Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chapter Ten of Hampton from the Halfway Line

If this isn't everyone's favorite chapter, then I'm Herve Revelli.


The City, London

“You might want to take this outside,” Peter McMahon’s secretary whispered, holding out to him a mobile phone. “It’s your wife. She sounds upset.”
Mischa had crept into the conference room where Peter was in the midst of meeting with one of his groups of direct reports, a team of hotshot young bankers champing at the bit for new clients. Champing, even pretending to champ, was not something Peter ever did back in the 80s. Just as then, he looked upon such boys and girls – barely older than his own son – with the sort of amusement that one might regard a cartoon. On the other hand, their vigor helped keep him in the seat of a smart Saab Saloon.
He asked one of the junior partners present to carry on with the pinstriped gauchos of capital, excused himself and walked down the hall to his office.
“Rosalie?” he said, not sounding too terribly alarmed.
“Peter, oh my god. You must come immediately.” She spoke with an impressively controlled franticness.
“What? Where are you? What’s happened?”
“Tesco. Fucking Tesco. Why did I come to fucking Tesco?”
“You’re at Tesco? Which one? Round from our place?”
“Yes. No. Yes. I was. Now I’m at the police station next door.”
“What? Why? What police station? Are you hurt? What is happening?
“Oh, Peter. Come to the police station next door to Tesco on Shepherd’s Bush Road and get me out of here. These stupid, stupid bastards. Fucking Tesco.”
While remaining on the line with Rosalie, he buzzed for Mischa to arrange for a black cab to pick him up in front of the bank and zip him as quickly as possible to W6. As he had one more vital face-to-face before leaving for the day, Peter asked Mischa to rearrange for the meeting via phone. Once he was able to stabilize whatever Rosalie’s predicament was, he would carry on with his bank’s business, while possibly switching back and forth between soothing his wife and soothing a strategic partner. Peter McMahon was well experienced in such doings.
Rosalie never once stopped talking. She was still talking as Peter punched her mobile number into his mobile. As he hung up his office phone, explaining to her that she should hang up so that the new call could reach her and they could carry on talking, still she talked. If he’d been less distracted, he could have had Mischa connect Rosalie directly to his mobile without her having to hang up. He tried connecting as he walked to the elevator and down to Gresham Street where he would be met by one of London’s finest – the black cabbie.
A ride in a black cab, second only in expense to a Hong Kong cab, is normally worth every shilling, though the cabbies are not as smartly dressed as in the past. Black cab drivers, as most British and many people around the world know, spend considerable time and expense – often up to three years – gathering what is known as “The Knowledge,” the hands-on expert ability to navigate the Byzantine streets of London. Of course, “The Knowledge” has been referred to by some as a form of euthanasia.
Page One. Run One.  Manor House Station to Gibson Square. Not that anyone has ever wanted to go from Manor House to Gibson Square, it has been noted, but every black cab driver must know how to do it and four hundred and sixty-seven other runs while commanding more than 15,000 streets to memory.
Peter’s initial call back to Rosalie went straight to her recorded voice. So did his second attempt. He could only assume that her attention had been diverted by something happening in the police station, or she was still speaking to Peter’s office line, or she had already received another call, or she had moved on from her husband by phoning someone else. His experience with this woman was that any of the four were a distinct possibility. Finally, after about thirty seconds, they were reconnected.
“Why did you hang up on me?” she asked, genuinely in distress. “I was in the middle of telling you what happened. I’m in a police station. Did you not hear?”
“Never mind. I’m here now,” Peter knew better than to bother explaining the sequence of administrative events involving the simple change of phones. “Tell me you’re not hurt.”
“Not … hurt.”
“All right, I’m just getting into a cab. I’m thinking that when I say, ‘Police station. Step on it!’ I’ll make quite the impression on the driver.”
“That’s not funny. This is not the time for you to be in your parallel universe of humor. Listen to me. Can you listen to me and not make your jokes?”
“I can try. What’s happened? And don’t start at the beginning. Go to the end first.”
“I thought you always say, ‘Foundation first.’”
“That’s different. Were you robbed?”
“I’m not hurt. I was not robbed. I … can I just say that … mm … soon, very soon I hope, you’re going to see this as … well … maybe funny.”
“Do they think you stole something?”
Peter was recalling past misunderstandings in shops throughout Europe, America and the various souqs of Northern Africa.
