Christmas Days for the passenger, as he was soon to become, were anxious and painful in some ways. That’s why his mind wandered and he drove his car into a traffic island, flattening two tyres and stranding himself, his wife, their small child and his mother-in-law in a dull Inner London street as dusk fell across the capital. It was dark by the time the Dial-A-Cab driver came, though they were grateful one came at all (this was in those far off days Before Uber). Everyone else resumed the journey across town. He stayed with the car, sitting and waiting for the AA to arrive, nursing his embarrassment and thinking about his older children, who’d been collected from him by their mother earlier. He wouldn’t see them again before New Year.
The mishap happened outside a shop where Amy Winehouse had lately stopped to buy some cigarettes and sweets. Knowing this was not consoling, and not long after Amy would be dead. The AA man was downbeat, almost wordless, and it was odd to feel so cheered by the presence of someone so glum. Soon, the two men were seated side-by-side in the front of the yellow relay truck, the stricken car loaded on the back. The rueful driver-turned-passenger would be delivered to his destination first. The tyre problem would be sorted when they arrived.
Holloway, Camden Town, Primrose Hill, St John’s Wood. The damp streets were quiet, the roads freakishly clear. The cheerlessness outside at this time of festive joy somehow intensified the journey’s forced intimacy. It was the passenger who broke the silence.
“How come you’re working Christmas Day? Short straw?”
“Haha, no it’s easier this way.”
“How do you mean?”
“I have a daughter, but I won’t see her this year.”
“She has to look after her mother.”
This small revelation left a large void, one all the deeper because so much had gone unsaid. As the AA man kept his eyes on the road, the passenger’s speculations flowed into that empty space, forming a guessed narrative from strands of breakdown, estrangement and loss in which the ideal of a family Christmas became something to be escaped from, not pursued. To be working was so much better than to be not celebrating, and maybe doing so alone. Better to be out rescuing distracted motorists who didn’t look where they were going. It was easier that way.
Their destination was at the edge of Kensal Rise. Inside, the passenger was greeted with mulled wine and gentle teasing. Outside, the stricken car was lowered back on to the road and the AA man set off to his next roadside appointment, declining offers of mince pies and tea. Soon, another rescue man turned up, this one in a van with the extra spare tyre required on board, plus jack and an impact wrench.
The passenger, looking on uselessly, wondered what this new character in the story of his day was doing working on Christmas evening. Come to think of it, why had the black cab driver been on call? Soon the new tyres were in place. The passenger signed a form, gave thanks, counted his blessings and went back indoors.
John Vane writes stories about London, almost all of which are mostly true.
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