"Please can you help? This black man is really scaring me." I was on my way back from a movie, and was driving back up the lonely Old Howick Road back to Hilton, home and Iain M. Banks new book, "The Algebraist". That was when a woman jumped out into the road in front of me, waving her hands. I don't normally stop for hitchhikers, since this is usually a terminally bad idea in South Africa, but someone in clear need of help is something else. She ran up to my window, and uttered the sentence that shows that after eleven years of racial integration, growing harmony and progress from the Apartheid era, some people still live in the past. The black man in question was on the other side of the road, and didn't seem to be concerned about scaring anything. On the other hand, it was a remote area, and a woman walking on her own at night was also a very nearly terminal idea. So I opened the door.

Sue, as she introduced herself, was a frizzy blonde dressed in a loose-fitting white shirt, with a creased leather jacket, baggy jeans and strops. She held a large black bag clutched to her chest with thin, worn hands. Her face was hard and deeply tanned. She was shaking badly, clearly badly shocked, but her speech was also slurred, and she had a smell that began to permeate the car. It took a few seconds for my cigarette numbed nose to realise that it was stale beer. She was looking for a place called Wylie Park, which I recognised but couldn't place. She kept thanking me for helping her, and it was only by asking her several times that I found out where it was she wanted to go. I drove down to a petrol station to get directions to the place.
Petrol stations around South Africa, and I guess the world, are all the same at 11:00 at night. A tired attendant dozes on the bench, counting down the minutes to the end of his twelve hour shift, while inside the store another attendant sleeps at the till, and will resent having to wake up to sell anything or give directions. The fluorescent lights are clinical, transforming the shelves from brightly coloured offerings to freak show exhibits. Two policemen sit next to their car, sipping at cups of hot coffee in styrofoam cups. I gave up on the attendant at the till, and found the directions from the map on the wall.

Back in the car, Sue asked me for a light, and I discovered that she smoked Pacific Blue, a cigarette with a taste and aroma just a step above camel dung - the kind of cigarettes that sell for R4 a box if you know where to shop and have no money for anything better. As we drove up towards Wylie Park, Sue thanked me ever more profusely, and I discovered that her boyfriend had deserted her, while they were in Pietermaritzburg from Cape Town. He was a nice guy, she said, but he had these mood swings, and as she said "If he tells me to fuck off, what must I do?"
Sue wanted to give a letter to her boyfriends sister, who would then, she said, be able to help her out and help her boyfriend get help.

Driving around the area, looking for the road, I grew ever more apprehensive. This was an affluent part of town, and I had a lot of customers up this way. While no-one could complain about me helping a stranger, I did not want to be dragged into a customers family business. Sue did not belong in this area, and she was drunk. I had little doubt that whoever she was going to see at eleven at night would not be overjoyed at seeing her. I drove up the same road twice befor Sue recognised the house. While I waited in the car, Sue walked over to the intercom. After a few seconds, lights came on inside the house.

"Nollie, I know you said you didn't want me to contact you, but I've got a letter to give you."

I sat in the car, smoking a cigarette, while Sue waited outside. After a while Nollie, a tall woman with cropped blonde hair, glasses and a dressing gown came down to the gate. Her husband, a balding man with grey hair, shorts and an old white shirt stood by the front door. Sue dug in her bag for the letter, talking all the while about what had happened, while she dropped things from her bag onto the driveway. Nollies brother, it turned out, had been in rehab three times to kick a cocaine addiction that Sue shared. Nollie had finally disowned her brother. Sue made excuses for the both of them while she fumbled through her bag, but in her drunken state the excuses sounded terribly false, and her position ever more indefensible.

"I only bought coke for us the one time!"

The reason Sue's clothes didn't fit properly was because they weren't hers - they were her boyfriends, Nollies brother. Nollie's husband intervened as Sue grew louder, and, letter delivered, Sue came back to the car. She wasn't able to get help from her boyfriends sister, she told me, as if she hadn't realised that her window had been down all this time, and she had been only a few meters away. Could I drive her down to Joe's Tavern in town to find her boyfriend? On the drive down, inbetween her thanking me again and again for my help, and her assurances that I was a good person, I discovered that she was trying to get a job in finance or HR. She was only a few credits away from being a full accountant through a distance-learning university, and she would quit drinking once she got a job. Getting a job was proving to be particularly difficult.

Joe's Tavern was an offlicense shebeen in that part of town where people will drop empty bottles of beer onto the pavement as they stagger nowhere in particular. Sue asked for money for a beer since, she said, it had been a very difficult evening and she could do with a drink. I gave her R20, in exchange for which she wanted my number so that she could repay me. I told her instead to help out the next person she saw who wanted help. A good deed goes around the world, but I could only see this one going as far as four quarts of beer.

I could have told her anything - that I had walked away from a drinking problem myself, that I had seen a marriage broken apart by cocaine, leaving a mother and three year old daughter stranded, all of their possessions pawned, and a letter of apology from a husband who was never seen again. That she could make of her life what she wanted. Instead, I wished her well, and drove home. I hope she stops drinking, and shapes a life for herself. Somehow, though, I keep thinking of her first sentence, and the smell of stale beer. Some habits run too deep to be relearned.