Wednesday, August 26, 2009

sick sick

If you hang around the Bondi Junction rank, as I do, you run the risk of picking up people who are so old and ill they're almost a medical emergency in themselves - albeit one that only wants to go home. One afternoon last week I come around the corner to find the rank - unbelievable! - empty but as I roar up to the front my heart sinks. There's a young woman wearing the uniform of a shop assistant (chemist, probably) standing there supporting an old one with white hair and a stick. Well, nothing for it but to be nice. I lean over and open the door, take the walking stick, while the chemist shop girl eases the old girl into her seat. Can you take her? she asks anxiously, her eyes searching mine. She's got money. I realise she's probably done this before and at least part of the relief of her anxiety involves successfully off-loading the problem onto someone else. Yes, I say. Of course. She hands me an address scrawled on a piece of paper. This is where she's going. I glance at it - Bondi. Not far. Can she talk? I ask, but the chemist shop girl is already closing the door. We're just through the lights when she shows that she can. I feel strange, she quavers. There's something wrong with me. I'm so cold. She has vivid blue eyes and, when she lays one hand upon mine, which is resting on the gearstick, it is as cold as ice. Where are you from? she goes on. Will you take me home? I have money. I tell her yes, I will, and where I'm from and then ask her the same question. Sweden, she replies, with a slight drawing up of her body and some pride in her voice; and I see she would once have been a beauty of that imperious Nordic kind. Then the quaver returns: There's something wrong with me ... and so it goes until, as we near her place, somehow her incapacity recedes and she shows herself quite capable of giving precise directions. Once outside the block of units where she lives (alone, she has told me several times) her helplessness returns and grows. She cannot pay but simply hands me her purse, which has about $80.00 in it. I resist temptation and carefully take out a 20 and put back a 5 - it's a 15 buck ride. Evidently she cannot now walk, will not take her stick, but grasps my hands with both of hers and insists I take her up to her flat. This is just what I don't want to happen but ... well ... I guide her to the fence and install her there while I park, turn off the motor, lock the car. We stumble sideways, inchwise, up the path to her entrance and then I see there is a security door. And she can't find her key. I'm not a patient person at the best of times and now I start to lose it. I ring the other bells, 1, 2, 3 until someone answers, and begin to explain the situation. Suddenly I hear this completely different voice, harsh and authoritative, behind me: I don't need help from anybody! The kind neighbour buzzes open the door at the same moment as Greta Garbo finds her key. I can tell from the look on her face that she knows she's made a tactical error and that I will never take her up to her apartment now; but she makes one more attempt to wheedle me inside. When that fails she draws herself up again proudly and, without deigning to use her stick at all, walks off up the hallway towards the lift, or maybe even the stairs.

