“My name’s Martin,” he said as we crossed Bree Street. It was around 9.20pm on Thursday night, and dark. In La Parada, the beautiful people were busy eating tapas and enjoying wine. I was neither beautiful nor successful; I had lost my parking ticket and I was a mess. A lost ticket costs R90 at the Riebeeck Square parking lot, and I had R82.
“There’s an ATM at the hospital,” the woman at the booth said. I went there, but couldn’t find it. Street kids trailed me, nagging, sensing weakness. The security guard at the parking lot agreed to accompany me to the ATM. “Put your bag in the boot,” he advised. The less you carry with you, the better.
We found the ATM, but it was out of order. My heart sank. We walked down the street to find another one, but it was locked behind security gates and chains.
I cursed myself. I am always losing parking tickets. It costs me a fortune, and I hate myself because it’s such a stupid thing to do, so wasteful and unnecessary, and a reminder that three years after 2010, the year I spent medicated to the gills with severe anxiety, my memory hasn’t recovered and probably never will.
He made soothing noises. We agreed that if I couldn’t find my ticket after another search of my rented Hyundai, I’d drive him to another ATM, and get the money. He told me his name, and I promptly forgot it.
“I’ll pay in the difference,” he said.
“No.” I was adamant. He probably earned a pittance, and I wasn’t going to have him pay for my stupidity.
Back in the car, I scrabbled frantically through the Byzantine compartments of my rucksack. Out came the laptop, the GPS, the mifi, the cables and chargers that connect me to the world. Chewing gum and lipstick and pens, a hairbrush, my wallet. I peered at every piece of cardboard to emerge from the chaos. Nothing.
I wept extravagantly. The voice of my ex-husband emerged from a tinny radio somewhere in my head, where he still has timeshare even though he lives another life on the other side of the world. You’re so irresponsible Sarah, he said sternly. What went through your head when you took that ticket? Please, explain to me how, when you took that ticket from the machine, you managed to lose it.
Maybe, I thought, maybe I should just sit in this car all night and find an ATM in the morning. I sat and sat and sat, not wanting to do anything.
Eventually I hauled myself out of the car. “I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re going to have to drive to an ATM.”
“You know what,” he said, “You’ve had a horrible day. You can pay R82. It’s OK.”
I wanted to hug him.
“Thank you so much,” I said, and climbed back into the car, and reversed awkwardly and drove off into the night.
Later, in bed, I thought about how kind he had been. He didn’t have to be. I was pathetic and annoying, a heaving gelatinous mess of weepiness and self-pity. And yet he had shown compassion.
The next day, I decided to buy him a gift to say thank you. Not because kindness should be rewarded, because that is not how the world should work. But I wanted him to feel acknowledged. That a silly, self-involved tourist who lives a life of immense privilege relative to his could see through her own drama to his decency, and make an effort to tell him about it.
I worried that I wouldn’t see him again, that he wouldn’t be on shift on Friday night, and that any gift I left for him would be distributed among others who hadn’t done anything to deserve it. In the new Pick n Pay at the V&A Waterfront, heaving with shoppers and R18 bars of artisanal toffee, I chose a card, and then things I imagined he would enjoy sharing with his family: biscuits, chocolates, sweets. Treats otherwise difficult to justify on a small salary.
I warned my host that I was running late and drove to Riebeeck Square, hoping against hope and afraid that when I got there, it would all be for nothing and I would feel empty and stupid all over again, especially because I had tweeted about it. If you tweet, it will come to pass.
I drove into the entrance, yanked the ticket spat out at the boom. The woman in the booth was not the same as last night, I noticed.
I filled in the card and signed it. I described myself as “the lady” rather than “the woman” because that’s probably the language he would have used. I walked up to the guard, holding the gift. When does the shift change? I asked.
Six o’clock in the morning, he said.
“Were you the guard here last night?” I asked.
“Yes, I was here,” he said.
My heart lifted.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” I said, “but I was the lady in the Hyundai, who lost the parking ticket, and you were nice to me, and I wanted to say thank you.”
His eyes lit up. I apologised for forgetting his name.
“You were kind to me,” I said, trying not to get too emotional again. “So I got you a present.”
His eyes widened. I took the photo.
“Can I give you a hug?” he asked.
“Of course,” I smiled.
So we hugged: with two arms. A committed hug. No awkwardness at all.
I walked back to the rented Hyundai on a high. This was so much better than I had hoped for, and I was so very glad I had driven back. As I paid to get out — another R30 — he came up to me and said he had read the card, and that it meant a lot to him. We wished each other well, and I like to think that in that moment we made the world a tiny little bit better.
Of course I found the ticket the next day, in amidst a clump of business cards for the framers who mount my work. In the dark, I’d managed to miss it. All of that angst for nothing. But thanks to that missing ticket, I’d connected with someone worth connecting to. I got to see the goodness in someone when I might have missed it. That’s worth something.