This is the first instalment of Fare Game, the purpose of this blog. If you click ‘Follow mcphoenix via email’ to the right you will receive notifications of each new instalment.
As he crossed Swanston Street the tyres of Driver’s taxi beat out a ragged rhythm against the tram lines. He loved that sound. Always had. While it served a bitter-sweet reminder of his father, more generally the industrially sprung percussion of rubber against steel rails also evoked more positive emotions. A feeling of progress, of movement and delivery, which was perhaps the main attraction of his job. And a feeling of a very particular kind of intimacy, the audience for the beat he conducted being witnessed by no one except the occupants of his cab. A feeling of connectedness to place, that sound not being replicated in quite the same way in any other town or city in the country, or in more than a handful of cities beyond. A sense that this vocation in this city was not merely a symptom of his indecision, as Minnie liked to think, or his failure to commit to what he had trained to do. Not a diversion – albeit of six years’ duration and counting – from his proper path, but rather the path. The true and proper path, regardless of what anyone else said. That sound was the self-affirming tattoo for his chosen professional life. At least, that’s what he liked to tell himself. And while all that was about to begin unravelling, for the better part of those last six years, Driver had convinced himself that was the only thing that mattered.
Coasting up the rise along Collins Street he spotted his waiting customer on the opposite footpath outside the Westin, impatience furrowing his brow and rendering him fidgety and agitated, unable to stand still. Six-three, or six-four of him shuffling from foot to foot as if the pavement was made of hot coals and embers, or as if he was busting for a piss. It brought a knowing smile momentarily to Driver’s face, one that he guessed he’d better extinguish before his passenger joined him.
Checking his rearview mirror and the on-coming lanes for traffic and, seeing the smallest of gaps, Driver flicked the steering wheel full circle to swing the cab around through a U-turn and pull into the hotel’s driveway. The waiting man quickly jumped into the front seat. Nice suit, as usual, but it didn’t look like it’d been slept in for once. Charcoal-grey pinstripe. And he’d opted to fly the party colours and wear the red tie, its thick diagonal bands alternating with narrower white stripes, which meant parliament must be sitting.
‘You see that car?’ the passenger asked, pointing down the road. His finger jabbed insistently at the inside of the windscreen. ‘Just came out of here. Out of the driveway.’
‘Yeah, that’s it.’ He sat on the front lip of his seat, one arm outstretched, fingers tapping anxiously on the dashboard and eyes blazing. ‘Follow it, could you?’
Without answering Driver pulled out quickly but smoothly into the traffic.
‘Can you do that for me?’ the passenger asked, belligerently. Unnecessarily.
Driver recognized the edge in his voice and decided not to rise to it. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘But you better sit back and put your seatbelt on,’ he added, hoping his words – any words – might provide some calm. ‘Cops everywhere today.’
‘Fuck off,’ the passenger said, his voice familiar rather than angry. He didn’t even look at Driver while abusing him. Nor did he take Driver’s advice to relax back into the seat or put on his seat belt. He just fixed his eyes straight ahead on the BMW, perched on the very front of the seat with one white-knuckled hand gripping the dashboard and the other clasped around his trousered knee.
Driver could tell easily enough that no offence was intended. At least none beyond the ordinary level of abuse that each accepted from the other. His passenger was, after all, his friend. His oldest and closest friend. The Right Honorable Marco Scarponi, Victorian Minister for Transport (including taxis) and Racing. Or Punter, as he tolerated Driver calling him. (Most of the news media called him that, too, although not to his face.) Nevertheless, Driver’s initial enjoyment of Punter’s unintended street-side impression of a man desperately seeking his turn at a urinal was quickly losing traction to a growing curiosity about its causes.
‘Look at what he drives,’ Punter spat. ‘You can’t afford a car like that on a politician’s wage. A state opposition politician,’ he added with contempt. ‘Only one step up from …’ he paused in thin-lipped reflection, unable to finish voicing his thoughts. Or unwilling to, unless an opposition role soon be a description of his own position.
