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The £20 bet
It’s a few days before Christmas. I am sitting at Paddington station with 40 minutes to wait for my train. I’m parked in the functional metal seats with a good view of the departures’ board. The e-mail is up to date so I get out my ipad and I’m reading the Times.
Somewhere in my peripheral vision I see a chap hovering nearby. He has a look as if he’d like to speak to me, but doesn’t know whether he should. I look straight at him and my glance catches his eye. He looks about my age, but is wearing a slightly threadbare sweater and cheap trainers. He looks tired. Unlike most of the people in my vicinity he has no luggage. Not wishing to be rude (after all I’m British!) I smile broadly at him as if to say “ I acknowledge you”, but with a finality that closes off any conversation.
I return back The Times and the ins and outs of the latest Brexit speculation.
A minute or two later I realise this guy has come over to me and is standing to the side of me. He speaks to me, “Excuse me, I wonder if you can help me?”
I’m still British, so very much on my guard. All the more so because his accent is not from round here. Liverpudlian, perhaps?
“Hello” I say, somewhere between a statement and a question.
“I’m not used to begging but I’ve got no choice but to ask people to help me. I’m trying to get back to Chester and I need to get together £18.70. I’m not asking for money for drink. I’m just trying to get home”
All sorts of thoughts and questions start exploding in my brain. Is he really trying to get home? If I gave him any money would he use it wisely? He doesn’t smell of booze and he seems a decent kind of chap, if not the sort of guy I might bump into very often. He’s certainly not got the air of a tramp about him, but we know the best con artists are the ones who sound most plausible. There’s something about him I trust, but we’ve all been taken in too often. If he’s looking to get to Chester, what’s he doing in Paddington rather than Euston? Something in me wants to engage him in conversation to test whether he is for real. Another bit of me tells me to somehow get him out of my face. There’s a bit of fear mixed in there, too. He senses my quandary.
“I reckon the cheapest way is to get the bus” he says. This and the fact he is looking for £18.70 rather than any other amount tips the scales for me. Maybe I wouldn’t be inclined to do this if it wasn’t coming up for Christmas, but I’m stirred to help him.
I hand him a £20 note. He is effusively grateful. He shakes my hand. I say something feeble like, “I hope you get home OK”. He thanks me again and beetles off across the concourse into the crowd.
I’m sat there left wondering whether I have been conned. Whether I have somehow added to this man’s suffering by giving him the money to buy booze or drugs. Whether the lady on my right who saw all of this considers me a gullible fool. Maybe the guy went straight out to the bookies and stuck it all on the 3.30. If he did, did he win? If he won, did he take the train rather than the bus?
I’ll never know, but I just hope I did right. I wonder if my £20 bet paid off.