Wednesday, September 26, 2007

east is east & west is west

Course things happen all the time when you drive a cab, & I'm always thinking, I must put that on the blog ... but then something else happens & I don't. Now I'm going to take a month off so there won't be any more anecdotage here for a while. Not that there's been much recently. But here's one, lucky last.

Was coming up Bathurst Street into the City late afternoon when a fellow hailed me on the corner of George Street. A working man, maybe in his 20s or 30s. He asked me how my day was & I said Fucked. Some cop had just written me out a ticket for stopping on a No Stopping zone. That's about a $180 fine, so the shift was gone. This bloke worked for a furniture removalist, knew all about cops & their stupid ways. So we had a good old whinge together.

He was going to Bondi, where he was living, but he actually grew up in the western suburbs, in Five Dock. I asked him how he liked living in the eastern suburbs? He said: It's fucked. I hate it. Hate the people. Then he told me this story. He was calling up a friend, a girl who was a friend, not his girl friend, to ask her if she wanted to come over for a root? He knew her well, knew she would not mind if he put it to her that way, bluntly, I guess; but next thing, he gets a tap on the shoulder from a woman standing behind him, who admonishes him for speaking in that manner in a public place.

Where were you?
I asked. In a fish 'n' chip shop, he said.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Years ago I underwent a gruesome dental operation called an apicectomy (= a surgical procedure designed to remove infection or other pathology from around the end of the root of a tooth). Now, whenever I hear the acronymn APEC (about 10,000 per day at the mo'), I'm back in that dental chair having my jawbone scraped. I fainted under the anaesthetic and, coming back, had a weird out-of-body experience that almost compensated for the violence done to my jaw.

APEC, from the cab-driver's point of view, is a bit like the Y2K thang was: a lot of fuss in the lead up but, in the event, nothing much. Because there's a lot less traffic, and because there's clearways all through town, you can actually drive the streets like you used to be able to do here, oh, twenty years ago. Plus, lots of cabbies have taken the week off, so finding work is not a problem. I've been meeting my quota by nine or ten at night, at which point I joyfully sign off and go home. And avoiding the obscenity at the top of town, where cages have been built to keep the people a safe distance from Our Beloved Leaders.

Was home and hosed Tuesday night almost before Dubya's cavalcade came in from the airport. Yesterday, in the arvo, I picked up three sailors at Bondi Junction and took them up to their base in Randwick. Halfway thru' the ride the one in the front seat, who was eating spicy sausage sticks, mentioned casually that he'd met GB that day. Bush and Howard had been to the military base at Garden Island glad-handing the troops, as they are wont to do. What was he like? I asked. He was ok, the matelot said. He was pissed. His wife was nice. I said: He didn't bring his wife. Oh, well, said the sailor, the bird he was with then. Was she black? Nah. Cute though. I woulda given her one.

Earlier, dropping off three Hong Kong journalists at the Convention Centre in Darling Harbour, I got into a snip with a cop. There were barriers everywhere but a gap in the place where you usually drop off there, so that's where I stopped. This rozzer tapped on the door and made a wind-down-the-window sign. I complied. You can't stop here, he said. It's not a taxi stand.

This begged two questions: one, you're actually not meant to drop off on taxi stands, they're solely for picking up; two, the Chinese journo's were in the process of heaving themselves and their gear out of the cab, plus paying the fare, as we spoke. And they wanted a receipt. Was multi-tasking, change, receipt etc, with this cop whining in my ear: Are you listening to me? Listen to me. If I see you again, I'll write out a ticket. I'm thinking of writing out a ticket now. A bus had pulled up behind me, I knew the guy wasn't going to write out a ticket. I was empty, I could go ... except for him. I looked at him. He looked at me. With hatred. And defeat. He tapped again on the door and I scarpered.

Later on in Double Bay, some guy in a four wheel drive, thinking I was responsible for a delay in his very important life (I wasn't, it was an old lady illegally parking her Mercedes) called me a shit-box cabbie. Well, I was driving a shit-box, it was 1660, the worst cab, bar one, in Bob's little fleet.

Much later, about nine o'clock, I was hailed in King Street, Newtown by a rather svelte, handsome chap who might have been a bit Asian. He opened the back door then stood in the street, calling to someone across the road: Get in the car, Joanne. Get in the fucking car. I craned my neck, looking for Joanne. There was a girl in the door of the hardware store wearing trainers and a checked flannel shirt. Probably not Joanne. And then, further down, standing on the curb, an elegant woman dressed all in black. That was Joanne. And she wasn't getting into the cab.

The bloke told me to start the meter (I already had), then yelled out at her a few more times. She ignored him. He said: Ok, goodbye Joanne, and got in the cab. Chuck a uee, mate, he said. Waited for a break in the traffic and did. We pulled up next to the Joanne, he opened the door. A slight hesitation, then she got it. Tall, very thin, almost anorexically so. Blonde. American. She had a low voice and she was furious. With him. They were going to Merrylands. Where their marriage would end, either tonight or tomorrow morning, by the sound of it.

Mostly they sat in stony silence. There was Weird Folk on the radio, I turned it up. A bit of Karen Dalton. Blues on the Ceiling, kinda perfect in its way: I'll never get out of these blues alive / I'll never get out of this crazy blues alive ... Karen croaked. Joanne was delivering a few home truths: You treat your family like shit, she said. You have to learn to be truthful with yourself. Otherwise it's over. He was defensive, embarrassed, yet still brutal. Shut the fuck up, I heard him say. I wondered if she was afraid of him. Wondered if he was, or could become violent. The answers seemed to be no, no, and maybe.

It was a horrible ride. I couldn't help thinking of the last time I did it, with a drunk Montenegrin with no money, shadow boxing and shouting obscenities. What is it about Merrylands? We got there at last, pulled up outside the marital nest. She said: Would you mind waiting for a few moments while I get a couple of things? He said: Well, you pay him, then. She said: No, you pay him. And went. There was a beat. Alright I'll pay him, the guy muttered. How much is it? The meter had just turned over to fifty. Fifty bucks, I said, forgetting about the tolls. He gave me a fifty. Do me a favour, mate, he said. Just go, will you? Then he got out as well.

I waited. The meter was still running. Should I reset it or what? What was the right thing to do? I wasn't sure. After a while I turned the car around, switched the engine off and waited on the other side of the road. There was a better view of the house from there. A brick villa, recently built. Lights on in all the windows. Thought they were probably arguing but couldn't hear anything. No blows, or cries. Thought that if she'd really wanted me to stay, she wouldn't have got the guy to pay me. Thought I could wait out there for a long time, and nothing would happen. Thought ... it's none of my business anyway.

In the end I just drove away.

Friday, August 24, 2007


A precise relationship with money is both a condition and a lesson. Perpetual. And ... intermittent. Last night, needed another $20.00. Never mind why. Was on the stand at Park Street, after 10 pm. One more ride, I thought. Two blokes from Melbourne, going up to the Travelodge in Kings X. Ten, max, probably less. It was seven. Drove through the strip, hoping I wouldn't get hailed. Hookers standing in the road, dealers, spruikers, punters, desperados everywhere. Just like me. In Wolloomooloo, pulled over for a stitched up looking fellow. Going to West Pennant Hills. Sixty bucks, maybe more. He was drunk. I demurred. You're just not fucking interested, are you!? he snarled, and slammed the door again. Well, no. On through the City, my usual haunts. Nothing. Market Street. Outside the QVB, a young chap, polite. Epping. Forty, fifty bucks. Didn't want to go to Epping. He was OK about it. Could see, up ahead, a couple, waving, frantic. Try them. Already a whiff of the familiar. Pulled up, thinking, yes, know these two. He was the younger brother of an old friend. A thirty five year old friendship. But we fell out, couple of years ago. Have seen each other since but the intimacy has gone. The brother is a public figure. Union official. Lefty. Heard him on the radio, just the other day. We've had Christmasses together, we've got drunk in each other's company, a few times. I looked him in the eye as he piled in the back seat. His wife after him. He didn't know me. Didn't look at me. Not really. Drunk, not wrecked. Functioning. There was a moment when I could have said, hey, it's me. Didn't. Weird. Heard all of their conversation, in the back, knowing far more than they would have thought I knew. Mostly about their kid. The logistics. Busy lives. She was going to have to pack two identical suitcases next day. One for the red car, one for the blue. Felt myself drifting, further and further out ... into anonymity. Nobody. Own fault. Coulda been someone, coulda been me. Going to Leichhardt, a tricky route, had to confirm it with him. Surely he'd know me now? No. Dropped them off in Catherine Street. He was very sincere, the union guy standing up for the working man, doing the right thing. Impeccable. I should have felt terrible but I felt ... nothing. Nothing that $14.80 wouldn't fix. Pulling into the servo, the radio offered a job to Padstow. Thirty, forty bucks. Didn't take it. Gassing up, a fellow came out with a pie and a drink. Going to Peakhurst. Ditto. Guess I just wanted to go home. Just wanted to be ... me. Not the cabbie me but the other one. This ... one.

Hallelujah I'm a Bum

One night last week I saw, at about 8.30 pm, on the busy corner of William & Palmer Streets, a fellow stretched out fast asleep on his back. He wore a beanie on his head and the nondescript clothes of a clochard. Next to him was an empty champagne glass and next to the glass was a bottle of champagne, whether full or empty I could not say. Next to that, tied up by a ratty piece of string to the hurricane wire fence overlooking the motorway, was his little dog, a silky cross. Waiting patiently, a little anxiously, for him to wake and their peripatesis to continue.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Driver's Docket

Was taking some fellow from Alexandria to Rozelle when the job came through. He was telling me about how he'd had a stroke during a kidney biopsy taken to try to work out why he had high blood pressure, when all the time it was sleep apnoea that was to blame. Now, as a result of the stroke, he was half blind and couldn't remember as many of the 5000 characters of Chinese writing as he used to. So I didn't clearly focus on the job and it was only when the operator called to ask if I had the details that I realised it was one of a kind I hadn't done before: payment by driver's docket.

