This is the one thing I know from the minute I lift the receiver and slip that voice inside my ear: it will happen.
‘I need you. I need you to come right now.’
‘And I’m not. I’m at home. Come on.’
‘I do. Tell them you’re feeling ill. You’ve got to be somewhere. There’s an emergency. This is an emergency.’
‘Will you come now. I want you to. I want you.’
‘I want you.’
‘Really, it’s impossible.’
But it happens: I walk through the crashing or silent corridors and clean out of the building without even noticing whether I’ve put on my coat. I’m already on the way to somewhere else.
It seems a kind of falling, and anyone can fall. I wonder if we don’t all wait from time to time, ready to make a dive, to find that space where we can drop unhindered. Like an internal suicide.
So I start my fall and the door into the outside air swings snug behind me and I’m somewhere I can’t go at other times. Here we all walk together; are together. Watch for our feet, see our bodies; we all of us have the same music romping inside our heads. We’re moving through a big, blue waltz without a collision or a slip and I have my very own personal direction, smooth ahead of me: build a wall and I will simply walk it down. Today I can do that. Look for my heart and you’ll see it beating, even through my coat.
This is the only time I have when to be nothing other than me is quite enough. I love this.
It may have been raining for weeks, there may be salted snow and litter greasing together under my feet, dog shit and vomit–the usual pavements we have to use–but today I will neither notice, nor be touched. Angels have decreed it; I will be clean today. The air will shine. And if I glance to the side, the effect is disconcerting. Things are blurred, as though I were watching them from a moving car. Once I have my direction, I can get up a fair head of speed. The final corner spirals off to my right, the sun is blazing a banner in every window and there they are, the reason I came: the taxis.
I can’t be sure why the taxis are always involved. I only know I have always taken taxis when I’ve been falling. When I could afford them and when I could not and when I had to borrow money before I climbed in. It was almost as if they had some claim on me. Sometimes I would find myself clipping that phone call short, just to get moving, to get aboard.
‘Yes, I’ll get a taxi, I’m on my way.’
That kind of thing.
Standing there with the taxis, I pause for a wonderful moment–I enjoy that–and then I reach my hand out for the door. Inside, in the air-freshener and cigarette and boot-sole smelling cab, things change. Moving away, the fear begins.
With my face beside the window, I become acutely visible. I fill out with the feeling of being on my way and keep growing. I turn into something cinematically huge. Surely, someone I work with, someone I know, someone representative of God’s wrath will take away this much pleasure before it arrives. Because this is too big for only me to have; I should be at work, I should be doing some intermediate something for someone I do not know. I shouldn’t be growing this noticeably.
I am afraid of eyes that will see me this way and then not understand. I myself have no understanding, because I am falling. There are meadows and opening seas of room between working and paying and shopping and cooking and eating and sleeping and general household maintenance in which I can be me, doing what I want. I no longer have to look out of the window and wonder who has my life, and if I miss it.
Seated in the expectancy of the taxi, I can love all the halts, the lights, the flaring pigeons. My journey will take forever and no time at all. When I pay the driver I will only faintly notice how much, because money is irrelevant. It lies in my hand, defeated–just for today, we’ve changed places and I can pass it across with a big, careless smile before the door barks shut behind me.
There is an irregular instant when I leave the cab, a slight loss of rhythm which is no more than natural, before I push the steps away beneath me and make the slow walk to the lift. Almost there. I plummet up the storeys in a stale little scrawled-over can with a pulse in my stomach. There is the flutter of arrival, of the door sliding back, the final steps, another door. Then I feel the pressure of movement between my face and another; the touch of hands, of air, of breath within breath.
And the fall is over. I know what will happen now.
What I have described occurred perhaps once every two or three months. I would much rather let it be over with and hope it won’t happen again, but I know that I am not a strong person and that I very much miss those times when I was me and that was enough. Even so, on the days when I was not falling I rarely thought of it–a particular sky, the movement of a breeze, a conjunction of word and feeling might give me a spasm of what I might call completeness, and I would pass into that other life for an instant or two–but for the most part I existed and made myself satisfied with that.
The alteration began at the taxi stance when I arrived one morning and found there were no cabs there, I would have to wait.
‘We’re out of luck.’
The voice was calm, soft, really very pleasant.
‘I said we’re out of luck. Odd for this time of day.’
‘I believe I’ve seen you here before.’
‘I mean at this rank. I wait at this rank quite often because of what I do. It’s my rank.’
