Ah, London. The big city. The Thames winding her way through the centuried streets. I found myself lost in the rabbit warren of lanes that is Soho but it was okay, the sun was shining, and I had the new Shins album on my MP3 player. I got out my phone and checked Google Maps for my destination, thinking what a wonderful spring day, and reflecting on my little walk around Chinatown that I’d just enjoyed (this was yesterday). I became aware of someone looking at me. It was a female tramp, and she was talking to me. I took out my earphones.
‘Sorry?’ I said.
‘Have you got any change?’
She was mid-forties with a soft voice, an Irish accent and thick frizzy black hair. She was dressed all in black. Almost like a witch, you could say. Earlier, outside a little Tesco, I had given a tramp some change so my good deed for the day had already been done. But there are many, many homeless people around these days.
‘I’m sorry, I haven’t got any change,’ I said, putting my earphones back in dismissively. But something strange was happening. She was still talking. I took out my earphones again. ‘I’m sorry, what?’ I said, apologising for the third time.
‘Buy me a sandwich.’
This was an order, not a question. She stared at me stony faced.
‘I don’t have any cash,’ I lied.
‘Use your card. It’s just up there,’ she said, nodding to a branch of the popular snack chain, Eat.
I didn’t really want to buy her a sandwich because I only had £15 which had to last me the day and night so I pulled out my leather coin purse and gave her 50p, revealing that, in fact, I did have money.
‘Buy me a sandwich,’ she said again.
‘I just gave you 50p. If you ask some other people you’ll have enough for a sandwich.’
‘I just gave you 50p.’
‘Come on, it’ll just take a second,’ she softly, her voice like a mountain breeze sighing across the branches of thousand year old cedar trees in a remote Nepalese valley.
‘So where are you from?’ I said, realising we appeared to have started walking together towards Eat.
‘Cork,’ she said. ‘How about you?’
‘Wales,’ I said. ‘Cardiff.’
‘Cardiff? I lived there for a few years. My husband died there. He fell down of a heart attack.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said, holding open the door so she could step inside. ‘Where in Cardiff did you live?’
She mumbled something under her breath.
‘I’m sorry?’ I said.
She mumbled a bunch of syllables, arriving at the bank of sandwiches, leading me to believe she had, in fact, never lived in Cardiff. She then moved away from the sandwiches and fingered a can of lemon San Pellegrino. Ah, those are pretty expensive, I thought. They’ve got those foil things on the top and they think it’s okay to charge loads of money for that foil. But then my companion moved her hand down to the cans of Coke, which were more reasonably priced, even though I thought I had only agreed to buy a sandwich, and I hadn’t even really said that. At the last second though her hand bolted from the Coke to the top shelf, where she grabbed an orange and mango smoothie, the most expensive of all the drinks. This was priced at £2.65, an extraordinary amount of money I think you’ll agree.
‘Have they got any soup?’ she said, sidling across to the hot food section. Thankfully they didn’t. ‘Ah, I’ll just have a sandwich then,’ she said, somewhat dejected as she lifted from the shelf not a sandwich but a baguette. Let’s just get this over with, I thought, as I led her over to the till. The assistant smiled and asked if we would be eating in (more expensive) or taking away (cheaper). I looked at my new friend pleadingly.
‘Eating in,’ she said. Of course. ‘And I’ll take a coffee too,’ she added, not even to me anymore, but to the assistant, who glanced across to me.
‘Whatever she wants!’ I said, very graciously. ‘Get her whatever she wants.’
‘A white coffee,’ the homeless lady said to the assistant.
‘Small, regular, or large?’ she said.
And here was her one concession. ‘I’ll just have a regular,’ she said, wandering off to the island where they keep the sugars.
‘Get her a regular,’ I sighed.
The assistant made the coffee and I parted with the best part of ten pounds, meaning I wouldn’t be eating a meal that day. But still, I thought, there but for the grace of god go I. And in these dark times the number of homeless people is increasing visibly. I was just a citizen doing a good thing. The assistant finished making the coffee and slid it over to the homeless lady, who was filling her pockets with sugar sachets.
‘Ok, I hope you have a nice meal,’ I called from the counter across to the sugar island. I had done a good thing and I could take gratification for my extreme goodness with her heartfelt thanks. But she wasn’t acknowledging me.
‘Well, bye bye,’ I said.
Without turning she waved a dismissive hand and I heard her voice mumble, ‘Yeah, bye.’
I realised that our exchange was over and it was time for me to leave the shop, feeling a many-layered sense of what I guess would be best described as deep shame, part from hoping for praise, part from being taken advantage of, and part just general run of the mill shame. Outside the sun had set and it was cold. With the change from the lady’s meal I walked across the street and into a bargain basement shop, where I dined on a 50p bag of Smoky Bacon crisps that had gone past their best before date over a month before. They were not bad.