It was a doctor's rooms up on Darling Street. No-one outside so I left the car in the street and went in. In the corner of the waiting room was a gent in a beret who looked like a Scotty. He was painfully slow, coming out of the room, along the corridor, out the front door, into the street, into the car. Various irate motorists bellowed on their horns but I felt justified in holding up the traffic by the evident disability of my fare. He took his time, too. Just before getting in, he pointed at the facade of the building across the road. There was a figure carved out of white stone at the apex of the arch, silhouetted against the evening sky. Who's that? he said. Athena, I replied, wondering if it was in fact her. Humph, he said. She has the attributes.

I've only got one leg and one hand and my wife's just left me,
he announced when he was settled and we were on our way. With a kind of grim satisfaction. She's sick of looking after me. Says she wants some time to herself. There was a pause. It seemed I needed to say something. Where'd she go? I asked. To her brother's, he said. She comes back every morning to cook my breakfast and spends the whole day looking after me then goes home at midnight. She does more for me now than when she lived with me.

He was Irish not Scots and had recently returned from a visit to the ancestral home. It was everything you'd expect of Ireland, he said, describing a castle 350 years old from which the dust had never been cleared. Cobwebs hung from floor to ceiling and in the library the leather-bound, gold-spined books were thick with grime. My wife's a librarian, he said. She's going back to clean up all those old books. Worth a fortune. I looked sideways at him. He was expressionless. After she finishes leaving me, he said. When we've got the place set up so I can look after myself. It's not so hard. Mainly just things like tying my shoe laces. Things that need two hands.

Turned out he was a writer. Had been to Duntroon, the military academy, and had fought with the South Vietnamese Army - the ARVN - as an adviser during the Vietnam War. That's what his next book was to be about. Bryce Courtenay came to me, he said, and asked if he could write it. I said no. He said, come on, Michael, I'd do a better job than you. No, you won't, I said. Yes, I will, he said. I'd write it as fiction whereas you'll probably write it as non-fiction. Fiction outsells non-fiction ten to one.

He expatiated for a while upon the marketing genius of Mr. Courtenay then said: He gave me this book of his to read. Called Smoky Joe's Cafe. Wanted to know what I thought of it. I read it and told him I thought it was a load of rubbish. Not just the factual errors, the whole thing, he had the whole thing wrong, Vietnam wasn't like that at all. Well, next thing I know, I'm in a bookshop and it's on the best seller list! Everywhere I went, Smoky Joe's Cafe, a bestseller. It's still a load of rubbish though.

As with the news about his wife, this was delivered without acrimony, as of a curious fact about the world that I might or might not take notice of, as I wished. Was he aware of how amusing he was? I wasn't even sure of that, though reflection suggests he must have been. Anything I contributed to the conversation was listened to intently and then he went on with his tales as if nothing had been said. Telling me about the genealogy of his people and a graveyard out at Mudgee where many of them are buried.

I suppose I have to sign something, he said when I pulled into the drive of the house in Cremorne. He wrote M McDermott in a firm, rather ornate hand then began the labour of hauling himself out of the car. Was there the ghost of a smile on that otherwise grim mouth as he shuffled around the front of the car? I don't know; by then, I was busy giving the details of the fare to the operator, so I could get back from her the docket number, so I could get paid.

Monday, August 13, 2007

"A Cabbie's Life hangs by a Thread"

photo by C. Garth Thompson

Thursday, July 19, 2007

stupid dumb bastard

Last night I made one of those mistakes that, in this job, can be so costly. I'd earned my target amount, was gassed up, logged off, rolling through the Ashfield shops on my way back to base when a fellow hailed me ... and I stopped. Soon as I saw him lurch against the door as he tried to get in, I knew; but by then of course it was too late. My problem had become, how to get him out again. Parramatta, he said, rolling the rrrrrs and clipping the tttttts, like a Russian. He was about as drunk as you can be and still stand, or sit, upright. Clutching his phone. He made a call, speaking in his own language, which wasn't Russian, to a woman on the other end. Shouting, rather. The only word I knew, repeated several times, was taxi. He was trying, I realised later, to get her to agree to pay the fare at the other end. Didn't sound like she agreed. He finished the call then lurched over in my direction, trying to grab my arm. Shouting something. I eluded him by leaning away. He left his hand clasped on the back of my seat for a while. Forgotten, probably. What nationality are you!? That's what he was roaring. I told him. He couldn't process the information. You're not a wog? he dribbled. And then: You're white, like me. This seemed to be a satisfactory outcome. I asked him his nationality. Former Yugoslavia, he said. From Montenegro. A morlach from the black hills perhaps. Probably Serbian was the language he'd been speaking. He subsided into an alcoholic stupor as we drove up the Parramatta Road. He smelled sweet, as if he'd been drinking some peach or cherry or plum liqueur. Once we were on the M4, all of a sudden, he started bellowing and shadow-boxing. Get Fucked!! he yelled, very loud. Several times. Then he'd subside and sigh in a melancholy way. But he knew the way, he wasn't that drunk. I realised he probably didn't have any money when he started mumbling that he'd give me his phone number, I could call him tomorrow. By then I just wanted to get him home, get rid of him. I was driving too fast but I didn't care. My other worry was that he might try to grab the wheel. His directions, when they came, were slurred and shouted at the top of his voice. He could easily have become violent. Once we left the M4 he started saying I could come round to his house the next day for the money. I didn't want his address, I didn't want his phone number, I didn't want ever to see him again. We got to the street, pulled up, I stopped the meter, switched the light on. It was about forty dollars. He sat. You can get out now, I said. Where's my change? he said. There is no change, I said, because you haven't given me any money. You can get out now. I switched off the motor, kept my hand on the key in case it was me who had to bail. Suddenly he turned pathetic. What I doing? he said. Get out of the car, I said, the third time. I dumb, stupid bastard, he said. Stupid dumb bastard ... at long last he started to move. It took him an age to get out and he nearly fell as he tried to shut the door; then he almost jammed his fat fingers in. I watched him shamble off up the street, then started the car, chucked a Uee and left. It was about ten dollars in fuel and tolls to get the sad fuck home and me back to base, so I guess he left me out of pocket thirty bucks or so but I decided not to care about that. It was better just to be free of him. Later, when I was having a bite to eat, just as I set the wine glass to my lips for the first sip, that sweet disgusting odour of cherry brandy or whatever it was rose up and I was almost sick.

Friday, July 13, 2007

a whizz in the graveyard

There are very few places in the City where you can pee outside. I've seen a cabbie stopped in a lay-by on Southern Cross Drive peeing against a wall in full view (well, he had his back turned) of the enormous traffic shifting by; I've seen bottles of pee left in the dunny at Teacher's Car Wash, suggesting some drivers do it on the run; and I myself have peed in some strange places, including once against one of the north pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Usually I go to a pub - the Hero of Waterloo in The Rocks is a favourite, so is the Criterion on Park Street - or a Servo somewhere. The other night in Bondi I parked the cab confidently around the corner from one of my usual spots only to find the pub - what was it ever called? - no longer exists.

Last night I was in South Coogee, having dropped a young woman off at Maroubra Beach (and refused the pizza she wanted to give me), when I saw a bat fly through a row of big old trees like macrocarpa and thought: Yes! Here! I was busting, as the kids say. Parked the car and got out, only to be confronted by a working man going home with his duffel bag over his shoulder (it was late, 11.30 or so, and I was sure the street was deserted.) He was too tired even to look at me, so I scooted on towards the first tree.

Up the slope behind it was a wooden gate, leaning open, with what looked like a field behind it. In a field behind a gate is of course better even than round the back of a tree, so I climbed up and went through into ... a graveyard. It was the Randwick Cemetery in Malabar Road, I've seen it heaps of times up the other end, from Arden Street, but hadn't realised it came down this far.

There was the cold stillness you find in graveyards, the tipping stones, the land rising up towards a brief, carious horizon, beyond which the far stars trembled against the black. It was like suddenly entering another dimension, where the coordinates we use to navigate the streets and houses, people and their dreams, had vanished and all that was left was space and time and the tough grass and weeds that grow over stones. It was a distant corner I was in, old, disused and out of some vestigial feeling of respect, probably misplaced, I tried to memorise the names of the people upon whose bones I was peeing ... gone.

I left that place with a shiver and, though not exactly disquieted, I did notice I drove rather less recklessly and haphazardly than usual as, having decided not to seek any more work that night, I made my way back to base.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Don’t let the sound of your own wheels / drive you crazy

Most nights out driving I forget what happens almost before it has happened ... then there are those other nights when it seems possible to remember everything, even those things that didn't quite happen ...

Thursday, when I pull into the Park Street rank at the beginning of my shift, a small round woman with a large head climbs into the front seat and a vaguely familiar, raffish fellow in a black trilby hat gets in the back: this is Stuart Shepherd, artist, stalwart of Red Mole days from New York in the 1980s. We belong to different eras of the Moles but crossed over once, in 199o, at the Belvoir Street Theatre here in Sydney during The Book of Life, which Stuart designed and appeared in, and I did the sound for. He's making a film with Amy, his friend in the front seat and a self-taught artist. The film is Amy Goes To Sydney and when I see them the next day at the Art Gallery of NSW, they are off that evening to the Newtown Hotel to interview some drag queens. Saturday, they visit a palmist in The Rocks before winging back to Wellington.

