‘How’s your day going?’ said the taxi driver as he snapped his knob into drive. If I caught the plane it would be a miracle. Angry with myself for failing once again adequately to plan a simple journey to Bristol airport, I decided to tell him. ‘Well, my mother is dying of cancer, my brother’s cancer has spread to his hip, and mine is showing signs of waking up. I’ve just had a tax bill for 30 grand, I’ve had three hours’ sleep in the last 36, and unless you get me to the airport in 40 minutes I’m going to miss a plane. Otherwise everything is tickety-boo.’
‘So where are you off to today?’ he said, sincerely envious. ‘France,’ I said. ‘France!’ he exclaimed. ‘Do you like wine?’ ‘Not much,’ I said. ‘The wife likes white and I like red,’ he said, undeterred. ‘Aldi does some incredible wine. I’ve been working my way through their reds for under a fiver and at the moment I’m liking this Bulgarian red for £3.99. It’s a fantastic quaffing wine. I wouldn’t give it as a present, but the wife and I would be very pleased to receive it. I’ll probably stop off later on the way home and get one for tonight. In fact, I’m looking forward to it already. You don’t drink wine at all?’ he added, disappointed. ‘If there’s nothing else I might. But not as a rule,’ I said.
‘Aldi’s under-a-fiver wine really is amazing,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how they do it. I would like to shake their chief wine buyer by the hand. Are you going to France for business or pleasure?’ ‘I sort of live there,’ I said. He was visibly shaken to hear this. Even seen from behind. ‘You live in France and you don’t drink wine?’ he said. ‘Well, we keep a box of rosé in the fridge and on a very hot day I might pour myself a tumbler and float an ice cube in it.’
‘Oh, we love a glass of wine, me and the wife. We drink a glass each maybe five nights out of seven. And on a Saturday night, if I’m not working the next day, we might say, “What the hell” and polish off a whole bottle between us.’ ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘But we can take it or leave it,’ he said, worried perhaps in case I reported him to his licensing authority. ‘Sometimes of an evening the wife’ll say: “What about a glass of wine, love?” And I’ll reply: “You know what, love? I’d prefer a cup of tea.” And she’ll say: “Yeah, I would too.” And we have a cup of tea instead.’
This decent, hard-working man’s modest aspirations made me nostalgic for the earlier days of my working life when I would hear this sort of thing from my married work-mates all the time. Outside, the ravishing Somerset countryside had broken through this morning into full summer and this time there was no going back.
‘So do you not drink much at all?’ he said with the evangelical fervour of a recent convert. ‘I like a nice gin-and-tonic actually,’ I admitted. He sat up in his seat. ‘Ah, gin-and-tonic,’ he said. Now there’s a lovely drink. Me and the wife had a gin-and-tonic, now let me see, it must have been three, four years ago now. And do you know what? We both thoroughly enjoyed it. I think I might suggest a gin-and-tonic to the wife for a change one of these days.’ ‘Lots of ice and a slice of grapefruit,’ I recommended. ‘Grapefruit? Seriously?’ he said. ‘Honestly,’ I said. ‘Some pubs offer it these days.’
For perhaps half a minute he silently contemplated the outlandish image of himself and his wife with a gin-and-tonic and a slice of grapefruit in front of them. Also, he seemed to be wrestling with something disreputable from his past.
Finally he said: ‘Did you ever drink scrumpy?’
‘Oh yes,’ I said passionately. ‘Now there’s a drink,’ he said and we both laughed at our respective memories of drinking rough farm cider. ‘Turned your legs to rubber before you even knew you were drunk?’ I said. Now we laughed uproariously, scrumpy brothers in arms. ‘When was the last time you drank a pint of scrumpy?’ he said seriously. I briefly related a sordid tale ending with me naked in the back of a police car with my wrists and ankles in shackles and my companion falling off a church roof into the sea. ‘Happy days!’ he said grimly. Then he leant forward, tightened his grip on the steering wheel, and overtook three cars in a slightly reckless manoeuvre.