FICTION: Nice Ride by Claire Doble

We weren’t supposed to end up in the bath. It was one of those intense blue afternoons where it’s almost too hot in the sunshine but disconcertingly dark and shivery when you step indoors. The kind of afternoon you get in Melbourne in early spring. But this was Sydney, autumn. I was sitting out on my balcony, eyes closed as I soaked up the brightness when he stopped by. I had other things to do. But he was far more appealing.

Joel was a taxi driver so I always half-expected him to visit anyway. He’d knock on my door to use the toilet when he was passing by and had a spare fifteen minutes. Toilet breaks are the bane of a taxi driver’s existence. I’d learnt to listen out for the engine’s wide hum as he pulled the cab onto the concrete slab in front of my block of flats.

I made us coffee, he used the facilities, and we sat talking. He was telling me about a party the night before at our Belgian friend Benny’s place. I hadn’t attended because I needed to finish my history essay on the Merovingians – Comparing Medieval French fighting techniques to those of the Japanese in Burma in WWII. Joel slurped the last of his coffee and stood up to leave, grabbing for keys, wallet, Nokia.

“Benny studied The Outcomes of War in his final semester, did you know?” Joel said.

“Nope.”

“And now he’s added his signature this snake. You heard of it? It’s the world’s longest stuffed snake and people are signing it to protest, um, I dunno, jungle warfare that destroys environmental habitats?Something like that.” He chuckled as he started shuffling through a set of five or six Polariods. I stood up to look.

The photo showed an indiscriminate sausage-shaped bit of material with Benny in the corner brandishing a fat marker, his pinball grin lit up greenish-white by the camera flash. Joel pulled out a long-shot of the whole snake, motley and half-coiled, with the tail’s pointy end stretched out.

“That’s the world’s longest stuffed snake?” I asked.

“Yep. Twenty-five metres.”

“I thought it would be longer.”

“I’d better go.” He stuck his phone in his back pocket and patted himself down checking everything was there – he was always losing stuff –then he held out his arms for a hug.

I stepped in and, at the last minute, bungled a kiss. Half on his mouth, half off. He pulled back.

You did that.” He said, accusingly. We had agreed many times that ‘it’ was over. Joel had both a long-term girlfriend and a gambling problem. He spent almost as much time with me as at the track. I’d been given to understand she knew about both situations and I often wondered which she liked least.

I was abashed, but then I got a certain feeling from the way his chin looked, pointed and sexy in the sharp afternoon light streaming through the venetians, and I said: “I did. I wanted to do that.”

I kissed him again, properly. So properly I could feel his wall of resistance lowering like a drawbridge. All I had to do was scramble over it.And I did, swarming his defences like the Imperial Japanese Army sweeping in to occupy a South East Asian sovereign state, if you’ll pardon the metaphor. Pushing him backwards onto the bed, tearing his sweaty shirt up and pulling his pants down over his slender white thighs. ‘It’ was back on.

Joel usually took the 3am to 3pm shift, driving all day, crossing and re-crossing the city and Harbour bridge. Winding through Sydney’s goat-track inner streets or out to the Northern Beaches, where the highway flopped like a tired textile snake along the coastline, dragging its way through increasingly scruffy suburbs, until, bam! You hit the fancy areas up near Palm Beach, where Home and Away is filmed. But he wouldn’t go West – missing out (I thought) on the vibrancy of those baked plains with their wealth of ethnic food – Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese.

Usually when Joel arrived at mine, he wanted the blinds closed, darkness and conversation. Strong coffee and, very occasionally, at the end of a shift, a beer or a joint that he’d fish out of his pants pockets after patting them down and carefully removing his wallet, cabbie licence, sunglasses and car keys then placing them, gently, on top of my bookshelf so he would remember where they were this time.

He could be an inventive lover but we didn’t have intercourse very often. He had too many voices in his head. That day, I ended up running a bath, and we sat in the warm water together, playing word games.

