The world will be a little bit better if we make the call to help someone in need, says Lucy Mangan.
So. A story. I was on the train with my little boy, when, as is sadly quite common, someone started walking along the aisle asking for change. Less commonly, it was a woman. A girl, really, I thought as she got closer. Thin, very pale, shambling along and so softly spoken you could hardly hear her.
I went through the usual internal monologue as she approached: Physical threat? No. do I have change? Yes. Where? Left pocket. To give, because there’s a human being standing in front of me who has incalculably less of everything than I do? Or not to give, because people (including, to be fair, some who work with the homeless and whose takes I trust) say you shouldn’t? Give. I catch her eye, offer her a fiver, she looks desperately grateful for an amount I would spend in a coffee shop, she thanks me, moves on.
And then I sat there wrestling with my conscience. She looked so cowed, scared and deeply unhappy that I wanted to go after her and intervene in some way. But I had my child with me and… I don’t know… it just seems a bit much, doesn’t it? Did I really think I could help her in any meaningful way?
I sat there a bit longer. The events, accidents of birth and circumstance that could have led her here and visions of the life she was probably leading that we’ve all read about a million times in the papers – all of them bleakly terrible – rose in my mind. I felt awful, and almost cross with her for making me feel so bad.
Then she walked past me again, back up the carriage. So thin. So pale. She could be as young as 15. I still couldn’t bring myself to follow her, but I took a deep breath, got out my phone and called 101. Tunnels kept cutting me off before I could get past all the automated responses, but having committed to that first step it was easier to take a deeper breath, push my uncertainty and embarrassment further aside and call 999 and ask for the police. I was afraid they would tell me off for time-wasting but instead they got me to watch out at each station to see if she got off. When we pulled in at Victoria station, three officers were waiting.
I worried again that I’d overreacted, but two of them went to check the turnstiles and the train while the third took her description and explained that people reporting “little” things helped them fit pieces of a vast jigsaw that can show one vulnerable person’s pattern or even, eventually, a picture of gang activity or exploitation.
I wish I could tell you that they found her, but she wasn’t there. I obviously missed her getting off. But this remains: I will do better next time. I will be that much quicker, more decisive, more confident. And I wanted to tell you this story in case you’re like me – someone who often wants to help but is frightened of getting things wrong, looking stupid, or getting into trouble, and so does nothing. Goes home, feels bad, then forgets until next time.
This time I went home and I felt better. Better about myself, better for knowing that the police have our and others’ backs. And better armed – next time I may be of more help.
Make the call. Call 101, 999, a charity or a helpline next time someone or something gets under your skin. If it’s the wrong choice, they’ll put you in touch with another resource. They know you’re on their side and they are on yours. The world will be a little bit better if you just make that call.