Taxi for Mr Bentley
Don Bentley waited in the rain for a taxi outside the Chronicle building in Davey Street.
It had been a long wait. It was bitterly cold as well as raining and taxis were in great demand throughout the city. For patrons, taxis were in short supply. Don Bentley was not complaining, though. A taxi home each night represented a perk that was worth waiting for. In the past only the bigger establishments Bentley had worked for, the BBC and Independent newspaper in London, had provided taxis for their night staff.
It was on these nights, waiting for a taxi on the stone steps of the Chronicle headquarters, that Bentley took a taxi journey into the past, and recalled eccentric cabbies, and their passengers, of old.
At taxi time at the Independent, waiting on the stone steps leading to the newspaper’s office on City Road in the commerical heart of London, it was best not to stand too close to a colleague, Ken Savage.
Ken had something of a reputation with the regular taxi drivers serving the newspaper and if they saw the ageing journalist they were likely to drive straight by, ignoring anyone who might be standing on the steps waiting for a cab. There was a time when journalists phoned the taxi cab dispatcher directly, giving name and location, and taxi drivers could make an assessment of whom they wanted to pick up. Now a hi-tech system had taken over where it was possible to phone for a taxi by pressing buttons and not talking to a human, and giving a name.
It worked well and efficiently for the taxi drivers, unless there was a passenger they were trying to avoid. One such passenger was Ken Savage. The journalist, requiring a taxi after he finished his night shift as a sub-editor on the Independent, was difficult to get on with at the best of times. His colleagues on the newspaper avoided him and looked forward to the times he was on holiday.
It hadn’t always been so. He was once gregarious, generous and friendly, joined them in the canteen for evening tea, and joined them over at the office pub. In recent years, though, he had turned in on himself, and tended to avoid human contact. He buried his head in his editing each night without saying a word. No one could understand why. A hint of the old Ken Savage was sometimes seen in the book reviews he wrote for the newspaper in which, as an avid reader of all types of fiction, he brought wit and his own experiences of life to his critiques. He also remained a keen traveller. As a bachelor without family commitments, he went to places most of his colleagues could only dream of visiting, places that were out of bounds for the family holiday. Mongolia once, and then Cuba, the latter as part of a tour to drink in all the bars worldwide where his favourite author Ernest Hemingway had supped ale and bourbon.
What had happened to Ken Savage over the years worried his colleagues, but no one had the courage to ask.
The problem Ken Savage had with taxi drivers stemmed from his insistence on always travelling the same route home, street by street, without any divergence, even short cuts, in any way. Savage appeared to have worked out the precise distance from A to B and it was expected the taxi driver would take it. Sometimes, though, they took a slightly different route to reach Savage’s home in the suburb of Dulwich in south London, and immediately he would berate the driver, ordering him or her to turn around, under threat of jumping out of the cab at the next set of lights.
The taxi drivers grew tired of his rantings, which in recent years had become rages. They grew tired of his criticism of their driving and their sense of direction. He even accused the taxi drivers of taking a slightly longer journey to bump up the fare, not that he was actually paying it.
The antics of Ken Savage were a frequent talking point among the taxi drivers and after a while the subject became tedious for the passengers, along with the staple taxi driver chat about slow nights, or fast, erratic driving of other road users.
``Don’t talk about Ken Savage,’’ Don Bentley said to a regular driver one night. ``I`ve had enough of him. He’s been complaining about the chattering in the office, says he can’t work with all the noise. It’s a fucking newsroom for Christ’s sake.’‘
The taxi diver laughed. Unlike many of the other drivers, he was a cabbie the journalists enjoyed engaging in conversation. He always had an interesting story to tell, usually about people he had picked up that day. The driver was a bit like a journalist himself in that he enjoyed people, revelling in the kaleidoscope of personalities and character that is the taxi passenger, all caught in a snapshot of humanity in the back of his cab each day.
