Why is life mostly just standing around doing nothing? Jack flicked away a dead leaf caught in a windscreen wiper of his taxi and gazed into the distance, pondering this unfortunate fact. His shift was nearly over. One more fare would be good, but preferably nothing too far. He’d had a good day — a few airport jobs, several good tips — so the pressure to earn enough cash was off for one more day. Now he just had to wait for a bit more.
He didn’t like being on Elgin Street in Carlton. It was always noisy, dirty, and blustery, and right now it felt a lot colder than the temperature update Jack had heard on the cab radio just a few minutes before.
A biting wind hustled down the hill from around the university, cutting right through him. Leaves, lolly wrappers, and leaflets tumbled along gutters and footpaths. The red-brick tower blocks next to the rank looked grey. They were starting to show their age.
Jack shivered, drew heavily on his cigarette, and kicked a discarded Styrofoam coffee cup along the footpath in the direction of Fitzroy.
As far as Jack was concerned, driving cabs wasn’t much fun at the best of times, but late winter in Melbourne was the absolute pits. Jack’s was the only cab on the rank, so he didn’t even have another idle driver to complain to. Most of them were Indians and Somalis these days, so it wasn’t the same anyway. Can’t even find their way to the MCG, most of them, Jack muttered to a stray pigeon waddling along the footpath.
Jack van Duyn didn’t exactly cut an impressive figure. He was quite tall, but a gently protruding potbelly was accentuated by Australia’s least imposing set of shoulders. Jack suffered from the shoulder equivalent of the weak chin. His shoulders were so pathetic they were virtually concave. It was as though a mad scientist had transplanted a jockey’s shoulders onto the body of a six-foot-three labourer. The frayed epaulettes on Jack’s taxi uniform only highlighted his deficiency.
In his teenage years, Jack had earned the unfortunate nickname ‘skittle’. As he grew older, the tag had become even more appropriate.
He wasn’t a great deal more attractive above the shoulders. Jack had a large head and longish face, crowned with unkempt, curly dark hair fading to grey at the sides, and thinning on top. His nose had an awkward shape to it, his lips were thin and chapped, his teeth were crooked, and his skin was weather-beaten. He was not a regular user of male vanity products.
Jack noticed a handful of dark-skinned children romping in the playground on the other side of a line of shrubbery that separated the grounds of the public-housing estate from the footpath. A slim, dark woman swathed in flowing robes of varying shades of purple stood guard beside a bright-yellow slide. Bloody Somalis, he muttered to himself. Why can’t they stay in their own shithole of a country?
Jack ground the remains of his cigarette into the crumbling edge of the pavement and glanced along Elgin Street as he leaned back against the cab. There was no sign of likely passengers.
Suddenly, a piercing, high-pitched scream made him look back at the playground. A fight had erupted, involving a couple of older kids and two smaller ones. He saw the smallest one slip from the grasp of a tall, slim youth in jeans and hoodie, and run towards the woman in purple.
Jack took little interest in the affray. Big kids hassled little kids all the time, all around the world.
He wasn’t looking back up the street, but he could sense that someone was walking towards him. Experienced taxidrivers have a sixth sense for the presence of potential fares. He adjusted his gaze just in case.
The newcomer certainly looked like a passenger worth having. He wore a nice suit, fancy shoes, and striped shirt, and walked like a self-satisfied young professional.
As this picture of success and power strolled towards him, Jack amused himself by guessing his name and occupation. Definitely a lawyer, he concluded. Few things annoyed him more than successful, attractive men parading the evidence of their status, especially when they were young.
Jack wondered what his name might be — maybe Sebastian, Luke, or Oscar. The man called out to him: ‘You free?’
‘Yeah, mate — hop in,’ Jack mumbled.
His passenger reached for the front-door handle on the passenger side, and Jack moved himself into a fully upright position with exaggerated effort.
He’d only taken a couple of steps when another scream, this time too loud to ignore, came from the playground, followed by much yelling and wailing.
Jack and his passenger both stopped and stared, unable to ignore the minor riot that had erupted about ten metres away.
A very tall boy had hold of one of the smaller boys, and was banging his arm hard against the side of the monkey bars. The other small boy was being held in a headlock by a second teenager, while the woman was struggling to dislodge him. It was difficult to work out what was happening, with the amount of noise and thrashing around that was going on.
Jack and his well-dressed companion stood frozen to the spot for a few seconds, and then the other man reacted.
‘Hey, that’s not on! Come on, we’ve got to break this up!’