This is the 12th instalment of Fare Game, a new novel. Earlier instalments are available by clicking links in the Archives or Categories boxes to the right of the page.
Last time, the heavy toll of Luca’s death. This time, The Innocent calls Driver back.
And The Innocent reminded Driver very strongly of Minnie. As much as the No-Good Boyfriend stirred his anger and loathing for the entire Thompson clan and anyone remotely associated with them, The Innocent took Driver back to a time before he’d been forced to come to terms with the killing of his father and the loss of his first child.
All those years ago he’d felt a tingle of anticipation when Minnie called him back after he’d rescued her from her own semi-conscious drunkenness clogging the service lane of Royal Parade. To hear her voice again so soon after that first ride not only brought to mind the memory of her dishevelled beauty but also suggested she wanted to see him again and wasn’t interested in waiting. Driver experienced a tantalisingly similar sense of anticipation when he got a call from The Innocent just hours later on the same afternoon that he’d dropped her and the No-Good Boyfriend at the Thompson family home.
‘Do you know who this is?’ the voice asked from his mobile phone.
‘I can guess,’ Driver answered, sounding every bit as cocky as he intended.
‘Can you pick me up in fifteen minutes? Same address?’ she asked.
‘I’ll be there,’ Driver replied without hesitation, although he knew he’d be late. He had to drop a fare in North Melbourne and then navigate his way from west to east back across the northern fringe of the city, which there was no chance of doing in just a quarter of an hour.
A little less than thirty minutes later, as he turned into the street where the Thompsons lived, Driver could see The Innocent waiting for him on the wide, green nature strip.
She jumped straight into the front seat. ‘Drive,’ she said. ‘I don’t want my boyfriend to know it’s you in the taxi.’
Driver took off down the street, mention of the No-Good Boyfriend tarnishing his reunion with The Innocent. He should have better managed his expectations to prepare himself for that, but he didn’t.
‘Where to?’ he asked, after collecting himself.
‘And you’re fifteen minutes late,’ The Innocent added, smirking. She let Driver look at her for a while before returning his stare.
Driver slowed down, as if he was not only unmoved by her flirting but also a little frustrated with it. ‘Where to?’ he repeated, doing his best to sound just a touch impatient.
She gave him a Parkville address – no more than half a mile from where he met Minnie out the front of Naughton’s Hotel – and he accelerated again before making his way out onto Cotham Road and turning to the west.
Driver figured he had twenty minutes at most to savour in the company of The Innocent and he was determined not to treat it as an opportunity to reopen his one-sided hostilities with the Thompsons.
‘You live in a share house with other students there?’
‘I do,’ The Innocent replied, no hint of guardedness.
‘It’s good to hear there are still houses cheap enough for students to rent in Parkville,’ Driver replied. ‘I’m glad that hasn’t changed.’
Driver had expected that small demonstration of knowledge of student life to spark the curiosity of The Innocent. It didn’t.
‘Are you wondering why I’d know about that?’ he asked. ‘The detail of student accommodation in Parkville?’
‘No,’ The Innocent replied. ‘I thought it was just taxi driver small talk.’
The Innocent had the same colour hair as Minnie, even the same length and wave. But instead of Minnie’s brown eyes and olive skin, The Innocent’s eyes were a clear and pale blue, to compliment her English complexion.
‘Small talk?’ Driver repeated, doing his best to ladle on the mock indignation. He won another flirtatious smile from his passenger for his efforts. ‘Perhaps I’m genuinely interested.’
‘Ha!’ she replied, gazing distractedly out her passenger window. ‘And I’d bet it’s not student housing you’re interested in.’
‘What are you studying?’ he asked.
‘That’s a little presumptuous of you.’
Driver chuckled as he shot her a glance. ‘Let me see now, young, casually but fashionably dressed on a weekday, not working, living next to the university …’
‘Architecture,’ she replied, conceding Driver’s point.
‘I wouldn’t have picked that,’ he said. ‘I’d have guessed law, or medicine, since it’d be the only thing you’d have in common with your beau.’
The Innocent laughed at him, a deep, carefree, genuine cackle. ‘Why do you think he studies law?’
‘I recognised the family name and put two and two together,’ Driver replied, not able to suppress a grimace at his own inability to leave the Thompsons out of it.
‘Let me guess … you’ve been on the wrong side of them?’
‘You could say that.’ Driver began to wonder – not for the first time – at his own weakness. You’d think you’d learn, he chastised himself. By the age of forty, you’d think you’d see this shit coming and have the experience and common sense to stay well clear of it.
‘You’re right about us studying together, though,’ The Innocent continued, apparently sensing Driver’s reticence to expand on his experiences with the Thompsons. In all probability, she probably didn’t care enough to hear more about it, anyway. ‘But both doing architecture, not law. And he’s certainly not my beau.’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ Driver replied.
