I was kept up long into the night by a tap dancing dog. When it comes to sleep-thievery, the relentless klip-klop of toe-nails on a hardwood floor is on par with the menacing crescendo of dive-bombing mosquitos, hell-bent on stealing your Z’s as well as your blood. The mozzies can be slapped or sprayed into submission with one’s conscience relatively unscathed. A seventeen year-old Border Collie with cataracts, dementia, and arthritis, cannot.
All you can do is lead the old girl gently back to her bed and ask her, with the sternness of a sleep-deprived Dad whose daughter has recently mastered the entire repertoire of Frozen, to PLEASE.STOP.DANCING. She listens for a moment, but then I remember the dementia. Ha! And so the ceaseless tapping resumes. Let it go, I whisper aloud as the first birds began to tweet. Jackie the Border Collie is my latest friend in a career as a professional house-sitter, and easily the oldest. Regardless of the tap-dancing, she is still very cute.
I wouldn’t have minded the early morning wake-up call if the alarm wasn’t already set for 6am in preparation for my first day back as an Uber Driver in almost two years. There was a time when I’d be dropping my final passenger home at this hour, but I’m older now, albeit only a few years, and I’m unsure if I can handle a carload of unruly rum-drinking rugby players, or the wrath of a woman scorned after a Tinder-date gone horribly wrong.
Who would have thought the day-walkers could leave more of a mark on me than the night-zombies ever could?
Beep.Beep.Beep. Sandra, 4 minutes – Kogarah
That nervous flutter I felt in my stomach when I accepted my first Uber ride back in 2015 was there again. It’s the unknown. The roll of the dice. The unopened letter. It swells as I weave through the quiet suburban streets, dew-coated lawns sparkling beneath the sharp winters sun, edging my way closer to the icon on the screen.
The cul de sac with the identikit brick houses – basketball hoops hanging above garage doors, metal cricket stumps toppled over on makeshift pitches, brightly coloured handlebars of childrens bikes poking out from behind bins with yellow hats – it all conjured vivid memories from my own childhood, when the flicker of street lights meant home time and the ringing of a bell meant ice-cream. The young boy standing in front of letterbox 23 dressed in full soccer-kit, a white ball trapped beneath his black boot, cast me even further down into the rich well of nostalgia. He looked up, unsmiling, and threw me a solitary wave as I approached.
There was no sign of Sandra, just this lone boy of about twelve rolling the ball back and forth with the studs of his soccer boot. I pulled into the driveway and lowered my window to ask him if I was at the right house, but before I had a chance to speak, the unmistakable crash of a front door slamming made me jump. The boy didn’t flinch, he just kept rolling that ball back and forth.
I looked up to see a middle-aged woman with shoulder-length blonde hair and black sunglasses perched atop her head, power-walking up the driveway to my car. The hem of her cream-coloured coat swished side-to-side, such was the ferocity of her pace and power of her movements.
“Get in!” She snapped at the boy, the wrinkles around her mouth pulling tight like the drawstring of a sleeping bag.
Listless, he bent over and scooped up the ball before sitting on the back seat. The woman sat in the front and continued her endearing habit of slamming doors.
“Hi Sandra, how are ya?” I asked, my ears still ringing.
“Yep,” she responded curtly, reefing the seatbelt across her body and jamming it into place.
She folded her arms across her chest and gritted her teeth so hard I could see the muscles in her jaw flare in my periphery.
As I lowered the handbrake and put the car into reverse, I heard the sound of the front door shutting again. This time a man, about the same age as Sandra and undoubtedly a Dad judging by his attire, skulked up the driveway. He was wearing a grey hoodie, light blue jeans and sneakers. A fashion style, one I’m regularly guilty of, known as Sneans. He sat directly behind me in the back.
“Morning,” I said.
“Yep,” he responded.
The mood in the car was icier than the collective front lawns of every house in the street. Off we went.
We hadn’t even made it to intersection at the head of the cul de sac before the huffing started. Sandra’s frame inflated as she inhaled air through her nose, before releasing it in short, sharp scoffs. Bursts of stale chardonnay pulsed across the centre console and stung my nostrils. It was at the third breath that the man in the back erupted.
“SHUT IT!” he screamed, sharp, terse, a meat-cleaver brought down into a chopping board from a great height. The words cut through the air and caused me to jump more than the slamming of the front door. Sandra jumped too, and didn’t seem to take another breath for minutes.
I glanced at the boy in my rear vision mirror. He was staring into space, the way young children do at funerals, unsure of where to look or how to feel. Unwilling to make eye contact with those around them because that would make it all too real. His parents glared out their respective windows with purpose. Angry, bitter purpose. If they could have burst through the glass to be anywhere else but in this car with their partner and son on the way to a soccer match, they would.
“How dare you speak to me like that!” Sandra fired back after thirty seconds of torturous silence.
The man dragged a calloused hand across his unshaven face. It sounded like sandpaper on brick.
I considered turning the radio up, but didn’t. Then I almost said, “nearly there mate,” to the pale-faced boy in the back hugging the soccer ball, but couldn’t.
They aren’t physically hurting him. Their verbal abuse isn’t directed at him. It’s just collateral damage. They’re doing what many families do today, tomorrow, and next week. What they will always do. So I put my foot down and tried to get to the game as quickly as possible.
When we arrived at the soccer field, Sandra and her husband swiftly exited my car with painted on smiles, ready to regurgitate platitudes about the weather or the latest footy score to the other parents. Their son, the boy on the backseat, gingerly opened the door and murmured a sadly polite “thanks”, before joining his teammates in the warm-up. No painted on smile, that will come later.
I spent the rest of my shift in a daze, thinking about that boy. I couldn’t wait to get home to bathe in the blind love from a blind dog. But when I opened the door to my temporary home, the dancing had stopped.