Friday afternoon I board a train at False Bay. The carriage is quite full and a man gestures me to the empty seat beside him. I smile and shake my head. I’m happy to stand. “Why? Tell me why?” It’s almost a demand. I shrug, “I’ve been sitting all day and my bum is sore.” He cocks his head like a small bird, taking my measure. I return the favour. A small coloured man in his 60s, stubbly, toothless, wearing a crumpled corduroy jacket and a knit cap. He could be a drunk, but his eyes are bright in a face as mobile and sly as a child’s.
He pulls half a peeled orange from his pocket, its pith ratty with lint, and holds it up to me. There are tuts and murmurs from the other passengers, most of them women. I smile. Something’s starting and I don’t know what. I meet his eyes, half laughing, anteing in. He rubs his grubby hands on the fruit, as if washing it. The audience mutters and clucks. He breaks the fruit in two, considers them, then gallantly offers one to me, half rising from his seat. I take it and hold it in my hand. As the women cry out in disgust, he puts his half in his mouth, eyes steady on mine. It’s my turn. And there is no way I’m eating this thing.
He sets into pleading with me. Please, my lady, please, I am begging you, oh won’t you, oh my lady, please! I shake my head no. I think of appealing to the women – what must I do with this man? – but they’re busy not getting involved. Now he’s on his feet, capering and gesturing. I start to lose patience. I’ll only ask you once more, he whines. I say that would be good. So he sits himself down and pulls out a pack of cigarettes (more gasps from the chorus). He takes one and starts rolling it smoothly across his fingers. Sleight of hand. Then he’s off to the end of the carriage, teetering and tottering as the train sways, everyone scared he’s going to land on them but he never does. The next station is mine. I get off, not looking back. A bit ruefully, I drop the orange in a rubbish bin. After all, it was a gift. And it is my birthday.
Can we ever be sure who stands before us? In ancient Greece, a stranger was welcomed with finest hospitality because it might be a god in disguise. Scripture suggests the same: refuse the stranger and you refuse Christ. Or sometimes you might look in a stranger’s eyes and find Trickster laughing back, sacred clown and magician, beckoning to you from a threshold between the worlds. So should I have eaten the offered fruit? I wonder. All the stories tell us that terrible things happen to those who do. But if they hadn’t, would there even be stories at all?