I take them up to where they're staying at the Challis Lodge in Challis Avenue in Potts Points and then pick up a radio job from Victoria Street to the City. A mother and daughter come out of the small hotel, heavily laden with gear and looking exasperated. Turns out the daughter is booked on a train to Queensland and they've been waiting an hour and half for a cab to come to the back entrance of the hotel. On the way to the station, I fill the daughter in on the vagaries of Silver Service, the allegedly elite branch that gets offered all the radio jobs first, and how many of the drivers just will not do short trips. Gradually she de-stresses and when, on Wentworth Avenue, The Eagles come on the radio, singing Take It Easy, she starts singing along. That's nice.

On the stand at Country Trains, the guy handling the taxis tells me that the roadworks are because the station is leaking in the heavy rain we've been having. There's a fellow there with a docket, wanting to go to Gordon, but he has to wait for the actual cab he's booked, otherwise Railcorp won't pay out. I try half-heartedly to convince him to go with me until I find out that the Bridge is jammed. The high winds we've also been having have blown part of a maintenance shield off the roof of a train, bringing down wires near the South Pylon and closing lane 1 ... the chaos will go on for hours so I'm very happy when a nurse from Moruya with a cabcharge form asks me to take her to Cronulla. She's a very nice woman, but reticent and a bit hidden the way country folk sometimes are. We discuss the right age at which kids should get mobile phones these days, she has a 12 year old and a 10 year old, both boys, and girl twins who're nearly 7. When she hops out, just for a moment, she turns full face towards me and smiles, and she's beautiful.

On the way back up Southern Cross Drive, outside a pub in Waterloo, I'm hailed at the lights by a couple of refugees, drinkers for sure. She's Polynesian and sits in the back and doesn't say much; he's an Aussie with one of those craters of the moon faces. Somehow we start talking about the American ship, the Kitty Hawk, that's in town after the exercises up in Queensland, and that leads onto Vietnam, where this guy served. In a transport and supplies division. He tells me various things I didn't know, for instance that the Army sent conscripts up there and kept most of their regular forces at home, and that most conscripts served for less than one year so that the Army didn't have to pay them a pension afterwards. In the midst of it all, completely unconscious of the reference, he says: I was only nineteen ... and I almost lose it.

They get off outside the Criterion in Park Street and, immediately, another couple get in, he in front, she in back. They're French and there's one of those weird and wonderful moments when I hear their language without being able to recognize what it is ... before it settles into something more familiar though still strange. He's wearing a black and white striped shirt and though a bit shambolic and overweight, has Gallic charm in spades, that elegance and insouciance that always makes me think of Apollinaire. He tells me the taxi drivers in Paris are the worst in the world and that Sydney's, by comparison, are high class. When he gets out to go and buy some wine I say to his companion that he's a very charming man and she agrees. She's older than him and the cask of wine he brings back is for her. I like these people very much.

Down the bottom of Devonshire Street I'm hailed by a woman going home from work, she lives in Wolloomooloo and knows an intricate way to get there but that's where the Kitty Hawk is tied up and I know it's hopeless. On the way I tell her about the French couple until, in a laneway between Riley and Crown, she gives up and decides to walk the rest of the way. Leaving me stuck in horrific traffic, not just sightseers for the ship but cars trying to get into the Harbour Tunnel because the Bridge is still jammed. I do a couple of cheeky manouevres and am rewarded when a young woman, an art student or something similar by the folio she's carrying, crosses through the traffic and gets in, wanting to go to North Bondi. She's English and seems ok at first but gradually some kind of class thing enters her voice and I feel bound to shut off.

After dropping her off I go up to the Junction and pick up a couple of Irish boys, from Waterford, and take them up to Randwick. They say Waterford boys love the Craick and will go on until there's not another man left standing. When they tell me that some Aussie in a pub told them he hated them because he hates all the Irish, I tell them I like the Irish and round the fare down to an even ten bucks. I spin around outside the Royal and go back up Belmore Street where I'm hailed by a young woman with a plastic rubbish bag full of what looks like, and is, washing. She's talking on her mobile phone and the conversation goes all the way to Edgecliff where I drop her off in Glenmore Road at a brothel I haven't noticed before. Her conversation with her friend, another sex worker who's left town for some unspecified location, is intermittently fascinating but I'm not going to try and write it all down now, it'd take to long and there's money to be made.

At the north end of Glenmore Road you have to turn left and I'm soon stuck in traffic on William Street, cursing myself for not going the other way up to Oxford Street; but, again, by being cheeky I get through quick and make it to the Criterion for a pit - or piss - stop that I badly need. There's no cabs on the rank and as I get out two Indian boys come over and ask if I'll take them to Blacktown? Sure, I say, running inside. I doubt they'll still be there when I come out but they are, so I do take them to Blacktown. I've never been out that far before last night, when I took a young guy to Doonside, a ninety dollar fare, but these chaps want to go a different way and it's only about sixty-five ... still, it gets me out of town long enough for the chaos to be sorted out before I return and I find their soft voices, talking Hindi in the back seat, soothing.

I get a hail coming back on the Great Western Highway, a bloke I take to be a Maori but who is in fact some kind of Asian. When I remark on the coldness of the night, he shrugs and says he works in a cool store. He has a peculiar odour, not unpleasant, and after a while I identify it as the smell of chook ... maybe it's a chicken cool store he works in but I don't ask, I just take him home to Merrylands then ride the M4 back to the City. The chaos has cleared but there's still no cabs on either of the Park Street ranks and an unseemly clamour as those waiting jostle, not for me, but for the guy pulling in behind me. My fare's a dyke who spends the trip to Alexandria talking to her girlfriend on her mobile phone. Her girlfriend is far away, maybe in Canada, I don't know. I love you too, she says.

Head back into town and get hailed in Pitt Street by a young Asian couple who want to go first to Marsfield, then to Epping ... it's a good fare, forty or fifty dollars, just what I need this time of night but for some reason I don't want to go. It could be that I'm light on gas after the Blacktown epic, I'm not sure. Anyway, spooky as it sounds, on the Anzac Bridge they discover that she's left something - wallet? mobile phone? - behind and he wants us to go back. She says no, no, but he wears her down and in Rozelle I do an illegal U turn and take them back to the exact spot I picked them up, corner of Pitt and Liverpool. Am unsure if they'll want me to wait but no, he peels off a ten and twenty, says just give him five back and off they go into the night.

Two blocks up I get hailed by a group of American sailors going back to the Kitty Hawk. They look about fourteen and don't say much. I ask about the exercises up in Queensland but the guy in the front says no, they just came from Guam. Then he asks me how to get to Taronga Park Zoo, I tell him, and he says ... that's where the Steve Irwin memorial is, right? I'm dumbstruck ... all this way, to our great City, and it's Steve Irwin he wants to pay homage to? This kid from upstate Pennsylvania? Even the sight of the carrier looming above us all grey and sinister, with its batwing jets folded up on the flight deck, fails to shift my incredulity.

I don't wait around there for another fare even though there's plenty of milling around going on, I scoot back up to the City and find a South African who's going to Mosman. Don't trust Jaappies, they're volatile and emotional and can turn nasty, especially the Suits, so I'm very circumspect and professional and, good-oh, there's no trouble. Afterwards I figure I'm nearly done, but instead of taking the Westlink I go down George and pick up a young Scandinavian woman with her eyes enormous behind her spectacles and take her to Ultimo. She gets off in a very obscure part of town, behind the Powerhouse Museum and I notice a street I've never seen before, Sistrum Street. I watch her unlock a massive metal gate then walk up a ramp then I'm on my way, home James, and don't spare the horses.

... but on Parramatta Road at Camperdown I'm hailed by a joker wearing a leather jacket and holding a kebab upright in a bag so I pick him up. He's a Kiwi, from Hawkes Bay via Christchurch, quite drunk and with a bad stutter. Young, in his twenties. We chat about this and that and gradually, especially when he realises I'm from NZ too, his stutter gets less. All the time he's holding his kebab bag upright like it's the Olympic torch or something and when we get to where he lives, Palace Street, Ashfield, he doesn't know what to do with it while he's getting his wallet out, so asks me if I'll hold it. This is of course unwittingly comic but I keep a straight face, holding up his kebab while he fumbles for the money, then handing it back to him. I ddddidn't want to spill the sauce, he says and goes off into the night with his sauce unspilled. And so do I.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A Broken Nail

