Today’s blog is a story. A true story. A lovely story, in its way.
Friday morning. We have a meeting at 10am to discuss the launch of the
library the next day. We persuaded the City of Joburg to postpone what was to
be a weekday launch with a few invited guests and rather to have it on the
weekend with activities to attract people – especially children – to the idea
of reading. The meeting is to do some last-minute planning with the Library
Services people who have risen to the occasion and are trying to work with us
to make it a good event.
George Lebone, chairperson of the Yeoville Stakeholders Forum (YSF) is
supposed to come to the meeting, but he says he needs to slip across town to
Helen Joseph Hospital to make arrangements to go there later and pick up his medication.
He says that, if he went in my car, he could be back in time for the
meeting. I agree.
I go to the meeting after doing some work for it – getting shop owners
to agree to the closing of the street to traffic for the duration of the launch
and the community activities. George is there and afterwards he tells me how –
as often happens in Yeoville Bellevue – life has taken a different turn and
there’s a new challenge to deal with.
It seems that, when he came out to get my car earlier, he saw a young black
guy – turns out he’s a Zimbabwean, in South Africa for about a year – trying to
help an old white guy who was lying on the ground, badly hurt (it’s not yet
clear how he got hurt, whether he was attacked or knocked down by a car).
George tells the young Zimbabwean – who bears the unlikely name of Ivan
Knife – that he is on his way to the hospital and that he can take the old man
with him to get treatment. Ivan agrees and together they help the old man into
the car, Ivan insisting that he go along as well, even though he had been on
his way to meet a friend with whom he was going to go out and look for a piece
At the hospital, George attends to his business and then comes back to
Yeoville Bellevue, telling Ivan that he will be back later.
As it happens, I had planned to take Thammy, our office administrator, out to
lunch to celebrate her birthday, so after the meeting, I tell George we can
drop him back at the hospital to pick up his meds. Then, when he and Ivan and
the old man are ready, we can go and pick them up. So Thammy and I go off to
lunch in Melville, after dropping George at the hospital. It was good lunch,
the first time she has eaten Indian food.
We reconnect with George a little later and agree to go over to the
hospital. But it seems the hospital is not yet finished with the old man. They
want to do more tests. He is sitting in the waiting room looking very much the
worse for wear, his head bandaged, his face swollen. George tells me he has
twice ripped out the drip the hospital put in.
George wants me to take a look at him and see if I recognise him. I
don’t. He is sitting on a hospital chair, looking very confused and unhappy. He
is wearing Ivan’s jersey. He was cold and Ivan offered him the jersey, leaving
himself in a short-sleeved shirt in the cold autumn air. We agree to leave the
old man there to have other tests done and to try and track down his family or
Ivan and George try to get some information from him. He says his name
is Sam Hill*, his wife is Mary* and he has three daughters, who he names.
He says he lives in Derby St in Bertrams, somewhere in or near the railway
The four of us – myself, George, Thammy and Ivan – head
off to Bertrams to see what we can find. To tell the truth, the old man is in
such bad shape that we assume (totally incorrectly, as it turns out) that he
could be a hobo or at least a man down on his luck, living in poor conditions,
perhaps a serious drinker. So we head for the railway houses and stop a couple
of white guys wandering down the street, looking as if they might just have
left a bar somewhere. They are obliging, but not of much help. They don’t know
him. But they point us to the old age home down the road where there are a
couple of people standing outside, including a woman who was once probably quite
beautiful, but whose face is now ravaged by hard times and alcohol. They don’t know
him either, though there is much speculation about who he might be. They direct
us to a house on the corner where, they say, there are people who know everyone
in the area.
At this house, there are four or five whites sitting in the front
garden, selling a variety of goods, including second-hand clothes, sweets,
airtime, cigarettes and such. The fence is collapsing, the garden dusty and
undergrown. Colour their faces black and they could be from the one of the
broken-down houses dotted around Yeoville Bellevue.
They can’t place Mr Hill. They don’t recognise the name. Anyway, they say, everyone around here has a nickname, so we wouldn’t know the name anyway. We are directed to Johnny’s shop in Derby Rd. He’s likely to know. As we drive away, Thammy, a young black South African celebrating her 22nd birthday, says she has never seen whites so down and out. She is somewhat shocked.
Johnny can’t help. But he says there’s a coloured woman sitting outside
who knows everything about everyone around here. She looks at the pixellated
cell phone picture we took of Mr Hill’s battered face and shakes her own
alcohol-ravaged head and says she doesn’t know him. Johnny has suggested we go
to an open field where there is a line of mattresses – perhaps our Mr Hill
camps out there. We go down there, but have no luck.
Defeated, we decide to drop still jerseyless Ivan off in Bez Valley. Thammy and I go to the office to close up and then George drops me at home and heads back to the hospital to pick up Mr Hill. Perhaps he will be able to direct George to the right place.
Much later I get a call from an excited George. He went to pick up Mr Hill. He had
some difficulty persuading a white fellow called Robbie to let him take Mr Hill. Robbie feels protective towards the old man and is worried about the motives of this black apparent taxi driver (George is driving my VW Microbus, remember?) who wants to take Mr Hill away. George drives Mr Hill to Bertrams, hoping he will be able to direct him to the right place.
As they drive past Johnny’s cafe, the woman (still) sitting in front runs into
the road screaming to George to stop. He does. She excitedly brandishes a
leaflet in his face. It seems that, just after we left, someone came to the
shop handing out missing person leaflets – the missing person being Mr Hill.
The woman tells them that we have been there, enquiring about him, but she has
no idea who we are or where we’ve gone. The leaflet says the old man went
missing the day before, from Berea, it says. It also says that he may not
remember who he is.
Johnny lets George use his phone to call up one of the three numbers on
the leaflet, which carries a picture of the old man, arm in arm with a glimpse
of two young women, probably his daughters. George calls and arranges to meet
with the Hill family at Eastgate, where there is an emotional hand-over of
the battered old man. The family is delighted and demand to have Ivan’s phone
number. They call him and thank him profusely. It seems they might offer him
George comes back to Yeoville, tired but happy that there is a happy
ending to the story. Some things are still not clear. How did the old man go
missing in Berea, when the family appear to live in Bedfordview? If they all
live in Berea, why did they choose to meet George at Eastgate? How did he end
up on the corner of Rockey and Raymond St in Bellevue? What caused the terrible
wound on his head?
It’s not really important. The main thing is that, thanks to a series of fortunate factors – George using my car to go to the hospital at just the time that Ivan discovered the distressed Mr Hill, Ivan arriving on the scene and giving up his own plans to take care of this old white man he had never seen before, our band of four investigators ending up at Johnny’s cafe, the family happening to drop a leaflet at the same place just after we left, George driving past there later with Mr Hill – the old man is back with his family. In this big, sometimes ugly, often cruel and heartless city, we have stumbled into a simple act of human kindness.
The story doesn’t end there. Sunday is Mother’s Day. My partner’s mother
arrives for a drop of champagne and some afternoon lunch. And the last pieces
of the puzzle fall into place.
She lives in Nazareth House at the top of Yeoville, on its border with
Berea. Nazareth House is a Catholic Old Age Home, hospice and HIV/AIDS support
facility. She tells us that Mr Hill is a resident there. On Thursday, as the gate opened for
someone coming into the property, Mr Hill stepped out and headed down the
street. When he was asked if he was supposed to go out, he boldly said yes.
Mr Hill has Alzheimer’s Disease – this is why the leaflet cautioned
that he may not know his name. But he did – and that of his wife and children.
And he remembered that he lived in or near the railway houses in Bertrams.
But that was 19 years ago.
*Not their real names