Driver could hear the envy oozing out of Punter’s mouth with every syllable. He could hear the class-conscious disdain for what his friend would see as the BMW driver’s ostentatious display of the unquestioning sense of entitlement he attributed to anyone who drove such a car. It wasn’t possible that a man could have legitimately earned the money to buy such a vehicle when the sum of Punter’s own honest as well as more creative efforts hadn’t been enough to enable the same. Driver had been hearing it on and off for thirty years, ever since grade four at South Carlton Primary. If Marco Scarponi hadn’t managed it, it couldn’t be managed. Not without graft or gift or both.
However, throw him the keys to such a vehicle and Punter would soon feel just as comfortable and just as entitled to that luxury and comfort as did his adversary in the very same seat. Driver was sure of that.
‘Got more money than me, anyway,’ Punter added, on cue. ‘More than an honest man.’
Driver was unable to resist a dig. ‘Your Alfa doesn’t rate, then?’
Punter turned towards his friend for the first time since clambering into his taxi and fixed him with a malicious stare, daring him to take it any further. When no further challenge was offered he eventually slid back in his seat and clipped into his seat belt.
Driver was still mindful of the need to keep the smirk from his face lest such open disrespect agitate Punter even further. And his mind was full of questions he knew he couldn’t yet seek an answer to. Who’s in the Beemer? How did you know I’d be near enough to pick you up in time to follow a car that was just about to leave you hopping about on the footpath while you watched it disappear? And what’s it all to you, anyway? Why do you care? But he decided to hold his tongue and pursue Punter’s quarry in silence.
There were times when Punter would want to talk his leg off. When they’d arrive at the requested destination only to sit in the car and talk – just talk – for so long that Driver would switch off the engine to prevent both of them from becoming testy. Talk about work. About the gee-gees. About corrupt journos or his current top five cafes as defined by the intrigue offered by their waitresses. Just to let off steam or to revel in the simple pleasure of talking shit, or both. Then there were other times when Punter was so wound up, so agitated, that the muscles in his face would tighten around his mouth to the point where it was a miracle there was any space left to let the air in, particularly with all the words he urgently needed to spit out.
The lights changed to green and Driver’s taxi crossed over Elizabeth Street as they headed west, three cars behind the shiny, silver envy box that was causing Punter so much angst. Lunchtime had clogged the city streets with clusters of distracted pedestrians who appeared from around the side of tram stop billboards or from between parked cars, all of them shaping to walk straight in front of Driver’s taxi. Driver cruised at a steady 20kph, the heel of his hand rapping a cautionary rhythm on the car horn, just enough to prevent those pedestrians from chancing a dash through the traffic, slowing his progress and stretching the distance between him and the BMW.
They crawled across Queen Street. Both cars stopped again at William and then at King, before Driver followed the Beemer into the King Street intersection, waiting two cars back in the far left lane, preparing to make a hook-turn and head north.
‘He’s not, is he?’ Punter said, pulling himself forward in the seat again. ‘He can’t be. Surely.’
Driver assumed he wasn’t supposed to understand what Punter was talking about so he said nothing.
‘The cheeky prick.’ Punter smiled in grim appreciation of whatever decision he’d convinced himself their prey had made. ‘I’ve made it my business lately to know where he lives and if he was going there he’d be turning left, then down over the bridge onto Kings Way. Heading bay side towards Brighton’s Golden Mile.’
Driver could feel the sudden weight of Punter’s eyes on him, sharp and heavy.
‘But that’s not where he’s headed,’ Punter continued, no longer smiling. ‘He’s not going to do it in his home, is he? He’s not going to soil his sheets.’ He’s begun tapping on the dashboard again. ‘And he’s not even going to do it in a hotel, is he, having just left one with perfectly good beds?’
