A few minutes to spare
When a desperate-looking man disappears from his usual hangout, Nthabiseng regrets not helping him earlier
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?’