The Innocent and her No-Good Boyfriend hailed Driver’s cab just east of the corner of Lygon and Elgin streets early the next afternoon. Driver eventually came to see it as a meeting driven by fate, but he was in that kind of mood at the time.
The Innocent reminded Driver more than a little of Minnie, as she was when they first met. As she was when Driver became instantly infatuated her. She possessed the same freshness and beauty and feistiness but, significantly, without the practical, street-wise wisdom that would provide her with the protective outer shell that someone with that much freshness and beauty and feistiness ought to have for their own safety. The absence of that vital ingredient was no doubt why, in Driver’s overly hasty estimation, she found herself in the company of the No-Good Boyfriend.
The Innocent and her No-Good Boyfriend were just kids, each on the planet for the same twenty years or so, but in the instant it took Driver to assess The Innocent so favourably, he also concluded that the No-Good Boyfriend was all hard outer shell with nothing worth protecting inside. Driver felt an immediate and compelling urge to protect The Innocent from the No-Good Boyfriend since she clearly couldn’t do it for herself and may not have even realised she needed to. Driver guessed she had not realised just how no-good her boyfriend really was, because that could be the only explanation for why someone like her would pay someone like him any attention at all.
It was The Innocent who stepped off the footpath, outside a two-storey bluestone terrace on Elgin Street, on the north side of the street between Lygon and Rathdowne. She appeared from between two parked cars – a black Porsche 911 and piece of Japanese blandness – and waved him down. The No-Good Boyfriend was at that moment out of sight, locking the front door of the bluestone terrace, which was separated from the footpath by a strip of tessellated tiles no more than three feet wide, and a fence of wrought iron stakes on the front boundary. It looked a much better standard of accommodation than most university students could afford to live in.
The Innocent climbed into the back of Driver’s taxi and slid across the bench seat to sit behind Driver, leaving room for the No-Good Boyfriend to get in beside her. Rather than do that, he poked his head through the open passenger side front window. That head had an unsettlingly familiar look about it that Driver couldn’t initially place. Thinking back on it later, once he had overcome his failure to recognise a resemblance that ran so deeply between the No-Good Boyfriend and his brother, Driver was at a loss to explain why he couldn’t put two and two together more quickly. Pretty clearly, it illustrated the strength of the distraction created by The Innocent.
‘Hey mate,’ the No-Good Boyfriend said through Driver’s side window, ‘you’re too close to my car and I can’t get into it. Can you move your fucken taxi?’ It wasn’t really a question.
Driver was unruffled. ‘Sure,’ he replied, being overly polite in an attempt to draw attention to the No-Good Boyfriend’s rudeness. ‘I wonder if you close my back door for me so I can get out of your way?’
But The No-Good Boyfriend had withdrawn his head from Driver’s taxi. ‘Close it yourself,’ he barked, his back already turned.
Driver’s politeness hadn’t worked on any level, at least not on the No-Good Boyfriend. It was The Innocent who, waiting quietly in the back seat, slid across and pulled the door shut. ‘Sorry,’ she said, with a smile so beguiling that it more than made up for her boyfriend’s snarling ill-humour. It confirmed for Driver that his initial assessments of both of them were well-founded.
Driver returned her smile, their eyes connecting momentarily via the rear view mirror. He released the hand brake and shifted the automatic gearbox into ‘drive’, allowing the taxi to roll away from the Porsche and stop adjacent the Japanese blandness. The No-Good Boyfriend got into the Porsche, closed the door and made a call on his mobile phone.
‘Is he coming with you?’ Driver asked.
‘Yes,’ The Innocent replied, apparently not sharing Driver’s growing annoyance with the No-Good Boyfriend. ‘He won’t be long.’
‘Too bad,’ Driver replied. ‘Where are you headed?’
The Kew East address she gave him while they were waiting should have sounded the second tolling on that warning bell in Driver’s memory. But unlike the No Good Boyfriend’s eerily familiar face, that particular address drew a complete blank. Street addresses, after all, are to a taxi driver like coffee orders to a barista. Most are remembered only for the moment it takes to deliver the service, before becoming as nondescript and unmemorable as the next one. Except for favourite customers in which case, if it were The Innocent’s address, he’d make an effort to remember. The No-Good Boyfriend’s he would not have to try to forget.
