This is the second instalment of Fare Game, the purpose of this blog. If you haven’t already, please click ‘Follow mcphoenix via email’ to the right to receive notifications of each new instalment.
The first instalment is available by clicking links in the Archives or Categories boxes to the right of the page. Or, there’s a two-line synopsis below.
Driver’s calling – An agitated Punter – Follow that car! – The politics of envy – Who’s in the Beemer? – The eyes have it – He’s headed to my place! – The woman in the passenger seat … is that Stephanie?
And so to the new stuff: Fare Game, the second instalment …
But despite all the evidence on the table, Driver was acutely aware of the potentially messy consequences of drawing the wrong conclusion. Of in any way acting on a misunderstanding. Few men would be less than deeply offended if another assumed, correctly or not, that his wife was fooling around on him.
So Driver decided to continue feigning ignorance, just in case the conclusions he’d leapt to were wrong. ‘Do you want to tell me what this is all about?’
But it was as if Punter didn’t hear Driver at all. He was so lost in his own thoughts, in his own anxieties and black imaginings, that Driver’s voice apparently didn’t even register. So when his question went unanswered, Driver didn’t press it further.
‘Ha,’ Punter said, a sudden but artificial lifting of the gloom evident in his voice. ‘It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?’ He leaned even further forward and craned his neck to look directly up at the sky through the top of the wind screen. ‘I should buy ten grand worth of Italian pushbike and join you and those wanker mates of yours in their lycra, clogging up Beach Road and hogging all the tables at Café Racer.’
‘Should you?’ Driver asked him.
‘Well I can’t afford a car like his, so how else am I gunna compete? I gotta get back into shape.’
‘Punter,’ Driver asked, ‘are you going to explain to me what the hell you’re talking about? Because I’ve tried to guess, but it’s beyond me.’
Punter looked at his friend closely, trying to establish whether he was having him on. Could it be possible that Driver actually didn’t know, Punter wondered? That’d be a small but welcome victory, because Punter assumed he’d have to know. And not only him, but that any number of his colleagues and acquaintances and complete strangers would also have to know, although he couldn’t have said exactly how they might have found out. But when you’re a goldfish you get used to accepting that everyone is able to see everything going on inside the glassy bowl you occupy. And there were more than a few politicians who, by Punter’s reckoning, were as dumb as goldfish. But way less pretty.
‘Can’t you see who is sitting there right in front of us?’ Punter asked.
‘Some woman,’ Driver lied. ‘I don’t know.’
Punter sat quietly as he weighed it all up. ‘You really don’t know?’
‘I really don’t know.’
‘So you don’t know who’s driving that car, either?’ Punter asked.
‘No, I don’t.’ That he didn’t need to lie about.
‘And you don’t know who’s sitting in the passenger seat?’
‘No, I don’t know that either,’ Driver said. ‘I already told you that.’
Punter relaxed, just a little. ‘Well, you’ve always been a shit liar. I know you can see Steph sitting in there. But I thought the whole world knew, or at least those with their ear to the ground.’
‘He’s taking a right,’ Driver said, pointing at the Beemer. ‘I assume I’m still following?’
‘Yeah, still following. Then he’ll go left at the roundabout and onto Peel, if I’m on the money.’
Driver allowed himself to be encouraged by the lessening of the tempo of Punter’s anxiety. He figured that Punter’s pursuit of the silver Beemer had a high probability of ending poorly. While it would almost certainly resolve itself one way or another outside his cab, he didn’t want to encourage that resolution by delivering Punter to the scene of whatever was to follow. If possible, he didn’t want to let Punter get out of the car.
‘That’s the Shadow Minister for Transport behind the wheel,’ Punter finally explained. ‘He should be preparing for question time. He should be preparing to take the parliamentary piss out of me, as has become his favourite professional pastime.’ He slid back in his seat. ‘But I don’t think he’s going to make it back to Spring Street, do you?’
The way Punter said it, it sounded like a confession. Like he was owning up to some misdemeanor of his own doing or some sin he’d committed. And Driver was his headmaster, or his priest, there to provide absolution. Punter’s voice was full of guilt and shame. Guilt about all the things he did or didn’t do that might have led him and his wife to this place. And shame about another person knowing. Other people. His voice was full of the betrayal he felt over his wife’s infidelity. A betrayal made all the worse by the fact that the cuckolder was his professional enemy. And not just any professional enemy, but a political one. His direct opposing number from the opposing tribe. In a world where power is everything and where the media leaps on any morsel of information that your grip on power is loosening, if they got even the most miniscule sniff of this, Punter would have to deal with not only the deep sense of betrayal but also with the ridicule of having that very private pain hung out to dry like so much dirty laundry, in the full glare of the public eye.