“Why would you say such a thing? Do I look like a thief?”
“I think thieves come in all guises, to be honest. But, no, off the top of my head, I do not look at you and think, ‘Well, there’s a common brigand.’
“Thank you. The manager at Tesco is not so sure. But that’s OK, because the police are with you on this one. Well, not at first.”
“And, I assume your answer to my next question, ‘Why does Tesco believe you to be a robber?’ will help bring me up to speed.”
Peter settled into the back seat of one of the new TX4 taxis, faithful to the iconic original but with upgraded modern conveniences making them the best and most advanced hackney carriages in the world.
“Where to, guv?”
“Police Station. Shepherd’s Bush Road. This is an emergency.”
The cab driver looked twice at Peter who, having spent most weekdays of his adult life around Threadneedle Street and Paternoster Square, had no difficulty looking suitably grave. The banker turned back to his mobile and to Rosalie. “Yes, that was quite satisfying. I suspected it would be.”
The driver was a young, white and most likely heavily-tattooed south Londoner from Lewisham. He went straight past the Guildhall, instead of bearing left onto King Street toward the river, clearly with an eye toward St. Martin’s le Grand. Perhaps he knew something Peter didn’t about real-time street closing or congestion.
“I don’t think this will make any sense if I work backward.” Rosalie paced the halls and foyer of the police building.
“You could at least tell me why Tesco thinks you stole. Did something fall into that ridiculous purse of yours? Did you just merrily push your cart full of groceries out the door while talking to Kay on the phone?”
“Actually, in hindsight, I suppose one could assert that I knowingly participated in an armed robbery.”
Peter laughed. “Seriously, Rosalie.”
“Well, of course I didn’t. Not really. But I can see how it might have looked.”
“Rosalie …” It took a lot for Peter’s mind to spin when it came to his wife. This time, however, she had flipped the switch in the carnival ride section of his brain.
“I’m innocent.”
“Should I phone Martin?” The pragmatic money man emerged. “Was this your one call?”
“Oh, for christ’s sake, I’m not being detained … exactly. Are you almost here?”
“Almost there?” he blurted. He continued to be surprised by her lack of sense when it came to the relation of space and time. “We’ve only just … hold on. He’s heading to Holborn Viaduct. Excuse me. Where are we going? Is this a detour? You know it’s Hammersmith, right?”
“Yessir. Avoidin-a-traffic.”
“By what route?”
“Gray’s Inn, Euston, Marylebone, Westway, West Cross Route, Shepherd’s Bush Green. S’a winner s’time of day, guv. Embankment’s a mess.”
“Why don’t we just go dead east while we’re at it?” Peter suggested sarcastically. “Pass through Whitechapel, grab a curry, catch some skuzz rock, pray to Mecca. We could get on the north circular and make a night of it. I have a maiden aunt in Muswell Hill who’d love the company.”
“Nah. Gray’s Inn Road is right …”
“Are you mad? It’s in the opposite direction, first of all. That’s my point. I could get out and run and be at King’s Cross before you.”
“Not so sure about that.” The driver appeared to give Peter’s challenge serious thought.
“I don’t want to do that,” Peter leaned forward for emphasis.
“And s’far s’opposite direction goes … for me, s’matter of half-step back and then, fwack. Release the arrow. It’s like shooting the taxi out of a cannon. You’ll see. Just relax, sir.”
“Peter. Peter. So I’m standing in the checkout line and …”
“Hold on a minute sweetheart. Excuse me. Billy … I believe is your name?”
“I’m afraid I’m not comfortable with the proposed itinerary. Doff of the cap to ‘The Knowledge’ and all that, but … uh … I’ve been going back and forth between Brook Green and the City for twenty-five years and, as tempting as the Westway and the prospect of the three-lane dual carriageway at Royal Oak may seem in theory, frankly, I see it as a devious route. Again, no offense.”
“Please adjust. We’re not far enough north for the Marylebone option to make any sense.”
“Just trying to save you time and money, sir. You did say it was an emergency.”
Billy quickly turned left on Old Bailey toward the river. Thank goodness, Peter thought. Euston Road. What a pillock. Did he buy the coveted green badge on eBay?
The driver thought, ‘Don’t he just take the biscuit.’
“Sorry, darling. Go ahead. You poor thing.”
