The taxi sped along the off-ramp of the freeway. Out the window, Martin watched a blur of green and brown through a haze of weak sunlight. It could be dusk or dawn. They could be anywhere. Middle of bloody nowhere. How long did it take to get to the airport, anyway?
Not that there was any rush. His plane had been delayed, but by the time he’d seen the text message he’d already checked out of the hotel and ordered the taxi. He wondered if he should get wine and cheese on the plane again. Then he wondered why he was even thinking about it. What did any of it matter?
The taxi smelt like lanolin, saddle wax—horses. It reminded Martin of his mother. She had preferred horses to her children, and Martin and his sister, Grace, had spent their days listlessly following her around to horse shows and auctions and, occasionally, when they were older, to the races. Those memories blurred into one for Martin: scratchy suits, starched collars, Grace stealing a bottle of fizzy wine and throwing up hot chips into the rose bushes that lined the racetrack. The roses had been a brilliant yellow. They glowed in his mind like little suns.
The radio in the taxi was blaring monotonous cricket commentary. Australia and India—who could listen to this? Maybe the taxi driver was Indian, Martin thought, then worried that he was stereotyping, then felt guilty that he hadn’t really looked at the driver since he got inside the car. He snuck a glance now. The man sitting next to him was a middle-aged white guy with a beard. Maybe he should make some comment about the match? That’s what a normal bloke would do. Martin tried to concentrate, to pick up some snippet from the commentary he could mention, but his mind kept slipping away. He wondered what Matt was doing now. Was he at a bar? Or walking his dog, Freddie, by the beach, toned arms and lean muscled legs on display in shorts and a singlet? He shook his head. He had to stop thinking about Matt. Matt was half Martin’s age.
Martin stared out the window again. How could there be this amount of nothing on the way to an airport? It wasn’t even a landscape, just ratty bits of mangrovey trees and scrub—a wasteland in Martin’s eyes.
The taxi slowed into a curve, its headlights cutting across the empty road. A dark, blurry figure darted in front of the car. It was a child—a mop of blond curly hair. On the edge of hearing, a faint giggle. The driver slammed the brakes; rubber on asphalt squealed. Martin was thrown forwards, then yanked back by his seatbelt. His heart raced. There had been no thump. He looked at the driver, whose eyes were wide.
‘Was that a kid?’ His accent was broad, his voice husky like an old sailor.
He unbuckled his seatbelt and leapt out the car. Martin, feeling a rush of adrenaline, did the same. They stood looking at each other over the roof of the car.
‘I didn’t hit it.’ It was a statement, but the driver was looking under the tyres anyway, scanning the road for blood. There was nothing.
Dusk was falling; trees silhouetted against a burning sky. Lights twinkled faintly in the direction they’d come from, but nothing that looked like it could be a house nearby. Where would anyone have come from out here?
‘You did see it, didn’t you?’ the driver said again.
‘A kid,’ Martin said finally.
They looked at each other. Martin glimpsed their choice in the other man’s face, get back in the car or…
‘I’ve got a torch.’ The driver slipped a smart phone from his pocket. The square of light illuminating a tiny patch of the gloom around them.
Martin switched on the torch on his phone as well.
‘You go that way,’ the driver instructed, pointing at the scrub behind the car as he headed off in the other direction. Martin didn’t want to leave the taxi, this bubble of civilisation, but he didn’t want to appear afraid. Anxiety spread out from his belly as he stepped towards the verge. The ground descended into a ditch and rose again in a small copse of trees. Did you even get copses in Australia? Probably not. A violence of trees, more like it.
Martin tried to keep an eye on the driver as he looked around. He was tempted to jump back in the taxi, desperate now for that airport wine. What he wouldn’t give for some pork scratchings. All that salt and fat. Fat and salt.
‘Nothing here,’ the driver’s voice boomed. Martin breathed out, relieved that they could go now. Then the driver yelled, ‘I’m going in a bit further.’
Martin watched the light from the other phone cross the ditch and enter the trees. Then the light disappeared. Martin blinked, and blinked again, but still no light.
‘Hey—’ he called out, cursing himself for not knowing the man’s name. ‘Hey!’
All that came in reply was the buzz of insects. Martin turned back to the taxi, the dark shape of it in the setting sun, and thought wanly of Matt again. A coward, that’s what Matt had called him. Martin wished he had been stronger about many things in his life, but he’d never considered himself a coward before. His ex-wife, his daughter—they had been happy enough for a time. A time when Martin thought he could bend the world however he wanted. But the bend had stayed twisted inside him. Now he couldn’t decide one way or the other.
Martin turned away from the taxi and plunged into the bush. Reeds snagged on his trousers, dragging and pulling on them. After a few steps, his left foot sunk deep into the undergrowth. A bog? Maybe the driver had been swallowed up? He scrambled to pull his foot out. There was a loud glug. Martin had the urge to laugh, or giggle, or roar at the sky.
His phone lit up a high ridge. He reached it in a couple of leaps and stood on the top, panting. He swept the torch left and right, looking for signs of a small child, the driver, anything. But there was nothing and he strode further into the bush.
After ten minutes, and ever darkening skies, Martin turned in a slow circle and realised he was encompassed by jungle and swamp. He could no longer make out the line of the road. There could not be a child in here. He wiped sweat from his forehead and began to walk back along the ridge. But he came to a fork that he didn’t remember where the ridge split in two. He hesitated, then went right. Minutes later all he could see was trees.
