collar, his yellowing hair matching the nicotine on his fingers.

Yes, he'll take you home for six quid. But the elastic-band suspension rocks you this way and that, the vomit wells up, and you find you can't wind down the windows. The only thing that works in this car are the central locking and the "Best Country and Western Album...EVER!" in the cassette player. The sternly-worded forty pound warning, you realise, was meant for you.

Next time, I'll risk the mindless violence, the kebab shop brawls, the near certainty of plummeting headlong into the river. I'll walk.

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