The Last Taxi Driver
By James A. Beaumont
They’re all ready for Joe Gardner as he drives down Chesterfield road in Britain’s final human operated taxi. His boss, former colleagues, press – they seem pretty confident in his driving as he steers the compact Saet through each. Flash, flash, flash go the cameras as the drones buzz overhead.
‘The magical bloody moment,’ Joe mumbles, and he just about manages a smile as the reporters get close.
He stops the car between two other retirees and there’s his boss, Speckles, fake smile and actor’s make-up – the full works.
Joe switches off the engine, and for a moment he just sits there.
Thud thud – Rob tapping on the passenger window.
‘Best get this over with,’ Joe says to himself. He gets out and walks to his spot.
Speckles puts a hand on his shoulder and so it begins.
‘It is with mixed emotions - regret, sadness but also excitement and even awe - that we sign off Britain’s last human taxi driver today. When I look back on our proud history – as a nation – the London cabbie with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city well –’ someone important is making the “hurry it up” gesture, ‘–they’ll be remembered with much nostalgia, I am sure. Now we look forward to our bright future and a future with our fully automated taxi network. And so it is that we sign off proudly from this service. . .’
Speckle’s jacket flaps open as he speaks and Joe glimpses the inside pocket. There’s an A5 envelope prodding out just a few centimetres. Joe needs a drink, he really does.
He looks up; the camera is on him now and a mic drone hovers over him.
‘Huh?’ he says to nine million viewers.
The reporter smiles. ‘How does it feel,’ she repeats, ‘to be Britain’s last licensed taxi driver?’
It’s the obvious question, the one they’ve been rehearsing for but here, at this moment, Joe’s forgotten it all.
The lights dim.
‘I –’ Joe stammers.
Somewhere, in the corner of his vision, someone’s fitting the AI pilot to his car. Joe turns and stares at it for a moment. They’ve made it look like a person. Well, the shape of a person. It’s white everywhere though. Clean, glossy white.
His seat isn’t even cold. And that’s not even a human operating the camera over there, Joe thinks; it’s one of them, plain as day.
Beside him, Speckles is wearing the fakest smile you ever saw and he begins feeding Joe lines from the side of his mouth.
‘I keep thinking,’ Joe says, ignoring his boss or ex-boss or whatever and he pauses with what almost could have been practiced aplomb. ‘Thinking of this passenger I had.’
The reporter hasn’t been expecting this but she’s professional, you can’t fault her there, and there isn’t a single chink in that smile of hers. ‘Would this be your last passenger?’ she asks. ‘Who were they? What was it like, that final ride?’
Joe wonders if the bot will be able to compensate for the dodgy clutch on the Saet. Has a mind of its own that one but then, that’s the thing.
‘No,’ he says after a moment. ‘That wasn't it. It was much earlier, quite a long time ago, in fact, probably four, maybe five years ago now.’
‘Was there something strange about him?’ the reporter asks, and in a conspiratorial tone, she adds, ‘Were you taking him to a mysterious late-night rendezvous?’
‘No, nothing like that.’
‘Was it a man on his last legs, confiding his deepest regrets to his taxi driver – they say they do that. Ha, “did that” sorry.’ Fake smile again.
‘No, he was quite ordinary, actually.’
‘Oh.’ She seems a little put out here but she compensates again. ‘Surely that’s what really mattered, the glimpses into the every day lives of the common citizen.’
Joe interrupts her. ‘I remember him clearly – unassuming chap, in his sixties but looked younger. Full suit, expensive but off-beat style, like someone who was a bit old fashioned. I guess “eccentric” is the word people would use. He gets in the taxi and asks me to take him to The Greypark Hotel.’
‘Ooh,’ the reporter simpers but Joe is quick to carry on.
‘Swanky place, the Greypark, I figured he was going back there after a meeting but he looked nervous somehow, like he wasn’t quite enjoying the idea of going there. I did the usual – made some small talk, asked him about his day and stuff, and he tells me the reason he’s going there: it’s gonna be his retirement party.
