(Original edit of article written for “Taxi” magazine).
I’m now at that age when I can look around London and say “I remember when all this was fields.” A recent pick-up at 90 Long Acre took me back thirty years to when I was working at a publishing company across the road. It’s hard to believe, but back then, this corner of Long Acre and Endell Street was green space. People who worked in the area came here to eat sandwiches on sunny lunchtimes. I remember seeing a jazz-funk band playing there one afternoon. Sadly, one by one the little Italian sandwich bars sold out to anonymous chain places, and Covent Garden’s little village green became an office block.
As you build up a store of long term memories, your short term memory can become less reliable. I’ve certainly become prone to “Senior Moments.” One recent event caused me a lot of embarrassment. I wasn’t aware of it until my wife informed me that the police had visited our home when I was at work. Lord knows what she thought when the uniform turned up asking if I lived there. She texted to say I was wanted in connection with filling my cab with diesel and driving away. Of course, I knew this accusation was a ghastly mistake. No doubt the fuel station had found something amiss when cashing up, and put it down to one of the country’s few remaining cash-users when they found their till out. Before I phoned the police I made sure I had the dated fuel discount vouchers I was given on my last two visits as proof.
My contact at the “Community Policing Team” was as reasonable and non-accusatory as the name implies. The name suggested they might be more interested in running village fetes and selling raffle tickets rather that chasing criminals, but when the PC suggested I pop into the fuel station to pay my £26.50 arrears, I refused point blank. PC Community Spirit remained patient though, and skilfully worked on my psychology. Maybe sir was tired? Perhaps he had a lot on his mind and just forgot to pay? He said it happens all the time, even to police drivers. I became disorientated as self-doubt slowly crept in. The alleged incident didn’t happen this week, but over a month ago. I can barely remember what happened yesterday, let alone what happened five weeks’ ago. It didn’t happen at my regular fuel station either. I managed to pinpoint the date. It was Monday morning, the day after I drove back from a weekend in Yorkshire. Maybe I was tired and distracted when I filled up at Morrison’s? Maybe I was excited about the bargains I’d shrewdly negotiated, and was looking forward to a weekly programme of exciting, value for money, meals? I was eventually forced to accept the awful truth. Especially when my Community Policeman said he had video evidence. It was clearly me judging by the description given. He described how I’d methodically wiped the excess fuel from the filler hole before calmly driving away. There was no more to do than plead guilty to the charge of being Middle Aged and Dangerous in a built-up area. Plan B would have been to claim insanity. I could have babbled incoherently about jazz bands playing on Covent Garden’s village green back in the 80s. But no, he accepted it was all an innocent mistake and I agreed to pay the money back ASAP.
I still remember nothing of my crime, but it’s only a short step up from other daft things I’ve done when tired and distracted. Not just me: two of my friends have also put petrol into a diesel engine. Then there was the recent visit to another supermarket. After shopping, I secured the trolley back on its little chain thing before taking my shopping bag out first. I had to reach into a small gap and retrieve each shopping item individually, then finally the bag itself.
The fuel station staff were equally reasonable and understanding when I visited that evening. It clearly happens all the time and it wasn’t treated as a big deal. Thankfully, there were no posters up of me with “WANTED” highlighted in red, warning that I was wanted in three counties, and not to be approached. I’m still not sure why it took five weeks for my crime to have been discovered. I had crossed the county line several times since the day of my offence – though only at sixty miles per hour in order to conserve fuel that I might eventually have to pay for.
Back home, the wife had calmed down and the cat had gone back to bed. Apparently, my faithful house tiger had defended his dad’s honour and had observed the law with a malevolent demeanour. The wife thought he was going to attack the policeman. I had visions of the wife and cat being bundled into a van and taken downtown.
I had a lot to think about though: putting petrol in a diesel engine had now escalated to driving off without paying. What next? Forgetting to put fuel in, but paying anyway? I really need to start paying attention. It’s a slippery slope to ending up at the supermarket in my pyjamas with my pockets full of pilfered cat food.
If any other readers have been affected by these issues…