‘Well, I suppose it’s mine, too. If it’s anybody’s.’
I am not normally this ill-tempered, but I was too far into my journey to focus on anything else and I never like speaking to people I don’t know–it makes me feel stupid. I end up discussing the weather when the weather is all around us and both I and whoever the stranger might be must surely have noticed it. We would be better off asking each other if our faces are still there. Against my nature and my better judgement and possibly because this was the only way that Fate could have arranged it, I turned to the stranger and asked with a little ironic twist I was rather proud of, ‘What is it that you do?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘You said you were here often because of what you do. I wondered what that was.’
‘I see. What I do.’ The smile was fully there now. ‘I make love.’
‘That’s what I do. I don’t mean that’s what I’m paid my wages for. I mean that’s the most important thing I do. My vocation.’
I wanted to leave then–this was obviously not the kind of person I would usually speak to, not even the kind who was capable of small talk. I couldn’t go, though. It was that word– vocation–I knew exactly what that meant. For a breath or two I was aware that both of us were falling together, passing and repassing, nudging briefly as we soared down our particular trajectories. I had never before met somebody so like me. There was no need for words, but my companion spoke in any case.
‘I’ve offended you.’
‘Surprised you then. I only mentioned it because . . . well, because I thought we had similar reasons for being here. A fling, an affair, a fuck. I’m in the right area.’
This was all delivered with a beery smirk and of course, I was alone again at once, spiralling off in a way that no one seemed able to understand. No one knew. I wanted to explain the way things were for me. What I did wasn’t about sex, wasn’t about running amok and dangerous diseases, perversion, sweat. At that time, I could only have said that the only way not to feel squeezed all the time was to set off on my little journeys to someone close whenever I needed to, no matter what. I needed to be able to fall, to meet sometimes in a way that other people didn’t, to be outside the average shape of the day. Now that sounds like a whim, an eccentricity, but it was the heart of my life and here was a total stranger quietly stamping all over it.
I wish I had pointed that out, instead of just saying, ‘No, not the same area.’
‘You can tell me, it’s all right. We aren’t the only ones, by any means. I know the type.’
‘No, you don’t see what I mean. We aren’t the only ones who come here to catch taxis to do . . . things in that area. I know the look. You do, too, if you think about it. You know how it feels. You think that doesn’t show?’
I didn’t want to hear this. It was like watching my own reflection wink and walk away without me.
‘I think something shows.’
‘Naturally it shows. When I first realized–what we were all doing–when I looked at the taxis, smiling and creeping along . . . well, even now I can hardly keep from laughing.’
The people around me had stopped being together and the day looked the way it normally did. Nothing was special. There was a metallic feeling about where my liver would be and, more than anything, I felt angry.
‘No, it’s not like that.’
‘Like what, exactly?’
‘Like the way you make it sound–as if we all just ran about doing all that we liked. No one can do that. There are consequences, diseases, people are dying of that.’
‘Pleasure isn’t fatal. I’ve been in the same relationship for more than a decade now, we simply happen to be unconventional. I thought I’d made myself clear–this is a part of me and what I am and nobody else’s hysteria will stop me from being who I am. We are careful because we care and we are happy. You have any objections to that?’
‘No, no, I’m sorry.’
‘Do you really not know what it’s like when you want to make that call–to see him, to see her, whoever is important for you? Are you saying you’d just give it up if somebody told you to?’ There was an ugly little pause. ‘Surely you do that? You do call?’
‘I don’t make calls, I just answer them.’
We didn’t say anything else after that. There was a polite silence; as if something about what I said had been obscene. By the time my taxi came I didn’t want it, but I took it anyway. I was going to be late and in the wrong mood and I couldn’t help looking for other taxis to see who was inside and if they were happy.
That afternoon, it wasn’t very good. I couldn’t say what was wrong about it and we made no fuss at the time, but the atmosphere was odd. I strained somewhere in my neck.
It took several weeks before whatever difference we had developed was dispersed and for all of that time at the back of my mind there was a little fleet of taxis full of people I didn’t know. They were all being special without me. Perhaps it was that slight mental disturbance which made me think it was strange that I never made the call. I was always the one that got the taxi. Never the caller, always the called. Why shouldn’t the process work in reverse? There was a pleasant logic in it. The only component transferred would be the element of surprise. Who would begrudge that? There would still be an expectant journey, a tension, a reward for waiting. No problem. I made a call.