‘I hear he’s doing a renovation on his upstairs bathroom for his beach shack in Portsea and wants to have a look at the terracotta floor tiles we use at our place,’ Punter added. ‘Could be after some new bed linen, too.’ He paused a while to better concentrate on grinding his molars flat. ‘So my wife has offered to take him back to my place and show him what she’s got.’
Both of them sat in silence, Punter brooding ever more darkly while Driver tried to find something to say. Something consoling and supportive. Compassionate without sounding like an insincere tosser. But he had no idea how to reply to a confession from a passenger – even one as close as Punter – that his wife was one car in front of them on the way back to their home, to their bed, to screw another man.
Driver reminded himself to stay calm and objective, figuring Punter would at least need that from him since there was little chance of Punter being capable of either. He turned his mind back to more practical concerns. For example, what did Punter plan on doing when they got to his place?
‘Are you sure you want to keep following them?’ he asked.
‘Just you keep driving,’ Punter growled. ‘What is it to you, anyway?’
‘Punter, I’m your friend,’ Driver replied, hurt by the dismissal. ‘And even if I wasn’t, even if I was just your cabbie, I wouldn’t want any grief when we all arrive out the front of your place. I have a responsibility for your safety.’
‘Bit late for that. For no grief, don’t you think?’
‘You’re not going to do anything silly, are you Punter?’ Driver cautioned more than asked him. ‘Tell me you’re not going to go in there and confront them.’
Punter sighed deeply, blowing all the stress and betrayal and shameful impotence out through his nose. He unfolded an arm from across his chest to run his hand roughly through his hair, leaving what was once well-groomed decidedly more lived-in. ‘He’ll take Royal Parade past the Uni, curve round the cemetery onto Lygon. Half a mile down he’ll turn right into Shakespeare, left into the laneway, park round the back and then chase my wife up to my bedroom to look at the linen.’
Punter shook his head slowly. ‘A politician shouldn’t live on Shakespeare Street, should he? It’s tempting fate too much.’ When Driver didn’t reply, he added, ‘Just a fucken stupid idea.’
The BMW took exactly the route Punter predicted and, approaching Lygon Street, Driver eased back from them, worried the thinner traffic would make their tail too obvious. A few hundred metres further on he pulled off to the side of the road on Lygon, adjacent the cemetery walls, not following Punter’s wife and her lover as their car took the final right into Shakespeare and, out of the sight of the cab’s occupants, ducked into the laneway beside Punter’s house. Driver hoped even that little bit of distance would provide enough breathing space to avoid any argy-bargy.
Punter didn’t complain about the premature stop. He sat in the passenger seat and stared across the wide expanse of Lygon Street and down the side street towards his unseen house. ‘Give it a minute or two and my wife will be up there in my bed, reverse cowgirl on top of the Shadow Minister for Adultery and Flashy Cars.’
‘You don’t know that,’ Driver replied, without any conviction at all. ‘You don’t know it,’ he repeated, as if that would bestow his feeble words with some credence.
‘What do you think she’s doing?’ Punter snapped, the frustration bubbling up into his voice. ‘You do know I was bullshitting about the tiles and linen, don’t you?’
With every revolution the taxi’s idling engine seemed to further distill an unsettling rhythm that had brewed inside the car, making both men more likely to speak their rash or ill-considered thoughts. In silence, Driver switched off the engine, chastising himself again for not knowing what else to do or say.
Slowly, with the weight of his wife’s near-by adultery squeezing the air from his chest, Punter summoned the energy to unclip the seat belt, open the door, swing his legs out and place his feet on the pitted bitumen footpath. Elbows on knees he wearily examined the creases in his black leather shoes, before being distracted by a stray brown leaf blown from some far off plane tree to fitfully scratch its way past him on limp puffs of wind. The same wind that flicked through his hair and spirited its way under the back of his shirt collar, causing goose-bumps to fleck the clammy skin across his back and shoulders. As he pulled the lapels of his suit coat together, an empty packet of Marlboros caught his eye, squashed into the grime of the gutter beneath him. Lifelessness seemed to surround him.
Punter hoisted himself out of the cab, wrestling with his body as if his back and hips and knees were suddenly and acutely arthritic and every inch of movement delivered a new jolt of pain. He shuffled across the footpath and gently lowered himself down to perch his backside on a row of bluestones, towards the base of the cemetery’s fence. He leaned back against the rusting wrought iron stakes that speared up from the cold masonry towards the sky and separated the living from the dead.
