The stranger in the street

2011-11-18 00:00

SOME time back, early one morning, I was upstairs at my computer. It was darkish outside, not yet dawn and with only one light on inside the house, I was on what must have looked like a stage set from the street.

Two chubby joggers stopped at my gate and I heard one say that he, meaning me, must have a telephone book. I went onto the balcony and said I did have one, and what did they want? “There is someone over there who is lost,” gesturing to the person behind them, “who is looking for Olaf Pretorius who lives in Essenwood Road. Can you help?”

I’d once met Olaf, who is an architect, and found his details in the directory and fluttered them down to them on a scrap of paper. This house is 125 and that one somewhere up in the 600s, so would be way up the other end of the road.

Suddenly the gateway was filled by a huge man, a little past middle age, dressed only in lemon and sky-blue bathing trunks, bottle-bottom glasses, shoes and socks.

He said, contemptuously, that he wasn’t looking for Olaf Pretorius, but, in fact, Olaf’s son, Anton.

The joggers fled chuckling.

He said that he was at the end of his tether. He had been walking all night and was finding South Africa, as General Smuts had said, a very strange society.

Was I Jewish? he asked. No, I said. Why?

He was, he said. His name was Daniel Lurie and did the name Harry Lurie mean anything to me?

No, I said. The only Luries I knew were Aubrey and Hannah Lurie. Do they mean any­thing to you?

When he said they didn’t, I realised he could not have been from Durban. Ask Aubrey Lurie is on For Sale boards everywhere.

But, he went on. He happened to be Harry Lurie’s father who had some connection with Katz and Lourie the jewellers.

There are Luries and Louries I realised and dropped the subject.

He told me he lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was a librarian there, and had arrived the previous evening after a very tiring flight from Zurich and Johannesburg.

He was confused, very cross and almost rude, this near-naked man in a bathing costume and a tiny handbag gripped in his armpit. The thought crossed my mind as I asked him inside to help sort out his problems that he might have had a gun in the bag. But it was only a passing thought.

I’d not yet been downstairs and the bottom of the house was still in darkness and while I was opening the blinds in the front and the shutters on the side, he was turning on the lights as if at home.

I asked him what he wanted me to do for him as clearly he was distressed.


I suggested that he phone Olaf to find out where the son was. “It’s easier to phone a number in China than it is here. What’s the trouble with you all? Frightened of the natives?”

Anton was not in the book, but eventually he agreed to phoning the father who was, but only if I would dial as he said he couldn’t see.

It rang and I handed him the receiver. He flopped down into the seat. He was brusque with Olaf, wondering whether the son was in the army, why he wasn’t at the house, and, no, of course, he didn’t expect him to be there if he had his own apartment. Was the number he was being given by Olaf a street number or a telephone number, and so on.

And in-between he continued talking to me, complaining about how disorganised we all were in this country. I said that perhaps he had a point. I’d been to Santa Barbara and found the Durban telephone book in the library there but thought he wouldn’t even find the Johannesburg one in ours.

“So tell me then, which is the greater country, the United States or Durban?” The question was rhetorical and didn’t need an answer.

After the call, he, this very big man with a stomach hanging over his trunks, still slumped in the chair, simply dropped the receiver onto the floor.

He wandered on about travelling to the East, had I been there? “Yes,” I said, “Japan.”

“I mean the Eastern Bloc, Hungary, Poland, and Russia.”

“No,” I said. My reply was ignored.

He wished he’d brought his American passport and not his British one. He’d lived for a while in Hampstead, he said, in Church Row, and talked about the library close by in Arkwright Road where he’d recently worked, and which I happened to know from my years as an art student living with my Aunt Ruth. Why, I wondered, had he mentioned all of this to me. But there was no time to find out. He’d changed the subject. He said he’d, in packing, left his address book in Cambridge, hence his problems.

He’d found “the natives” here “insolent”, but added that he had to admit to “a touch of colour prejudice” and had had difficulty “with Indian and Jesuit taxi drivers”.

I wanted to ask where his clothes were but I could not get through the barrage of words and insults.

Having got Anton’s number, I made him phone it. I gathered from hearing this side of the conversation that Anton was not happy to hear from Daniel. And surprised. Anton, it seemed, had spent some time in his apartment in Cambridge, Mass. And, it would seem, very recently.

Reading between the lines, I imagined a conversation which went like: “Thank you, Daniel, here’s my address. Look me up when or if you come to South Africa,” but never expecting it to happen.

“Anton, do you know who this is?” he said on the phone. “Anton do you remember staying with me for five days? I’m coming over right away. Anton, I know it might be inconvenient, but I’m sitting here in a bathing costume and I’d rather be embarrassed on your doorstep than here.”

Daniel asked me where he was, at this moment. He’d not asked who I was but referred to me as “this man here”. But he did want to know how far Currie Road was, and told Anton that I had kindly agreed to drive him there.

I could feel Anton playing for time, but Daniel was determined.

The phone call done, we went across to the car park.

‘”What car have you got?”

When he heard it was a Mazda he said he would not get his “elephantine bulk” into it. And nearly didn’t.

Aidan, upstairs, woken by the noise of the argument between two people and me, wondered what the shouting was about. When he’d heard the front door slam he went onto the balcony and saw a fat man in shorts and a pink shirt (the pink was, in fact, his skin) and me. He watched us get into the car and leave. Later he said he wondered if I were being kidnapped.

Driving along Currie Road, Daniel said how pretty Durban was compared with Johannesburg. “It’s the Garden of Eden,” I said, and regretted it immediately as it sounded pretentious. “Put a stick in the ground and tomorrow you’ll have a tree,” made matters worse.

He said that I must excuse him if he sounded petulant but that he was exhausted.

“Do you know where we are going?” He was convinced that he’d written down the wrong address.

I said nothing but drove to where I thought the block was, but went too far and passed it by mistake. He said that he couldn’t stand it and would I concentrate and get him there.

It was now round seven, and people were leaving Monthaven, going to work and I was at the end of their driveway with a semi-naked man, he with shoes and a handbag, me barefoot, in shorts and unshaven.

‘’How do I know where his flat is?’’ I said as it was 306 in the telephone book, it would have to be on the top floor as it was a three-storied block.

No, he wouldn’t accept that, he might have got the wrong number. I’d have to go up with him.

I noticed in the lobby the name, A. Pretorius, on post box 306 and sprinted up the stairs, with the big man huffing and puffing behind me.

He knocked on 300, 301, 302, 303 and then banged impatiently on 305 and asked the woman if a Mr Pretorius lived next door. She didn’t know and slammed the door.

I got to 306 first, tapped lightly, and waited. Daniel huffed up behind me and banged loudly. A young man, squeaky clean as an aftershave advertisement, was patting his face dry. He had on a yellow T-shirt and shorts.

They recognised each other, but little was said as Daniel stormed past him into the flat.

Anton put out his hand and asked how I happened to be part of this.

I explained briefly. “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll have so see what I can do.”

And that was that. There is nothing more. I, to this day, have heard not a word from Daniel, Anton or Olaf.

Stories have neat endings, reality loose ends.

Fiction is one thing, life another.

The names of people and places have not been changed.

About the author 

ANDREW VERSTER is a painter, living and working in Durban, a writer of short stories, articles and radio plays. He designs sets and theatre costumes. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Durban University of Technology and has had over 40 solo exhibitions, and three retrospective exhibitions.

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