He stank. Rank sweat, scruffy shirt, pants that shone with aged dirt and a pair of shoes that held together more by road dirt and sweat than by stitching. Unshaven with hair that looked like it once had dreadlocks but which had subsequently lost a battle with a lawn mower. The policeman sits him in the chair opposite me more gently than I would have expected. We stare at each other for a few moments. I stick out a hand, “Roelof Smidt”.
He looks slightly surprised, takes my hand. “Jan Abrahams.”
“Ok Mr Abrahams. I am your court appointed lawyer.” I hesitate for a moment. “You took a bit of a beating? Who was it.”
“The guys in the alley and then the Boere when they arrested me.”
The policeman remains completely unmoved. I am impressed.
I look at the policeman. “Can you leave us please?”
He looks doubtful.
“He is not in any condition to take me on. I will be fine.”
He nods and leaves us alone.
“I have read your statement, but I want to hear you tell the story.”
“All of it? Again? What for. Waste of time.”
He has that easy, musical Cape Town accent that is so difficult for non Cape Town residents to follow with its eclectic mix of English, Afrikaans and slang words whose meanings seem to change from area to area.
I nod. “All of it.”
He scratches idly at his side, lifting the shirt and scratching absent mindedly.
“I found a nice little niche up an alley near that larny Bed n Breakfast. Dark corner but with a security guard on the end of the road. He didn’t see me sneak through. Distracted by chatting up Rosy, one of the street women.”
I nod. “And?”
“I had a nice trench coat from a lady up in Tamboerskloof. Nice and warm. Padded too. Get a good nights sleep in it. Gone now I guess. I was not wearing it when I got arrested.”
He scratches at his hair, catches something and crushes it.
“This guy and a woman come into the alley. He is a bit drunk and is kinda dragging her. She keeps saying “No, No” but he ignores her. Gets her up against the wall. Starts grabbing her under her skirt. She tries to fight him off. He bangs her against the wall.”
He pauses. Thinking.
“She reminded me of my kid Danny last time I saw her. Beautiful, skinny, broad hips.” he sighs. “I haven’t seen Danny for 3 years now. Not since her Ma threw me out. Drunk I was. Booze is my failing.”
“What happened then?” I prompt finding myself warming to this strange man.
“I hit him with my stick.”
“You got up off your coat. Did you tell him to stop?”
“Yeah. Shouted at him to leave her alone. He told me to fuck off. So I hit him with my stick. You mustn’t swear in front of a woman. It just isn’t right”
I nod. Wait patiently.
“He lets her go and tries to hit me, but I dodge. I shout at the woman “Run Missy!” and I shoulder charge him and he goes down hard. Unbalanced I guess.”
That stops me dead in my tracks. Shoulder charge. He doesn’t look like a rugby player.
Seeing me looking quizzically at him he says: “Played first team for my school. Tight head.”
I nod. “And then?”
“She runs away out of the alley and he starts hitting me and shouting about muggers. His two buddies arrive and that’s all she wrote. Cops arrived and arrested me. Laid charges.”
“You know that the man, Ian Jessop, says there was no woman and you tried to mug him. Hit him with a stick and he was rescued by his friends.”
“Well, he would wouldn’t he?” This is no longer funny. A street beggar, quoting Christine Keeler mimicking a rather posh English accent.
“No one saw this?”
“Dunno. I was too busy trying to stay alive.”
“Rosy and the Security Man? Gone.”
“I guess so. So no one to back you up?”
He shakes his head. “Lets just plead guilty and get the farce over. Government hotel for me for a year.”
“Prosecutor is calling for 5. Not a short stretch.”
That stops him in his tracks
“Five years? Fuck that is not ok.”
“Ok, do you have anyone who can do a nice character witness thing for you?”
His head is hanging forward, devastated, he just shakes his head.
“They all hate me.”
He stands up and shouts “Guard!” and is gone before I can say another word.
I walk through my the rest of my day in a kind of stupor. I like Jan Abrahams, I understand him better than he realises, I was just lucky, he wasn’t. I try to forget, but I can’t.
9 pm finds me on Kloof St outside the alley the fight took place. The security man on the night club is a foreigner and probably working illegally in the country. He is huge, friendly and completely unable to remember a fight in the alley. He does remembers it being very busy that evening. I show him the picture.
