‘Two hundred grand, chaps,’ he was shouting when I spotted him. He wore a Santa hat, mistletoe pinned to it above the forehead. ‘That’s what I make a year. Two hundred thousand pounds. Actually, wait just one minute. Wait just one minute.’
He put his finger to his lip, pretending to ponder. Shoplifter acting.
‘I forgot to add bonuses. How silly of me. A hundred grand in Christmas bonuses. So, what’s that all up? Three hundred thousand pounds is it, chaps?’
The bouncers chewed their chewing gum and shrugged their shoulders. They had heard it all before, guys paid to keep their hair to the bone and take shite.
‘Here, nine hundred squid for champers—just like that,’ he shouted, while holding up his credit card receipts for the night. ‘Just like that. Oi, you!’ he called over to me. ‘Rickshaw. Come here.’
I cycled over.
‘I’ll give you two hundred pounds to take me down to Barbican,’ he shouted for the whole street to hear.
‘Whatever,’ I said.
He got onboard. I looked back over my shoulder and waited for traffic to pass so that I could pull out and get going. He was sticking up his middle finger to the bouncers like a naughty kid on the back of a bus.
‘What’s your name then?’
‘Irish,’ I said, standing up off the saddle and digging deep.
‘Potatoes,’ he said in a Jamaican accent, trying for Irish.
I didn’t mind taking shite about being Irish as long as it was funny. It was all just a laugh. This guy though, had a mean tone disguised as all-just-a-laugh.
‘You’re all right,’ he said. ‘I’m Father Christmas. I’m calling you Rudolph my Irish-nose reindeer.’
‘Whatever floats your boat.’
The street was full of families carrying bags of presents. It was late night shopping. I had to watch out for excited kids getting loose and stepping off the footpath at the last second. The pedalling felt good. My heart started to thump. I got a rhythm, and felt my spine shiver.
‘You go down on girls, Rudolph?’ asked Father Christmas. ‘I hear these blokes at work, and they're shouting about how they love it. Everyday I hear them. Like they're the universal understander of the pussy and their mouth is some sort of sanctuary for broken down and depressed pussy. I tell the slags straight out I don't. They're so used to blokes doing it, you should see their faces when I tell them I don’t. Looks like snow for Christmas. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.’
A loud sniff came from behind me. Father Christmas changed nostril and there was another loud sniff. ‘You like snow?’
‘No thanks,’ I said, ‘I’m good.’
‘All gone now anyway. Fucking wind. And some of them are like, well if you don't go down on me I'm not going down on you. Trying to make a stand. And I'm saying to myself, yeah right you’re not. And they tell their friends right in front of you that you don't do it, trying to shame you into doing it. And it's great, the friends are looking me up and down and it’s got them thinking, well what am I packing in the trouser department, know what I mean? And then the girlfriends look at the boyfriends with resentment because they’re not man enough to not do it.'
The guy was talking and talking and talking and I was trying to concentrate on the pedalling. We were miles off the Barbican still. My legs were getting that good type of numb, I was losing breath and my heart was a pump-action shotgun, blasting delicious energy all over me, staying me alert and alive and weightless.
‘Don’t get me wrong, Rudolph. If it was outlawed in the morning I'd be president of the underground resistance — just getting it arranged in secret tunnels, scurrying about in the dark just going down on it.'
I had my back straight — professional, champion-king of the rickshaw riders, strong, fearless, cherished.
The first type of runner did not want to know anything about the rider. There was no name asking, like country kids being warned against naming lambs and calves. If it had a name, it would be harder in the end. There was no chit-chat, no what time are you finishing at, tonight? or This must keep you fit? When the runner ran, at a traffic light or during a slow roll, the rickshaw shook hard because their adrenalin was up and they were panicked. The pedals went light and the runner would be pegging it down an alleyway or clearing a wall. This was honest running, where runner got its name. I probably would’ve been doing it myself if it was a few years earlier.
'When I'm in trouble I do it,’ said Father Christmas, wrecking my buzz. ‘Like, big-big, trouble. She acts like the Queen of Sheba or something. But you know as well as I do, they can't handle the power. Think about it right, we have oppressed them for centuries, millennia actually. Now, all of a sudden they have equality and the right to vote and maternity leave and they're bank managers and police-persons but relatively speaking, over millennia of oppression, power is unnatural for them. And they're bitter about it. Ever asked them to make a decision? Like talking to a fucking turnip. You'd stand better chances getting a decision from the turnip. I'm just taking a piss. You carry on.’
I looked behind to find Father Christmas having stood up at the side of the rickshaw and reaching down into his trousers. He pulled out his dick, the thing already mid-piss. It went on his hand, his trousers and the backseat until he got the stream in control and directed it towards the road below. There were kids around and I felt bad.
