Friends and those on the fringes of friendship don’t walk out on you overnight, they just sort of fade away, like sunsets. Okay, there’s a handful of I would and have crossed to the other side of the street to avoid. But thankfully they’ve been few and far between. Most friends, loved ones and people I’ve known without ever really liking, whether from school, work, next door, down the pub, or in bed – simply vanish. One day they’re there and a decade later they’re just a bystander in a frayed photograph. I’ve heard about old chums and lovers reuniting on websites and social media platforms sharing intimate details of what they had for dinner in addition to more serious issues like maybe becoming an item. But you know what, I would rather let bygones be bygones. When the drink has gone it’s gone. Until that day when, by chance, my past catches up with me. Sometimes it’s good, surprising even, but not always.
Like that time a couple of years ago, over a coffee with the daughter of a former school friend, giving her tips on how to break into journalism, she’d slipped into the conversation that her father and the boy (now a man) whom I’d never taken to at school, wanted us to have lunch together. What the..? But he’s a di…Oh, sorry I shouldn’t have said.
Lunch happened some months later and after a tricky start, not having a clue what to talk about, it was suggested, due to our mutual friend having been forced to cancel at the eleventh hour, that I may want to leave. He knew, and it took something to say as much. So I stayed and you know what, we enjoyed a very agreeable lunch. So agreeable in fact he, the man I’d have put close to the top of the list of people I never wanted to share so much as a snack with invited me to join him at one of the Eden Sessions to watch Kylie Minogue on stage. I resisted telling him I’d sat next to the Australian chanteuse at a Chinese restaurant in Camden Town. And in case you’re wondering we talked about Minis, the cars not the skirts, she planning to buy one.
Then there’s the time I’m strolling along my local high street when glancing inside a popular greasy spoon I saw to my amazement one of my oldest and closest friends seated at a table with people I didn’t recognise. We’d been inseparable but had drifted apart the way you do when you get a job and a wife and a home and the future looks different from the past. We’d never exchanged birthdays and Christmas cards, not that the absence of cultural formalities mattered as on the rare occasions our paths did cross (very rarely) we’d pick up from where we’d left off; somewhere around Electric Ladyland. He’d appeared hesitant as I waltzed through the door and called his name: “Whit-ney!” Not his real name and the reason nobody else looked in my direction. He seemed uncomfortable, ill at ease, swivelling in his seat and looking at the others across from him and those behind. I could sense I wasn’t welcome. It seems I’d stumbled upon some sort of therapy session for unhappy people, he telling me as much minutes later when he breathlessly caught up with me on the high street. Others have cropped up: A woman I can’t remember if we did or didn’t do the thing (thankfully I don’t think she could remember either); someone I knew as a child who somehow obtained my address and has been corresponding for several years, now a dear friend I didn’t know I had; and a keen but struggling young writer I once tried to encourage by handing him a Thesaurus which, believe me, turned out to be a big mistake. Imagine The Good Old Days’ Leonard Sachs reviewing reggae releases. He was on the pavement at a shop opening event and impressed that upon seeing him after an absence of maybe 15 years I’d abandoned my car, engine on, at the traffic lights in order to rush across the pavement and heartily embrace him. Weeks later he sent me a monogrammed chessboard and pieces. All those years editing out splendacious and rhapsodic I hadn’t known writing was a second string and that his first passion and principle sources of income were fine carpentry and marquetry. And you think you know people.
Something similar happened a sunny morning in Soho. Those were high powered expense account times and stepping on to the street with a suitcase in my hand, after one of those number crunching meetings that amount to nothing, I was headed for Victoria Station to catch the Gatwick Express bound for New York and another meeting that could just as easily have taken place on the phone; with the added attraction of a five star hotel, a limo and all the scallops I could eat. The black cab that pulled up was shiny with a scent of pine and the driver, beneath one of those buzz cuts favoured by the prematurely balding, kept tilting his head toward the gap in the flex-i-glass screen that could have done with a wipe. Pulling out into the westerly carriageway of Oxford Street, passing a jingly jangly group of chanting Hari Krishna disciples I caught him glancing at me in the rear view mirror. Our eyes met causing him to jerk his gaze away. Approaching Beauchamp Place at a snail’s pace behind a convoy of red buses he tilted his head toward the Flexi glass opening and inquired if it was me?
“The Great Mephisto. You are The Great Mephisto, aren’t you?”
