I took the last swig of imported lager as England vomited into a gutter. Then I sauntered past the spherical gate, the brazen crown of Ministry of Sound, onto Gaunt Street towards Elephant and Castle. Halloween. The curbs were littered; flocks of smashed CÎROC bottles, congregations of johnnies (semen-heavy), schools of ugly tobacco pouches paraded down the road.
The occasional hedonistic partygoer, donned in the macabre, or barely donned at all, was passed out on the yellow lines, dreaming of fluidity – ex-partners and money. Slews of drunken plague doctors, Pennywises, Day of the Dead señors, mime artists, brash women with demonic and celestial get ups bustled into pools of human jungle at every doorway. I had planned to dress as Pat Butcher until Lewisham council were late with my housing benefit payment (again). My second choice Smithy’s werewolf mask gave off the aroma of disappointment.
It was four a.m. UK Garage was seeping out over the pavements, spreading its flamboyant wings, trying to reclaim me, to take me back into its sweet sweaty pit of thrashing bodies, swinging whistles, jerking hands, dilated pupils. Too late. I was knackered and Danny was trying to get Gemma into some grotty bathroom. I’d warned him about that. Gemma’s brother, Trevor, had been only recently been released from Wandsworth. He would come knocking on doors in the night like an insomniac bailiff, his perm trying to escape through the eye holes of his balaclava, his fingers drumming some blunt greedy instrument. Danny, himself, claimed he preferred to create life rather than endanger it, in the sense that he had impregnated several women in the past year and vanished from each like a defector of tradition and respect. If he did the same to Gemma and Trevor found out, he would learn as men learn, and nations learn, and we all learn – through blood.
I needed to go four miles south, back to Telegraph Hill, where the only stirring sound was the motion of cats screaming each other down, the loud guffaw of a middle-class mam talking to her glass of Sauvignon Blanc and late-night Loose Women omnibus. I crossed Gaunt Street onto Newington Causeway, watched over by its vacant high rises. The offices of Orion Group and McMahon & Partners heard me open my wallet to retrieve my Oyster Card and spat digits and profit margins out of their windows, which rained down facetiously and made the homeless in the doorways shudder in their sleep. No night buses for an hour. Transport for London was a ministry of teasing deceit.
Just when I was about to go back for Danny, I spotted a lone black cab some twenty yards down the road, waiting silently in the glacial dusk. A shotgun, unsung. It was out of place. I had never seen a black cab south of London Bridge. Come to think of it, I rarely saw them outside the St. Pancras and Victoria territory. There was still a twenty left in my wallet so reluctantly I trudged over. It remained patiently stoic as I approached. A St. George’s Cross flag was draped over the rear window, hiding everything that held it in place.
As I came around the front, a portly man in a stone-grey flat cap and thick glasses sat leaning out the window, a depressed roll up suffocating between his firm lips. A padded military green wax jacket; face like an old bulldog, jowls like supermarket bags filled with whatever had been left behind by the masses. Small, sad eyes. He jumped at my presence, then a beam of sun flashed over his face. “Y’alright mate! Fackin ‘ell, you gave me a scare there, what with all these ghoulies about!”
I laughed. “Sorry pal. Can you take me Brockley way, aye? Telegraph Hill.”
“Course mate! Get in.”
I did. The whole cab was writhing with cigarette smoke. Months of it lingered on the windows like the slime of a great ghost cloud. A small ash tray, dwarfed by the number of butts, was propped up on the glovebox. It didn’t bother me, but how he’d gotten away with it without being flagged up and sacked was intriguing. I gave him my address. He spun the car around violently and pushed back along Newington Causeway, taking a right onto Avonmouth Street by the Italian Mercato Metropolitano community market.
“Busy night, pal?” I asked him. It’s that question everyone asks their taxi driver when they don’t know what else to say. The poor bloke must have got it about fifty times per shift.
“Not in the slightest, mate. Would you believe it? Halloween an’all!” He was silent for a moment. “Nah, you’re my second job all night. Had a gentleman at eleven-thirty that brought me down here from King’s Cross and I’ve been sat here since.”
“I suppose everyone’s passed out by now. You’d think some people would want a cab though, aye?”
The cabman looked at me through the rear-view mirror. His eyes creased up in a grin; bird claw wrinkles. “Ubers.”
We sat in silence again for a few minutes as the taxi trundled down Tiverton Street and into Rockingham Street, with its leafless trees sighing into darkness and blocks of low-rise brown-brick council flats, calmly rocking its tenants to sleep. Several windows were still lit up in a warm orange hue, a battalion of forgotten existence flagging down passers-by for help. A straggly haired woman was ironing. Two small children were jumping around on the sofas, giggling as their tired mam chased them, losing her wig in the process and calling out to God in patois. A huge man with a shaved head leaned out over the estate with a can of Stella Artois, surveying every ghost that went past. Any foreign entity he had not yet come in contact with.
“Yeah, it’s not been a good few years for us cabbies, to be honest mate,” the driver said.
“Too much competition, naa what ah mean? The only people using black cabs now are them yuppyish types round central. It’s a proper shame, I tell ya. Been doing this job near thirty years. Born an’bred Sauff Landaner me and I can’t get no jobs in my own community.”
“Oh aye? Why d’yer reckon that is?”
I knew why. Uber was cheaper.
“No fackin’ clue! Tell ya what though, Brexit can’t come soon enough. A lot of these Uber drivers — I ain’t got a problem with ‘em — but they ain’t Landaners, naa mean?”
