A late-night fare brings closure for an unhappy taxi driver.
It’s funny the things you think about when you’re sitting on a taxi rank at two in the morning. Things like: where you’d go. In a park maybe, or some scrappy piece of ground behind an industrial estate. What sort of hose you’d need. What you’d put in the window to seal the gap. How you’d have to be sure to have a full tank of petrol. Leaded would be better but unleaded would do in a pinch. And since you’ve got the motor running you could listen to your favourite CD while you drifted off, or talk radio maybe. You’d cause a stir, wouldn’t you, if you rang in and told them what you were doing? They’d try to find you, try to keep you on the line, try to keep you talking. A race against time. Riveting listening. Good subject for a radio play, or has it been done before?
I must have dropped off in the midst of my reverie because the next thing I knew I was being woken by the screech of the radio. ‘Car 127. Are you awake? We’ve got a fare for you.’
Still lost in a dream somewhere, I picked up the mike. ‘I’m here. What’s the address?’
‘62 Daniel Street, Ivanhoe.’
‘She wouldn’t say. She’ll be out the front.’
Daniel Street was dark and narrow. Number 62 was the only one with a light showing. She was standing just inside the gate. The light was behind her so I couldn’t see her face, but I could make out a slim, elegant figure.
A subtle perfume entered the car with her. She sat deep in the shadows where I couldn’t see her but somehow I got an impression of beauty.
‘I wonder if you’d mind doing me a special favour?’ The voice was low and clear, the accent British, but not quite, and there was something almost familiar about it. ‘This’ll be my last night in Melbourne for a very long time. Would you mind taking me around to a few old haunts of mine on the way to the airport?’
‘You’re paying. No skin off my nose.’
There was a pause as though she was waiting for something more, then she said simply, ‘23 Carrington St, Brunswick.’
It was a narrow street lined with single-fronted weatherboard houses the property developers hadn’t reached yet. Number 23 had a decided tilt visible against the starlit sky behind it. It seemed to be kept together by the vines that had overgrown it.
‘What a pity,’ she sighed. ‘My father kept the house so nice.’
There was nothing I could add so I said nothing. She seemed to be in a mood for reminiscing.
‘This whole area was full of immigrants in those days. Greeks, Italians, Turks. We all got on well. Our parents worked hard. Neglected us, but worked hard for our futures.’
My scoff must have been audible.
‘You don’t believe me?’
‘Oh, I believe you. But it’s not only migrants that work hard and neglect their kids. Try growing up on a dairy farm.’
‘Is that where you grew up?’ I didn’t see the point of confirming it. ‘Was it difficult for you?’
‘No worse than anywhere else. Are you finished here? Where to next?’
There was silence in the back. I looked around but she was enveloped in darkness. Finally she spoke. ‘Adams Street, South Yarra.’
‘That’s the long way to the airport, isn’t it?’
I engaged the motor and took off.
After a while she said, ‘Since I am paying… I always thought a chat with driver was part of the service.’
‘You want to hear my political opinions?’
She laughed. ‘If that’s what you want to talk about.’
‘Dad taught me never to talk about religion, sex or politics.’
‘Doesn’t leave much, does it?’
‘Just the weather.’
‘Even that’s contentious these days.’ She paused. I had the impression that she was leaning forward in her seat. ‘Tell me something about yourself, then.’
‘Look, it’s late…’
‘Humour me. It’ll keep us both awake.’
There was no getting out of it. ‘What do you want to hear?’
‘The dairy farm. Your father. Is he still there?’
‘Yeah. Still getting up in the dark. Milking all those cows on his own.’
‘Oh, I thought perhaps… you don’t have any… brothers or sisters that could help him out?’
‘No, there was only ever him and me. My mother left when I was a kid.’
It was a moment before she came back with, ‘Do you know why?’
Why had I mentioned this in the first place? ‘I was too young and Dad’s never talked about it.’
‘It must have been tough on you both.’
An ambulance with its siren blaring passed us on St Kilda Road. I turned into Toorak Road and she directed me the rest of the way. We came to a stop outside a long iron fence. Behind it was a large expanse of lawn stretching back to a cluster of red brick buildings.
‘Did you go to school here?’ I couldn’t help asking. ‘How could your parents afford it?’
‘A scholarship. Like I said, they worked hard. I could hardly do less in return.’
‘It’s a world away from Brunswick.’
‘It certainly is.’ She sat looking at it for a while.
‘I guess they didn’t make it easy for a scholarship girl.’
She laughed darkly. ‘No. But I made it through.’ Her mood changed abruptly. ‘Tell me about your schooling.’
‘Mine? Typical bush schooling. A one-room school until grade four, then they closed it down and bussed us to a bigger school down the road. I had to do my VCE at boarding school.’
‘Boarding school? Did you like that?’
‘I got used to it. Where to next?’
She was silent for a moment, then she said, ‘Not far. I’ll direct you.’
We went back to Toorak Road, followed the tram lines into Park Street, then she told me to turn right into a side street and stopped me in front of the youth arts centre. I laughed.
