Johnno pushes a Woolworth’s cart around Ballina most days. He collects alum cans and glass bottles which he cashes in at the local cash-back depot somewhere out at the industrial estate about two k’s from where we met today for the first time when I was on my way into the First Choice Liquor Barn to check their prices of a one litre bottle of white rum as compared to Dan Murphy’s.
Drinkers are thinkers.
We kind of loomed up together outside in the sunshine and against the booze shop wall, watching the rain come in from the sea. Neither of us pretty. Beards and thin shirts, spiky hair, bent hats, baggy duds .. Ballina downbeats. Some look like that because they have no choice, others because they do.
‘G’day,’ I sez.
‘G’day,’ he sez.
We got to talking, Johnno and me. Straight away.
Said he spent eight hours alone in a pub in Casino recently listening to what people around him were saying. One couple sitting beside him in particular.
‘He was doing all the talking and all she kept saying was shut up.’
‘How long were they at it?’ I asked.
‘All fucken afternoon. I filled a notebook writing about it.’
‘Nobody got revved up?’
‘No, not at all. It was like they did it all the time.’
‘And you’re there listening and filling in pages of a notebook?’
The battered little man smiled at me, nodded, pleased.
‘You’re a writer then, are you?’
Most of the big grocery chains train their check-out girls to be nice to the customers passing through their stations.
‘Hello,’ said this one. A youngster, about something under twenty. Bright. Smiling, everything sailing through her hands to the the register then into the heavy plastic bags that replaced the old, lighter plastic bags
She says ..
‘so what are you doing for the rest of your day?’
It’s 2:30 pm. Some of my days end at 2:30 am.
‘Why would you ask me that?’
‘Just interested, that’s all.’
‘I’m writing a book,’ said I, submitting to vanity.
She checks the pears and rockmelon, the Swiss cheese and garlic.
‘Really! ‘What’s it about?’
‘I did that once, watched a bloke eating a plate full of sushi without taking a breath then went home and wrote about it.
Johnno came up close, face to face. Just a little bloke, John, all skin, bones and tattoos. Sober. Coherent. Curious. Grinning.
‘Gotta do it, don’t ya?’
‘Its about a young fellow who loses his parents and finds his grandfather.’
She checks the tomatoes and parsley, olive oil and onions.
All done, $54.45.
I ask ..
‘Do you know your grandad?’
‘Nice bloke is he?’
She smiles, no doubt an image of the old lad in her eyes.
Card in, card out. Shopping done and paid for and I look at the youngster’s name tag as she waits for her next customer.
I say to her now, leaning over so she can hear, ‘you know, my grandmother’s name was Molly.’
Johnno has a tattoo on his inner left bicep that reads Faith, another on his left that reads Hope. He hung his skinny arms out for me to see.
I said, ‘you need another spot for Charity.‘
Ballina people seem nice. Real. I watched the Ballina Mayor, unruffled, comment on Tele about the bull sharks feeding at the Rivermouth and the surfers remaining in the water after being warned. He knew that wave was special and understood. He tried to be diplomatic when people were jumping up and down saying the surfers were idiots and should have respected the danger they were in. But he calmly explained the surfers position, that you didn’t pass up the opportunity to surf a great wave, that they were a long way from the Rivermouth and that the sharks were too busy feasting on the mullet or whatever species it was to be bothered
stalking surfers. I got it.