“Please tell me if I’m disturbing your little battle strategy campaign,” Rosalie offered wearily. “It’s not Dunkerque, Peter. It’s a ride in a taxi.”
“Sorry.” Come to think of it, he had always imagined himself as Major General Johnny Frost as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins.
“As I was saying, I was in the queue putting my groceries on the conveyor thingy, and there was a young man -  a bit scruffy -- paying for his groceries in front of me. Spot of bother, his bankcard wasn’t working when he swiped it. You could see he was at that point, you know, when you can’t handle one more bad thing happening to you. End of his rope, sort of thing. Well, he starts in getting agitated at the female clerk and began swearing and blaming his girlfriend -- who wasn’t there – because the bank account was empty or maybe it was the store’s fault or the bank had made a mistake and he’s getting really, really cross.”
“Wasn’t anyone seeing it? What was the checkout woman doing?”
“Dropping the ball. She was moaning that he should see the manager so she could move on to the other customers. So I figured I would just pay for his beer and crisps and nappies and whatever and hopefully that would quiet him down and perhaps turn his day round.”
“That’s sensible. So what happened? He took his bags and ran?”
“If only. No, he pulled out a gun and started hyperventilating and ranting and waving it at everyone. Positively barking.”
“Oh, bugger.”
“Yes, I nearly soiled myself.”
“No, I mean this sodding cab driver. One second, Rosalie. He’s done it again. Hang on, Billy. You’ve gone past New Bridge Street. That was our left turn back there, son. You’re headed for The Strand.”
“Please, sir. First and foremost, wif all due respect, there’s very lit-tle between taking the Strand or the Embankment goin’ west-iss time-a-day. Six of one, half dozen of the other.”
“Well, I know of one difference. If you drive down the Strand, I will jump from the cab without paying. If, however, you sensibly divert to the Embankment, I will continue as your passenger and pay you in full upon arrival in Hammersmith. That’s the difference. Now, if you please.”
“We’d be alfway to Not-ting Hill by now,” Billy muttered.
“Peter, let the man drive. Listen to me. I could have been killed.”
Left on Bouverie to Temple Avenue. Finally, the open-air relative glory of the Victoria Embankment.
“Sorry, darling. I just hate when these black cab drivers go off the reservation. Christ, a gun? You must have been in shock.”
“I haven’t been that shocked since Nicholas came home from school and asked me what beef curtains were.”
“I still don’t see how you could possibly have been implicated. Did he get away with money or just his items?”
“Mm, both. Peter, just listen to me. So I went bang into survival mode, because if the gun goes off any one of us could have been hit. My first thought was to go back the way I came. But there was a little Japanese woman blocking my escape with her pushcart, and she was petrified. I said, ‘Go back!’ She just stood there like an idiot, and I’m thinking, ‘I am not going to be killed in a fucking Tesco, leaving my children without a mother, because some Asian who doesn’t speak the language won’t move her little Chinese arse out of my bloody way. So I kept turning, looking for a way out. The checkout woman to my left … well, to my left when I was facing the frozen Asian on a stick but to my right when I was looking at the gunman … she was standing with her mouth all slack like every other ineffectual sod in sight while this maniac ponders assassinating us all. Her till was open, so …”
“God no!” Peter exclaimed.
“What’s happened now? Has he driven off Waterloo Bridge?”
“Tell me you didn’t …”
“Yes. I reached in, grabbed a considerable fistful of notes, thrust them at the robber – who wasn’t actually very good at robbing -- and yelled, Run!!”
Peter no longer cared whether or not Billy turned right on Northumberland just under the Hungerford Bridge or whether he continued along the Embankment all the way to Chelsea -- which would, of course, be sensible later at night. He had no difficulty transporting his mind to imagining the wild scene at Tesco involving his wife. No difficulty whatsoever.
“Well, someone had to do something. Someone had to act. The whole Tesco had gone Madame bloody Tussaud’s. The employees at the registers should be expected to hand over a few flipping pounds during an armed robbery. This was an armed robbery. I was just helping them do their jobs. I believe I saved lives. That’s what I was trying to explain to the manager. That officious little shit.”
“Oh, I suppose you would have engaged the criminal in a discussion of fluctuations in the exchange value of sterling.”
“Couldn’t you have just gotten out of the way somehow?”
As they say at Wimbledon, ‘Fault!’
