Just after dark on a chilly, wet night in April, I’m standing in the rain next to my cab outside a multi-million pound villa overlooking Hyde Park.
“Malwina!” the man next to me shouts, “Have you got 40p?”
Malwina is the maid who was standing on the kerb as we pulled up, waiting to unload the cab full of luggage that we brought back from Paddington – so much of it that this man, his wife and daughter could barely fit in with it, and that was after filling the compartment in the front too. They’d been in Geneva for a week. It was twenty-two degrees there. “Anywhere would be better than here, wouldn’t it?”
Malwina pats her pockets, shakes her head, and rushes off into the house. Unfortunately, the fare on the meter is showing at £10.40, and he’s only got a ten pound note.
When they walked down the gangway at Paddington there was no queue, just two tourists asking the marshal for directions, but this chap still began shouting from several metres away, “Hey, mate, what’s the hold up, can we get in a cab or what?” Bizarrely, for the first time in years I thought of Chris Theodopolopodous, Sharon’s obnoxious and chauvinistic crook husband from Birds of a Feather. It was him, with designer suitcases.
I got out of the cab and loaded the three biggest cases into the front and helped fit the rest into the back with the passengers. Then I went back to the driver’s seat, put the meter running and set off for the given address. At the other end I pulled up, stopped the meter, and dragged the cases from the cab, through the garden gate and right up to the steps so as to get them out of the rain and dirt on the pavement. From there, Malwina took over.
We stand together for a few moments. I’m debating with myself how much the principle is worth. In the end I say, “Tell you what mate, forget it, I’m not hanging around in the rain for 40p”. It’s the first time he says thank you. Which is nice, though I’m disappointed he didn’t pick up on the contempt I’d tried to inflect it with.
Now don’t think I’m not grateful for the work, and don’t think I mind helping people with their cases, but if I’d set the meter running when I started loading and stopped it when I finished unloading it probably would have reached at least £12. It’s just, you know, it would have been nice if he’d been able to pay me. And I had a nasty feeling that 40p would have been coming from Malwina’s own purse, too.
Transport that job to the Old Kent Road, say it’s a little old lady and I’m taking her to a low rise council flat. I’d have happily rounded the fare down for her, but you can bet she wouldn’t have let me. She’d have insisted on giving me extra and then thanked me profusely for my help. “Bermondsey pays better than Belgravia”, the old saying goes.
Belgravia’s the only place I’ve ever been bilked. This one was a little old lady. I picked her up at a private club in Mayfair, took her and two members of staff to her four storey townhouse, waited while they took her in, and then took the staff back to the club. Alas, she hadn’t given them enough cash to cover the fare.
It’s not that I think the rich are mean, necessarily. It’s more that actual cash money is one of the many things that other people deal with for them, and when they come to pay for something for themselves I’ve noticed they often seem to find they don’t quite know how to go about it.
I dropped a quintessential three-piece pin-striped City fat cat outside a massive townhouse, also in Belgravia, with the meter at £28.80. He gave me £30 and asked for 50p back. It was a good job, and if he hadn’t tipped at all I would have forgotten all about it. But how am I supposed to respond to peculiar a tip like that? Oh, thank you sir, thank you ever so much sir, I’m most ‘umbled? As I drove away I wondered if maybe he needed a coin for the electricity meter, so he could put on the lights when he got in.
Mind you, 70p’s not to be sniffed at. It’s significantly better than the little job I did recently to a private clinic in Marylebone. That fare was £6.20. The gentleman gave me a crisp fifty pound note, and then helpfully put down an extra pound coin, so that I could just give him £45 back. I left the pound coin in the tray and gave him £43.80. I wasn’t letting that principle go.
But at least he spoke to me. I picked up two ladies outside Selfridges and took them to an expensive Westminster hotel. They paid the fare (in full), and the porter came and opened the cab door for them. They simply got out – without a word or even so much as looking at the man – and walked into the hotel, leaving their bags of shopping in the back of the cab. Between the two of us, raised eyebrows turned in a flash to big grins. “Amazing, isn’t it?” the porter said. “They’re just so used to having servants”.
He put the shopping on a trolley and began wheeling it into the hotel. I put my light back on and drove out into the streets. Come to think of it, maybe that shopping was supposed to be my tip, damn.
(Some names and locations have been changed in this piece.)