The name ‘hackney’ was once thought to be an anglicized derivative of French haquenée—a horse of medium size recommended for lady riders; however, current opinion is that it is derived from the village name Hackney (now part of London). The place-name, through its fame for its horses and horse-drawn carriages, is also the root of the Spanish word jaca, a term used for a small breed of horse and the Sardinian achetta horse. The first documented ‘hackney coach’—the forerunner of the more generic ‘hackney carriage’—operated in London in 1621.
They do it differently here, quietly, privately, stiff upper lip.
You can’t really tell if they’re sorry or not.
Bit of sniffing into a hankie, eye wiping, and then shoulders back and everything pushed down again.
That’s the English all over, I think that’s why they like Ireland, like all those Irish themed pubs, they want to have a bit of life, bit of energy, excuse to let themselves go.
The two in the back now, dressed in black, neat shoes, tidy hair, sprightly, that’s the word for them, now they’re what I think of when I think of your typical English woman.Their voices are quiet, pinched, every sound coming through the nose, makes everything they say sound mean, tight,ungenerous . You can’t imagine them laughing, really laughing, heads thrown back, mouths open wide,making a big happy noise. Not the way I can remember my mum, my mum and the other mums from our street, standing in the play park on a Saturday afternoon, watching us, but really just there for the company, the craigh, making a noise, joyous in their language, their story-telling, their desire to entertain each other.
No,these two are all buttoned down, pushed down, lives of not disturbing anyone, keeping themselves to themselves, watching from behind curtains, comments from behind pursed lips.
They’re talking about him now, the old bloke, the funeral I’m driving them to.
A neighbor for 30, 40 years, married, widowed, retired, grown children – but there’s some story there,that bit of the conversation is all about the gaps, the unsaid, the folded arms.
I’m eavesdropping, cos that’s what you get to do in a cab, listen to bits of people’s lives, half stories, begun before they get in and finished somewhere else. Drives me mad sometimes, I just want to butt in, get the end of the story, ask the questions
Why did he just walk out?
Did she ever go back to Greece and meet the boy she saw on the dance floor?
What did they discover when the emptied the shed after his mother died?
So, I listen to these two now, hearing how the conversation moves from the safe, the commonplace to that so English thing, the hint, the innuendo, the unfinished sentence,the nod of understanding
“Well, he never married again”
“No, not after….”
“well it wouldn’t have been right”
“No, not after that”
There’s a pause
“And of course the children, well, the son”
“Oh, I know, I know”
” Yes, except him, but you couldn’t tell him”
” I always thought…..”
“Did you, yes, me too and Mrs Grey, well she was sure you know”
“Something in the eyes”
“They say you can tell”
The next pause is longer, heavier, I look in my mirror, both of them are staring out of the windows, silent. The older of the two fiddles with her gloves, the younger opens her neat black bag, removes an old fashioned powder compact and adjusts her make up. This conversation has clearly unsettled them, made them withdraw into themselves, put back the fences of politeness.
When they next speak, it’s commonplace, ordinary
” some early daffodils”
“So nice to see some signs of spring”
“I wonder if it will snow”
And then a a pause
” I always worried, you know”
“Perhaps we should have done something, told someone”
“But you don’t want to get too involved, make a fuss”
And then their conversation really tails off and I’m left, not for the first time, desperate to know what happened,what were they worried about, what was going on and of course I start joining the dots, making up a narrative, trying to get an ending…….some story, any story.
The church, when we arrive, is surrounded by cars and the hearse has arrived,I can see the driver, lurking in the graveyard, smoking,staring into space. It looks like a good turn out, plenty of people to see him off, but I cant lose that half tale, the snippet of conversation and I wonder what kind of man he was, is he worth this level of crowd or have I made something out of two elderly ladies half heard, hardly spoken conversation.
They pay the exact fare, no surprise there and carefully,a little stiffly walk up the path to meet the other mourners.
They’ve got me thinking about stories and story telling and I’m remembering my mother again, her love of the story, the tale. The way she would craft them, polish them, produce them like the treasures they were. All us kids had our own favorites :
The time on holiday aged 7 when she sneaked out of bed to go to a firework display and was discovered sitting in an ice cream parlor.
The day she got stung by jelly fish and staggering home, out of her mind with pain, was told off for being drunk by an elderly neighbor.