Increasingly though I've taken to avoiding that rank in favour of the one outside the Tea Gardens Hotel just up the street on the same side. For some reason you wait a shorter time there and also pick up a different kind of fare - less of the shoppers taking their supermarket bags down to Bondi or Tamarama, more of the day trippers returning to homes in distant suburbs. She's one of those, a dignified old woman, beautiful, with tinted glasses perched on a great hooked nose, dark skin and a surprisingly intimate manner. I'm going to Ramsgate, she says. Do you know where that is? I do, but I'm less certain of the way when she says: Can we go by the sea? I want to look at the sea. This plea, for that is what it is, is delivered with a shrug and a certain air of - what? Insouciance? She doesn't think I'll know the way and she can't remember it herself. But her desire to see the sea is a constant and recurs all the long journey until at last we are on The Grand Parade at Brighton Le Sands and the flat blue waters of Botany Bay recede from us into the east. Then she looks out and falls silent. She is Armenian, with Romanian and German forebears on her mother's side; but French speaking and from Egypt, where she lived until we got fed up with the wars and came here. Perhaps it was a mistake. Her children are all grown up; her husband had a bad car accident two years ago and lost a leg, necessitating a move to the house where they live, not by the sea, which she clearly does not like. And now she herself is, as she puts it, not just sick but sick sick; on her way back from visiting one of her doctors: I have many doctors, you see. There is something about her, in her dignity and her beauty and her elegant forbearance, that makes me want to weep; and this feeling grows as we carry on talking about this and that, driving through clotted traffic towards a great bloody sunset over the western plains. She soon picks up that I write and extracts from me my name, which she repeats several times, filing it away in her memory. When I say there might have been Spanish blood on my father's side, because he was dark in that Cornish way, she says that the true Spanish were blond haired and blue eyed and the darkness came from the Moors. Who had certainly visited Ireland and perhaps Cornwall too. And that the original Turks were like that also, until the Arab conquests. And, further, that there was peace between the three religions of the East (she doesn't count Buddhism or any of those, she means Jews, Christians and Muslims) until the influx of European and especially German Jews, with their snobbism, changed everything. They disliked the real Jews, you know, she says. They wouldn't even say they were Jews. They called them Arabs. Plus this: religion is a private thing, it is between you and whoever you think god is. We leave the sea at Ramsgate Beach and she directs me through a maze of apartment buildings back of the strand, then behind a sports ground to a row of nouveau brick houses facing west towards a dark line of she-oaks and paperbark trees - probably a remnant of the lagoon that would once have stood here. You see, she says resignedly, while we reverse back towards a completely undistinguished single story brick bungalow surrounded with bare concrete that she didn't recognise the first time we passed. As she pays me (cash, $56.00) and I write her a receipt, I notice a ring on her right hand with a large purple-red stone, and remark upon it. She looks briefly at it: It's nothing special, she says. A tourmaline. But I like it. I leave her standing precariously, leaning on her stick, looking at that graceless, anonymous house as if at her own tomb.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ping and the Ponce

On Monday arvo Peter, the day driver, is late ... I hate this but am trying to control my tendency towards impatience and irritation. When he finally turns up - he's been shopping - I skip the usual leisurely cruise down to Bondi to look at the sea and go instead straight up the Junction. Just before pulling round the corner and onto the rank I see a dapper chap there lighting up a cigarette. He raises his hand and walks quickly towards me, taking two or three deep drags on his fag then throwing it down and climbing in the front. Chinatown, he says and takes out his mobile phone. He's maybe 60, grey-haired, a small, cocky fellow wearing immaculate clothes of an old-fashioned kind: a pink striped shirt, a waistcoat, grey trousers, a sports jacket, leather shoes. A ponce from another era. He has the wheeze of an incipient emphysemic as he rasps into the phone: Get me Ping. Various instructions to do with banking matters follow, delivered in a brusque, even imperious tone. Then he hangs up and calls a mate. You'll never guess who I just saw ... he begins. Your old boss! The story that ensues is one of marital wreck following upon a recently contracted liaison. He built her a mansion in Little Bay but now that everything has gone to hell it's all up for grabs. The pre-nupt. apparently won't stand up in court and anyway, matters soured long before: the day after the wedding she said to him that she was going to have his balls for breakfast. All this is relayed with reeking schadenfreude; then at the end he says: Oh, and by the way, he's still looking to buy a pub. Yeah, 800 ... He hangs up from his mate and calls Ping again to say give that bloke two grand in cash if he's still worried about the cheque clearing. She must have somehow demurred because what follows is a truly vicious explosion of phone rage: I don't fucking know, I'm stuck in fucking traffic, could be half an hour, could be five fucking minutes ... We are not stuck in traffic and never have been; it's a smooth run the whole way. He calms down a bit, repeats the instruction about the two grand then cuts the connection. I let him out on the corner of Sussex and Goulburn, opposite the Star Hotel, and while waiting for the lights to change, watch to see which way he goes ... down Goulburn, across the road, and into that vaguely pagoda shaped stumpy high rise on the corner of Dixon. A little strutting cockerel of man, some kind of shady character, with his money in gambling perhaps, or prostitution, or even, though I think this unlikely, drugs. As for Ping, I have no idea.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009