‘It’s all just nature,’ he said. ‘Just nature. You talk to a prostitute, right? They know. Work sends me to Singapore sometimes. To rob the bastards blind. The usual. But Singapore right, you go to a place called Three Floors of Whores and the girls are behind a glass wall and you pick one out like it's a sweet shop or something. They sit there in rows smiling at you, wanting you to pick them. So you just tell the hostess the one you want and away you go upstairs with her.'
He finished pissing and sat back down. The rickshaw shook, interrupting my pedalling.
‘And away you go. Just upstairs with her. Easy. The rich buying the poor over there. Same as here. You know. Course you know for God’s sake—you ride a rickshaw. No offence but this is the most visceral image of class divide there is, right? So in Singapore, three floors of whores, you can take two or three of them up to the room with you if you want. I didn't. I just got the one. But you can if you want. You just have to pay more, that’s all.’
The second type of runner did not run at all. This was lazy and cruel-hearted and I had little time for it. They would negotiate price, speak to the rider, ask his name, have a laugh and when they got to their destination they would get out of the rickshaw and walk slowly away, that being that. The rider would get off his saddle and follow — hey, hey money, you owe me money. The runner would act like they had never seen the rider before in their life. It was awful acting. Shoplifter acting. If the rider kept walking after them down the street wanting payment, they would choose to see it as an attack against them, an injustice like, what is this guy’s fucking problem? There would be a warning from the runner, a quick break in the act, something like — yo, you better just forget about it, bruv. The rider usually did not just forget about it — he wanted his money and that was that. The runner would get ferocious in a flash, get right up in the rider’s face, maybe even throw him a punch in the mouth, scare him with a burst lip.
Father Christmas had been quiet for about thirty seconds. I heard my phone buzzing underneath the backseat.
‘I think your phone’s ringing there, Rudolph.’
‘It’s OK, just ignore it.’
The Barbican was getting closer. The city was getting quieter, and darker. There were no more shoppers or music coming out of store porches. There was only a fresh wind and the sound of my phone buzzing. Stopping. Then buzzing again. I did not want to answer it. Christmas time—people checking in, my mother or brother having visited the grave for Christmas and thinking about me, wondering how I’ve been all year, wondering where I was, wondering if I was happy. Asking me why I ran away. Telling me they missed me. Asking why I was being so distant. So cold. I knew it was cruel not to answer but I did not know what to say. I wanted to answer when I had an answer. When I was happy. It was why I like London. You didn’t have to be happy. You could just be anonymous.
‘I caught something off of the prostitute I got, Rudolph. In Singapore. Chlamydia. I got a check done as soon as I got home. The condom broke.’
I looked behind. He was crying. This guy was some piece of work.
‘If I told the missus it would’ve been over. She’s always banging on about loyalty — loyalty, loyalty, loyalty. The wedding would have been off. My parents would have to have been told. No good. Six years of a relationship wasted.’
I pulled up beside the Barbican. Stopped.
‘She’s my angel,’ said Father Christmas.
My legs were aching and trembling and I used the time to catch a breath. I had the shakes in my hands.
‘If I started to wear condoms she would have known something was up. She’d have had my bags packed before I knew what was what. So I've been putting antibiotics in her tea every morning,’ he said, the crying becoming uncontrollable. ‘What type of a person am I?’
‘You’re here. Come on, off.’
He curled up wretched at my tone, horrified in the thing he had turned into on the back of the rickshaw. I stared at him full-on, his pupils as big as rats.
‘Is this Barbican already?’
‘Fast,’ he said, stumbling off. He brushed himself down and straightened himself out on the footpath, wiped his eyes and coughed like nothing was up. Like nothing had happened. He took out his wallet from his inside pocket.
‘Here you go,’ he said, offering me his credit card. ‘Take two-fifty.’
I did not take the card. His expression was wondering why. Shoplifter acting. I didn’t like the thought of trying to march him to an cashpoint. It would have kept me stopped for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Fuck him.
The phone started to ring again. I cycled off to start the search for another fare. I would hopefully find someone at a bus stop trying to get back to the West End, maybe even west, down to Sloane Square or over to Hammersmith, down to Victoria even, somewhere over the other end, a good long fare.
‘Oi!’ Father Christmas shouted. ‘Don’t you want money?’
The phone was still buzzing underneath the backseat and I tried to ignore it, focus on the pedalling, digging deeper and deeper to reach that good burn again. I was happy Christmas would pass fast.
The third type of runner was a whole other thing.
‘You fucking arsehole!’ Father Christmas shouted behind me. ‘I’ve got your fucking money you stupid cunt!’
© David McGrath, 2012
David McGrath has just finished an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. He has won StorySLAM live at the Royal Festival Hall and has been published in the Winter edition of Wordlegs. His novel, Rickshaw, which follows an Irish rickshaw driver around the streets of London and beyond, is almost complete.
Paul Clarke trained at the Central School and always got cast as a baddie or a monster. Or, for a bit of variety, a bad monster. Now a photographer, technologist and occasional performer, he finds the League's stories to be islands of relative sanity in his life.