From behind the wheel of his car, Driver watched his friend struggle with himself. He reflected that had he known earlier where Punter was asking him to go, or who he was asking him to follow and why, he might not have agreed to it. He might have counseled Punter to think carefully about whether any good could possibly come from such a pursuit. He might have switched the engine off right outside the Westin and refused to chase after Stephanie and her unfortunate choice of lover. He might have prevented at least some small part of the heartache that Punter was suffering, which must be all the greater on account of his proximity to his wife’s infidelity. Because, Driver thought, now that I’ve deposited him in this place, my very best and closest friend sits leaning against the fence of the Melbourne Cemetery, rubbing flakes of rust and paint into his suit coat while his mind conjures images of his wife and another man having sex in his marital bed, not more than a stone’s throw away. The certainty of it, the closeness of it, the plain simplicity of it had to be all the more acute than if Driver had refused to take him there.
Driver climbed out of the cab and crossed the footpath to take a seat beside Punter. He put a hand lightly on his friend’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
‘How much do I owe you?’ Punter asked absently, without raising himself from his hunched down posture, or taking his eyes from the pitted footpath. He reached into his breast pocket for his wallet.
‘Don’t worry about that.’
‘No mate, how much do I owe? If I don’t pay, knowing my luck some prick will find out and have me up for using my position for personal gain. Free cab rides to the fucken cemetery.’
Seeing Punter like this hurt Driver. It physically hurt him. This, after all, was Marco Scarponi, the swaggering, endlessly confident, emotionally armor-plated boy grown to youth grown to man who had changed less, compromised less, conceded less than anyone else Driver had ever known. Marco Scarponi, who had ruled the school yards of Carlton with an unchallenged, street-wise and nonchalant authority that he had translated without a flicker of doubt or hesitation from primary school to secondary school and then as easily and seamlessly once more to the lecture rooms and beer gardens of their university days, lasting throughout both their law degrees and beyond. This was a man with such conviction, such certainty, such a capacity for life that Driver had no doubt he would one day – not too far removed either – continue his rise from his current stop-over on the state political front benches to whatever station he chose. Premier, Prime Minister, anything he put his mind to. In Driver’s eyes, nothing was beyond Punter. But the hurt came not because of who he was to the world, rather because of who he was to Driver. He knew Punter inside out, as Punter knew him. Which is just as you would expect when two lives had been so parallel, so intertwined, from so young an age and for so long. And there was no better illustration of the strength of their bond than Punter’s response to Driver’s stepping off the path they had for so long shared and vowed to continue sharing. When he chose to throw in his career in law in favour of following his father and driving a taxi – a path almost all others saw as a narrow, dark, cul-de-sac – Punter, who had shared Driver’s journey more closely than anyone, listened to Driver’s reasons, questioned and pressed and prodded, made Driver explain – honestly explain – why the diversion was right, why it had to happen. But he never once doubted that Driver had made anything other than the correct decision. Punter showed as much faith in Driver as he showed in himself. More, probably. A lot more. And then for Driver to see Punter brought so swiftly low, to see his faith in himself cracked open so suddenly, with such visible wounds, was to feel that wound in himself. To question his own faith.
Driver swallowed hard against the burning in his chest. ‘I dunno, ten bucks,’ he conceded, not knowing what else to say and not wanting to dwell on or needlessly argue about something so trivial. ‘Call it ten bucks.’
Punter handed him a fifty. ‘Keep it. It’s that or nothing. And Christ knows I owe it to you for all the times I’ve been short.’
Driver held out his hand to accept the note Punter pressed into it. ‘If I agree to take your money will you promise me you’ll quit feeling sorry for yourself,’ he said, looking at Punter with as non-judgemental an expression as he could muster. He believed he had a responsibility tell his friend honestly, what he felt. ‘It’s not doing you any good. And, to be honest, it makes me feel sick.’
‘Oh, here we go,’ Punter replied, stiffening his back. ‘Don’t you start in on me.’
The two men stared at each other like brothers wary of each other’s understanding and insight.
Punter sat up straight and stuck his hand back out. ‘Gimmie back that fifty ‘cos it’s obviously too much,’ he added. ‘You don’t need to feel the need to throw in advice and counseling to make up the difference.’
‘Hear me out and you can have it all back.’
Punter shook his head. ‘I’m not interested Driver. Please, not right now.’
‘Hear me out,’ Driver persisted.
In the short silence that followed, Driver quickly realised his friend would relent and Punter just as quickly realised his friend wouldn’t.
‘Go on then,’ Punter replied, too deflated to resist. ‘Get it over with.’
© Mick McCoy, 2013