The styrofoam box of fish and chips was hot in my hands as I looked for a place to sit. Not the fancy fish and chips you buy at branded franchise outlets in malls, but the huge portions of fried snoek and real slap chips that swim in salt and vinegar, that you find at old-style Take Aways with Coca-Cola signboards. I sat down on a bench at a table next to a woman and a small child and started eating the steaming chips, careful not to burn but too hungry to wait for it to cool down.
I sat quietly among the shoppers walking past, and other people eating piles of chips and chattering away at their tables. The little girl, who was probably not yet two years old, pulled at my jacket with a tiny hand.
”No, don’t…” the mother said.
”Its okay,” I said. The little girl was too small for her age, and I didn’t want to think about why, because we know…
“Can I give her a chip?” I asked.
“Yes, thank you.”
I took one of the cooler ones at the side of the box and held it out to the child. She stuffed it into her mouth with a smile. I pushed the box to the middle of the table and told them to have some. We ate together.
I looked at the stick-thin woman with the torn clothes. She looked like someone who was waiting. Physically waiting, but maybe also waiting on another level, as if she knew something had to change but didn’t know how.
“Thank you,” she said shyly. “I looked in the bin but there was nothing.”
I didn’t really know what to say. I went with, “Eat enough, there is plenty here.”
”I am waiting for my aunty,” she said, looking around. “She should have been here by now.”
I still had nothing to say. The little girl was also quiet, helping herself to handfuls of slap chips.
“I sleep there, just down the road,” the mother said, and looked away, ashamed.
“By the bridge?” I asked and she nodded.
“It must be very hard. The nights are getting colder now.”
She nodded again and started to say something, stopped, and then decided to say it anyway.
“She is going to stay with my aunty,” she says, tilting her head toward the child. “While I go to form. I must sort out my life. Get a job…”
“Form?” I asked.
“Where people go to get rid of the… uhm… dagga and stuff in their bodies, and get well again.”
“Ah, rehab,” I said. “Do you guys call it form?”
She nodded. Embarrassed again, but then suddenly, just sad.
“Yes, form. I have to. I love her too much to carry on like this.”
I looked at them. A child, oblivious to everything but the food on the table. So used to the only life she knows that she thinks that is how life should be. A broken young woman, ashamed, despondent.
“Tik?” I asked. It is the relatively cheap drug of choice here in the Cape and it doesn’t take much guessing to know.
She looked into my eyes, looking for judgment and unkindness that wasn’t there.
“Uh-huh,” she said, barely loud enough for me to hear.
“Yes, that is something one shouldn’t start…” I stated it as a fact, not a judgment.
“I don’t know why I started. I was stupid.”
“And tik is hard to stop…” I said.
“The only way is to get away from the friends and the people doing it,” she agreed with a nod while taking more potato chips.
“They are not your friends,” I said, gently. “Friends don’t drag you down. And most of all, they don’t keep you down. You are just used to them, they are not your friends. But you know that.”
She nodded. “It’s true.”
We sat in silence for a while. She looked around again, worried as time ticked on.
“I wonder where my Aunty is.”
I got my stuff together and got up to leave.
“You two must eat the rest of that,” I said, moving the box to their side of the table.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
“Work hard at it,” I told her. “It is very difficult, but you can do it if you want to. Do it for your child, and for yourself. Just… hang in and… ”
Tears welled up in her eyes and she looked down, biting her lip.
I touched her bony shoulder. “ I can see you want to, and you know what? You can. I am a stranger and I don’t know you, but I can see that about you. You can do it because your child is important to you.”
She silently wiped her tears and nodded again. I honestly don’t know if I really meant what I said, because of the darkness in myself at that time. In a way, I think I did mean it because that was what she needed to hear and what I needed to say. Maybe we saw each other’s darkness and therefore, words about light, somewhere, somehow just needed to be thought out, formed, said and heard. Perhaps I said these words to myself as much as I said it to her and believed it – or not – as much as I could at that moment, at that time in my life.
When I came out of the bank and walk past again, 10 minutes later, an older woman, presumably the Aunty, was there with them. She had the child in her arms and the girl and the mother were both crying.
I often wonder about them. For many, they would probably just be three more people with a story that is the same for thousands of people. Like just about everyone else I am cynical about people and about life, but these people touched me that day. We had lunch together. We talked, and it was real. Something in me that does not really exist any more hopes for a good ending to their story. Or a good beginning for them. A twist in the tale. I desperately need to believe in twists right now and it is harder than ever before.