By the time we got cold, his phone was flashing wildly. As he reached for it, I ran my fingers over his pale abdomen, thinking idly about my next essay: Charlemagne and the Chanson as a Call to Arms.

“This is the last time,” he told me, not for the last time. “Shit. I’ve got an airport pickup.” He kissed me absently, his mind already on the road. In a Bogart voice he murmured: “Catchya later, Dollface,” and was gone.

Sydney airport is somewhat crazily placed in the geographical centre of its sprawling city. Not in the central business district where the high-rises are, but not on the outskirts either, where you’ll find the airports for most big cities. In fact, it is at Botany Bay – the place where 200 years ago, white settlers first arrived, discovered or invaded, depending on how you see things. There’s a certain irony there: all these modern invaders – travellers, tourists, foreigners and homecomers–touching down on the eucalypt shores in this very same, no-longer sacred place. They’d talked about moving the airport outwest for years but it hadn’t happened. Everyone in Sydney’s inner suburbs was stuck with it. You got so used to the planes swooping low, you’d tune them out after a while and would no longer notice the smell of airline fuel in the shimmering air.

I had a second lover at thetime, Danny, full name: Daniel McMeadows.Danny was a driver too, but he worked as a chauffeur for the big airlines’ Premium Rewards Programs. Mostly trips to and from the airport from fancy hotels in town. But sometimes he’d be booked to ferry a party of A-listers around town for a day or two while they were here. Luckily, my small studio flat was in between the city and the airport so he could swing by easily. Danny tended to work evenings – taking important people to peak-hour flights, assignations in hotels and fancy night clubs.

As far as I was aware, Danny and Joel never met, although perhaps they knew each other from the places drivers congregate – the 24 hour servos and car yards where you could catch a break, a bite, a smoke and talk shop, quietly. I sometimes wondered if they’d be foes or allies. Or if I was even worth fighting for.

Danny always looked smart in his white shirt, onto which he’d pin a little badge representing whichever airline he was driving for that evening. He usually wielded a black Audi A8, although sometimes they’d hand him the keys to a gleaming, light-gold Mercedes E-Class with beige leather interiors and a blue-tinted privacy screen that would move up and down at the touch of a button. It wasn’t a stretch limousine but it was roomy enough for our purposes.

Unlike with Joel, who mostly wanted to stay in and talk, Danny would take me out for a drive. We’d play music, mostly just the radio, and we’d drive to the beach. For some reason, even though it was far from the nicest beach in Sydney, or even the closest one to my flat, we’d often end up at Botany Bay. It was like the car only knew that same, worn route from the CBD to the airport and it just naturally drifted into that slipstream.

We’d usually drive down there in the witching hour, so it would be quiet, post-curfew for the planes, which had to stop flying at midnight. There would bea gentle sound from the wash of small wavelets in and out: Botany was a bay, not a surf beach. And the heavy, faintly obscene smell of old seaweed in the air.

That night, we walked along the sand, hands entwined. When it got too chilly, we moved together to kiss. Danny was an excellent kisser. His tongue would touch mine with expert firmness and he’d draw me closer. His hands would roam my body as our hot mouths slid against each other. We sometimes did it on the beach but we preferred the smooth leather seats and dark-tinted windows of the Merc.

When our beach kissing reached a level of intensity, we hurried back to the car, our breaths ragged, our feet sinking in the soft sand, slowing our haste in a way that somehow seductively teased and prolonged the whole process of fucking. Once we got to the car, it was a solid performance. The car was big and always ready. A satisfying, beautiful ride.

He drove me back home afterwards, the streetlights caressing the curve of his Adam’s apple. It was ANZAC day, a few hours before the dawn service. He had a soft smile in his eyes, his driver’s side window down, smoking a cigarette, the airline badge long gone from his shirt.

Claire Doble

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Claire Doble is an Australian-born writer and poet who lives in Zurich, Switzerland. Her poems and short stories have been published in The Woolf, The Drabble, Allegro Poetry Magazine and Quail Bell. Read more of her work at https://clairevetica.wordpress.com/

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