It was rush hour. Five to six. Was empty, stuck in traffic, outside the American Express building in Liverpool Street when she caught my eye and began to negotiate pavement and gutter and roadway so she could catch my cab. The lights changed as she was opening the door and she seemed a bit flustered, what with her bag and her umbrella and her fashionable coat. Then something happened, I didn't know what, she exclaimed in dismay and opened the door again, looking down ... Broke a fingernail, she said, holding up her hands. They were small and brown and the nails were very long, all except the one on the middle finger of her left hand, which had gone. She wore many expensive looking rings but the settings were unostentatious, as graceful as herself. I imagined her palms, rough, pink, perhaps a little cracked, though I couldn't see them. I like the touch of rough womens' hands, I don't know why. Are they your own? I asked. Cheeky, but I felt at ease with her: she was amused and amusing and so why not? Of course, she said. I wouldn't wear false ones. She was looking at her hands, murmuring: Take two or three weeks to grow back ... if I could have found it I might have glued it back on. I said something to the effect that scrappling in the gutter for a fingernail is not a good look and we moved on. She was going to The Establishment on George Street, was late, hence her rush, hence the broken nail. I started telling her about the smart and funny girls from ACP I'd just dropped off in Surry Hills, their minute dissection of the appearance of a work mate who wore false eyelashes this long ... individually applied. She gave a brief shudder and said she preferred to be as she was. There's something about perfect beauty that's soulless, she said. I like my crooked nose. I looked at her nose, in profile, it didn't seem crooked to me. Her face was as attractive as her hands, quick eyes, a slightly sardonic curve of the lips that she'd reddened so they set off her dark skin. I mentioned the Persian carpet makers who deliberately weave a mistake into the pattern because perfection offends the gods. She laughed. Yes, and when we try too hard we make mistakes anyway. I should be more zen. We were halfway up Elizabeth Street now. It was gone six o'clock, the hour of her date. Que sera, sera, I said and started to discuss the best route from here on. Hmmm, she said. Good thinking, 99. That meant she'd watched the same TV in her youth as I did, we must have been more or less of an age. You don't have a phone in your shoe, do you? I asked. No, she said, just as well, because I might put the stiletto through my cheek when I was answering it. In this delightful banter the brief minutes passed and soon we were pulling up outside The Establishment, a luxe and well patronised corporate drinking hole. It was just ten past six. Oh, she said, I can be fashionably late. We did the business, she paid, natch, with an Amex card and said yes, she would like the receipt. Then came a moment of silence. I was waiting for her to get out but she didn't move. The moment lengthened, we were as if stilled, sitting in a cone of silence. What was going on, did she not want to go? And then she said: Are you going to give me the receipt? I'd printed it out but neglected to tear it off; so entranced perhaps. Did you think I was waiting because of your lovely company? she asked, making it at once a compliment and a rebuke. No, I said, I just thought you were composing yourself so that you didn't break another nail, getting out. And then we laughed and off she went to join whatever lucky person she was meeting.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

people like us

Took a Chinese woman down to Earlwood, she got in the back seat outside the Criterion in Park Street then, at the corner of George, said she wanted to sit in the front. Well, do, I said, so she did, before the lights changed and we were on our way. She was tired, she worked in stockbroking, had spent the day translating figures from one currency to another, one screen to another. We didn't talk much, though front seat travel generally means an inclination towards conversation. I liked the way she smelt, which isn't always the case with front seat passengers: a light perfume beneath which her own body scent lingered.

Afterwards I wandered up through Undercliffe to Marrickville and there, at a bus stop, in the murky evening light, were two obviously half cut disreputables roistering. There was a vacant cab in front of me, which they didn't hail, so I was a bit surprised when one of them stuck out a hand for me. A moment's decision: to stop or not to stop? Trouble or no trouble? Should I ... hit the anchors. They took ages to actually get into the cab, one in the front, one in the back. The one in the front had a khaki beanie pulled down over his ears, the dirt of decades etched into the skin of his face, only two or three front teeth left in his mouth. Fellow in back was older, almost dapper by comparison.

They're going to the Coopers Arms in King Street, Newtown. To get pissed, which meant, in their estimation, they aren't yet. That tells you something, because I think they're properly shickered. How long ya been driving a cab? asks Beanie. I think, and in the moment of thought, he answers for me. Too bloody long, eh? he says and sniggers. Guy in back says: Never catch me driving a bloody cab, too bloody dangerous ... Beanie: Ever been jumped? I look at him, he laughs. Don't worry, he says, we're not gonna jump ya. I say: I know you're not.

Fact is, I haven't ever been jumped though I might have come close to it a couple of times. It's hard to judge the seriousness of a threat that isn't made good. I never thought these guys were going to try anything, on the other hand, they were the kind that could easily have turned nasty if the wrong thing had been said. Now Beanie's unravelling a long cab-riding story that is designed to show his bona fides. He'd once caught a taxi from Sale in country Victoria to Melbourne. The fare was eight hundred dollars, and he offered to double it with a tip. His folks gave the cabbie a sit down meal, either before leaving Sale or upon arrival in Melbourne, I can't work out which. Cabbie refused the tip at first but Beanie forced it on him. Musta cost me three grand, that trip, he muses.

Meanwhile Dapper, sitting in the back, is keeping up a running commentary, which basically consists of contradicta: everything Beanie says, he disputes. If Beanie says he's generous, Dapper says he's mean. If Beanie pretends to wisdom, Dapper says he's thick as pigshit. If Beanie says ... this is done without malice, indeed, with high good humour, so he's chuckling widely between the insults. I'm fifty seven, he says at one point, apropos of nothing at all. He's forty three. See? See? Perhaps he meant together they made a hundred. Beanie ignores him. He's still talking about jumping cabbies, looking toothlessly sideways at me and grinning. Don't worry, mate, I won't jump ya, I'm gonna tip ya. Dapper says: He's a miserable bastard, he won't tip ya.

There's twelve dollars on the meter when we pull up outside the Coopers Arms. Beanie scrabbles in his pockets for a bit, he's got quite a lot of cash loose in there. He comes up with a ten and a five. Thereyagomate, toldyaI'dtipya. He shakes my hand. Dapper leans over from the back seat, he shakes my hand as well. Helluva job you got, mate, he says, I'd never drive a bloody cab, have to put up with people like us ...

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

easy come, easy go

Picked him up at the back of the Cross, it was maybe five in the afternoon, he was talking with another guy on the other side of Ward Avenue, near Kellet Street, just lighting a cigarette, when he hailed me. I was half wondering if he'd want to keep smoking in the cab but it had gone by the time he climbed in the front seat. Big guy, wearing a black leather jacket, blue jeans, sneakers. Chains hung from his belt. He looked like a drug dealer from a German movie. Once in, having told me where to go - Kent and Napoleon, in the City - he took off one shoe and started pulling large denomination banknotes, fifties and hundreds, out of it. I used to keep my money in my sock, I offered. I'm just sick of being robbed, he said, taking off the other shoe and pulling out more money. Softly spoken, genuinely polite, feet not too smelly ... carrying about two grand, one in each shoe, although it was hard to tell exactly and I didn't like to appear too curious. Once he had the notes smoothed out and in his wallet he started fussing with plastic bags of coins; then did some stuff with his mobile phone, changing the SIM card I thought at first but perhaps not, perhaps just re-programming it now the day's hustling was over. As we neared his destination he started fiddling with the coin bags again, getting the fare ready, and dropped something down the side of the seat. Scrappled away down there for a while. I could turn the light on, I said. He stopped looking instantly. Easy come, easy go, he said. He paid in coins, the exact amount, then sloped off into the gathering dark. Much later in the shift, on the Park Street rank, I remembered he'd dropped something and went to look. I found it on the floor beneath the back seat. It was a five cent piece.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Since the Haberfield base closed, I've been walking to and from Croydon each day I work. Takes a bit longer and it isn't quite as nice a walk - no bat shrieks in Ashfield Park, no rosemary at the War Memorial - but it's still okay. I go through the back streets, past suburban gardens where chrysanthemums and dahlias grow, until I reach the traffic arteries again. There, yesterday arvo, as I went to cross busy Milton Street against the lights, I saw a book with its pages fluttering in the middle of the road.

Scooped it up as I passed, it lacked both front and back cover but all the matter of it was there. A sampler, from the 1990s, one of those books a publisher puts out which anthologizes bits and pieces from other books they're promoting. A selection from Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow was included, it's a time travel adventure set in The Rocks now and a hundred years ago. They were all Australian authors. I placed it carefully down on the corner post of the brick fence on the other side of the road and carried on.

Origin night, I was expecting it to be busy, with mean or boisterous drunks but it didn't quite turn out like that. Traffic was bad early and I broke one of my rules and became exasperated ... calmed down after a while. Later, when the game began, an eerie quiet descended on the City, people all over town glued to their TV sets. As soon as it ended, just after ten, the radio went crazy. Worked a bit longer than I usually do on a Wednesday, mopping up punters on the inner city outskirts then headed back to base.

I was walking home down Liverpool Road, that part where the Ashfield shops are mostly derelict, before you get to the top of the rise and go down the other side to Summer Hill, when a woman stopped me. I've been seeing her round a bit lately, perhaps she's a street person or a resident of one of the homes that sprinkle the area, I don't know. She looks Polynesian but could as well be Asian. Anyway.