‘Do you know this place?’ she asked.
‘Yeah. I made a pickup here not long ago. A bunch of wankers.’
‘I mean, they were just being kids, a bit full of themselves. They weren’t any trouble.’
She was silent. I tried to look at her in the rear-view mirror but she was just a shadow in the corner. All I could get of her was that delicate perfume.
‘Did you go there?’ I asked at last, surprised to hear a note of contrition in my own voice.
She spoke quietly, as though from a distance. ‘It wasn’t a drama school in my day. It was a little theatre, a sort of amateur theatre, but a good one. Lots of the actors went on to become professional. Our music teacher worked here. She took us to a matinee once. I was…bitten, I guess you could say. After that I came to every production, I got involved in all the school plays. My parents were horrified. They thought I’d neglect my schoolwork, come under bad influences. But I persisted, sneaked out when I had to, took the consequences.’
She fell silent again. I waited. At last she said, ‘St Kilda. Carlisle and Barkly.’
It was one of those lovely old theatres you don’t see much anymore. I was amazed it was still standing. Signs on its side advertised drama and ballet schools.
‘So this is where you went?’
‘Evening classes. While I was at uni. I told my parents I was studying late. Then I surprised them, invited them to my graduation performance. Alice in Wonderland. I played Alice.’
‘How’d they take it?’
‘Mum was proud. Dad never forgave me.’ She sighed.
I let her sit for a moment and then I asked, ‘Where did you go to uni?’
I could hear the smile. ‘Where do you think?’
‘Melbourne. Should we whip past it?’
She didn’t have to direct me. I knew the way. The security gate was closed so the best we could do was a quick look from Swanston Street.
‘A lot of new buildings since my day.’
‘Yeah, it just keeps growing.’
‘It sounds like you know it well.’
‘What are you studying?’
‘Creative Writing. A PhD.’
Could she hear it in my voice? ‘Not doing too well?’
What could I say? That the muse had deserted me? That I had given up a perfectly good teaching job, for what? ‘It’s not a good mix with taxi driving.’
By now we were on the freeway on the way to the airport.
She laughed, a low rumble of a laugh. ‘I don’t know. It would give you a lot of interesting material to work with.’
It gave me long, sleepless nights and days where my mind was barely up to writing my name on the top of the page.
‘What if I told you a story?’ she said. ‘You can use it any way you like.’
‘Narrative isn’t my style, but fire away.’
‘It’s the story of a young girl, the daughter of migrants…’
‘A scholarship girl with a passion for the theatre…’
‘Yes, that’s her. She wanted to go to drama school, but her parents wouldn’t let her, insisted she go to university, get a studentship and become a teacher. A good profession for a girl, they said. But teaching jobs were hard to get and if you were on a studentship you had to go wherever they sent you. She ended up in a small town in dairy country.’
I found myself holding my breath, a cold feeling was growing in the pit of my stomach. I kept my eyes on the road ahead.
‘For a while it wasn’t too bad. There were a lot of single men around and schoolteachers were in high demand. There was one farmer, a handsome young fellow, rather sensitive for a man in his line of work. She thought she was in love, found herself pregnant and married. And for a while she was content, but it didn’t last long. The bug that had bitten her so long ago was still with her. There was no escape. The farm was stifling her, she had to get away, and eventually she did. To London.’
My mouth was dry but I needed to know. ‘Did she ever make it?’
‘In a rather modest way. She was never a star but she was always in work.’
‘Did she have any regrets?’
‘And the husband and child she left behind?’
‘She tried to keep in touch, wrote letters and sent birthday cards, until one day she got a telegram. It just said: Leave us alone. Stop.’
By now we had arrived at International Departures. I pulled up by the British Airways sign. I couldn’t turn around. She was silent, only her perfume spoke for her.
‘What’s the fare?’ she asked at last.
An elegant hand held out a hundred dollar note. I took it. Then I felt the hand on my cheek. It was soft and warm. My breathing stopped. ‘Go home,’ she murmured, her breath caressing my ear. ‘Get a good night’s sleep.’
Then the door opened and closed and all that was left of her was her perfume.
I woke up late the next morning, but my mind was teeming. I couldn’t even bear to stop for lunch. The words were pouring out of me and I cursed when the phone rang.
‘Whatever it is you’re selling, I’m not interested,’ I snapped.
‘It’s your father.’
‘Sorry, Dad. I was on a roll.’
‘Well, I’ll let you get back to it in a minute. I’ve got some bad news for you. Your aunt rang me.’
‘My aunt? Didn’t know I had one.’
‘Your mother’s sister.’
I sat down abruptly.
Dad didn’t answer for a moment. ‘I thought you had a right to know. Apparently she’s left you everything. There’s a flat in London.’
I could barely speak. ‘Who, Dad?’
Dad paused again. ‘Your mother. She was at your aunt’s place. She had cancer, wanted to come home to die.’
‘Last night, early hours of the morning.’
‘She gave me the address in case you want to send a card or something. 62 Daniel Street, Ivanhoe.’
© Pauline Montagna 2013
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