“Ag, that’s old Jan. Hasn’t been around for some time. Story goes he is in jail. Was it him in the fight?”
I nod and he shakes his head.
“Strange. I never made him for a fighter. Always polite. He used to sneak up the alley to sleep. I didn’t bust him for it. Trusted him I did.”
We are about to part when I ask him if any strange things have happened since then.
He cocks his head, thinks for a while then shakes his head.
As I am walking away, he calls me back.
“A woman, red hair 1.7 m arrived a few nights ago. Recognised her as being with one of our regular customers sometime recently. She looking for a man “in a trench coat” who sounded like Jan. I told her I knew nothing.”
“Where would a frightened woman go if she ran out of that alley?” I ask.
He looks at me carefully. Looks up and down a relatively quiet Kloof St.
“Not in here. Too slow. Would have to get into a queue.” He pauses. “Da Vinci’s next door? Big place, easy access. Toilets to hide in.”
We shake hands and I get the feeling I have passed a test and been given information that he did not really want to reveal.
Da Vinci’s is bright, noisy and buzzing. A cheerful woman with long dreads and a huge smile greets me as I enter.
“Table for one?” she says looking around.
“No, I have a question to ask someone who was on duty here last Friday night.”
She pauses. Suddenly there is large man standing at my elbow. Not threatening, but I get the feeling things could get ugly if I didn’t behave. I take a deep breath.
“I am a lawyer.” The looks on their faces does not bode well for the rest of the conversation.
Quickly “I am representing one of the street people, Jan Abrahams.” The guy at my shoulder nods to the back.
“Come this way.”
We end up in a store room.
“Is he in jail?”
“For?” I hesitate.
“Jan is a good man. Don’t mess me around.”
“Jan? Common assault? BS! Jan is not capable of that. What is the story.”
I tell him both sides of the story and I wait. The silence stretches.
“Bastards. Wait here. No, come with me.”
We end up back at the reception desk and a rapid conversation takes place in Xhosa. The woman retrieves a piece of paper and hands it to me.
“A woman with red hair came running in here. Asked us to hide her until she could summon a taxi. We put her in the store room. And Lucky here took a break and leant against the door until the taxi came. Escorted her out to the taxi. Monday, she came back, early evening. Asked if we knew where we could find Jan; “the man in the trench coat” is how she described him.”
“She gave us that number. Told us she wanted to say thank you to Jan. He had saved her. Told us to call when we found him. Any time.”
Lucky and I go outside and I haul my cell phone out and call the number on the piece of paper. I put it on speaker so Lucky can hear
Soft lilting almost Irish sounding voice.
“I am standing with Lucky outside Da Vinci’s”
There is a soft whisper “Jan?”
I tell my story again.
She listens without interruption. I finish talking. There is silence for nearly a minute.
“Please stay there. I am on my way.”
They find me a table right at the back of the restaurant and I wait. A glass of beer appears and Lucky is gone again. Then Suzie arrives. Tall willowy red head. Makes my eyes water. I stand up trying not to knock over the table or the beer. She shakes my hand and sits down.
“Tell me the whole story again please. I have some questions.”
She listens to me closely. Listening to every word. Questioning any inconsistencies.
“I am the woman he saved and Peter Butler the man who caused all this trouble.”
I ask her to tell her story from the beginning.
“Peter and I had only just met and he invited me to the fancy night club place. When we got there Peter was already quite drunk and started trying to touch me up in the lounge. I rejected him and tried to phone for a taxi. He kept breaking the call. I got up to leave and he followed me. Grabbed me by the arm and dragged me down that terrible alley. Held me against the wall and started to touch me all over. I told him no, I tried to push him away but he was too strong. Then Jan intervened. He told Peter to stop. Pushed him over on his back, hit him with a stick. Told me to run. And I did. I hid in the Da Vinci store room till my taxi came. Peter has not called me since that night. Afraid I might start asking awkward questions. Rock his neat little boat. Bastard.”
We go to the police station. She makes a sworn statement for me supporting Jan’s store and then insists we lay charges of perjury against Peter and his accomplices.