Excuse me, sir, do you have the time? she said. I looked at my watch, angling my wrist to catch the dial in the ambient light. It's midnight! I said, somehow delighted to see that it was so. Oh, she said gravely. Twelve o'clock, on the dot. Afterwards, I had to look back to see if she was still there, walking away down the otherwise deserted street.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

an archangel slightly battered

He got in, with difficulty, into the back seat, on the Bent Street rank. I thought it was because of the slope or maybe I was too far from the curb: it was a time of chaos, rush hour, cabs sliding in and out of the traffic all over the place, horns sounding, deathwish pedestrians hurling themselves into the roadway. A gentle voice, a dishevelled suit, a vaguely East European look, a bit battered: Polish, probably. Castlereagh Street, unusually, was jammed up. We discussed the best way to get to Stanmore. I liked his attitude, it was without anxiety; instead of trying to stress me out, as so many fares do, he was actively calming me down. That's rare. At the corner of Liverpool Street, when I thought of turning right, he said softly: You can do that ... so I did. It wasn't until then that I took a good look at him and realised his right arm was sticking upright, at ninety degrees to the elbow, in a cast, one of those blue, modern, epoxy resin jobs. That's why he had such trouble getting in, I should have helped him. No, no ... he said. So I asked him how it happened and he said, a taxi hit him. He was on a motor scooter, in Redfern, the cab made a right turn in front of him, knocked him off onto the road, he broke his wrist. Three weeks ago now, most of the soft tissue damage had healed but he still needed to wear the cast. We chatted on down Parramatta Road and, in the course of the conversation, he mentioned another accident he'd had, this time on a push bike. How many accidents have you had? I asked, as we turned into Bridge Street. Six, he said thoughtfully. No, must be more like eight. Yes, about eight. I was incredulous. All on bikes? I said. Yes, he said. Push bikes and motor cycles. I looked in the rear view at his open, honest, slightly lugubrious face. And, when your arm's better, are you going back riding? He became almost animated. Yes, he said, of course. Why not? I could think of a few reasons, but didn't say them. When we'd stopped in Gladstone Street, and he was looking through all his many pockets for the cab charge docket he'd filled out earlier then mislaid, I told him I liked his attitude. He nodded, smiled sadly. Thank you, he said. It's all the accidents you see ... taught me ...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Two More Characters

Hospitality Girl

First job Monday arvo, off the radio, Leichhardt to Granville. I M2, get the word to start the meter, find the flat. No sign of life, I go and knock on the door. A voice calls from inside: Sorry, I didn't get text message, won't be long. I wait. She comes out eventually, young, plump, Chinese, dressed in pink. First thing she does is ask if I have a rubbish bag? She's cracked the seal on a bottle of cough mixture, which she drinks over the next five minutes or so. I ask if she's ill, she says no, this is like ... red wine. Sweet-natured, a bit scatty, chatty ... wants to get there quick, she's late for work, we banter back and forth about this, speed, traffic, time. Has a curious habit of timing the trip on her mobile phone but she's way out, I've been keeping an eye on my watch, we've been going far longer than she thinks. She's from the north but grew up in the south. Was studying medicine but gave it up for hospitality. As we stop-and-start along busy Parramatta Road she starts to sigh. Says she's carsick. That she has a headache. I suggest she open the window a little, she does. I show her the map, so that she can see how close we're getting. She's looking a little flushed now, a little bruised. Finally we get to the place and turn off. It's a very short street full of garages and warehouses and I'm wondering where on earth in this mess she works ... until we pull into #10 and I see the pink and blue neon lights burning in full daylight, the sign saying OPEN 24 HOURS. There's a brief, not acrimonious contretemps over the fare, I round it down to forty dollars and she hands of over two twenties, quicksmart. There's a guy loading a truck who leers at her as she passes, pausing at the industrial waste bin to throw out her empty bottle of cough mixture before disappearing inside.

Old Digger

Raised a stick for me in Philip Street and then limped, without hurry, across the road in front of the car. Going to Killara, had his own route, would show me. His wife was going blind, otherwise he would have stayed after the meeting for a few drinks. I'm slow to realise that it's the NSW Leagues Club I picked him up outside of, he was a first grade player before the war, on the wing for Balmain, and has spent the whole of the rest of his life working for the game. Been fifty times to NZ, been all over the world. Tells me about his daughter, died of cancer, all the places he took her in the last years when they knew it was hopeless. Walked over Sydney Harbour Bridge as kid when it opened, in 1932. At one point I start to say something about a book I'm reading but he cuts me off. Don't have any time for books, he says. I read 14 books on the ship coming back from the war and I haven't read another one since. That was enough for me. What kind of books were they? I ask. All kinds, he says, airily. Novels and that. I'm thinking that he must have been returning from Europe or North Africa but no, he was in New Guinea. Two and half years. Was at Wewak, East Sepik River province, where the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Shot a twenty-two foot python up there one day. Shows me with his hands how round it was. Spent one night sitting up to his neck in water, after a river flooded. Now he's telling me something about a right hand turn that he always takes, only you can't do it at rush hour, it's against the law. We come to the turn, just back from the Pacific Highway north of Chatswood, and there's no traffic approaching so I do it. He chortles at that, he's very happy, we're going the way he's gone for fifty years. We're friends for life, or as long as the ride lasts. You wouldn't read about it, he says. You wouldn't read about it.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

some characters

Sand Castle Girl

Picked her up on the Bondi Junction rank, tall, leggy, young, with an unlit rollie in her hand. She was from Rye on the Victorian south coast, in Sydney for a month with her father, their business was sand sculpture. Had just made her first visit to Bondi Beach, could not believe the way a thousand eyes checked her and her accessories out as she walked down the strand. A lovely mixture of wide-eyed innocence and all-but-unconscious sophistication. Gave her the black Bic lighter someone had left in the cab.

Archaeologist / Accountant

In Riley Street, going to Presbyterian Lady's College in Croydon for a Parent-Teacher evening. He was an uncle, his niece would be reviewing career options. Soft-voiced, understated, highly ironical, had trained as an archaeologist but ended up working as an accountant. Said he still didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, even though he was passing fifty. Just ... to stop working. Was he gay? Did he have children of his own? Hard to say ...

Red-haired Boy

On a street corner in Petersham. Going to the ABC building in Ultimo. The red hair was shading towards pink and certainly not natural. A radio producer, he did a talkback show that started at 10 pm. Handled all the technical aspects, screened callers, managed delays ... told me a joke: Advisor to Bush: Mr President, today's kill figures in Iraq are: twelve Americans, three British, one hundred and seventy Iraqis and one Brazilian. Bush's face puckers up. Long pause. How much is a Brazilian? he asks.

Chinese Car Hunters

In Pitt Street, City. Going to a bar in Chatswood. A young couple, about to get married. She was enamoured of cars and wondering which kind he would buy her? Nervous of her prospective mother-in-law. Totally materialistic in a completely unselfconscious way. English not so good, she must have grown up in China. He, monosyllabic at first, I thought perhaps he spoke it less well that she did. Not at all, he was Australian Chinese. Don't worry about my mum, he said.

Party Girls

Corner of Redfern Street. Two blondes in little black dresses, going to a party in the City, a bar next to the Hilton. Chatting about the peccadillos, and worse, of the stars. Their drug habits, their compromised immune systems, their high class despair. One said: I've brought my camera, so if Nicole Ritchie starts snorting coke, I'll photograph her.

Marrickville Pair

In King Street, Newtown, going to a block of flats in Marrickville. Vaguely gothish. A couple, not long together. She from Melbourne. He: This wedding ... in terms of style, how would you rate it? She: Zero. The wedding was in Brisbane; she'd been asked to speak at it. The bride a friend of hers, the groom doesn't like her. The bride visits her in Melbourne then spends the whole time fucking this other guy; the groom doesn't know but clearly suspects something, hence his dislike of this girl. I don't want to go, she said, I won't go. Clearly, she would.

Cardiac Technician

A radio job, Summer Hill to Camperdown. Just round the corner from where I live, a pretty, serious young Indian woman. Going to the RPA. You a nurse? I ask? No. Cardiac Technician, she replies. I just got home, now I have to go back. Heart attacks don't wait. Me: I couldn't do that. She: Somebody has to. She didn't want to talk any more after that, obviously preparing herself for the op. At the hospital, I pull up at Emergency while she goes in to get the cabcharge docket. A curious delay, given the urgency of proceedings. I leave her to her higher purpose.


He's standing at the bus stop outside Sydney Uni in City Road, his arm out. Big guy in a baseball cap. Two cabs in front of me both make to stop then swerve away at the last moment ... so I get him. He's Aborigine, that's why they wouldn't take him. Fucking wogs! he says as he gets in the front seat. Articulate and very angry. Not interested in anything I have to say, just wants to get his message across. Used to rob cabbies when he was young, for fun, but wouldn't do it now. Hates priests and judges. Despises those who treat him with prejudice, enjoys getting right in their faces. When we stop down a dark street in Balmain, he pulls out a sheaf of fifty dollar notes, pays the exact amount then slopes off up the hill through a park.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tap Dancing Round the World

There's a fellow who tap dances on a board at the corner of Park and George Streets, perhaps the busiest corner in town. Have never stopped to watch him but often glimpsed him as I drive by: he looks good and, so far as I can tell, dances superbly. Plays fine music. Always has a crowd. Sometimes a woman with him who looks after the music and the money. One day I saw him dancing with his board balanced on top of the small rectangular column, about a metre and a half high, where the electronics for the traffic lights are.

Last night I was idling third on the rank a block back from there, at the corner of Park and Pitt, when he knocked on my window and asked, very politely, if I would take him to Waterloo? He'd chosen me above the two cars in front because I was driving a wagon and he had all his gear with him. We put the board flat in the back, then he stowed his music machine - compact, wheeled - in the back seat and got in the front next to me.

I complimented him on his act. He thanked me. I said I'd seen him dancing on the utility box, he said he had to stop doing that because it affected the operation of the traffic lights. He was reserved, well-spoken, a black American. From San Francisco. I mentioned that I'd lived there once, we talked about different parts of the city. His neighbourhood was the Tenderloin and, no, the Tenderloin hadn't changed from when I was there. Was doing a world tour, would go to Japan next but, at the end of it, after two years away, he would return to UCSF and complete his degree. In political science. You make enough to buy air fares? I asked. You'd be surprised, he said.

He lived in a new, quite flash, apartment building near where Waterloo shades into Zetland. When he came to pay, he pulled from his pocket a sheaf of notes, all of them fifties - several hundred dollars. He found the fifteen dollars for the fare in amongst some notes of smaller denominations in another pocket. As I pulled his dance-board from the back, I asked him if it travelled with him or did he find a new one in each new place? He looked gnomic at the board, which I saw was modified, or customised in some way, metal eyes had been sunk into the ply.