‘Hello!’ he called out. His own voice echoed back at him, thin and shaky.
The high ridge came to an end. There was no hint in the scrub around him as to which way he should go. He opened the compass app on his phone. It told him he was facing NW, but he didn’t know where he’d been to start with. He tried not to panic. But just thinking the word panic increased his heart rate. He opened the map app on his phone, but it said he was nowhere, a dot hovering in the middle of blank space.
Where had the driver gone? Was this all an elaborate joke, a conspiracy, like in that awful movie Wake in Fright? Martin strained to hear anything other than his own heartbeat. A loud squawk rang in his ear. He leapt forward into the swamp. The ground sucked his legs down to his knees, damp soaking up his trousers towards his groin. He moved with difficulty towards higher ground. Something slippery brushed his leg and his wet foot slipped against the slope. He fell; the breath knocked out of him. He slid back towards the swamp, hands pulling urgently at razor-sharp leaves, feet scrabbling.
Martin let out a strangled cry of anguish as he slid into the bog up to his neck. Was there no end to this shit? Was he going to die here? He could see the headline now: Lost man dies metres from main road. He cried out again. His voice faltered, dry and raspy. He hollered soundlessly and uselessly into the night. He couldn’t even scream for help.
He was a coward. That was him, Martin the indecisive coward. It felt good to admit it. He pulled himself up slowly on hands and knees and sat panting on dry land. In his hand, his muddied, waterlogged phone flickered a few times and then died. Martin hung his head and sobbed tearlessly. He wanted to be in a nice airport lounge with comfortable chairs, uniformed waiters and champagne.
Was that an engine? The sound came from far away as if a car were approaching. Headlights shone through the spindly trees, breaking the dusky darkness into slivers. He scrambled to his feet, the engine slowed and he imagined the car investigating the taxi, empty in the middle of nowhere. Then it sped off again. But the sound of it gave him direction—ninety degrees from the one he had been going in.
At last Martin broke through the trees and found himself back on the asphalt road. Small stones slid under his ruined brogues. With the fire of sunset on the horizon in front of him, he looked back into the dark trees. There was no sign of the driver. The taxi was ten feet away and his shoes squelched as he walked towards it. He could smell the oil and brakes of the car that had passed by. He yanked open the door of the driver’s side. No keys.
Matt had broken into Martin’s car once with that stiff binding used to fasten cardboard boxes. He’d slid it in the space between the closed door and the body of the car and wiggled up the lock. It was like watching a magic trick. Matt had winked at him, that sly grin on his face, and Martin had felt like some helpless damsel in an old movie.
He slumped in the driver’s seat, mud oozing down the legs of his pants and dripping onto the rubber mat in clumps. He fiddled near the ignition, not even sure what he should be looking for. Some wires, isn’t that how they did it on TV? Or a screwdriver—maybe there was a toolkit in the boot.
Cicadas started up a chorus nearby. Martin shivered; he’d always found the sound eerie. He flicked the boot-release and stumbled around to the back of the car. His shiny silver suitcase sat there. He scanned the rest of the boot, even lifting the thick lining at the bottom to see if there were any tools with the spare tyre. But there wasn’t even a spare tyre, just a gaping hole. The cicadas were so loud now it was like they were drilling into his head. He wondered how far the airport was. He pulled his phone out of his pocket. It was still dead. Maybe another car would pass soon that he could flag down. He leaned against the boot, staring ahead, trying to see anything that would indicate planes, or cars, or any life at all.
Martin realised the driver might not come back and he was going to have to make a move. He pulled out his suitcase and looked both ways up the darkening road. Should he go the way he thought the airport was? Or back the way he’d come?
He was stunned by indecision. Impotent with it. There was a loud beep and a crackly voice rang out. Martin jumped—what was that? It spoke again, something about Parkway Parade. The UHF radio: the taxi radio! How could he have forgotten? He dumped his case back in the boot, ran around the car and slithered into the driver’s seat once more. A light flashed red and bleeped, numbers lit up on the radio, but Martin couldn’t even see a handset to speak into.
A great crash came from the bush. Martin locked the doors and stabbed urgently at the radio.
‘Is anyone there? Help me!’ he yelled into what looked like the speaker.
A bulky shadow detached itself from the outline of the trees and lurched towards the car. The shadow resolved itself into a muddy face that slammed its hand against the window. Martin’s heart was trying to escape his chest. The hand knocked again.
‘Let me in, you pillock.’
Martin glimpsed the face. It was the driver.
He shuffled awkwardly into the passenger seat, not willing to get out of the car again. Then he reached over and flicked the lock on the door. The driver yanked it open. He was wet and covered in mud. He peered in at Martin, checking the state of the car—there was swamp filth everywhere. He grunted and hefted himself into the seat. Then he reached forward and turned the ignition. The engine roared to life. The cricket commentary was still going. Martin wanted to weep and throw his arms around the man.
As the car started moving, Martin looked over at the driver.
‘Must have been a trick of the light,’ he said.
The driver looked at Martin, a splotch of mud turning his grey beard brown.
‘Huh,’ he muttered as they pulled away from the verge.