I dare say sporting a black goatee beard with an incipient handlebar moustache and a double breasted grey herringbone Crombie overcoat with a black velvet collar (located at a vintage clothing store in Stoke Newington) I may have appeared a shade, how to put it, pretentious? If so believe me it was unintentional. I’d spent a little too long around over dressed pop stars and flamboyant nightclubbers and some of that beau monde silliness had rubbed off. So I could see how someone might be confused and mistake me for a thespian, or at the very least someone hoping to look like one.
I ummed and erred a bit before offering “sorry, not me.” At which point the cab came to an abrupt stop behind a number 7 and my driver spinning around to face me proclaimed “I know you’re not The Great Mephisto and you want to know how I know? Because you’re Jonathan Futrell…” Only he pronounced my surname the way my parents had done making a sort of ‘trull’ as in ‘full’ sound at the end of the second syllable, at the point where the tongue gets tangled up in the bottom lip. As opposed to the easier to pronounce ‘trell’ ending I’d introduced some years back. I sometimes correct those who continue with the trickier traditional pronunciation but thought better of it. Who the hell was it? I edged forward to get a better look. It didn’t help.
“I didn’t think you’d recognised me – although that would be you through and through,” he added laughing, a but to too cynically.
“Colin, Colin Daniels Hanworth Sec. You beat the crap out if my mate Stu because he was even shorter than you. Remember now?”
Of course. How could I ever forget Colin and Stu? Peas in a pod. Little and Large and completely inseparable. Colin tall for his age and slim and freckly with a tidy basin cut and always immaculate. Indisputably the best dressed pupil at Hanworth Sec, and smooth with it too. And his best friend Stuart Overin, short, dark, equine features but just as mod cool, and always sniggering in an unctuous irritating way and disliked by just about everyone at the school except for the man in front of me.
I thought I’d be surprised, but I wasn’t. Colin Daniels a cabbie and still as cheeky and impudent as ever – it made sense.
“Didn’t you go to some private school after Hanworth, not good enough for you were we? And then,” he continued up a key “I heard you were in newspapers or something.” He leant around a bit further and failed somewhere between the steering wheel, seat belt and the flex-i-glass partition. I told him he seemed to know as much about me as me. He didn’t laugh and then said he’d got my paper round whenever it was I quit.
Did he stay in touch with Stuart?
“Who Stu? So you remember him? You really worked him over. remember that. Stu did. Bloody killed him. ‘’Scuse my French. ”
For a moment I considered reminding him that I only threw two punches, one to the chin and the other to the gut. He’d gone down on the second conveniently slumped in a sitting position on the changing room bench, framed by an assortment of duffle bags and school blazers, moaning a bit but otherwise fine. To tell you the truth I didn’t hang around to see if he was ok. I grabbed my gear and legged it in case Martin and the B stream hard-nuts returned from the gym and found his best pal bent double. I thought better of it.
It’s not easy making idle conversation with someone you haven’t seen for the best part of 25 years especially one who you’d gone out your way to avoid wherever possible. But I gave it a shot, maybe not my best shot, but I was intrigued. How did he like being a black cab driver and was he married and where did he live? I fished around my pockets for my passport and airline tickets and the schedule Jody had handed me as I’d left the office. He was talking, to me or maybe it was cabbie stuff on his shortwave radio? He tilted his head to his left shoulder, the way we anchor phones to leave our hands free, a vein the size of a robusto cigar standing up on the right side of his neck.
“And up yours too sunshine,” barking at a cyclist giving us the finger.
“No insurance, no road tax, and no effing road sense.” That vein even bigger now. I’d never taken Colin for a tough guy. Too dapper and cynical for that; all mouth and finely creased trousers without the punch. Clever answers but always on the back foot. Being tough had come later. At school I remember he was more the quietly sarcastic type. Always a cute excuse but never threatening like some. He could knot a tie though. Indeed both he and Overin always wore relaxed full Windsors, forever making minor adjustments in any available mirror or window.