‘Home?’ Driver asked, hoping to confirm its place on those addresses to remember.
‘Don’t talk to him,’ the No-Good Boyfriend said, finally joining her in the back of the taxi.
Driver turned around to look directly at the No-Good Boyfriend. ‘That was quick.’
‘Have you told him where I live?’ he asked The Innocent, who nodded in reply.
He turned to Driver. ‘Well, what’s keeping you then?’
How could she tell me where you’re going if you don’t want her to talk to me, Driver wanted to ask him. But experiencer told him to keep his mouth shut and drive. He set off down Elgin Street, crossed over Rathdowne, Canning and Nicholson Streets, then continued along Johnston, the traffic unusually thin for that time of the morning. Despite there being no cars in front of him Driver slowed a little as they approached Brunswick Street, rolling through the intersection and on past the old bank towards the BP petrol station just to the east. It was that stretch of road, right outside the Red Triangle snooker hall, where Luca Ancelotti was killed six years earlier.
As he always did, Driver leaned across towards the passenger side and looked out the window at the scene. Not at anything in particular, but rather at the general landscape – the parked cars, the footpaths, the shop fronts, the Red Triangle’s double glass doors and the stairs behind them that climbed directly up to the second floor – and wondered, as he always did, how what happened to his father could possibly have taken place there. How fate could have short-changed Luca Ancelotti so violently and unfairly at that particular place and time, and at that particular stage of Luca’s life, when he had so much living yet to do. But Driver knew there was nothing about that place that made his father’s death more likely to have occurred there than any one of a hundred other places around the city. He knew that his father’s killer didn’t choose that or any other stretch of road to do his killing. He knew his father’s killer didn’t even choose to kill his father. Or anyone else. He didn’t bear the killer so much malice as to ascribe any premeditated intent to the act that left his father dead on the side of the road. But that didn’t make it any easier, because what he did ascribe to the killer’s actions was drunkenness and neglect and, more importantly, a shameful and cowardly self-interest combined with a wilful disregard for the law and the rights of others. Driver held the killer thus charged for the actions that caused his father’s death and for the actions subsequent to his father’s death that left the killer with no penalty. At least none other than the terrible guilt Driver hoped he must suffer daily.
Passing that scene left Driver feeling empty and powerless every time. And despite knowing he would see nothing new, nothing that would deliver some clearer, more intimate insight into exactly why his father had to die on that stretch of road, he couldn’t help himself from being attracted to it. From looking for a clue.
And it was his adherence to that routine which finally caused the clapper to strike against the dome of Driver’s memory and begin ring the bell in his brain. Except the clue wasn’t out on the street where his eyes continued to search. The clue was in the back seat of his taxi. Driver gave up looking out the window and looked instead at the No-Good Boyfriend in his rear view mirror. Maybe it was their location that gave him the right context, but this time when he looked at the No Good Boyfriend he knew, with an immediate and piercing clarity, why his face was familiar. And for a moment Driver felt like he imagined Travis Bickle did in that final scene of Taxi Driver, because there in the rear view mirror – there in the back seat of his taxi – was Driver’s past returned to haunt him.
‘Mate,’ the No-Good Boyfriend barked, the weight of Driver’s eyes suddenly upon him, ‘we’ll miss the lights ‘cos you’re going so slow.’
As if on cue, a block down the road, the traffic lights turned red.
‘What are you looking at me for anyway? You should keep your eyes on the fucken road.’
Driver’s only response was to withdraw his attention from his back seat passenger and bring the taxi to a stop at the lights.
‘Fuck,’ the No-Good Boyfriend said.
Once they had stopped Driver peered again in his rear view mirror, this time at The Innocent. She was gazing out at the street, her head turned away from her travelling companion. He could feel the No-Good Boyfriend’s eyes on him as he looked at The Innocent, but The Innocent wisely broke the circle by refusing to look at either of them. Perhaps she has learned some life lessons, Driver pondered.