“Oh, blame the victims to make yourself feel more safe and secure about how you would have reacted in an emergency. That couldn’t possibly happen to me, could it? Everyone thinks they know what to do in a pinch until they’re actually in it. Well, I don’t wait around for other people to get me killed. And where the hell are you?”
Peter had developed a lot of skills over the years when it came to handling Rosalie. Some came naturally over time; others were the result of determined industry. Just now though he had been closely following the narrative of her most recent escapade, genuinely concerned for her well-being in the face of an armed and stressed-out Londoner. Oh, for the days of an unarmed populace. In the midst of his concentration, Rosalie had challenged his personal ethics regarding the means by which we judge how others handle instantaneous crises. Naturally, he began to ponder his own potential response to a similar event. Now she expected him to suddenly break away and pinpoint for her his location and anticipated arrival. Peter, quite understandably required those couple of seconds that would inevitably irritate Rosalie. And she was in no mood to be patient with anyone.
“Pretty simple question, darling. Can you see out the window of the taxi? Do you recognize any famous landmarks? If you say Stonehenge, I’ll be quite disappointed.”
“Sorry. Erm … just passed the … Wellington Arch, and we appear to be bypassing the relative mayhem of Knightsbridge in favor of Grosvenor Crescent and most likely Belgrave Square.” Peter was temporarily back on solid footing. “Very nice.”
“If overly fiddly.” Rosalie quite liked Knightsbridge. Of course, she very rarely was the driver. Still, she couldn’t help weighing in.
“So I anticipate Beauchamp. As long as traffic round the Museums isn’t too bad, I’m thinking … five kilometers? Ten minutes?”
“Wonderful. Don’t be surprised if I’m drawn and quartered by the time you arrive. But do take your time.”
Rosalie spent a couple of minutes detailing the chaotic moments leading up to her detention and questioning at the hands of the Tesco manager before Peter’s voice interrupted her gripping narrative.
“Well in, Billy. There you are, mate.” Peter congratulated the young cabbie on a deft maneuver where Thurloe Place forked west away from the Brompton Road. He had curled niftily around a double-decker bus to beat a red light just in front of that Scandinavian furniture shop where Peter’s sister had bought the McMahons that ridiculous Aspland airbench with the holes in it that small things always fell through when spiders weren’t spinning webs.
“Will Billy be joining us for dinner?”
“Billy’s a mixed bag,” Peter whispered. “But if he keeps his head up he might be a half-decent cabbie someday.”
“So Fela shouldn’t set an extra plate.”
“I think she need not. I must say you’re sounding rather upbeat for someone who’s been banged up. Seriously, what are you still doing at the police station?”
“I don’t have a car. Kay dropped me off and was supposed to be right back, but she’s had some kind of trouble with Reg’s mother. So I thought of you. Aren’t you glad?”
“You were coming this way anyway, weren’t you?”
Peter did arrive, eventually, and spoke to the police before ushering away the self-proclaimed hero. They were quite impressed, were the more creative problem solvers of the Hammersmith police, by Rosalie’s quick thinking and – no getting around it – bravery. She wouldn’t be surprised to see her name in either Brook Green Magazine or West London Today.
The couple drove back to Tesco to retrieve Rosalie’s groceries that had, thankfully, not been returned to the shelves and refrigerated sections to be reselected but generously put aside at the customer service desk. Generously because Rosalie had been suspected by some at the store as being part of a rather clever and professional heist outfit. A fair cop, they thought. Several employees were mesmerized by Rosalie’s return to the scene.
By the time the couple returned to Sterndale Road, Peter was quite in the mood for some peace after his workweek had ended so tumultuously.
“All right, sweetheart,” Rosalie said. “We’ll get these groceries put away. You start the vegetables for grilling, and I’ll make the dough. Leave out everything we’ll need.”
“Grilled vegetables?” He had been just about set to check his e-mail before walking the dog in the park then settling in to watch the weekend’s match preview on Arsenal TV.  “Everything we’ll need for what?”
“Are you joking? I’ve only told you every day this week. We’re making pizzas for a dozen boys and girls. Lauren and Dani’s friends. You pay absolutely no attention to me,” she pouted, giving him a nice kiss on the lips. “I’m positively bereft.”
Peter opened his mouth to speak but nothing came. How could I pay no attention, he wondered, to a woman who does such a bang up job of making herself downright conspicuous? He loosened his tie, opened the cutlery drawer and reached for his grilling skewers.

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