Charles, the Londoner

There was one man who stood out in my mind out of all my early travels as a child: Charles, the cab driver.  He would pull up with his black cab to the curb in front of whatever building we had exited, bright eyed and cheery.

Then in his thick British accent, he would roll down his window and ask us the same question every time he saw us, no matter what the circumstance in that given situation:

“Hello!  Where to, my friends?  How are you?”

We would all pile in: my mother, my father, my brother, and me into the cab and sit facing each other thanks to the beauty of fine British planning when it came to their transportation.  

“Wherever you feel we haven’t seen that we need to see, given you know the city best,” my dad would tell him and turn to talk to him during the ride to our unknown destination.

Charles was an older man, around my father’s age.  He told me stories of living in England and how he grew up about an hour or two outside of the city in a small town, living with his family.  Being four years old at the time, I believed this was the best job ever: see a city and get paid to drive around all day and talk to people.

“Marie, you see that over there?”  I followed Charles’s finger as he pointed out the window at a stop sign, pointing to the pointed top of a clock tower.  “What’s that?”

“Big Ben!”  I shouted in the cab.  Charles laughed and turned to my father.

“She picks it up quickly,” he said quietly to Dad.  My dad nodded and my mother just laughed, shaking her head as my eyes stayed stuck on the growing figure of Big Ben.

“So where did you guys go today?”  Charles asked the back of the car.

“We went to Harrod’s,” my brother said.  He grinned and held up the tractor in his hands.  “I got a tractor.”

“Jimmy, that looks awesome!  Marie, did you get anything?”  Charles looked in the rearview mirror and his brown eyes met mine as I fumbled to grab my toy from my mom.

“This,” I told him and held up the yellow Furbie I convinced my parents to buy me.  My mom took it back and hid it in the bag as she knew how loud and active they got as the playing commenced.

“A Furbie,” Charles said and smiled.  “My niece has one of those,” he said and leaned back in his driver’s seat.

“Have you ever heard of Paddington Bear?”

“No,” I said to Charles and looked to my Furbie in Mom’s black bag.  “Who’s that?”

“Well, that’s where we are going.  There’s a store dedicated to him,” he said.  My dad whispered something to Charles and they both shared a laugh.  My mom sighed and looked at my brother and me.

“You’ll like Paddington Bear,” she said.  “I had one when I was younger. He’s smaller than Mr. Bear though.”

“Otherwise we couldn’t take Paddington Bear home, could we?”  Jimmy asked my mom. She laughed and shook her head.

“That’s right, we wouldn’t be able to if Paddington Bear was any bigger,” she said and turned her attention to my dad.

“What do you think Paddington Bear looks like?” Jimmy asked me.  I shrugged and looked out the window to try and find Big Ben again.

“I don’t know.  I wonder if he looks like our other bears at home,” I said and pressed my forehead to the cold window.  The rain drops of the early rain shower still trickled down the outside of the car. The chilly air was thankfully outside, leaving my wet tights and soaking shoes to dry briefly.

I watched as we passed through narrow streets, going through parts of London I had yet to see.  We passed a bakery, a winery, and another toyshop. My brother jumped up at the sight of a toyshop, but my parents told him a strict no.

“Alright kids,” Charles the taxi driver said as he pulled up to the curb.  He flicked a switch on the car, turning off the cab light on top of his car and turned around to look at us.  “We’re here.”

I looked out the car window and saw a little shop filled with bears in blue raincoats and rain boots of all different shapes and sizes.  My eyes widened.

“That’s Paddington?”  My brother asked.

“Yes, do you want to go see him inside?”  Charles asked.

There were no protests.  Any toyshop, let alone one filled with toy bears, was one that Jimmy and I would be interested in.

We all got out of the car, climbing to the sidewalk.  Charles got out of the car, his short and stout figure the last to get on the sidewalk.  His graying hair was hidden underneath a cap and his black jacket held off the drops of leftover rain on the trees coming down on his body.

“Let’s go in,” he told us and led the way.  My parents let us go in first as we explored the area, looking at Paddington and all his various sizes.  Large Paddingtons, medium size Paddingtons, and even teeny-weeny Paddingtons were all over the store. I found the perfect size, small enough to fit in my dress pocket.

“Look,” I told my mom and put Paddington in my pocket.  Charles smiled, picking Paddington up out of my pocket and straightening out his jacket and boots.  

“Would you like to have him?”  I nodded and he walked away with Paddington to the register.  I was worried for a second, but he came back within two minutes with Paddington peering out over the edge of a little shopping bag.

I hugged him, grinning as I held onto little Paddington.  

“Thank you,” I mumbled in his tea-scented jacket, pulling away and looking at him.  

“Of course, sweetheart.  You are like the daughter I never had.  I’m always happy to give Paddington a good home,” he said.  

We waited in the store for a little while longer, waiting till my brother picked out a little book to read and my mother purchased it.  My family piled back into the taxi with Charles in the driver’s seat on the standard British right hand side.

Within a few minutes, Charles had us back to our hotel near the Thames River.  My parents thanked him and said goodbye, exchanging a few words about future plans with our last few days here in London.  My brother and I messed around with our new toys and waved to Charles as he drove away on the left side of the road, waving out the window.  Once he was out of sight, we went into the hotel and went up to our room.

Jimmy and I pulled out our Paddington bears, my Furbie, and his tractor and played around.  While my brother messed around with his Paddington and tried to have him ride the tractor, I pulled out Paddington bear and noticed something.  My little Paddington bear smelled like Charles’ black coat: of sweet smelling tea and cologne.

We managed to fool around on the furniture; we launched our toys off of the arms of the chairs and made them fly through the air.  Jimmy and I were entertained for a little while as the daylight outside started to dim. The bright sunlight slowly changed into the soft light of the moon.  Our eyes grew heavy, our bodies starting to feel the exhaustion that came with a full packed day.

My mother and father gathered us in their arms and carried us to bed, tucking us under the plain hotel bedding and kissing our foreheads.  My brother and I fell asleep quickly, sleeping soundly until tomorrow, when another day of sightseeing would allow us to explore the city and begin the cycle of being a tourist all over again.  

*Original story written by Marie Soukup in 2013*