I don’t know how he’d managed to roll another cigarette whilst driving, but he had it in his mouth and preceded to light it, breathing out a fog which clouded the window and could have blinded the average driver to the road. “This People’s Vote March they had a couple weeks ago. Load of bollocks in my opinion. There’s already been a people’s vote. We voted Leave. I mean you’re a young guy. Maybe you voted Remain. I dunno.” He shrugged.
“I have me own problems with the EU. I mean, I’m not a fan of unelected bureaucrats in the Commission and all this about a European army shit me up proper. I dun’t care if a middle-class kid can’t go backpacking around Europe without a Visa and if industry makes a return after Brexit, I’d be happy about that.”
“But there were scummy politicians on both sides, in my opinion. The Leave camp told lies and so did the Remain camp. I dun’t think hardly any of ‘em care about normal people anyway. That’s just politics. We’re living in a post-truth society, mate. You can’t just believe anyone. Have to figure it out for yourself.”
“Yeah, unless it’s staring you straight in the face.” He talked over me and I talked over him.
“With Theresa May running the country, we’re gonna be fucked when we leave,” I said.
“Let’s be honest. We’re fucked either way though, I suppose. I just hope someone with honest intentions becomes Prime Minister at the next election, pal. I like Corbyn, meself. Maybe he could turn it around.”
The cabman sniffed. “Fair enough, mate. Not a fan of Corbyn. Refused to sing the national anthem din’he? Do you consider yourself a praad Englishman though?” He pointed back towards the St. George’s Cross in the rear window. “Have a look at that and tell me you don’t.”
I took a little glance at it. It looked lonely, melancholy even. A forgotten old man in a chip shop with invisible regrets. ‘Love’ tattooed on one set of knuckles; ‘Hate’ tattooed on the other. He only has one hand to most people. The flag was lit up by the passing street lamps of New Kent Road in orange streaks of silence as we slid past the Lebanese Grill and La Cabana up to the traffic lights. Outside, two men in catering uniforms were limping by on their way home from work, speaking in Polish.
One of them saw a penny on the floor and stopped to pick it up. “I love the people in this country,” I answered, “but I dun’t like the way the country’s run. Race or original nationality dun’t come into it. I love every working-class person in this country. If St. George could represent all of us, I’d love the flag just as much. I will say this though – the way middle-class Remain voters have attacked Leave voters has been the biggest display of ‘CHAV-bashing’ I’ve seen since Shannon Matthews and I dun’t condone that.”
The cabman stubbed out his fag and coughed into his response. “That’s good to know mate, that’s good to know. Sometimes it has to be about nationality though, dunnit? Don’t mean to sound funny or nothing but I’ve got a wife at home in a wheelchair and I can’t look after her ‘cos my job’s going down the shitter and it is immigrants taking my work away from me with their fackin’ Ubers! All these Polacks. Ukrainians, Pakistanis, Russians, Indians, Armenians, Hungarians, Grecians; they’re all fackin’ here and now I can’t earn a living wage in my own Sauff Landan!”
Suddenly he was shouting and as I looked at the rear-view mirror, I could see that his eyes were clenched shut as the taxi sped down the open road. “My fackin’ city! Been here all my fackin’ life and it’s not fair I can’t get by. I’m fackin’ sick of it! Sick of being poor! No help! No life! Work till I fackin’ die! Never retire! All these posh cunts don’t do nathin’! They don’t give a shit! Line their own pockets, that’s all they want! Sometimes I feel like fackin’ everyone up, one by one – make it nice and slow. Make ‘em bleed proper! See how they like getting mown down!”
The taxi accelerated to such speed that I was pinned to the back of my seat as the outside world shot by in shards of colour, the cabman raving, tongue lashing, face contorting, clenching and relaxing, eyes now staring into blankness with an intensity strong enough to make the moon hide itself behind the clouds. The glacier of marginal existence. Two broken backs at war. A sledgehammer on a throne. England rushed past in all its magnitude as if late for the bus, hauling its heavy bags behind it; the police brutality, the flabby beach bodies, the army, the pawn shops, the proud tackiness, Stockholm Syndrome, the free school dinners, the overpriced pints, the crushing tubes, the slow provincial farm lands, the sovereign rings, the bedroom tax, the polite anger, the counter-culture scene, the dead factories, the weathered knuckles, the squirming young and toothless old, the unquenchable desire for money, sex, money, sex, money, the scowls at a wedding, the party-poppers at a divorce, the furious heart attacking itself over the contradicting rhythms echoing around it, each with its own silenced history. The whole globe fell into an infinity of white nothingness and just before it could swallow me whole, the cab stopped outside my house.
The little red door greeted me under the street lamp. The cabman looked over his shoulder with a cheery grin. “Anyway, that’s a story for another time. I like you, mate. Thank you for giving an old man a job.”
I paid him and stumbled out the taxi; stood in the icy early hours of November, catching my breath. The cabman gave me a honk as he departed, rolling down the quiet residential road with St. George’s Cross clinging onto the rear window like a tired, abandoned rag. Another one of England’s victims. I didn’t know where he would go. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. I felt sorry for him and felt guilty for feeling sorry for him, then felt guilt for that guilt in turn. Sometimes the scariest thing you can see on Halloween is reality. I fumbled for my keys; found them and clutched them like a weapon. When I looked back up the cabman was gone. The last of the Englishmen had vanished into South London.
Tommy Sissons is an award-winning poet and playwright. He was shortlisted for the 2018 Outspoken Award for poetry and was the winner of the 2014 Slambassadors national slam champion. His debut poetry collection ‘Goodnight Son’ was published by Bx3/Burning Eye Books in June 2016 and his debut album ‘We Were All Mud and Halos’ was released via QM Records in January 2018.