You want to love this city, but sometimes events get in the way. She made her approach at a bus stop. “I need some money,” she said. “I need some change.”
People waiting looked past her in the usual way, pretending not to see. She moved closer. “I know you hate me,” she said, beseechingly. “I know you do.”
Days later, I’m still hearing this cry, half of accusation, half of empathy. The sales patter of London begging varies. Sometimes it is basic: “Spare some change for some food?” Sometimes, it has a professional sheen: “I’m sorry to corner you in this Overground carriage, but I need only 30 seconds to make my presentation…”.
This was different. She was, perhaps, in her 50s, large-eyed, small, slightly hunched, her manner see-sawing between fierce concentration and deep distraction.
“I know you hate me,” she said.
It was unnerving. “I don’t have any change,” I replied, unsure at that point if I was lying.
“Not much,” she said, or something, as, to my relief, the bus arrived and I boarded it, taking sanctuary.
I did have some change, as it happens. Giving some to her would have been a strange transaction.
“I know you hate me.”
“You’re absolutely right, so here’s a pound.”
People say there are more such cases in this neighbourhood than there were due to the closure of a local mental health facility. Could be. The week before, a man came into a corner shop, matted hair, grubby clothes, gazing wildly around. He slapped five one-pound coins on the counter and asked for a five pound note in exchange. The shop assistants flapped and fiddled. I had a fiver in my wallet, took it out and offered it.
“There you go.”
“What you doing?”
“You wanted a five pound note.”
“Fuck you” he said
“That’s OK, I’ll keep my fiver.”
“Why do you lie? You fuckin’ lie!”
“Look, it’s a five pound note. You said you want one.”
“You lie! You fuckin’ lie!”
Why did he want a five pound note in the first place? What could it do for him that the five one-pound coins could not? Why did my offer enrage him? I put my fiver away and left. Thank you everybody and goodbye.
Up the street, a car had come off the road, crashed and half turned over. Police were arriving, an ambulance too. Passers by gathering round. It was not a typical day, but too many of them feel that way.
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