‘I dunno, it kinda got to me hearing this man talk about all the service he’d given his company – more than forty years – and how he’d been one of the founding figures but then here he is, being made to leave when the work had been all he’d ever had.’
The reporter looks uncomfortable at this and she flashes a look at her producer.
‘Of course, I tell him how he’s probably looking at it all the wrong way, “I hope you don’t mind me saying so,” I says to him, “but you certainly don’t look short of a bit and so maybe you should be thinking about all the things you can do now that you haven’t got to be working every day. All the places you can see and experiences you can have, the world’s your oyster like they say.” Well, I catch him looking at me through the mirror at this and it’s clear he sees it that I’ve missed the point completely. I’m kinda stuck for ideas at this point and there’s one of those awkward silences as I’m driving along but, hey, we cabbies, we know how to handle them better than anybody, it’s part and parcel like they say, so I just grin and bear it and eventually he starts back up himself, tells me about his work, how they’d been onto a breakthrough and the excitement of it all – that was his word – back when it was happening. “No new ideas,” he tells me, “No more need for the old guy. That’s it, just like that, kaput,” he uses that word too. Of course, by this point I feel like I’m part councillor or something, like maybe I should be upping this fella’s fare.
‘By this point though, we’re in the neighbourhood of The Graypark and so I know I haven’t got long left of him but then he pipes up, like an idea’s just hit him. “Seems to me,” he says, his expression lifting a bit, “That there’s a lot more to this taxi business than people let on.” Well that gets me that does. “How so?” I ask him and I even slow down to make sure I get my full ten cent’s worth of what he’s gonna say. “Well, a man talks in a taxi, doesn’t he? Of course, he might have his wife, his friend, his colleagues, hell, even a shrink, but there’s something about a taxi driver – at once impersonal – they don’t know who you are after all - yet also . . . informal. Like you can just say what you want, no context required and it doesn’t really matter. Now that I think about it, you’re almost compelled to speak, to say everything that’s on your mind because otherwise you’ve got the dreaded uncomfortable silences we Brits hate so much.” There he goes, rattling all this off and I’ve got to say – didn’t have the foggiest at the time, even though I can parrot it off now. At that point he seemed to change the subject, or so I thought at the time and so I sped up again, not realising that one thought was building into another.
‘“You have an opinion on the automated cars, I suppose?” He asks me. “’Course I got an opinion,” I tell him, “and course it aint good.” He smiled at this, liking my answer, it seemed. “It puts you out of the job but there’s something that goes beyond that,” he says, and he truly sounds like he’s just thinking aloud at this point, like I might not even be there anymore. “How’d you figure?” I ask him. “Well, if they keep adopting them, this won’t be able to happen, will it?” I stare a little wide-eyed at his reflection in the mirror at that. “What d’ya mean by this?” I ask him. “Why, conversation, my dear boy. Everything I’ve just been telling you, well it won’t come to pass will it. People won’t stand for it, will they?”
‘I think about this for a moment? Might be the old geezer has a point – I mean, even among us cabbies, opinion was divided as whether these automated cars would really work but people were losing their jobs, there was no denying it. The only heartening fact was that the real guys, the experienced ones, still had theirs, and then, when I thought about it, maybe there was a grain of truth to what the old fella was saying – taxying people, it was a lot more than just taking them from a to b, there was that “interaction” that was a big part of it.
‘Well, at that point we arrived at the hotel. “You’ve given me much to think about, my dear man,” he says to me and he pays up and gives me a fat tip on top of it. He climbs out of the car and saunters up the steps to the hotel and to his impendin’ retirement do with a new spring in his step, and he looks like a new man. Still, I’m sat there for some minutes before I call in my next fare because he’s got me thinking, he really has. Maybe it isn’t all over; maybe there is still some hope.’
There’s another awkward silence in the makeshift studio. Several times during Joe’s speech, the reporter made motions to try and cut in but he went on as if he was the only person in the room. She knows she is going to get it from her director but she presses on anyway.
‘So,’ she says, ‘why tell us all that?’ And in the corner of her eye she sees her director face plant into his palm.
‘Well, his name was Alan Royce.’
