Sunday morning before the sun rose. The sky was an ashen black. I picked up my passenger outside of the casino.
"Just drive," he said.
"I don't know. Let's go to St Kilda to begin with."
We drove in silence. He stared out of the window, calm and still. I like driving in silence for the most part but after a while the pressure in my taxi broke me. I could have turned on the radio but the news was depressing and the commercial radio stations were just too loud with music that was alien to my ears.
"Big night?" I asked.
Nothing and then: "Yeah".
He didn't want to talk. He must have taken a big loss. Must have been thinking about how he'd tell his wife that he'd lost it all. He must have needed the time to formulate a plan. Maybe he'd slept with someone he shouldn't have? Maybe he hadn't lost it all yet but knew he was about to? Rarely do you see anyone leave the casino at that time of the morning who isn't the worse for wear.
"You never know what is just around the corner," he said.
"Yeah. You've got that right," I replied. I didn't know how to answer. I thought I'll keep it brief and he wants to talk more he can. We drove in silence for a little longer. We hit Beaconsfield Parade and I continued to drive with no sense of where we might end up.
"We had big plans. This was going to be our year," he said.
Yep. He'd lost it all in the casino. This was his moment of truth. I shuddered at the prospect of hearing his hard luck story. My father had been a gambler and I held little respect for anyone who didn't know how to stop. I still don't. Is that unfair of me? Probably. Yet when your life is ruined because one man can't keep his shit together, it is difficult to see it from their point of view. I figured I should turn on the radio, fill the silence that way. Hopefully it would encourage him to keep his gambling story to himself.
All the radio had to report were the fires. The lives lost. The families that had lost their homes. The way the fire had ripped through idyllic towns. They were already calling it Black Saturday but even that didn't do justice to the pain that people were enduring.
Beside me my passenger made a noise. I turned and looked at him as a single tear rolled down his cheek. It was only then that I knew.
"What did you lose?" I asked.
"Everything. Wife. Daughter. My poor old dog."
We drove in silence a little longer. While he looked out the window I reached down and turned off the metre.
"Is there anyplace you'd like to go from here?" I asked.
He looked at me and for the first time I took in his face. Barely a line graced his features. He was so young.
"I'll just keep driving then."
We watched the sun slowly rise and the clouds take on the colour and shapes of a new day. Eventually he asked to be dropped back at the casino. Turns out he was staying there overnight for a work function. When we pulled up he offered me too much money. I refused to take it but he dropped the notes on the passenger side. I reached over and shook his hand. He looked me in the eyes, a loaded smile on his lips. I watched him walk back into the casino and once he was out of sight I left. I drove to my empty home, made some breakfast and eventually fell asleep on the lounge, alone with my thoughts about my passenger.
Copyright Justin Hamilton 2017