The driver was a man in his mid 50s. He’d been a taxi driver for 20 years, after giving up a career as a teacher, and he had just about seen it all, but he had never met anyone like Ken Savage.
``All these years, Don, I been thinking about Ken, especially in recent years when he has really got out of control, so to speak,’’ he told Bentley. The driver acknowledged he was one of the few cabbies who would still pick up Savage. He knew Savage’s route and made sure he stuck to it.
``A couple of weeks ago there was a diversion and I let Ken know about it in advance, saying I could not go down Southwark Street, and he understood. He looked sort of uncomfortable, but he understood.’‘
The driver had a theory about Ken Savage, a view reinforced by a television program he had seen on the soccer star David Beckham a few nights previously.
Bentley wondered what connection David Beckham could possibly have to Ken Savage and his strange ways, and for a few moments he didn’t want to ask. He didn’t want to go there, he just wanted to get home to a full glass of red wine, a bit of sport on television and then to bed. There was a silence in the cab as the glow from the street lights fell across the speeding taxi driver’s face, in a strobe-light effect as the car travelled towards Bentley’s home in the outer London suburbs. The silence lasted until Bentley’s curiosity finally got the better of him. The cab was now stopped at lights, and he was mulling over what the cabbie had said.
``What program was that?’’ he asked.
``Well David Beckham has this obsessive disorder, you know when you keep moving things so they are in line, like shoes have to be together. Like you have to wear certain clothes on certain days. Like you got to wash your hands every few minutes, fear of germs when you touch something, or shake someone’s hand. Know what I mean?’‘
Bentley said indeed he did. He knew of the condition and sometimes wondered if he had it himself; he was forever moving pictures in hotel rooms when he travelled with his wife, troubled they were out of alignment. It was something that drove his wife mad.
``Well go on,’’ Bentley said to the driver. The taxi was now in his street and he didn’t want to be continuing this conversation after he had reached his home, and a glass of good red beckoned.
``Well that’s what your man Mr Savage has got. He’s got compulsive obsessive disorder, that’s why he has to go the same way home each night. It’s got nothing to do with being mean with the Independent’s money like the others think. It’s as simple as that.’‘
It wasn’t exactly simple, but Don Bentley went along with the theory, standing in the street for a moment to think about it as he waved the taxi driver goodbye.
The subject of Ken Savage came up the very next night when Bentley was in another cab. Generally the same group of taxi drivers took the journalists home; drivers the journalists had got to know well over the years.
One of the regulars was Bruce Tucker who had embraced the night shift at the Independent like a family, albeit one that gave generous tips at the Independent’s expense.
Bruce delighted in naming each staff member he had taken home that night, and list the suburbs they had been taken to. The nature of Bruce’s smalltalk with his passengers, and his slow and deliberate speech delivered with a northern English accent, gave the impression he was not the brightest of people. Indeed some of the younger reporters remarked cruelly that he was a taxi short of a wheel, or a taxi wheel short of a nut, but Don Bentley was quick to leap to his defence. Don Bentley considered him a friend.
Regular users of Bruce’s cab had learned not to engage him in conversation beyond the destinations of the other staff members, or what was making news that night back at the office. A conversation with Bruce could sometimes be a trial, especially after a heavy night of work, when tiredness had set in for the journalists. It was sometimes difficult to determine what Bruce was trying to say, over the background hum of the cab’s engine and the whirr of tyres on the road.
``And how’s my mate Ken Savage?’’ Bruce had started up, as he started the engine of the cab. Bruce often mentioned Ken Savage, complaining it was unfair of the other taxi drivers not to pick Savage up. Bruce indicated Savage merely needed patience, and Bentley thought it ironic that this could apply to Bruce himself. It was clear there was empathy between Savage and Bruce, a friendship going back a number of years.
``Well,’’ Don Bentley said. ``I think I’ve discovered Ken’s problems. Well, at least one of your colleagues has, Bruce.’‘
``And wot dat Don?’’ Bruce asked.