I like this board, he said. I think I'll keep it with me for a while. Thank you, sir ...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Anzac Day

I don't like Anzac Day. Never have. It scares me, the violence inherent in the commemoration of war, the sentimentality that masks the violence. I remember in the early 1970s in Auckland there was a fashion amongst us for going to the Dawn Parade, dressed in our army surplus great coats - a sure provocation to the old soldiers who would certainly become enraged at what they saw as a calculated insult. And perhaps they were right.

I remember another Anzac Day, 1987, here in Sydney, at the Caledonian Hotel, where I lay awake all night listening to my enemies, two brothers, plotting, as I thought, to murder me. I could hear their voices echoing through the disused shaft of the old dumb waiter, that came all the way down from their barricaded hideout on the top floor to my basement room in the servant's quarters. I fled that place as soon as it was light, and never went back, or only to get my things.

So driving on Anzac Day felt like ... a risk. Nevertheless I needed the money and so decided to do it. The day was grey and wet, the streets gloomy and deserted. I took a man and his shopping home and then an aged Englishwoman, with her son and daughter-in-law, to the airport. She was going back to the Old Dart. In the City, all the ranks were full and none of them were moving, so I drove around until a tall fellow with a chest full of medals whistled for me in Castlereagh Street.

Going to Mosman. Well-liquored and quite pleased with himself. Had a wonderful time. Told me that the marches are getting bigger, not smaller, as the old diggers fade away: made up of Reservists, Territorials, Home Guard and the like, many of whom have never seen action but remain besotted by the military and all it entails. The romance of war. Couldn't find it in me to like this man but was polite enough to him. He too was flying to Europe the next day.

Not long after, back in the City, on the Park Street rank, I picked up a skinny fellow with more medals than his thin chest could hold. His head was poked forward on his neck and he had an improbably large nose. He said he'd had an amazing day and told me why: he'd been a regular soldier, had served two tours in Vietnam, and during the second was part of an ad hoc unit formed by a field commander to fight alongside the SAS in special operations. They drove light armour and were extremely successful - he apologised for using the phrase kill ratio but said it was current at the time and theirs was very high.

Well, after two months, the unit was disbanded and, subsequently, when members of it applied for war pensions and offered as support this part of their service record, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied that the unit had ever existed. So these guys had just embarked on a process of organising some proof that they had existed. They'd had a reunion that morning during which they'd met, and spoken to, an ABC journalist. One of their proofs was a strange meeting between this guy and his brother, a conscript, who'd been at an artillery base in Vietnam when the lost patrol, the light armour unit, rolled in at 3 am. That kind of thing, he said, can't be faked.

I dropped him off in Rose Bay and answered a radio call to the Eastern Suburb's Rugby Club, where the two-up game had ended, the buffet was trashed, everyone was going home. Took two blokes up to the Four in Hand in Paddington, where two big young woggie fellows got in. Expensively dressed and unremittingly foul-mouthed, indeed abusive, about the woman who was joining them. Of course I've heard blokes go on like this before but they generally stop once the woman appears ... not these guys.

She, a blonde, came pirouetting across the road to the cab and they started in on her immediately in a way that was brutal, shocking, vile. And she took it! Even gave a little bit back but couldn't really compete. They had met that afternoon at the Randwick races; she had (her words) gatecrashed their party. That must have been why she was beholden to them; why they didn't care. What is a 'spit roast'? I almost don't want to know.

The worst thing about rides like this is the punters generally try to enlist your support: the blokes wanted me to validate their stream of insult and innuendo, the woman wanted me to defend her. Not long before we pulled up at King Street Wharf she asked, in a tiny, little girl voice, if they wanted her to go? There was the merest pause then they both said Nah, you fuck, you can stay ...

Then there was a couple having a fight, then some gross young men who, despite the protests of the woman they were with, whose father was cooking for them, insisted on stopping for kebabs on the way to the barbie ... had to pick their mess off the seats and the floor afterwards, wondering why I didn't just leave them at the kebab shop ... didn't go near The Rocks again, nor any pubs, but you see things anyway:

Four or five sailors fanning out into four or five empty cabs stopped in traffic outside the cinemas on George Street just as a violent brawl breaks out. A cop car pulls up opposite, two female cops run through the traffic and hurl themselves into the melee, which rolls into the street ...

At the other end of George Street, later, another sailor collapsed in a gutter while another woman cop bends over him, trying to haul him upright. In a clinch, they stagger then fall together into the street ...

I'm taking a young woman, starry-eyed with the romance of war, from Summer Hill to Surry Hills when we stop at the lights outside The Rose in Cleveland Street. There are three people swaying there, too drunk to know the cab's engaged, too drunk to realise I've only stopped because the lights are red. They begin to lurch towards the car, I roll the passenger side window down to tell them it's not on, then one of them disappears, falling onto the road and, who knows, under the wheels of the car?

Her friends, a man and a woman, scarcely less drunk than she is, drag her upright and get her back onto the footpath. For some reason they have both her arms raised in the air and appear to be lifting her skywards. Owww! she screams, you're hurting me! as the lights go green and I accelerate away. There, about two blocks on, I see two people recklessly riding shopping trolleys down the footpath, out of control, likely to hurtle into the roadway at any moment ...

Much later, at the end of my shift, I've just dropped off at the airport and am heading back to base through Erskineville when I'm hailed outside the Kurrajong Hotel. They're going my way so I take them, to Annandale. A young couple, drunk, but not offensively so. How's your Anzac Day? the boy asks. I've escaped with flesh wounds, I reply. He giggles. I'm maimed, he says, Fucken' maimed. There's a pause. Anzac Day's supposed to be about all these things, he says. But it's really just about drinking. Drinkin' fucken' alcohol. 'S'a good thing too ...

Sunday, April 22, 2007

In Serendip

Sometimes driving a cab can feel like living as a tick on the body corporate, the way some journalists live on the body politic ... when you've engorged enough cash / blood / venom you drop off and go home until next time. But, not always. The other night I was driving up towards the Coca Cola sign at Kings Cross with a taciturn Englishman in the cab when the radio offered me a job: Darlinghurst to Milsons Point. It was between six and seven in the evening and the bridge, I knew, was jammed because of an accident or a breakdown in the tunnel earlier. I'd spent the last hour and a half trying to get away from the gridlock at the north end of town so it was clearly counter-productive to accept a job like this. Except: the job was in Womerah Lane and I used to live in Womerah Lane. I hit the #2 button, accepting, and was then astonished and delighted to see that the street number was 71 ... my old house! She was a very nice young woman - if being in your thirties is still young, which I think it is - and we chatted happily for the duration of what turned out to be a far longer ride than it would usually be, going over the bridge to Luna Park. Where she was attending a work function. I won't go into the detail of the conversation, beyond saying how fascinated I was to learn what has happened to that house and the neighbourhood since I left it (in 1995) and how intrigued she seemed to be to learn something of the back story of where she and her husband and daughter now live. It reminded me of what I love about this city, and even, sometimes, about this job: the tangled, genial, half buried but always excavatable sense of community that exists here. And the way that community is both intensely contemporary and resonantly historic.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Dream Taxi

He was standing on an erk in Erko, a long hair, with pony tail, waving, not frantically, rather amused that, dreaming, I hadn't seen him. He climbed in the front seat and said if I hadn't stopped he would have phoned for me. Wanted to go to Chelmsford. To pick up a mobile home. Chelmsford? I said. Yeah, he replied. A long ride. I knew you’d be pleased. They were digging up Wilson Street, one side of the road only, so I had to go carefully through there. Where in hell was Chelmsford? Way out west? In London? On some other planet than ours? There was too much blue on the map, as if it segued from Horsham into the Fens. The sky darkening by the minute and water rising. We were lost in Darlington, lost in Golden Grove, without a destination. Locomotive Street flashed up on the computer screen but that was no help. Something was tugging at a forgotten corner of my mind. Deep sleep therapy. A man called Hart, with complications after eyelid surgery, pumped full of barbiturates by Dr. Herron and kept comatose for two weeks. He was never the same again but at least he was alive to work his griefs, for thirty years, inconsequentially, through the courts. Mr Hart had now to sue Cashman and Partners, solicitors, for negligence. They cited a precedent that upheld advocates’ immunity from such charges and extended said immunity to the preparations for a court case by solicitors. They had never put medical evidence of Mr Hart's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before the court. Why did this long hair want to go there, I wondered? It was in Pennant Hills, 2 The Crescent. Why? When I get my mobile home, the man was saying, I'll be able to sleep anywhere. Imagine my dreams! At Lake Mungo. In the shadow of The Olgas. In a red gorge of the Bungle Bungles. I was feeling grim now, it was a long way to Pennant Hills, it was getting darker by the minute and I still wasn't sure we weren't in London. Dr. Heron, I said, dredging the name out of the murk. You are Dr. Heron? No, he said, looking troubled. No, no, not at all. My name is Heart. My relief was indescribable. I settled back into the seat. Oh, well, that's alright then, I said. I'll take you to Horsham Downs. The taxi accelerated through the rising waters, throwing up sheets of silver spray. Reflections in the slick wet streets made garish cathedrals of light. Underground, all over the City, sleepers awoke.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Rag Doll

One day last week as I was driving down the hill into Double Bay, heading west, I saw spreadeagled, face down on the road, a rag doll. It was tall with striped pants and orange hair. Arms out either side. I swerved to avoid running over it but you could see that plenty of other drivers had not. How did it end up there? Whose familiar was it? Did some child drop it crossing the road or did it fly out a car window? Did someone throw it from the balcony of one of the tall apartment buildings flanking the street? Did it fall from space?

