Remember the movie Blonde Venus and the show girl who introduces herself as Dietrich as “Taxi Belle”? “Do you charge for the first mile?” replies Marlene silkily. Eighty years ago taxis were very sexy – listen to that rude French music hall song “Elle a perdu sa comme-a-dit / La pauvre cherie dans un taxi”. They could also be dangerous. Elizabeth Bowen’s short story The Demon Lover is about a woman who hails a very wrong taxi indeed, a taxi to the gates of Hell. Equally horrible is the vehicle in Hilary Mantel’s Winter Break, a tale which may put you off Mediterranean holidays for life. Years ago I got into a night taxi in Tangiers which I then imagined was my doom come upon me: we shot off the main road, charged down unlit lanes and finally bumped into dark woods. I was already imagining the cold steel at my throat when the darling driver cried,”Look!” He’d wanted to show me the best view of the bay and buy me mint tea at his brother’s cafe.
My hands were shaking too much to lift it.
Taxis are not everyone’s cup of tea: some people see them as the acme of metropolitan glamour and romance – “twice round the Park, driver!” – and dancing on the roof like Santos Casani’s Charleston down Regent St. Nostalgia for the era of little glass vases in holders above the seats, full of paper, silk or even real flowers and movie memories of Gary Cooper,Miriam Hopkins and Frederic March a trois on the back seat. Or the Great War troops being taken up to the Front in Paris cabs, in the days when Caron’s perfume N’Aimez Que Moi was the only possible parting gift to the girl left behind.
For others taxis are a dreary and expensive necessity when old, ill, heavy laden, banned from driving or otherwise come to a pretty pass. Then they become a expensive sign of dependency and are resented accordingly.
It’s the putting of yourself in someone else’s power that’s so nerve-wracking: sitting on the hall chair in your coat, suitcase and bag at the ready, compulsively checking tickets, money, keys, phone and watch. Where IS he? Has he forgotten? Should I ring again? then you do ring and the office says “he’s two minutes” away and you’re in for another quarter hour of agony before the car turns up and in the exquisite ensuing relief you and the driver immediately bond as best friends for life.
But it must be said that taxi drivers are usually the best company in the world with pungent opinions, comforting homilies and extraordinary anecdotes of eccentric behaviour and fares. “Your dirty little dog’s fouled my cab” the great Mrs Patrick Campbell, the original Eliza in Pygmalion, was told by a driver as she descended from a taxi clutching her peke. “Nonsense, it was me” said Mrs Pat, sailing into the Stage Door. Taxi drivers are always interested in smells though it worries me if they lower the window immediately after picking me up: I have bartered my fare with fragrance samples in the past and cabbies in general are highly appreciative of good scent. That intimacy of situation and proximity must refine the nose; picking up so many fares tarted up in their best for a treat, still exuding the delights of Duty Free or shopping up West. My Aunt has always smelled memorably delicious of successively Ma Griffe, Fidgi and Anais Anais; once I bought her a bottle of one of Les Senteurs’s former treasures, Cadolle No 9, now alas unavailable. She was dotty about this creamy aldehydic resinous miracle until a driver asked,”Lady are you burning sulphur back there?” Which brings us back to Ms Bowen – this is where we came in.