Driver kept his eyes on the road, not giving in to the pressure he felt to respond to Punter’s attention. He had a theory – one that his occupation had afforded more than enough opportunity to confirm through first-hand testing – that eye contact between two men is counter-productive when the topic of conversation involved anything with the slightest hint of emotional content. And whatever the content was in this case, Punter was clearly very emotional about it. Eye contact is fine when you’re talking about the stock market or politics or the art of coffee. It’s a prerequisite when you’re talking about sport. But eye-contact between men when one is about to attempt some form of meaningful self-disclosure or is in a vulnerable emotional position is either unwelcome, unhelpful or just plain wrong. In his inner turmoil, the discloser will often forget himself to the extent that he will actively seek out the other man’s eyes. But such reciprocation is not to be countenanced. It is to be avoided at all costs. (Women, of course, are the polar opposite of this, being far more emotionally confident and mature than men. For women, emotional conversations are greatly enhanced when both participants intuitively and voluntarily engage in meaningful eye contact. And when the conversation occurs across sexes, the question of the man’s volition is not relevant. Unless he makes eye contact, he’s fucked.)
‘He’s going to Carlton. He’s going to my place,’ Punter continued, repeatedly jabbing his forefinger into Driver’s shoulder in an attempt to goad him into engagement. ‘Fifty bucks says I’m right.’
Driver knew that Punter was just using the offer of a wager as an indicator of his certainty, not as a genuine proposition. ‘Could you stop with the finger, Punter?’ he asked, concentrating hard on keeping his voice flat.
‘Your day’s takings,’ Punter upped the ante, still doggedly glaring at Driver’s unresponsive profile. ‘I’ll double your money for the day if I’m not right.’
But Driver stayed true to his well-tested theory and gave him nothing back. And belatedly, Punter grew tired of the wait for Driver to look at him and share in his experience, turning back instead to gaze out through the windscreen.
Driver seized on his chance to steal a glance at his old friend. He saw that beads of sweat had dotted Punter’s forehead and upper lip. He saw a level of distress in Punter’s creased forehead that made him uncomfortable. That worried him. Driver adjusted the thermostat on the cab’s air conditioner as they glided along King Street.
‘He’s headed to my place,’ Punter repeated, defeat causing the words to fall heavily from his lips.
Who is ‘he’, Driver wondered? And why is he headed to Punter’s house? Driver knew he had to respond. ‘Mate, I don’t know what to say. I’ll help you. I want to help you, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘She’d have only been at work ten minutes,’ Punter continued, ignoring Driver’s confession of ignorance. ‘Just long enough to meet him in the lobby, huff hot air down his neck while she gently and discreetly squeezed his cock through his expensively tailored English trousers, and then follow him down to the basement car park to jump into his car.’
Understanding came to Driver like a bare-handed slap on the face. Guilt at his dimness quickly tingled across the nape of his neck and radiated up and around his scalp. It was his job to pick up on stuff like that, as sure as it was to drive his passengers from A to B. And it was a skill he prided himself on, usually being far more attuned to the cues.
Punter again hauled himself back up to the edge of his seat, his seat belt threatening to strangle him while his fingers resumed their tensely drummed beat on the dashboard. A repetitive, rolling rhythm like the galloping of a horse. He yanked at the seat belt to loosen its passage across the side of his neck, only succeeding in triggering the lock mechanism. He tugged at it impotently a few more times. ‘Fuck it,’ he said, slumping back down. ‘See if you can get a little closer to them, can you? Without being noticed. Can you do that?’
Driver changed lanes so that only a single car separated them from the BMW’s passenger side windows. For the first time he could clearly see there was a woman in the passenger seat. Thick, dark brown, shoulder length hair, with a tousled natural wave that was intended to look effortlessly carefree but almost certainly wasn’t. It could very easily be Stephanie – Punter’s wife – as he had come to suspect it was.
© Mick McCoy, 2013