It revived or perhaps recalled my greatest fear while I drive: that I might hit a pedestrian. Don't really worry about hitting, or being hit by, other cars even though, on any night, you might have half a dozen narrow escapes. Probably that's something to do with the metal skin you're all encased in. Whereas pedestrians ... it's the thought of metal hitting unprotected flesh, allied with the fact that pedestrian behaviour is becoming more and more casual, to the point where people now commonly step out into the road at any old time, even when the trafiic is flowing and the lights are against them.

Last week my nightmare almost came true. I'd picked up a fellow in the City and taken him out to the University of NSW for his daughter's graduation. She'd studied Chemical Egineering and was already working out north of Mt Isa. He was a former member of the board of the Film Finance Corporation, an interesting man who found out, I realised as I drove away, much more about me than I did about him. It was about 6.30, before daylight saving had ended. I was coming down High Street towards Anzac Parade, with the setting sun directly ahead of me. The combination of low light, downhill trajectory and dust on the windscreen made visibility almost nil. Like driving into a golden haze, a swarm of dusty light.

I was probably driving too fast, as I tend to do when I'm thinking about other things. Suddenly I saw, out of the haze, a young woman stepping in front of the car. Hadn't even seen the pedestrian crossing she was using; and she, with her ipod on, certainly hadn't seen me. In fact, I don't think she ever did really see me. I slammed on the anchors, praying the car would stop before sending her plumpness flying into meat. It did, just. And she carried on, oblivious. As I did, a bit shaken, a bit trembly, and much slower. For the rest of the shift I kept getting flashbacks: both her form appearing out of the haze and then, overlaid or perhaps immediately sequential, the rag doll spreadeagled face down on New South Head Road.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Some nights are like that, they just whizz by. First ride, a taciturn rich kid going home to Mosman, actually Beauty Point, or was it Quaker's Hat? From nearby Central Ave, another laconic rich kid, off to Brookvale to pick up his - or more likely his parent's - car. On the way back, at Spit Junction, a pregnant Asian woman, going to the QVB. Whew, that's the first hour, about 70 bucks worth. Lawyer's rates! Well, not quite. At the rank in Park Street the Taxi Council guy tells me how a woman, earlier in the day, tried to get cab 666 to take her to Newcastle. For nothing ... a lawyer clutching two fat ring binders gets in and asks to go to Lane Cove. He's spent a dreary afternoon at the Equal Opportunity Tribunal representing someone in an apartment building dispute. I tell him that the serial complainer in this building has just given her notice, to everyone's relief, and we chat happily on all the way there. Cab 1660, which I'm driving, shows vacant even when engaged, so you're offered a lot of radio jobs. I take one from Lane Cove to the City and am just about to look in my directory for Apollo Street when someone climbs into the cab. He's going to Wolloomooloo. The Ford dealership in Riley Street. I abandon the job from Freedom Furniture and take him there. Back up to the rank at Chifley Square, it's moving, a businessman going to the Airport and thence to Melbourne with property deals, it sounds like, under his belt. Airport jobs are tricky, especially this time of day, you earn $25-30 but it can take half an hour there, another half hour back to town, ruining your hourly rate. Never mind, ten minutes before six I get hailed at the corner of Pitt and Park by an English chap who quips, when I ask him which way he wants to go to St Leonards, via London. He's a scream, tells me stories about growing up there with West Indian kids in, must be, the 60s? Something weird is going on in North Sydney, there are people hailing cabs everywhere. Turns out the trains have failed, there's one stuck on the line north of Wynyard, another just south of Milsons Point, some problem with the electrics, the Bridge is out, chaos about to ensue. A young Chinese couple going to, where else, Chinatown. She's in a hurry, for a doctor's appointment, but the Bridge is jammed. They are very funny, trying to guess where I come from: South Africa? Ireland? Singapore? Tasmania? Gaul? They don't get it and I have to tell them. Turns out he was born in Peru, or rather, his father was. They're sweet and I find myself wondering if she's pregnant and hoping so ... George Street is gridlocked but a young woman crossing through the stopped traffic hops in the cab and asks to go to Concord. This is brilliant, it means I can get out of town, perhaps until the madness is over. From Concord, a fare to Burwood, from Burwood to Strathfield, Strathfield to Burwood, all little rides but no waiting and no traffic jams. I can't believe the din the birds are making as they roost in the plane trees outside Strathfield Station and then I'm astonished to find they are not, as I thought, starlings, but rainbow lorikeets ... hundreds of them. In Burwood Road another young Chinese couple, with shopping, hail me and want to go to Parramatta. They have very poor English and show me the address written on the lighted blue screen of a mobile phone. That's great, I think, further west, even if I do have to go back empty. But, just coming into Church Street, the radio offers me a fare to Waterloo. Waterloo! Fifty bucks, just like that, to go where I'm going anyway. I'm sort of pale with anxiety as I negotiate the one way street system looking for 2 - 12 Macquarie, jobs like this get snapped up real quick by rogue drivers but no, he's there, Simon, a Korean boy who works for AMP. Wants to go via UTS in Broadway to pick up his girlfriend. Very friendly, with a stoved in face and a hectic laugh. Lived in Equador when he was young and tells me about trout fishing in a lake in the crater of an old volcano. The air so thin they couldn't get their rice to boil right. The girlfriend is studying to be a solicitor, she's in the library with her law books, a smiling woman with a big head, very curious pair, these two. In both looks and attitude. It's sixty bucks by the time I let them go, even though I forget to add on the toll money for the M2. I could go home now, but I don't, I drive into town to see what's happening, which is nothing much. Two drunk guys who work in advertising climb in the cab just when I'm thinking of parking and having a pee in the Criterion. They think they're funny but they're not, as I make clear, so they stop trying and return to planning a party they're going to have. He's socially adept, he won't want to come to a party given by his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend, one says, he won't want to meet the guy who's pounding her now ... let them off in Shirley Road in Crows Nest and wonder if I should make a break across the Bridge for home now, but decide instead to take one more fare. George Street, a blond, young, she's going to Rozelle. Afterwards I mosey down to Norton Street in Leichhardt, just in case I find someone going west like I am. Hailed by a woman and two men, they say ... Parramatta. That's another forty bucks I hadn't counted on even if, and I do, I come back empty, it doesn't matter ... my wallet's full. And it's only half past ten. And the weekend.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Killing a Chinaman

The other day I did what I suspect a lot of cabbies do, but I never have before. Was driving up College Street, past St Mary's Cathedral, when the radio offered me a job: Art Gallery of NSW to Darling Point. Nah, I thought. Fifteen bucks? Nah. I hit reject. Then, seconds later, thought: Well, why not? I'm here, they're there, there' s no other cabs going down Art Gallery Road, maybe I should. So I did. They were three old ones, two women and a man. Probably had been viewing the Archibald, as many individuals and organisations, surprisingly and old-fashionably, do. We were back on College Street, heading towards William, when the old gent said: Look at all those red lights. You must have killed a Chinaman. Somehow, in the instant, the thought of the Chinese, the image of all those reds, fused. Is that specific to red lights, or just generally about bad luck? I asked. Bad luck, he said. You must have killed a Chinaman. Heh, heh, heh. Well, I said. I haven't killed anyone. I'd remember. Heh, heh, heh, the old gent chuckled. I checked it out with a couple of fares later in the evening. One, a fellow from Adelaide I took to the Airport, said he knew it well but didn't use it so much any more, because of political correctness. He told me the meaning of Bush Baptist (someone who goes bush on Sundays, while everyone else goes to church) and also a long complicated story about Twaddle having a meaning to do with chemical detritus. Still haven't sorted that one out. The other was a Pom I took to Woollahra. O my goodness me, he said. Well, well. No, I haven't heard that one before. Dearie me. Killing a Chinaman, eh? That's too bad.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ghosts of Sunning Hill Farm

Yasmar is Ramsay backwards. It is, the guide says, a classic Georgian townhouse. Intact, though literally crumbling, in its original gardens. The wings where croquet and tennis were played excised to make a children's prison. When at last we are allowed to enter, hairnets on our heads under hard hats, the little girl who ran so cheerfully around outside begins to cry and cannot be consoled. It is the sadness in the air, it's the ghosts—not those of Ensign Bayley or Simeon Lord, nor the Ramsays and Learmouths, nor even Albert Edward Grace of Grace Bros. and his wife Selina, called Gypsy—but the ghosts of the young perpetrators, excised from their quite possibly dysfunctional families and incarcerated here after the war. They creep out of the walls like damp, they hang from the architraves, they linger in the pissy smell rising from the fireplaces with their elegant, Edwardian, wooden surrounds. They are thick in the bathrooms out back where the stables were, the girls' decorated with absurd pink and yellow sixties flowers, the boys' painted a vile orange. Thick as the webs of orb spiders in the weedy kitchen garden. The house at once so grand and so small, double doors opening in the hallway entrance to make a diminutive ballroom. Here the Court Sessions were held, here the children were condemned to whatever period of incarceration was to be theirs in the unseen, 1980s cell blocks behind the brick walls either side of the garden with its teardrop rose garden and rare exotics. Beautiful glass, asymmetric, bizarre, a mid-Victorian chivalrous fantasy out of Burne-Jones perhaps. As if Haberfield were the demesne of some knight errant who would right all future wrongs. Where did they sleep? The old ones, I mean, the house seems to consist only of living rooms. Greek revival, the hand-out says. 1856. Sandstone blocks, flagstone verandas with cast-iron posts, a Welsh slate roof. At the top of the hill, where my taxi base is now, stood Dobroyde House, the original Ramsay seat. They were big in the Linnean Society. They supported the Australian Museum, founded plant nurseries for the Garden Suburb. They're all buried in the family plot at St David's churchyard over in Dalhousie Street. Out front, in the heat and bustle of Parramatta Road at midday on a Saturday, you can see how the gardens were laid out, after the style of Queen Victoria's designer Louden, so as to hide the long, low, house from view. Now there are hurricane fences to confine those institutional ghosts, wailing still and forever in the bright sticky air as I mumble off down the hill towards Bland Street.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Whalan was an explorer too ...

