this (un­equal) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Sue Grimes

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.

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