‘Well it’s come to me just now – his name’s pasted all over that robot of yours down there.’ Here, Joe points at the contraption they’d almost finished installing in the Saet.
The reporter catches on. ‘Alan B Royce of RoyceCar engineering? That was your passenger?’ She seems very doubtful but her director looks up, a little more hopeful all of a sudden. He quietly motions over an aide and grabs his phone to check something.
‘That’s the one,’ Joe says.
The director gives a thumbs up and the reporter continues.
‘Wow,’ she says, and she lets the camera operator follow her closer to the taxi. ‘You have to admit, it’s one heck of a coincidence.’
‘Well . . . the very car you've been driving ferried the creator of all this technology, and it’s the last car that actually gets fitted with it. Kinda poetic, don’t you think?’
‘Hmm,’ Joe says, the camera going back to him. ‘I was thinking more like, I drove him to his retirement party and here we are, kinda at mine.’
‘Not to mention the fact that if you hadn’t picked him up at that moment then he might not even have gotten the idea for the Taxibots –’ here, getting a sudden idea, she strolls over to her director and takes his phone. It’s a strange moment on camera as, for a moment, nine million viewers have a full screen view of a red brick wall. The camera goes to Joe and shortly after, the reporter walks back on screen. ‘I’ve just got confirmation of what I thought; it was the very night of his retirement party that Alan Royce pitched the idea for the Taxibots. His retirement was soon called off and now, five years later – good memory by the way –’ she adds to Joe, ‘here we are with the last bot, the fruit of Alan Royce’s labours, being installed.’
Joe stands there, the camera has a good clear shot of him at this point.
‘Fuck,’ he says.
The reporter winces. ‘Well, that’s all we have time for this evening and,’ she holds a hand to her ear, ‘Yes, I’m just getting confirmation, the taxi is now ready for deployment. Stand back everybody.’
They all move back and Joe can only stand by and watch as his car, his for all those years, starts up, reverses out and then parks itself neatly beside them. It’s doubtlessly all been planned. The window moves down and a robotic face appears. He’s heard all about the research that’s shown how a robotic and not a human-like face has been rated as far more popular with people.
‘Care for a ride?’ it asks.
The reporter feigns surprise. ‘Well, could you take me to Fleet Street?’
‘Sure thing, hop in,’ the robot says.
It’s a robotic voice, Joe thinks, no one can deny that, but it really gets to him how it says “hop in” – that’s his line, that is, they’ve stolen his car, they can’t just steal his lines as well. But then that’s exactly what they’ve done, isn’t it? The study or whatever they called it –fitting his car with a mic, telling him they wanted to know what it was about him that made him so popular, which made his clients so reluctant to let him go. It’s not coincidence which has him, Joe Gardener, as the last taxi driver. No, this man is good, he can talk or rather, he knows how to get people to talk, and that’s exactly what they wanted – nothing intrusive, just a good driver, efficient route planner and that little something along the way.
The taxi drives off.
Publicity goes through the roof after this stunt and opinion about the whole scheme is sealed.
Joe tries to get another job, but as far as transport is concerned, he’s out of the game. The conversation element, he says to a bartender one night – he’s warming up before the retirement party – that’s the clinch they’re missing.
‘They can put ‘em in trucks, ships, trains and all the like, no problem – perfect navigation, everything worked out to the nearest moment. But talkin to a robot? Nah, it just isn’t right.’
The bartender nods along but doesn’t comment. Eventually Joe pays up and steers himself on to the party. A big affair, not just for him but a delayed one for all the others.
It’s a new bar. Valentino’s. Joe soon finds his crew. He tells everyone it’s his round, no worries – the least he can do being last an’ all, and, truth be told, he feels guilty for the part he might have played – however unwittingly – in making it all happen.
He gets up to go to the bar.
‘What you doing, Gardner?’ Danny, one of the first cabbies to go, asks. He presses a button on the table and in seconds a robot swerves up, drinks tray in hand and blue eyes flashing brightly at them.
‘How’s it going, fellas?’ It asks. ‘Been a long one today, I bet? What can I get you?’