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Boxed in

In a life liberally studded with trips in cabs, I have found cabbies to be in general an amiable lot. Some are given to philosophising, like the man who, once I was settled alongside him and we were on our way, said, ‘If God is perfect and free from defect then He must exist because not existing would be a defect. Whaddya reckon?’ Many are knowledgeable but dismissive about politics, their attitude being one of generalised complaint in the ironic Australian manner or, even more attractive, in the blunt multiculturally Australian manner. As one cabbie put it to me recently, ‘I am in kebs from 12 years and what am I thinkink? Bastard government for me done nothink, that’s what.’

The other day I flagged down a cab, hopped into the front seat, belted myself in, told the driver to take me to Bundoora and prepared to chat idly without necessarily getting trapped in discussions about Camilla and Charles, the criminal affluence of the Vatican, or Howard and Costello. I needn’t have worried. As we swung out into the traffic, he said, ‘I mean, you’d have to be just a bit off the wall, wouldn’t you, one chop short of a barbie? There’d have to be an undescended testicle involved, wouldn’t you say? An occipital trauma that has at some stage necessitated a lobotomy?’

Apparently he would go on trotting out these metaphors and speculations unless throttled or physically gagged.

‘How do you mean?’ I said astutely. But even as I spoke, I realised that his comments referred to the bloke on the corner of the city intersection where our journey had begun, who was accosting people and explaining to them how he had been saved. I’d passed him earlier in the day so I knew his story, which was that he had been a heinous sinner. Sinners keen to confess their outrages to the public world are very fond of the word ‘heinous’.

Above the traffic roar and the tramp of feet and the shrill yackety-yak of voices plunging and braying into mobile phones, he announced that he had defrauded, conspired, assaulted and robbed. He would undoubtedly have admitted to garroting and defenestration if he’d been given a little encouragement. He had, as he put it, ‘known the hidden parts of women’, causing a passing larrikin to shout, ‘Half your luck, mate, what’s the secret?’

In the few minutes it took for the lights to change, he owned to so many crimes and misdemeanors that I felt like calling a copper. But, he had survived into glory and I have to admit I lingered a while to hear the manner of his salvation. Which, as you have probably guessed, was a great disappointment. An extraterrestrial craft had materialised in an alleyway where he had been getting to know the hidden parts of a bottle of firewater and the ‘crew’ had carried him into this intergalactic vehicle and operated on his brain. They were of course emissaries of ... But need I go on?

When I revealed this to the cabby, he was unsurprised.

‘What do you expect?’ he said. ‘It’s the times we live in. Take the cardboard box,’ he said.

He delivered this non sequitur as we pulled up sharply at an intersection. The combined forces of the laws of motion and the cabby’s sublime disregard for narrative cohesion would have put me through the windscreen but for the safety belt.

 ‘Like human beings, the cardboard box is capable of an almost infinite diversity within a defined and set pattern. You can have long, thin cardboard boxes—like those ones they put strip lights in—or squat, no-nonsense smaller jobs, like book boxes, or large, imposing and capacious boxes about tea-chest size or, indeed, huge buggers that machinery comes in, like motor mowers and fridges, and so on. Your cardboard box, in short, is a kind of paradigm of humanity. We take its diversity for granted, only occasionally recognising what must be actually a divinely instilled quality of endless variation.’

‘What do you reckon about Howard and Costello?’ I said.

‘Now,’ he went on, ‘very few people indeed have recognised the cardboard box in this light. It has remained, for most, merely a species of receptacle, and in that regard indistinguishable from, say, other containers like assortments of bags or sacks. But, of course, bags and sacks are subject to fashion. They come in different guises, different manifestations. Unlike the cardboard box whose boxness, you might say, is never lost no matter what the size or shape involved ...’

‘Did you watch the Pope’s funeral?’ I said.

‘Now, given,’ he continued, ‘that very few people have recognised the essentially human, if not potentially divine, dimensions of the cardboard box, it follows that anyone who does will be at a considerable advantage. And so it proves, so it proves. Where did you say you wanted to go? Box Hill?’

‘This’ll do me here,’ I said, looking to escape from the cardboard prison.

 He looked at me with an expression of weary pain.

‘All right,’ he said, ‘all right. Costello hasn’t got the guts to face down Howard, the Pope’s funeral was a waste of money, Camilla and Charles are a pair of over-privileged bottom feeders and St Kilda will win the premiership. Now, where are we going?’

‘Box Hill,’ I said. ‘What the hell.’   

Brian Matthews is a writer who also holds professorial positions at Victoria University, Melbourne, and Flinders University, South Australia. He lives in the Clare Valley, South Australia.


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