When out prowling the streets of London for a fare, you generally expect to pick up people on business, tourists enjoying the wonders of London, or those who've had one-too-many, and need to be taken home so they can slump into their beds with a pounding head.
However, on the odd occasion, you'll come across a job in which the general rules of being a cabbie are turned completely on their head.
A few months ago, I was driving along West End Lane; a fairly long road which winds through West Hampstead, boasting lots of fancy apartments, bars, shops and restaurants. Just off of West End Lane, there's a road called 'Broadhurst Gardens' where, in 1962, Decca Records had a studio. It was at this studio that a little known group of Liverpudlians named The Beatles failed an audition. After their disappointment in West Hampstead, the cheeky Northerners managed to sign a deal with Parlaphone instead, and the rest is history.
Anyway, a few months ago, I'd just passed the junction with Broadhurst Gardens, when I was flagged down by a rugged looking man in his early 40s. The gentleman was wearing a black t-shirt, his arms boasting a formidable gallery of tattoos. In these art-clad arms, he clasped a young girl in a pink jacket, no older than two.
As he climbed in, I could tell that the man was stressed, but amicable.
"Royal Free Hospital, please mate."
"Is it for her?" I ask, nodding towards the girl- his daughter.
The young girl is clearly upset; she looks woozy and tear traces are smeared down her cheeks.
"Yeah," replies the father as we set off. "We were in the play-park there, she fell of a climbing frame and bashed her head... I'm really worried about her; she's gone all quiet."
Despite his obvious and understandable worry, the passenger is very friendly, with a strong London accent. I try to help him relax by asking him a little about himself. It turns out that he met and married a Norwegian woman, and now lives there (and, consequently, is learning the language!) His young daughter was born in Norway. As I drive, we both become increasingly concerned about her; her eyes keep slumping shut, and she looks increasingly 'out of it.'
This was a journey during which I found myself cursing the road system of London profusely. West Hampstead to the Royal Free Hospital is a relatively short distance. However, as we strove to get the young girl to a medical expert, we were plagued by infuriating obstacles at every turn.
First off were roadworks- the frustrating 'temporary lights' which seem to stay red for an eternity, and only allow cars through in 30-second bursts of green. We had to queue for ages, and I found my fingernails biting into the steering wheel. How I longed for a flashing blue emergency light to stick on my roof. As it was, despite having a sick little girl on board, I had to stew in the traffic like everyone else.
After nudging through the temporary lights, I decided to take a shortcut. Although this was traffic-free, the privilege came at a cost- the route was a speed-bump hotspot. Every few feet, I had to slow the cab and crunch over high mounds of brick and tarmac; not good when you've got a youngster on board with a suspected head-injury.
As the journey progressed, the concerned father kissed his daughter on the head and glanced at me in the rear view mirror. “She’s very sleepy" he said in a tone; calm yet worried in equal measure. I could see what he meant' the child was eerily quiet, and I was becoming rather concerned about her wellbeing.
"It's OK; we're not far at all now" I reply.
However, moments after uttering this promise, we hit a snag. Although the road I'd chosen to take is cluttered and narrow, it's usually very quick and easy to ply thorough. I've never encountered problems along here.... until now.
At the top of the road, there's a hotel. As we approach the junction, a Luton lorry, decked out in the hotel's colourful livery, swings out of the driveway, probably completing a food delivery or beginning a laundry pick-up. The manoeuvre is sharp and dangerous, and even my passenger remarks that was "well dodgy."
I can sense what is going to happen next... at the top of the road, a passenger car has appeared and is now heading towards the lorry. With parked cars on both sides, there is absolutely no place for the vehicles to pass each other. The passenger car keeps going.... and before long, the van in front of us has ground to a halt.
The man in the back bites his lip and holds his daughter, looking down at her with increasing worry. Although I'm normally a very passive person, I decide that enough is enough. With a strange mixture of panic and anger, I jump out of the cab and walk up to the van-driver's window.
"What the hell's going on?" I ask.
The van driver shrugs his shoulders.
"He just got out; says he won't move."
As the bemused driver says this, I look towards the passenger car- and notice that it's empty, the driver's door wide open. It takes me a few seconds to register what's happening.
I look around the other side of the van and see a man in his late 50s pacing up and down.
"Oi! Is that your car?" I ask.
"You've got to move it. Now."
The man ignores me. He puts his hands into his pockets and continues to pace, shuffling towards the front of the van where he walks back and forth in defiance.
"I've got a sick child in my cab" I explain, "move the car, NOW! Or I'll move it myself!"
The car's driver looks up at me through round spectacles.
"That's your taxi?"
"YES! I'm trying to get a child to the Royal Free Hospital, MOVE THE CAR!" The frustration is becoming unbearable.
The driver slowly looks again at the taxi. He seems to have a moment of clarity, whereupon the absurdity of the situation he's placed himself in becomes apparent.
"Oh... er... good for you" he exclaims. With his head down, he returns to his car and reverses backwards. As he clears the path, the van moves forward and I leap back into the cab.
"Thanks for doing that, mate" says my passenger.
"There was no choice" I reply, "We’d have been there all day if that bloke had his way."
Minutes later we pull up outside the hospital's Accident and Emergency department. I tell my passenger that there's no charge, "Just get your daughter in there." The man quickly grips my hand in thanks, and tells me his mother's London address if I ever want to pop around for a cup of tea!
As I leave the hospital, I reflect upon the vexations of the journey; roadworks, speed humps, near-misses and the crazed stubbornness of the public. It takes me a while to calm down, but as time passes I can smile at the farcical nature of it all. Just as well, because if I let it get to me too much, I'll be needing a trip to hospital myself!