``Well, he’s got compulsive obsessive disorder. That’s what one of the drivers said and I believe him, he’s spot on.’‘
``And wot dat, Don?’’ Bruce urged again.
``Well, it’s when you have got to go home the same way each night.’‘
``Well we all want to do dat, go quickest way, Don. Dat’s not an obsession like thou in love and thou can’t get enough of her.’‘
``No,’’ Bentley continued, ``It’s a different kind of obsession, like you’ve got to wear a different colour suit for each day of the week. Blue for Monday, grey for Tuesday, brown for Wednesday, that sort of thing.’‘
``But Don, Ken don’t wear a suit any day. He wears a jumper.’‘
``No, Bruce, that’s an example. Have you heard of the English footballer, David Beckham?
Bruce thought for a moment and then said suddenly: “He married to a one of the nice girls.”
“Spice girls,” Bentley corrected him. “Well David Beckham has this obsessive, compulsive disorder. He wears a suit to match his furniture. It said so in an article.’‘
``But Ken got leather furniture.’‘
``No,’’ Bentley answered, growing impatient. He wished he had not started the conversation about Ken Savage.
``Let’s forget about the furniture and the suits. What I’m trying to say is Ken is compulsive in his behaviour. Like when you walk down a street and you won’t step on the cracks in the pavement. All sorts of people do that, it’s common. It’s compulsive.’‘
Bruce fell silent again. The cab was stopped at a junction and the red glow from the traffic light highlighted a furrowed brow.
``But Ken, he not walking down the street. He going by taxi.’‘
``No,’’ Don Bentley continued. Something told him he should just shut up until the cab reached his home, just a few minutes down the road. He was determined, however, to make his point.
``You know when you see shoes all over the place, not aligned, like facing in different directions. Some people feel compelled to put them side by side.’‘
``Why they do dat, Don?’‘
``Well, I don’t know. It’s just obsessive.’‘
``What happens if a shoe has got a hole in it, Don?’‘
Bentley saw the driveway to his home approaching and was getting ready to leave the cab as soon as he could, gathering his briefcase and newspaper.
``What’s a hole in the shoe got to do with it?’’ Now Bentley was asking the questions.
``I don’t know but the shoes would be different,’’ said the taxi driver.
The taxi slid to a stop and Bentley handed over the payment docket, leaping out and calling hurriedly as he closed the passenger side door, ``See you Bruce.’‘
As he put his key in the front door lock, he felt a little guilty about his rapid departure from the passenger seat. He usually stopped for a few minutes and chatted to Bruce, if Bruce did not have a fare immediately. Outside his home, knowing he could escape anytime, Bentley was even prepared to tolerate accounts of how many staff members Bruce had taken home that evening, and their destinations. Bentley now realised he had not given Bruce a copy of the next day’s paper, something all the journalists did if the first edition had been printed before they left the office. He ran back up the drive to catch Bruce before he left. There was no need to rush. Bruce was sitting at the wheel of his cab, deep in thought, ignoring messages on his radio.
Bentley stood on the steps of the Independent building a few days later. Rain was falling and he had had an unusually long wait for a cab. Savage had been there, too, without saying a word and, miraculously, a cab he had ordered actually stopped for him. It was driven by a young Sudanese refugee who no doubt would learn of Ken Savage’s idiosyncracies further down the road.
A taxi appeared out of the rain washing City Road and, as it slowed to pull up outside the Independent office, Bentley could see the driver was Bruce Tucker. One thing was certain. Bentley would not be bringing up the subject of Ken Savage. He had had an impossibly busy night and his head was still spinning with the night’s news and headlines.
``I understand wot thou going on about the other night, Don. About Ken Savage,’’ Bruce began as soon as Bentley buckled up his seatbelt. Bentley remained silent. He was determined to hold out and not go down the Savage route again.
``Aye, Don, know what Ken’s problem is. He’s got Attention Deficit Disorder, like thou said.’‘
Chronicle (38): Taxi for Mr Bentley
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 38 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler