A few min­utes to spare

When a des­per­ate-look­ing man dis­ap­pears from his usual hang­out, Nthabiseng re­grets not help­ing him ear­lier

DRUM - - Fiction -

PEO­PLE called him “the beg­gar” but his name was Martin. It’s not that I knew him – I didn’t – but his name was writ­ten in bold let­ters on a piece of card­board: “Hi. I’m Martin. I am hun­gry. Please give money for food.” This sign never left his chest and every time I passed by him in the car I dropped a coin or a note, de­pend­ing on how fi­nan­cially sta­ble I was at that stage of the month, into his out­stretched hand.

Some­times I gave him food so that I knew the man who had noth­ing and no one was at least go­ing to eat some­thing that day.

The weird thing was I never ac­tu­ally heard him say thank you and I be­came con­vinced he was an un­ap­pre­cia­tive, hard­ened man of the streets. Yet I kept on giv­ing to him – maybe be­cause it made me feel bet­ter.

One day as I was driv­ing to work, I no­ticed Martin wasn’t at his usual spot by the side of the road.

This was the first time in years that I hadn’t seen him, so I asked other home­less peo­ple and the se­cu­rity guards that worked nearby if they knew his where­abouts. No one could give me a clear an­swer.

A few days later I spot­ted a piece of card­board ly­ing on by the side of the road.

It had been rain­ing and the sign was cov­ered in mud but I was sure it was Martin’s.

Now I re­ally started to worry – some­thing ter­ri­ble must have hap­pened to him. I stopped the car and got out to have a closer look.

“Ex­cuse me, ma’am, have you lost some­thing?” a se­cu­rity guard from the big of­fice block nearby asked.

“Not re­ally, sir. I just no­ticed this card – I know the man who used to wear it but I haven’t seen him for days.”

“Oh! You mean that beg­gar who used to sit on the cor­ner with that sign on his chest?

“I know who you mean but the com­mu­nity mem­bers chased him away. They

took his sign and threw it away too but it must have washed back down the road af­ter last night’s heavy rain.”

“So, do you know what hap­pened to him? Where did he go?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know him. He never spoke to any­one. I can only tell you what I saw hap­pen on that day.”

I left feel­ing sad that no one seemed to care about this man. For the next few weeks I made an ef­fort to search the streets for his face every time I made my way to work.

MONTHS passed and I was start­ing to for­get that a guy called Martin had ever ex­isted. But then one day I saw him, sit­ting alone on a bench. I pulled the car over and made my way to him.

“Hello there, Martin. You sure know how to hide your­self, don’t you?” I smiled at him.

He just looked up at me with those big brown eyes with­out say­ing a sin­gle word.

“Martin, that is your name, right? Where have you been all this time? I looked all over for you.”

Still he said noth­ing but he started to shake and his face crum­bled as tears s l id down hi s cheeks.

“Are you okay? How can I help you? Do you need food, money? Say some­thing!”

A smartly-dressed woman ap­proached me.

“Hey lady, stay away from that man, he’s psy­chotic. What are you do­ing with him? Can’t you see he’s crazy?”

I tried to be po­lite. “You’re mis­taken. This man wouldn’t hurt a fly. Martin, talk to me please. Tell me what’s both­er­ing you and how I can help?”

His body was still shak­ing but he man­aged to pull some­thing out of a torn pocket on his jacket. It was a photo of a woman hold­ing a beau­ti­ful lit­tle baby boy.

He gave it to me and when I turned the photo over I saw there was a num­ber writ­ten on the back. It was dif­fi­cult to read but I could just about make out all 10 dig­its.

Martin was mov­ing his hands and seemed to be try­ing to tell me to call the

num­ber, which was when it suddenly dawned on me. “Oh! Martin, you can’t speak, can you?” He nod­ded and a look of relief swept over his face.

ITOOK out my phone and di­alled the num­ber. It rang a cou­ple of times and then a small, tired voice an­swered. “This is Mary, how can I help you?” “Hi Mary. My name is Nthabiseng. I have a man with me with a pic­ture of a woman and child and it has your num­ber writ­ten on the back. His name is Martin. Do you know him?

“What? No. It can’t be. Martin has gone. We lost him five years ago. There must be some mis­take.”

“Mary, you must be wrong. This man can’t speak for him­self oth­er­wise I’d put him on the phone to talk to you. He has your pic­ture and I think you should come.”

“He can’t speak? Then it’s him – it is my Martin. Tell me where you are and I’m com­ing right now.”

About an hour later, a blonde woman stepped out of a Jeep. I recog­nised her from the pic­ture im­me­di­ately.

“Martin,” she called out with feel­ing. She walked over, crouched down and

gen­tly took the man in her arms. They held on to each other for what seemed like an eter­nity and then Mary re­cov­ered her com­po­sure. “How can I ever thank you?” she asked. “Our son is about to start pre-school with­out know­ing his fa­ther. I thought he died five years ago.

“He’s sup­posed to take medication for a mental dis­or­der and, to make things worse, he’s also mute.

“If you’d not shown him the kind­ness of try­ing to un­der­stand him, Martin would never have pulled that pic­ture out of his pocket and we’d still be­lieve he was lost for­ever.”

MARTIN and Mary re­turned home and once again started their life to­gether with their son. We mes­saged each other reg­u­larly and af­ter a few months Mary asked if I’d like to come and visit.

When I ar­rived, I barely recog­nised Martin. There was no trace of the beg­gar I’d first met on the side of the road. His face was smooth, his eyes bright and he had a warm, wel­com­ing smile. His son, who had turned five years old, was the spit­ting im­age of his dad.

Even though he couldn’t say any­thing to me, I could see Martin was happy and grate­ful for what I’d done for him.

Now he was back on his medication and could be a hus­band and a fa­ther again. He was able to pick up his son and carry him in his arms. He could hold his wife’s hand and they could walk in the park to­gether.

He was able to be­gin again and try to make up for the time he’d lost. He could put the past few years be­hind him and start to make won­der­ful new mem­o­ries with his fam­ily.

I left our meet­ing feel­ing hap­pier than I’d ever felt. The joy of re­unit­ing them was over­whelm­ing but I couldn’t help but feel a lit­tle ashamed that I hadn’t done it sooner.

If only I’d taken a few min­utes to try to talk to Martin when I’d first met him, rather than just giv­ing him food or money, then they would have been back to­gether much sooner.

So many peo­ple had shunned this man be­cause of his cir­cum­stances and the way he looked. I thought he was un­ap­pre­cia­tive be­cause he never said thank you, and my ignorance cost him valu­able time away from the ones he loved.

Now I re­alised that every book has a cover page, but it’s not as im­por­tant as the mes­sage writ­ten in­side it. We lead busy lives but in the end it only took me a few min­utes of my day to help Martin get off the streets and back to the life he was sup­posed to be liv­ing.

‘Stay away from that man, he’s psy­chotic. What are you do­ing with him? Can’t you see he’s crazy?’

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