Under the glow of the Lacoste sign, he leaned back and put his heel to the concrete wall, leather jacket meeting bumpy granules to produce a small but satisfying scraping sound. In his pocket a text message buzzed and he quickly pulled out his phone.
It was who he was hoping for.
After replying he breathed out and small tendrils of steam escaped his lips, drifting upwards and disappearing in the framed blackness between buildings. Absently, he stared across the street and allowed a certain amount of contentment to settle on his face. This was what it felt like for someone to actually want you. Nothing was shrouded. He lingered comfortably on the thought as he studied the modern, angled, architecture of the offices over the road.
A group of people his age walked by, intersecting his vision. One girl, wearing heels, caught upon a chipped crater in the footpath and stumbled. She went down to one knee and he set his posture straight to take a step forward. Then her friends reached her to take her by the arms and levelled her balance between them. They laughed it off and continued on, saying one more drink would see the night away. He relaxed and checked his phone again, noting that his ride was due in one minute.
Surprisingly the car, a Toyota Corolla, stopped directly in front of him. Enjoying the small internal smile at simple pleasures, he opened the door and sunk in. A standard greeting followed and he resolved, a little less positively, to go through the motions of conversation a trip like that normally delivered. His driver, a middle-aged man with freckles across his cheeks and hair curling out from a grey flatcap, spoke in an accent he couldn’t place. Hanging and rotating periodically, a name tag read Mayenzani. He couldn’t pretend that helped much, although it probably narrowed the options down to the continent of Africa.
Despite the drinks he’d had, he was negotiating the conversation with ease.
‘You been at it long tonight mate?’
‘I started at 6 man,’ Mayenzani replied. ‘And I’ll be going until about 4.’
‘That’s some shift.’
‘Gotta do it, it’s worth it. Once I finish here, I head over to Newtown for the late crowd.’
The younger man was momentarily distracted as the car passed a nightclub. Outside, the same group he’d seen earlier was waiting to get in. The girl who had stumbled seemed to be lecturing the bouncer, assumedly about how sober she was. He smirked as they disappeared from view and shifted his attention back to his driver.
‘You work every weekend?’
Mayenzani nodded. ‘Most but it’s okay, I’m old. How are old are you man?’
He chuckled but then he quietened. ‘Yeah, I’m young,’ he murmured.
Mayenzani flashed his teeth, the brightness of the smile startled the youth for a second. He thought about his own occupation.
‘Do you ever feel like your job is meaningless, like your time is being wasted?’
Mayenzani looked at him then, narrowing his eyes. ‘You had a few drinks tonight my man?’
A soft exhale through his nostrils. ‘A few.’
Mayenzani smiled broadly again. ‘I guess you have to do things to keep yourself excited. Do you have anything like that?’
‘I used to work in a big casino back home,’ Mayenzani said nodding. ‘My best buddy and I, we were waiters.’
‘South Africa man.’
Of course, now he recognised the accent clearly. It made sense that he was happy to be in this conversation. While he considered this, ruminating on a South African biology lecturer he’d once had, the car fell silent and the radio could be heard clearly for the first time. A song he liked was playing. Bruce Springsteen crooning that he was on fire. It made him gather his phone again and send another message off into the ether. When a reply came almost immediately, he didn’t know if he wanted to grin or run away into the dark to be alone. Realising he’d become distracted again, he spoke.
‘Did you ever see anyone win it big?’
Mayenzani glanced away from the road again.
‘A few times. We even had a good time ourselves once.’
‘Yeah man, when we finished our shifts we would sometimes have a go. We did okay one time.’
‘Why’d you move out here?’
Mayenzani didn’t answer immediately, then he turned the radio off just as a newscast was coming on.
‘I had some things I needed to get away from.’
The younger man deliberated. Mayenzani’s expression was not as rosy as it had been. But it couldn’t hurt.
‘What kinds of things?’
Again, there was a pause before a reply was offered.
‘Ah like gangs and stuff?’ Lines in his forehead.
For a second, Mayenzani’s eyes had glazed over and he seemed caught by surprise with the young man’s reply.
‘Yes, of course. It wasn’t safe…Plus, what better place to live and spend money in man. This is a beautiful country.’
He changed down gears, slowing for a corner.
‘You’re right about that,’ said the youth. He stared at his phone screen, realising he’d typed “I’ve got a bad desire”.
‘What’s her name? Mayenzani motioned towards the device.
‘How do you kn-‘ He shrugged then and smiled. ‘It’s Helen.’
Suddenly he didn’t want to share any more than that. It was something special, something only they could know. He focused back on the former conversation.
‘It always seems like a risk, moving to a new country.’
Mayenzani didn’t push the issue, as he was concentrating on the dim ashphalt again. He had not accelerated after turning. He peered slightly forward, looking for something in a darkened street dominated by large leafy tress along the footpath.
Then he locked eyes with the veritable boy in the passenger seat.
‘We all take risks. Gambling man, that’s life.’
The car turned into a driveway and stopped. Puzzled, with a strange sensation entering his stomach, the young man looked through the windscreen at a nondescript house. In that instance he had a thought and a resolution. Something was wrong. He would not try to speak to Mayenzani again. He would try to exit the car immediately. Even that prudence wasn’t enough. Even unclipping his seatbelt with his right hand and letting his phone fall from his left so he could grab the door handle at the same time, wasn’t enough. As a foul-smelling cloth closed over his face, he had only brief seconds before he was out of it. In its last throes his eyesight saw the word “desire” still illuminated on his phone after it had come to rest on the footmat. He felt regret. She had to know. If she knew, he was okay. Why hadn’t he just said it. His eyes closed.
No other cars passed down the road, and the street stood in relative silence. A slight breeze rustling the upper reaches of tree limbs was the only sound disturbing the early morning. Mayenzani punctuated the space with the opening and closing of the car doors, the last of which was the passenger side after he had lowered his former client to the pavement. The young man regained some form of consciousness in the absence of the cloth. His eyes split open momentarily as he tried to regain his senses. Above him he saw Mayenzani take a cursory look around at the surrounding properties. Then the young man was being dragged towards the front door of the house. Feebly, he tried to wrap his fingers around the frame but another figure appeared in the silhouette of the opening and the last thing he felt was a thump to the back of the head.
The door closed then, and the street outside was unaltered. Waiting under a parked car for the small commotion to pass, a ginger cat ventured out and nimbly leapt up a tree to place itself in a safer lookout for the next time someone happened along.