‘Who is this?’
‘You know who it is. I have to see you. Come now.’
‘I can’t now.’
‘I want you to.’
I waited at home for three hours and nobody came. I stayed in all that evening and nobody came.
Sometime later, a matter of months, I found I was waiting at the stance for a taxi. It was going to be an innocent taxi and I felt a little embarrassed at catching it there. In fact, the whole situation was uncomfortable because I hadn’t caught a taxi in hot blood since that unfortunate call. Everything was reminding me that I didn’t know how to fall any more. I couldn’t do it on my own.
‘Hello, I thought it was you.’
It was, unmistakably, that voice. That mouth. The steady eyes.
‘Here we are again. Not speaking?’
‘We’re not here again. I’m catching a taxi because I’m late.’
‘That’s a shame. Trouble at work?’
‘What do you mean?’
I didn’t have to look, I knew the mouth would be smiling.
‘If it’s any of your business, it was trouble at home. No more taxis. Full stop. Not needed.’
‘Now that is a shame. That’s terrible news. Look, I’ll write this down. Call me, will you?’
‘Call me. On the telephone. That’s my number.’
‘Why the fuck would I do that?’
‘Call me and see.’
I can only say I was shocked and, because my journey was less important than those I had been used to, I walked away without saying another word. I didn’t need the stance; I could flag down a cab in the street; it didn’t matter.
I don’t know if you are familiar with the story of the guru who told his pupil that the meditative life was simple, as long as you never, ever, once thought of a monkey. Naturally, after this, the pupil’s meditations were filled with monkeys of every colour and description, arranged in a series of faintly mocking poses.
I was reading to try and improve my condition of mind and I had come across this story. Every time I walked down the street I would think of the pupil, the guru, even the monkey, and none of them would help me because my particular problem was the taxis. They were everywhere. I didn’t want to wonder where they were going and why, but I did wonder. I didn’t want to lie on my back in the night and hope that the phone might ring and there would be a journey and hands I could hold with my hands. I didn’t want to wish for dreams of falling. Everything I did was something that wasn’t wanted.
You can guess what came next. What else could I do but another thing I’d never intended? Who else did I know who had even the slightest experience in this field? I had no choice.
I hadn’t thrown the stranger’s number away. I had hidden it right at the back of a drawer in the hope I’d forget where I put it or that it might spontaneously combust: just disappear and go away. I took under a minute to find it–a corner of paper torn from something more important with seven numbers printed on one side. I had a coffee and called. Engaged. The next time there was no answer; an hour later, the same. I gave the number one final try on two or three other occasions, the last of them late on a Sunday afternoon.
I couldn’t think what to say.
We had never introduced ourselves and, even if we had, I wasn’t precisely certain of what I was calling for. Perhaps help.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Look, I’m going to hang up now.’
‘No. I mean I–Hello.’
‘Well, well, well. We met at the taxi rank, isn’t that right?’
‘Yes. Yes. I’m sorry, we did.’
‘You’re sorry we did?’
‘No, I’m not sorry we did, at all. I didn’t mean that.’
‘So why are you calling? I gave you my number for a reason–not for a casual chat. Why are you calling?’
‘I . . . because I . . . am afraid.’
‘Of what I might do.’
‘I don’t know. Mainly to me. I can’t get this out of my head, the taxis, the journeys . . . the whole thing. I seem to have nowhere to go now. I thought, because you knew about it . . . You gave me your number.’
‘All right. Don’t worry. Now . . .’
I could hear a small disturbance at the other end of the line. Imagine that, the same noise, far away in a stranger’s room and inside my head. Telephones are wonderful.
‘Yes, here we are. Are you listening? Are you there?’
‘I am, I am.’
‘I want you to catch a taxi at the stance. I want you to tell it to go to the Odeon cinema. When you get there buy a ticket for the next screening in Cinema Three. Go in and take a seat in the fourth row from the back. Is that clear?’
Far away in that other room, the receiver was replaced and I couldn’t even say thank you, or goodbye.
Outside, the half moon risen, people were moving together again, the music was back; we were special. I stepped inside the taxi, rested my hands in my lap and let the world dip away to leave me somewhere altogether better. Even in the half dark, I knew my fingers were jumping a little with every heartbeat, and we were in hot blood again.
Cinema Three was almost empty, pleasantly cool, and I tipped back my head while the trailers reeled by, feeling my breath going all the way in and then all the way out again.