I’d met then on my first day at my new junior school, as they was known then. There’d been a sort of welcome assembly/roll call in the school hall. A stage at one end a number of teachers sat upon straight back chairs, each holding a sheaf of paper, and to our left floor to ceiling windows overlooking a tall manicured hedge. I didn’t know anybody and nobody seemed to know what was going on. The pupils, maybe 200 or so I didn’t count were split up into four groups for reasons that were not apparent at the time but which would become clearer later. They began with what was deemed by the head master, a cherubic looking man with a pink face and thinning hair, D Stream working backwards to A into which I was allocated. Nobody actually said the pupils assigned to D were the no-hopers or that those like me in A were the goodie-two-shoes because the four categories could just as easily have been based on some sort of dress code. Except that that wouldn’t have held up to scrutiny because while the pupils in D were unquestionably the scruffiest, few even in the school’s black and white uniform, nobody could dispute that the B Streamers were by far the best turned out. Looking at them I recall experiencing what I came to understand was my first ever pang of style envy. Needless to say Martin Daniels and Stuart Collier were both assigned to B the coolest collection of 11 going on 12 year olds I’d ever seen while I’d been grouped with what could best be described as the Young Fogies Stream; appropriate school wear worn with a collective awkwardness. My parents would be pleased I was in the A, I having missed out on either of the two local grammar schools that a number of my more studious primary school colleagues were to be enrolled in, although I’d have accepted a demotion to B in a heartbeat. I can remember looking at them, their ties slightly loose and cocked irreverently to one side and haircuts like the dancers on Top Of The Pops. If Daniels had said his night job was in Herman’s Hermits I’d have believed him.
“So where you headed for?” He’d flicked a switch and his crisp west London accent, midway between Estuary English and Home Counties coming over loud and clear on some sort of PA system. It made me jump but I could hear the advantages. It meant Martin didn’t have to turn and inflate that robusto vein.
I told him it was work. A string of meetings and some contracts to be signed.
“Expense account piss up then. I’d always fancied a job like that but with one girl after another in the family way I learnt early on to ditch any ambition of a life on Easy Street and to get on and earn some dough.” His eyes filled the rear view mirror.
His dad had got him work with a plumber looking to train a youngster. He didn’t like it. Then retail, which made a sort of sense and finally with the council on some truck or other.
“Didn’t like taking orders. Cabbies are their own boss.
“Stuart always said you’d do ok for yourself. Dad was some kind of journalist or something weren’t he?”
“All-Right. Big stuff. You still in that game?”
I told him not anymore and he nodded and ummed approvingly when I explained that these days I was in the music business.
“So freebies up to your ears. I picked up some fella in a bomber jacket with some group’s name I’d never heard of on the back. He handed me a bunch of 12 inch singles when he got out. Load of crap. Gave ‘em away. Nice enough fella though. Tip an’ all.
“You meet any famous people? I’ve had a few in my cab,” turning and laughing again. “Yeah yeah, I know, we all say that.” And turning a bit further and pumping up that robusto, “ I could say I had the Great Mephisto in mine. The Great Tough Mephisto.”
Our drive continued like this for a while; at a standstill by Selfridges, left at Marble Arch, stopping for someone holding a sign on a stick guiding two lines of children across the road, and down Park Lane amber in the autumn sunshine passing a woman in a fascinator disembarking outside The Dorchester. I asked him why he didn’t have a white taxi too. Something a bit different for a man of style like him.
Slowing to a standstill to allow traffic flowing in from Hyde Park he swivelled in his seat and with his left hand holding back the flex-i-glass grinned and replied, “it’d be like driving with me bollocks out.” I could see his point.
That first year at junior school my father died suddenly from something nobody new quite what for certain. My sister and I often didn’t see him from one weekend to the next what with him staying late to see the paper ‘to bed’ and all that beer to be drunk after. The first time I knew he was ill was the morning I learnt he had died and it’s times like these you learn how childish children can be.
“Lost your dad? Don’t you remember where you left him?” Overin wasn’t the only one to find it funny but he just happened to be no bigger than me and alone in the changing room when I got even.
Did he see much of Overin?
“You mean Stu? Oh you remember him. You really worked him over. For a split second I thought about reminding him that it was only the two punches; one to the chin and another to the gut. He’d slumped back on to a bench moaning some but otherwise fine. I don’t recall him missing any school time. I think some of the others thought I’d done them a favour.
“He died. Some intestinal complication, internal bleeding that sort if thing. I don’t know the proper medical term but I think he was in pain for years. Had to watch what he ate and drank.”
He glared bug eyed into the rear view mirror and I wanted to be somewhere else. Thankfully not much further.
The conversation had come to a stop. No more wisecracks or cabbie anecdotes. Just a pair of old acquaintances with an ocean of distrust and resentment between them. Proof, were any needed, that the past should remain in the past.
Stepping on to the pavement I asked how much? He looked at me and pulled that toothless grin I’d seen countless times at school. The fare. How much?
“I’n not going to charge the Great Mephisto. This one’s one me.”
“No. My pleasure. Say it’s for old time’s sake.
Oh, and Stu – he’s fine. You never could take a joke. Have a good flight mate.” And with that he was gone.