The holiday in wartime when, with no petrol,the whole family cycled to the seaside, with their suitcases tied to the backs of their bikes
These stories are generally positive, even upbeat and are repeated more frequently as she gets older, when the far past seems somehow nearer and more relevant to her than remembering her grand children s’ names or what day she has appointment at the hospital.
Then there are the other stories, darker, not for the ears of children, we heard these by stealth, sitting on the stairs, faces pressed against the banisters, listening to the half heard, half understood accounts of deaths, illness, marriage breakdown. We kids knew that once voices adopted that tone, a drop in volume, a sense of secrets being disclosed, that it was time to listen carefully.
There are other stories that finally,she has shared with me. Eventually widowed, and freed from the grinding control of my father, she began to spread her wings,discovered a taste for sunshine, travel and bargain Cava, she came on holiday with us, when there still was an us. And late at night, sitting on a balcony,festooned with towels and damp swimming togs, we would sit and she would smoke one of my cigarettes and tell me other stories;
The day she woke up and found him, standing over her, about to smash an iron onto her face.
The mass cards he had printed, telling her family she was dead, so that they would send money to pay off a gambling debt.
Sometimes the stories are tiny, but the emotion they are told with is huge, still raw after 40, 50 years.
The time,when heavily pregnant with my twin sisters and living in some remote part of rural Ireland, she watched him drive to town, having promised to bring her back chocolate and his return, hours later, of course without it- her voice when she tells that one, still heavy with disappointment and loss.
There is a now another layer of stories she has started to tell me, quite different to the happy tales of family holidays, hockey matches won, cakes and tea at long lost Department stores in Dublin, these ones are difficult to hear,they leave me confused, a little lost, unsure of the correct response.
Her mother taking her out of school, to be a nanny to the younger children, no real reason ever given, the family were not poor, there were other servants, enough money to hire a raw boned country girl to nursemaid the new arrivals.
The birthday, when, living alone in London, she opened a card from her parents, containing no gift, just a note to tell her that they had written off a small debt remaining from her college education.
Her own wedding, not attended by her parents or in fact any members of her family. She made her own wedding outfit and had no bridesmaids.
I think about the stories I have tried to pass on, but they are not quite right, not polished enough, they lack the patina of telling and re-telling, the joy of repetition, the pleasure of the audiences’ familiarity with the rhythm , their favorite bits, the best bits, which can and must be told again and again and without which the story is wrong, lacking.
There is too much distance, too much absence between me and the boys, but I try, try to give them a sense of my narrative.
The day my sister fell off the top of a slide and cried for almost two hours.
The youth club disco, where out of my head on home made ginger beer, which had fermented into some mad hooch, I danced just in my underpants and vest to The Undertones – “teenage kicks” and looked up to see my mother standing at the door of the church hall.
The camping trip across Europe, a tent so tiny, so bedraggled, that French and German families would gather every night to watch the British lads use baling twine, rocks and tins of food to affix the tent to the ground.
The band, where I, pony tailed and channeling the spirit of Spandau Ballet sang, badly, – the band played two gigs before artistic differences tore us apart.
The boys quite liked the stories of their mother and me, but I am careful to not tell these too often. I don’t want to appear too needy, to stuck in the past.
The day I married their mother, at 19 it was the most radical thing we could think to do. I wore a demob suit, Clare dressed in black. Too poor to have a proper wedding, our friends, art students, peaceniks, activists, brought home made wine and food to share and had a whip round to pay for a night at a hotel with tartan carpets.
Another wedding story,all our relatives choose to buy us towels, we got over 20 of them and after the wedding, sat on our battered sofa counting towels and laughing. The last time I took the boys swimming, I noticed that the marriage towels had outlasted the marriage.
Sometimes the youngest shares stories with me, he chooses them carefully, one is the day that Steve, their stepfather, tried to rescue the cat from the tree, carrying the super-tall ladder, he climbed up and ladder wobbling made a valiant grab at the cat who neatly jumped to safety on her own. The story is meant to make me feel better, show Steve to be a bit of an idiot but my son cannot quite disguise the pride he feel for the man brave enough to climb the super-tall ladder to rescue their pet.
I wonder if they have stories about me, wonder if they share them with their mother. I like to think they do.
The radio crackles, it’s the day controller, Renee, nice woman, got some stories of her own, doesn’t share them with us though. It’s my next job.
23 Charlton Gardens, pick up one passenger, Royal Infirmary, Oncology Dept – appointment for 10.30.
I turn the cab round, head back into town, not sure if I want to hear this story.