‘Good film, wasn’t it?’
I held the receiver in both hands to stop it from shaking.
‘You never came.’
‘I’d already seen it.’
‘I thought you would be there.’
‘You thought wrong. Did you enjoy the film?’
‘I. . . Well, yes, I enjoyed the film, but I was waiting for you.’
‘You shouldn’t have been. I didn’t say I would be there. You don’t know what you’re calling for, do you?’
‘Give me your number at home and your number at work. Are you still there?’
‘Then give me the numbers. You do want this to continue, don’t you?’
And even if I had no idea what we were doing, I did want it to go on, so I passed over the numbers and that was that.
I don’t think I lack pride; do you think I lack pride? In my position, you might have fed those numbers down the line and not considered it humiliating. I hadn’t known why I was going to the Odeon and, yes, I had expected company, but at least something was happening now. I felt so much better, so much more special again. That isn’t something you come by every day. Perhaps a month or two in the Seychelles would do it for you; a fridge full of vodka; a night-sighted rifle and two hundred rounds. These things would be of no interest to me, but I never would blame anybody for making the best of whatever they’d got: I had a voice on the telephone.
So I do believe I kept a little of my pride, while admitting that I waited for the next call with something less than dignity. When it came, I was invited to wait by the Sunlight Cottages in the park. Call three sent me to the sea front; call four, the necropolis, and on every outing, I met no one, spoke to no one, saw no one I recognized.
‘I’m sorry, but what’s going on?’
‘Two o’clock, the Abbey. Be there.’
‘But you won’t be.’
‘So why am I going?’
‘Because I’m telling you to. Or don’t you want to do this any more?’
‘Please, I don’t want to stop. I don’t want that. I just want to understand what the fuck I’m doing. Please.’
There was a sigh. It came slipping all the way down miles of wire to me, soft but unmistakable.
‘You still don’t understand?’
‘Then there’s no point in our continuing.’
I winced against the clatter of the receiver going down, but nothing happened.
‘Please don’t hang up. If you explained I would understand, I’m sure of it.’
‘What do you enjoy?’
‘I . . . how do you mean?’
‘What do you enjoy? What makes you take the taxis? What do they do to you? You must know, it’s you it happens to. Your heart fists up and quivers, doesn’t it? The call starts and your blood is suddenly pushed high, round your ears. You can hear it sing. There are pulses setting up all over you, ones you can’t stop, and your stomach is swinging and then convulsing and then turning into a hole punched through to your back. Right?’
‘Right. All your senses shine–it’s as if someone pulled a carrier-bag off your head and life is very good and you feel special. Yes?’
‘And now you can remind me–did you enjoy that film?’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘You were there because you chose to go there–no one but you. You were happy. You were there and nowhere else, not even in your mind.’
‘Don’t think, we haven’t got the time, just do it. Be there.’
‘At the cinema again?’
‘Do you still have my number?’
‘I think so.’
‘You’ll find that I’ve changed it and I won’t be ringing you again. This has already gone on too long. Goodbye.’
‘Take care of yourself. Goodbye.’
I didn’t find this a very helpful conversation. I remember it very clearly, because, of course, it was the last. I imagined I might be angry, but the anger never came; there was only a numbness which would sometimes wake me in the early dawn. For a long time I thought I would just keep on that way, but the numbness faded and then I felt sad.
Particularly, I was sad because I thought I had really caught the idea of the thing. I’m not really so terribly stupid. I figured out that it didn’t matter where I was going in the taxi, as long as I went. It didn’t matter who made the call. It didn’t matter if there was a call, I could catch a taxi anyway, decide where I was going and then take off.
I took myself back to the cinema and it didn’t work. I went back to the park and it didn’t work. I took a taxi to cruise past that particular block of flats I had been so used to visiting and it didn’t work. I walked up and down the streets, very often in the night, looking for a way into life, a tiny space to fall through, and it didn’t work.
The last thing I’ve done is to write this. It should be that laying out all of these words and recalling the way that it felt when I really was living will help me. I’ve been turning the problem around here. I have even had to put myself in the place of the stranger on the telephone and that must mean we are a little closer than we were when we knew each other. Perhaps we have knowledge in common now that we didn’t have then.
I can say I feel more peaceful than I have in a while and quite tired. When I read this back, it may be that things will come clearer. I think what I hope is that the sum of all I have written will amount to a tiny piece more than I intended and that piece will be what I was looking for all this time. I think that’s what I hope.