... so Monday was a cruise: I'd accumulated exactly $110.00 worth of dockets, credit card receipts etc., meaning that the shift cost me only the price of a tank of gas ($15.00) and I could keep the rest of the takings for myself. I went out hoping to get as many cash fares as I could and that's how it worked out ... only one person all night paid with a card. It is of course not possible absolutely to determine something like this, but if you avoid the ranks at the big end of town and don't stop for anyone wearing a suit, well, maybe. About 9 pm there's always a lull, I'm up the Junction with nothing going on when suddenly I remember there's a game on at the Sydney Football Stadium that might be ending right about now. Off I scoot down Moore Park Road and the timing's perfect, they're all just starting to spill from the gates. I get hailed immediately and, luck happens, the two blokes are, respectively, a Manly and a Wests Tigers fan. A Fibro and a Silvertail. Manly gets in the front, looking gloomy, and Wests (chipper) in the back; it went 19-18 to the Tigers. Don't look so surprised ... Wests in the back chides me when I react - I live in Summer Hill, which is more or less heartland Wests, but have a soft spot for Manly and thought the game would probably go their way. Not that I really care, it's just an interest of mine. Anyhow. These two blokes are going over the northside, one to Neutral Bay, the other to Manly, and they're like a well-rehearsed comedy routine, with Manly the straight guy and Wests the joker. Are you allowed to wear beanies on the North Shore? he asks. No. What about a bloke in a Wests Tigers jersey (he is) that has a missing tooth (he does)? Are they gonna beat up on me? Yes ... They're so dry that it's amusing for a while in a low key sort of way but soon gets tiresome and I don't really mind when they decide they'll both hop out at The Oaks on Military Road to have a few more drinks. I think I'll call it a night now, but as I'm steaming up Oxford Street intending to take a right into Flinders and on to Randwick to fill up with gas, I get hailed by a fellow outside the Oxford Hotel on the corner there. A ride's a ride and he isn't wearing a suit so I pull over. He's a tall, dishevelled looking bloke with facial hair, quite young, and as he folds himself into the front seat says he wants to go to Double Bay. I see that he's got an i-phone or a palm pilot, maybe a Blackberry, in his hand but don't think any more about it until I hear him say: You're angry with me, aren't you? I nearly jump out of my seat and am about to deny it when I realise he's actually talking into his phone, which is jammed to his other ear, the one I can't see. Then he starts making hand signals at me, that I don't understand, until I figure out that he's telling lies to his wife and doesn't want me to contradict him ... not that I would or could but it's something to do with how soon he'll be home and where we are so, at a very long stretch, that might involve me somehow. Naturally I eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation and am rewarded by hearing him tell her that a guy the Agency (advertising I think) hired only the other day has just been fired because, get this, he has a history OE of stalking super models and the like, people whom he's supposed to be acting for, there are court cases heading his way, they can't have someone like him on board ... so far so good, he gets off the phone eventually and explains again about the lies, he told her we were already in Double Bay when we're hardly out of Rushcutters. The distances and times involved are so small that I think that maybe, like some people I have known, lying is a habit with him that he simply can't help indulging. Then he makes another call: Mate, did something happen with Helen today? he begins. Yeah I think it might be a question of finances. I've been in a meeting for the last two hours and haven't had a chance to talk to her yet but I will, mate, later tonight, and get the full story and call you back ... Dude, for my part, Buddy, you were right on the money, the way you handled the talent, the actresses, you've got the right approach, I'd have you on my team any day, you were awesome, just awesome, so cool, Dude, right on the money ... it is of course the guy who's been fired that he's talking to and he goes on OTT like this the rest of the way to Double Bay. In fact he's still talking when he gets out of the cab opposite the Golden Sheaf, having shuffled me a 20 and a couple of gold coins and accepted a 10 in change. While I head up New South Head to the turn off to Bellevue Road and climb the dark, twisting road, past the somnolent houses of the rich, some of which are no doubt built on lies, while Skip McDonald croons ... these are demon days / can't you see / it's a time of chaos, rage and anxiety ... up to the Junction and on to The Spot in Randwick to fill up and then head home.