Ben was an interesting man, and a most unlikely friend: in fact, I wasn’t sure I was really a friend; I had a feeling he just tolerated me out of a perverse sort of liking for getting me out of trouble.  He was an average sized, wiry guy who looked to be in his late thirties but had to be older, with a shock of curly black hair, deep-set, piercing blue eyes, and what would be called an elfin face - if you dared.  He had grown up in a working class area inCape Town with an alcoholic and abusive father, who had thrown him out of the house when he was fourteen.  He had been in reform school, then been apprenticed, and had spent twenty-odd years working for the railways as a fitter and turner.  There was also some unspecified time spent in the South African army – apparently seriously in excess of what National Service had then required and in some rather obscure and dangerous branch, I was sure, but he didn’t tell much and I didn’t want to ask.  He was self-employed now, making and installing customised metalwork with a sideline in security systems, and seemed to be doing very well.  Although he was a master fitter, he had almost no formal education - but had an insatiable and indiscriminate lust for knowledge that was almost obsessional.  He also had what could only be called a sociopathic streak: an extremely well adjusted sociopath, to be sure, but one who displayed no remorse whatsoever about anything he had done.

He was also one of the quickest and best-coordinated people I have ever seen; one of those annoying folk who can snatch flies out of the air, master skateboarding at an advanced age, and do casually gymnastic feats without any obvious effort.  Naturally, he had done some judo and some karate and lately even some capoeira, as well as kite surfing and parasailing.  And he was probably effortlessly good at all them – bastard…!

I had in fact met him in a situation where quite a few of his attributes were on show.  It was in a dingy little bar in downtown Cape Town, soon after I had left the Medical School.  I was drinking too much around then, so wasn’t too clear how I had got there, but it was pretty obvious when I sobered up a bit that I had lost my party, and that it was not a good place to be.  Too many people with black leather jackets, men with longish dirty-looking hair, way too much cigarette smoke, and no-one I even vaguely knew.  I had managed to get into one of those drearily inevitable confrontational situations where there was no escape, which start when you’re sitting at the bar staring off into space, when you hear: “Hey, you looking at my chick?”  And when you say no, then: “So you think she’s not worth looking at?”  And when you say yes, “…so you were checking her out?”  Now you’re frantically denying it, which is when the tarty-looking plump girlfriend that you weren’t looking at says “So you don’t like me?”, and when you say you do, then the large boyfriend stands up, and says “So you do want my chick, hey?”  And you say no, and he says “So, you were checking me out?  Are you a moffie?”, and you see his friends have all eagerly gathered round and are blocking you from getting to the door, and you get a sick, empty feeling deep, deep down that has very little to do with alcohol, and a lot to do with fear of mindlessly irrational violence.

So I was very surprised to hear, as he put out a hand to grab my shirt, and I blundered backwards into the bar, a pleasant-sounding slightly high-pitched voice next to me saying conversationally: “Squeak, piggy, squeak”.  I turned to see this relaxed looking curly-haired man in jeans and leather jacket standing next to me, looking at the thug with a little smile on his face.  The big guy was surprised too – and he should have been warned by the fact that his buddies suddenly seemed to be finding other places to be.  “What the fuck do you want?”, said this worthy, his arm still out.

Suddenly the curly-headed man was standing in close to the big guy, looking up at him.  “Squeak, piggy, squeak”, he said again.  “What the fuck are you, a clown?  Fuck off out of here, I’ve got business with this oke”, growled the big guy, moving to go around him, and suddenly he was on his knees, his arm cocked up straight behind him in some sort of lock with fingers splayed wide, and the smaller guy said it again: “Squeak, piggy, squeak”.  “What the fuck…”, began the thug, as he tried to stand, and then he was screaming in a high-pitched tone as the smaller man made a small movement of his right arm – which I now saw was positioned at the kneeling man’s shoulder.

“That’s a good piggy”, he said.  He smiled around at the ring of onlookers, and I saw several back away.  “Were you checking his chick?” he asked, indicating to me with his chin.  I dumbly shook my head.  “You see, piggy?” he said, leaning down to the heavy breathing thug.  Then: “Were you checking him out?”, indicating said thug with his chin.  “No!”, I managed.  He chuckled.  “That’s good – because I was, hey, piggy?  You want to fuck, piggy?” The thug started, then scrabbled to get up again, only to scream for longer this time.  The smiling man leaned over again, and said: “No?  You want to go back to Porky?  Your chick – you know why I call her Porky?”  The thug shook his head, and his tormentor leaned further down and said quietly, next to thug’s ear: “Because she fucks pigs, my little piggy.”  He straightened, and said loudly:  “Now fuck off back home, see?”, and suddenly he was walking to me, and the thug was flat on his face.  Curly hair leaned on the bar next to me, and stuck out his hand to me: “I’m Ben”, he said.  I was shaking his hand dumbly when he suddenly wasn’t there any more, and the screaming girlfriend was wildly lashing around her with one of high heels in her hand, and I slipped and fell to the floor.  Things got a little confusing then, although I remember her getting slapped with a whipcrack-like noise and spinning away, and a few other bodies being flung around, then a strong hand was pulling me up and out of the door, and quickly down the street.  We stopped next to a big, old nondescript pickup – a 1956 Ford 4x4, as it later transpired – and he whipped the passenger door open and said “Get in, buddy!” .  I was in no mood to argue, especially when a press of bodies boiled out of the bar – which I now saw was called “The Shunting Yard”.  How the hell had I ever got there, I wondered – and then we were off, with a squeal of tyres, and a smashing of flung bottles as we raced away.

I let my my breath out in a deep whoosh, then saw my new friend looking at me sideways.  “We got interrupted back there…”, he said smiling again.  It began to dawn on me that, while I wasn’t lying on the floor of a dirty bar getting kicked by a thug and his friends, I was in a car with the guy who had kicked them

“So can I take you home?” he said, smiling. 

I don’t know what I must have looked like then – totally cornered, probably, because he laughed out loud.  “ Relax, buddy – I was just fucking with that guy back there.  Trying to blow his little mind.  And I hoped I saw a sly smile there which meant he was trying to blow my mind.  He laughed again. “Cool!  “So where to, cowboy?  Oh, ja – mine’s Ben – what’s yours?” , and he was holding his hand out to me again across the big bench seat. 

“Bruce.  Bruce Davies”, I said, awkwardly. 

“So, Bruce”, said Ben.  “Where we going, my china?”  I remember thinking, what the hell, we’re only a few kays from my house in Observatory, down the Main Road, so I directed him there. 

So it began: the friendship - if that’s what it is - between the artisan and the scientist, that has almost certainly saved my life.  If not then, certainly more recently, which is why I introduced him.