The lights finally changed to green and they drove on, the remaining fifteen minutes of the journey passing in silence. They arrived at an unremarkable Kew East address; wide block, but not overly so, deep front garden with a pair of Jacarandas in mature and early bloom, Federation style clinker brick house set on a rise and well back from the street, with terracotta gargoyles perched atop the gabled roof, protecting the whole place from lowlife like Driver. It was a step up from Driver’s family home, but quite frankly, Driver was expecting something much more than upper-middle class neatness, given the Porsche-driving, bluestone-dwelling No Good Boyfriend whose parents in all probability lived there.
Driver had been hoping The Innocent would stay with him, leaving the No-Good Boyfriend and extending the ride to wherever she lived. But she slid across to the passenger side and climbed out of the taxi. The No-Good Boyfriend was already through the wooden front gate in the high brick fence when The Innocent called to him. ‘Can I have your card? I don’t have any money.’
The No-Good Boyfriend re-appeared at the gate and lobbed his wallet at The Innocent, from across the footpath and nature strip. It landed in the gutter at The Innocent’s feet. Wallet retrieved, she eased into the front seat and handed Driver a credit card.
‘Do you live here?’ Driver asked, although by then it seemed clear she didn’t.
‘Don’t answer that,’ the boyfriend said, leaning on the gate. ‘I told you before, it’s none of your fucken business mate.’
Driver wondered at the No-Good’s uncanny ability to cut-off his attempts to enquire after The Innocent’s wellbeing. He was in no doubt that the No-Good Boyfriend would see The Innocent as his property, something to collect and for others to appreciate from a suitable distance. Anyone who showed the slightest hint of stepping over the line would witness the ugly enforcement of his ownership.
And The Innocent did as she was told, remaining tight-lipped as she sat in Driver’s front passenger seat waiting for him to process the card.
Driver turned over the card in his hands and looked at the name. As he had by then already concluded, it was the same family name as that of the drunken coward who had run down his father six years earlier. But seeing his assumptions confirmed nevertheless triggered a reflex grinding of his teeth and hardening of his jaw. He stole another look at the No-Good Boyfriend leaning impatiently against the gate post. He had become certain over the course of that brief journey that he was looking at the younger brother of his father’s killer, and he wondered fleetingly if the No-Good Boyfriend recognised his family name from the unnecessarily personalised ID he displayed on his dashboard. He very much doubted it since that would have required the No-Good Boyfriend’s concerns to extend beyond his own skin.
As he processed the card, Driver asked The Innocent, ‘Are you ok?’
‘Hey, shut the fuck up,’ the No-Good Boyfriend said, nudging himself away from the gate post and walking up to the taxi. One hand on the car’s roof, he leaned far enough into the cabin for Driver to smell the alcohol, tobacco and fried food seep from his pores and waft from his unwashed mouth. He glared at Driver. ‘Why wouldn’t she be ok?’
Driver handed him the receipt. The No-Good Boyfriend scrawled a signature across the bottom without once taking his suspicious, disdainful eyes from Driver’s face. Driver found it hard not to be impressed by that display of multi-tasking dexterity – the look-away signature – given the No-Good Boyfriend’s obvious insobriety. He seemed to have a natural flair for contempt of his fellow man. As if to prove it, instead of handing the pen back to Driver he dropped it onto the taxi’s carpeted floor in front of the passenger seat and walked away again, this time through the gate and apparently further beyond.
‘I’ll print you a copy,’ Driver said to The Innocent.
As she fished around on the floor for the pen she smiled silently but without the inviting edge Driver had fancied he’d seen earlier. A deflation and heaviness came over The Innocent that he was disappointed to witness because she accepted it so meekly. Driver wanted to rescue this girl. He wanted to ask her how she could possibly put up with her boyfriend’s rudeness. Why she put up with it. Twice her boyfriend had thrown at her the implements required to complete the lowly business of the transaction. Driver could understand him treating a taxi driver that way, there was nothing unusual about that, but not this beautiful creature beside him.
He tore off the invoice copy and slipped a business card on top of it, handing both to her. ‘Call me if you need another drive, ok?’
The Innocent twisted around in her seat to check she wasn’t still being watched, then pocketed his card and slipped the invoice inside the No-Good’s wallet. ‘I will,’ she said. ‘Thanks.’
She climbed out of the taxi, closed the door and, Driver convinced himself, skipped like a younger Minnie across the nature strip and through the gate.
© Mick McCoy, 2013