this (unequal) life
I NOTICED him immediately. It was partly his faintly menacing appearance — shaved head, piercing, rough flannelette shirt, at odds among the tourists and family groups; but it was more the long fishing rod and the slopping red plastic bucket on a crowded tram. He instantly found a prospective ally, another shaved head, scowling face, biker jacket, who reluctantly moved his boots from the seat to make space for the fisherman. The red bucket was plonked thoughtlessly in the walk space and he turned to speak to the biker. His face glowed as he proudly indicated the contents of the bucket, demanding admiration. The biker glanced at the bucket, grunting something indecipherable before looking away, but the fisherman was not to be discouraged. It was his first time fishing, his first catch, and he was taking it home for dinner he said, several times. It was about then that I, and the passengers around him, realised the young fisherman was one of life’s innocents, his body in its early 20s but his mind as naive and enthusiastic as a 10-year-old’s.
The biker refused to be drawn and I found myself getting angry — how hard would it be to give the boy a bit of praise, a few minutes of conversation. I caught the fisherman’s eye and smiled and he immediately repeated his happy spiel — first fishing trip, first fish, tonight’s dinner. I gave him a thumbs up and he beamed back. Around him people looked curiously towards the bucket, some smiling.
At the first stop, the biker abruptly rose and moved to the front of the tram. The fisherman turned to see where his ‘‘mate’’ had gone, and realisation caused a momentary look of resignation that brought a lump to my throat.
There were only a few empty seats here at the back, and as he searched for a sympathetic face beside one, most of the passengers looked away, but one middle-aged woman smiled back, and that was all it took. The red bucket was hastily relocated, and fisherman and unwieldy rod found a new seat. He began again, first fishing trip, first catch, dinner tonight. His obliging seatmate looked intently into the bucket, and asked him if he knew how to prepare and cook it. Oh yes, he said, as he invited the two people across from him to admire his catch. The woman alternately listened to the same story, nodded, and checked the bucket contents until her stop five minutes later. Others leaving the tram carefully stepped around the bucket, as did the conductor, who cheerfully admired its contents.
I watched as another young man, mullet cut, ubiquitous flanny and head-kicking boots, boarded and sat beside the fisherman. The latter turned enthusiastically and began his happy story, inviting his new seatmate to look into the bucket. To my surprise, the roughlooking lad obligingly peered long and hard into the bucket and said, good on you, mate. When told of the dinner plans, he responded, oh, no mate; that’s too small — what you need is a tank, you can keep it in that. And with a sigh of relief I listened, as there began a discussion that lasted all the way to Adelaide. At regular intervals, the new passenger obligingly leaned over the bucket and looked with unflagging interest at its contents. I wanted to find the mothers of both boys, to tell the one what a great son she’d reared, and the other what a happy interaction her son had had, with another young man whose heart was big enough to spare 20 minutes on a tram from Glenelg.