He’s Innocent.

Ask him who he is, he’ ll tell you he’s Innocent.

One day a man came to our door looking for help. He was out of work, supporting his younger brother, and he needed to open a bank account so that he could invest any potential salary he might earn. He showed us his ID (identity document), a valuable item to own in South Africa where access to any kind of social welfare or grant scheme meant you had to prove your permanency as a citizen of the country. He wanted to use it as collateral, as a bond or a trust that he was legit. We asked him what he needed. He said with R200 he could open a bank account, and he would also use some of that money to buy electricity, another valuable service that meant the consumer had a permanent residence to which an electricity account was connected. All of this was very real to us, the nearness we felt all of a sudden to a reality far from our own. At the time we felt we could afford to loan him the money, to float him some cash that he would repay once he was up and running. I went out and drew the cash having told him to return in the evening to collect it. We didn’t keep his ID as much as he insisted we do. We felt that he was legit and wouldn’t make the offer if he intended to screw us.

The next time we saw him he rang the bell and we met him at our gate. This time he immediately pushed his ID over at us while reminding us his name. This time though he was noticeably drunk, slurring, unable to focus. The electricity had run out at his home. No mention of his brother this time, and we didn’t bring it up either, forgetting that detail while listening to his fresh plea for some money. We could have his ID as collateral. I asked him if he was in any way able to pay us back what he already owed, knowing the answer, but giving in to my irritation and spite at having been seemingly suckered. He didn’t give any reason or excuse, just a kind of awkward silence that wasn’t in any way amusing, rather completely uncomfortable. I said I didn’t think we could help him anymore, that I could see he was drunk, letting him know I was upset and unwilling to reason. Again the awkward silence and silent unfocussed stupor, an embaressing moment that completely floodlit the enormous gap between our realities.

We have seen him in the same state through our gate a number of times since then. We have stopped connecting with him beyond curt responses to his greetings and immediate requests that he go away. He began ringing our bell at crazy hours, something we put up with until we had a baby and sleep became a most prized commodity. We have an intercom that connects to the front gate. If the bell rings at odd hours I answer tentatively “Hello?“ and if I can tell it’s him I verify his name. On confirmation I tell him in no uncertain terms to bugger off or i’m calling the police, something I doubt I will ever do but resorting to that lame defensive move in any case, with nothing else to do in my nervousness and fear for my new family in the light of his obvious instability and desperation. I don’t even know if he remembers who we are. He must have some idea though, to keep trying his luck, seeing if we might one day give in and sponsor his existance again.

He still offers his ID. His name seems to be his only bartering tool. That official document, worth so much but lacking so much when it comes to his true identity. He drinks, obviously. So do I. I wonder what he drinks, with who, where? I wonder how he ended up begging, what is he actually capable of work wise, is he qualified in any way? What makes him proud? What makes him laugh? When he thinks of the future what does it hold? This identity is all he really has. The document, the book, is only an object in his life, something he was given, something he can give away or trade. His hopes and dreams and failures and successes don’t fit in a book, they can’t be traded or given away. They are worth more then weight or physicality but apparently they are worth less then reality. They can’t be drunk, or eaten. They will wear but can’t be worn.

I have to check whenever the bell rings, ask for a name, gaurding myself against his identity. He tells me everytime, “I’m Innocent.“


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