‘Nobody uses that term anymore, by the way,’ The Innocent added. ‘Beau. It sounds like a good name for a Labrador.’
‘I won’t argue with that,’ Driver replied.
The Innocent talked a little about her course and finally asked what Driver had done at uni. Driver told her that he’d done law, although not how many years ago he’d graduated. And given The Innocent’s the stated connection with the Thompson family, he was keen to avoid having to offer an explanation of how he came to be driving taxis.
‘I was no good at law,’ he told her to pre-empt the question, his stock untruthful response. ‘After a while I didn’t have the stomach for it,’ he added, far more genuinely.
But his attempts at deflection weren’t successful, as was usually the case. People are intrigued by someone swapping law for taxi driving, for all the obvious reasons. Some of them are too polite to ask, while others are too young or curious to let politeness deter them.
The Innocent was in the latter category, so Driver had to venture a little further down his list of reasons why taxi driving was more worthy of respect than most people thought. Had The Innocent not been with the No-Good Boyfriend, such a conversation would have given Driver great joy, offering endless opportunities to flirt with and surprise his attractive young passenger. He’d have lapped-up the interest of someone so desirable. But her relationship with the younger Thompson soured the experience greatly. He desperately wanted to change the subject.
‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘are you feeling better? Have you had a sleep? Something to eat? You looked like you needed both earlier.’
‘God, you sound like my father,’ The Innocent replied, plunging a dagger deep into Driver’s heart. She could see she’d thwarted him. ‘Oh, I didn’t mean it like that,’ she added, but still not bothering to hide the dismissive tone in her voice. ‘You’re nowhere near as old as my Dad.’
Driver hammed up his predicament, with a hang-dog look he thought she’d find fetching. She smiled, and stroked his arm, sending a sharp but welcome shiver shooting up the back of his neck.
Driver’s cab swung through the wide curve of College Crescent, between the cemetery and the university’s halls of residence, just east of Royal Parade and The Innocent’s Parkville share house. He couldn’t help himself. He had to ask. ‘That bluestone place I picked you up from earlier … is that your boyfriend’s? Or his parent’s?’
‘His parents,’ she replied. ‘But he’s been living in it for as long as he’s been doing the course, I think. Which would be at least six years, since he’s flunked a couple of times.’
‘Why is that, do you think, about the flunking? Does he party too hard?’
‘That,’ The Innocent replied, ‘plus he just doesn’t care. It’s not like he needs to work, so from that point of view, why would he care?’
Self respect, Driver answered, although not out loud, finally finding the restraint to keep his thoughts to himself. A meaningful role to start to repay the sacrifice of family, friends and community that had all assisted in his progress to that point. He knew all he wanted to know about the No-Good Boyfriend and his family. He didn’t want to know any more. Part of him wanted to take the opportunity to see whether she’d talk him down some more, the No-Good Boyfriend, since he’d have enjoyed that and it would have increased his esteem for The Innocent even further. But part of him also knew that any further conversation on the topic would disturb his equilibrium too much.
From Gatehouse Street, he took a left into Park Drive and then another left into Bayles Street. ‘Is this it?’ he asked, nodding his head at a two storey white terrace desperately in need of a paint.
‘This is it,’ she replied as he slowed and eased towards the curb. ‘Thanks for coming back to get me.’
‘My pleasure,’ Driver replied. ‘Really.’
She touched his hand where it rested on the gear shift and smiled not so innocently. At least, that’s how Driver interpreted it at the time. But really, all she was trying to do was give Driver the fare.
He sat beside her with a stupid grin on his face and the meter still ticking over, so distracted by The Innocent’s touch that she had to take it upon herself to complete their transaction, rather than wait for him to do anything. She picked up his hand from the gear shift, with Driver passively submitting himself to whatever manipulation of his hand, arm, limb and body The Innocent might have in mind. She then turned over his palm and pressed two twenties into it.
‘Keep the change,’ she said, letting go of Driver’s hand and unclipping her seat belt in preparation to leave, before Driver had managed enough control of his emotions to respond. As much as Driver liked to imagine there was something else between them, to The Innocent it was just a transaction. And it was over.
She climbed out of his cab. Driver watched as she swung aside the heavy wrought iron gate and skipped up the two steps to the front door of her terrace, just as she had done earlier in the day when he dropped her at the No-Good Boyfriend’s house. Just as Minnie once did at the end of a ride when they were both so much younger.
The Innocent disappeared through her front door without turning back, leaving Driver deflated. In her wake, he gathered enough perspective to ask himself what else he might reasonably have expected. He released the hand brake and pulled away from the curb, rejoicing in the diversion The Innocent had provided, whether or not it would ever be repeated.
© Mick McCoy, 2013