If there is a god of cab-drivers - & despite my alleged secular humanism, I can't help but think there is - it's Hermes. Who is also, appositely, god of thieves. And much else: He was seen to be manifest in any kind of interchange, transfer, transgression, transcendence, transition, transit or traversal, all of which involve some form of crossing in some sense. This explains his connection with transitions in one’s fortune - with the interchanges of goods, words and information involved in trade, interpretation, oration, writing - with the way in which the wind may transfer objects from one place to another, and with the transition to the afterlife. It's a responsibility, I guess, but the insouciance of the god is an aid here, you can always drive off in search of the next soul wanting to be transmigrated. Sometimes I can feel the wings on my heels, or rather, the buds of them pushing against the leather uppers of my shoes; but other times I have feet of clay. These things worry me probably more than they should but, hey, it's confession time: last week I picked up a gay man from Melbourne at a hotel in North Ryde and took him to Annandale. He was a nice fellow, a bit detached, a bit abstracted, but good company and we chatted amiably all the way to ... well, he said Nelson and it wasn't until I'd dropped him off and was racing away down the street that I realised I'd left him in ... Trafalgar. It was only a block west of where he should have been & he had the number of his friends to call, but I still felt really bad. Like I should have gone back. And told him. And didn't. Last night I did something worse, I picked up two kids on Parramatta Road who were going to the Wentworth Hotel in Strathfield. The image of that pub floated before my mind, I said yeah, sure, I know where it is ... and off we went. The way young kids (I mean late teens, early twenties) talk these days is like a foreign language to me, they don't move their lips much, so I only understood about a quarter of what they were saying. One was a sporting star, he'd been to a tournament in Paris, tennis I think. Why they were going to a dreary pub in Strath I couldn't work out but took them there anyway. Looks dead as, doesn't it? said the sport's star in the front as I pulled up outside. You sure this is the Wentworth? I peered out, looking for the name I'd seen so many times from the train window. Couldn't find it. Yeah, I said, swiping the kid's debit card and relieving him of twenty odd dollars. See ya. It was as I drove away that I saw in my mind's eye the sign I couldn't find: Whalan's Hotel. Oh, shit. Taken them to the wrong place. Their faces wore the same dubious yet oddly docile look of the gay man's outside the house in Trafalgar Street. If the cab driver says so, it must be ... if Hermes says ... did I go back? And tell them that, not only had I taken them to the wrong place but didn't have a clue where the right one was? Like shit I did. I sped off to Parramatta Road and scooped up two extremely drunk Irishmen - only understood 1/16th of what they said - and took them to the City. For a discount. That was guilt, I suppose. Four dollars worth of guilt. Later, checking my directory, I found there's a Wentworth Hotel, probably fairly smart, in Homebush, a couple of suburbs past Strathfield. Perhaps that's where the kids were headed. Perhaps they made it ... god only knows.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


There was a huddle of, oh, about twenty people on the rank at Chifley Square, with the wind blowing in intermittent hard gusts and sudden showers skeltering down. I pulled in, the bloke at the head of the queue got in the back of the cab and said: Balmain. I paused, looking at that disconsolate group. Wonder if there's anyone else going to Balmain? I said. Don't care, he replied. Later I looked at his cab charge docket. He worked in the Premier's Department of the NSW government.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


So I'd just dropped off the second of two Russian women who'd been in town shopping, at Vaucluse, & was hanging off the end of the Bondi Junction rank, when a young fellow bent into the window & asked if I could take him? Course you're meant to direct these kind of fares to the head of the rank but nobody ever does unless it's someone just going around the corner ... & this fellow was going to the airport. He was from Armidale. Down for the day to see a specialist. About Workcover, Accident Compensation, whatever it's called. I've had a few of these, & their stories are always interesting, so I asked him what kind of work he did? Mental Health carer, he said. How do you get injured doing that? I asked. You get the same kind of head sickness as the head cases you look after, he said. And so unfolded his tale of woe. It began a few years ago with a patient who suicided. He was very close to this man, had cut him down twice, nursed him back after an attempt to blow his head off with a gun ... he'd seemed alright & then he'd heard his ex-girlfriend had found a new lover. Sat up all night drinking then did it. Now, over this last summer, he'd been afflicted with other patients blackmailing him, threatening to do the same if he went on holidays. One girl, after he returned from the holiday he did take, had in fact slashed herself, but not fatally. But what had really pushed him over the edge was the break-up of his own relationship. He felt there was something odd going on between his girlfriend and her uncle and, as he said, pushed her & pushed & pushed her until she confessed she'd been in a sexual relationship with him for the past five years. He'd said it was in the past & the person he loved was her, now, but she wasn't able to end it. She had left him. Who's the uncle? I asked. A sixty-two year old barrister, he said. Who had been grooming her since she was a child. Has a history of this kind of involvement. It had compromised his, the barrister's, relationship with both his sister and his daughter, though it wasn't clear if these had become sexual liaisons as well. This man is smart, & operates within the law, for instance waiting until his niece was of age before seducing her. As he was talking, he several times swept the dashboard top clean of dust with his hands. Sometimes he rubbed his face. He was telling me all the things he'd told the psychiatrist he'd just seen, but I had the feeling that I was more sympathetic than the shrink had been. He didn't know if he was going to get the time & money he needed or not. When I asked him if he was to return to nursing when he was well gain, he laughed. No way, he said. I'm going back farming. There was a distinction he made that interested me: between people he called Behaviourals & those with a genuine mental illness. The former are fucked up / spoiled / abused / neglected ... but not mentally ill. Highly manipulative. They were, by the sound of it, the reason why he was getting out. As we pulled up to the Terminal he told me some good news, about his sister's baby girl, two days old, that he'd seen on this trip to Sydney. Hope you're gonna be OK, I said, when he got out. He cracked a smile. Course I will, he said. Shit happens, right? You get over it. Thanks, mate ...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

je ne sais quoi

Yesterday afternoon, about 3.15, at the bus shelters in Cremorne, just before you go onto the Bridge, I picked up two women. They were going to the City, to Goldfields House in George Street. As we barrelled down towards the Coat Hanger, I was overcome by an acute nostalgia, so intense I felt like weeping, or perhaps shouting out loud. One of the women in the back seat was wearing the same perfume that Julie Till used to wear, a scent I don't recall noticing even once since the last time I went out with Julie. Huntly, circa 1967. We were both in the 5th form, hence, fifteen. Julie was in the Commercial stream and I in the Academic, so we were not class mates. Can't remember now how we got together. She was gorgeous and I was head over heels with her. We only went out a few times, to dances to which her father would bring her in his car and then pick her up again afterwards. I don't think we ever kissed. I have two photos of us together, one, rather formal, from a school dance at Huntly College and another from a dance we went to at the Huntly Leagues club one Saturday night. In this pic we are leaning together with our heads resting against each other, smiling like young lovers do. I think it was after that dance that I ended up (how?) with a tiny white lace handkerchief of hers, redolent, for months afterwards, of that elusive perfume. Our affair ended strangely. It's a small town story that I never got the full gist of, but here's what I know. I'd arrived at Huntly College halfway through the year previous, and in my fourth form class was a boy called Peter Mildenhall. He was short, tubby, with a bullet head, a farmer's or a miner's son, and very proud of his position as top of the class. Somehow, without ever really wanting to, I sparked his enmity towards me. It might have been because I was the Headmaster's son; it might have been because I was good at English and Maths and challenged his position. Anyway, he took against me. Somewhere out his way, west of the town, lived another guy, Glenn Hugill. He was older than us, a second year fifth at the time of which I write, our fifth form year. Glenn was big and dumb and a bit scary in the way of big dumb guys. He and Peter teamed up. Peter had a small blue Ford Prefect that he used to drive around in; I, most nights if I wanted it, used my mother's red and white Hillman Imp. Around the time Julie and me were going out, I started noticing that, whenever I went anywhere in the car at night, Peter Mildenhall's blue Ford Prefect would unfailingly appear in the rearview mirror. Peter driving, Glenn in the front seat next to him. They must have had me staked out; they followed me everywhere. It was weird, because they never said anything, never did anything, never referred to their game at school or any other time. Likewise, I never I told anyone about this. But it was sinister. And alarming. At some point - and I can't remember how I learned this - I was given the information that Julie Till and Glenn Hugill were cousins. And it was at this time, without any explanation whatsoever, that Julie stopped being my girlfriend. She just ... stopped. Leaving me heartsick and with only those two photos and that tiny embroidered handkerchief with its trace of perfume which gradually, over the months, faded. I never knew what it was called; I almost asked the women yesterday; but in the end ... didn't. Julie, I heard much later, got a job in Hamilton as a secretary. She would have married and probably has children. She was a farmer's daughter from out Te Kauwhata way. Auburn hair that she wore short. Plump. Very white teeth. Lovely skin, quite dark for a Pakeha. Brown eyes. A touch of Spanish or Italian perhaps. We never had that much to say to each other but for some reason danced beautifully together. To the Sapphires, who later, after the Beach Boys got big in Huntly, changed their name to the Surfires. It's peculiar now to think that I may never know the name of that perfume ...