The war on kindness

October 25, 2008 at 10:47 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

It’s December 2006 and I’m still stuck in that awful void between leaving university and finding a ‘proper job’. I earn enough money for food, rent, cigarettes and cider by working in a newsagent’s in Meadowhall, and after eight hours of having my sanity shredded by swathes of obsessive shoppers, we head off into town to attend the staff Christmas party.

We’re about a hundred yards from the door of the all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant when a young woman approaches us. At first she seemed like any other Christmas shopper we’d served that day, but whilst she was carrying a clutch of high street shopping bags and was demurely dressed, distress was etched across her pretty young face. She tells us she’d come here by bus from Burton-on-Trent to do some last minute shopping, but has somehow misplaced her purse. Since all the shops are shut and she has neither a phone nor any money, she’s facing the prospect of spending a night on the street unless she can scrape something together for a bus ride home.

At this point her voice starts to break, she stops making eye contact and the tears begin to swell. She doesn’t want to do this, she says, but is it possible that we could loan her something – anything – to help her get back home?

My two workmates make their apologies – after all, none of us are paid above the minimum wage – but since my lapsed Anglican upbringing tends to burden me with an annual excess of goodwill, I ask how much she needs. Twentysomething pounds, she replies, in a polished, middle class accent. I take out my wallet and give her the exact amount.

The anxiety is instantly flushed away and replaced by a look of gratitude. She’s solvent, she promises, and she’ll give me her address so I can get in touch about paying the money back. Don’t worry, I say. Let’s just exchange names, I’ll give you my email address and you can get in touch when you’re home. After a dozen ‘thankyous’, a ‘Merry Christmas’ and a ‘have a safe journey’, we go our separate ways; me to the MSG drenched ‘Jumbos’ restaurant, her to ‘Burton on Trent’. And I never saw or heard from her again.

Until yesterday, when I was wandering around the city centre and caught the front page of the local paper:

Scores of Sheffield rail passengers were duped by a well-groomed junkie who looked like an innocent stranded in the big city. Often clutching carrier bags from upmarket stores, to dozens of rail passengers Rebecca Cosgrove looked every inch the respectable young woman who had spent the day shopping in Sheffield. In fact, she was a 25-year-old junkie with an “appalling” record of dishonesty who duped scores of rail passengers out of cash she tearfully claimed she needed to get home.

[…]

Her usual hard luck story was that she had been to Meadowhall and lost her purse. She would claim she had to return to Burton-on-Trent and was short of cash for the coach fare.

There are many aspects to this sorry tale that are far more mortifying than just losing £20. For me, at least, the most humiliating part was that it laid bare the pathetic pretence of my benevolence. I’ve given money to much bigger bad luck cases than Ms Cosgrove; I’ve frequently handed over a few quid to scuffed, slurring, shabbily-dressed human beings whose excuses were so see-thru it was like they didn’t care if you knew the truth. But would I have ever given so much money to someone who wasn’t as eloquent, attractive and well-turned-out as Rebecca was? Probably not; she knew that her appearance and her manner was the best way of extracting money from people and she exploited it with amazing efficiency.

But aside from just making me feel embarrassed, I worry that her talent for acting will forever poison the attitudes of those who’ve been burned. I really doubt that anyone, out of the scores of people who were cheated, will be willing to invest the same kind of trust in a needy stranger that they did with Ms Cosgrove – I certainly. All of the people who ‘loaned’ her money were willing to suspend the suspicion and doubt that comes with being approached in the street, and now that those doubts have been proved true, they’re far less likely to help out someone whose story is genuine.

Incidents like this can have a corrosive effect on society. They help spread the kind of disenchantment and cynicism that makes us less polite to each other, less trusting of each other, less compassionate and less helpful towards one another. Lest any of you think otherwise, this isn’t an endorsement of Cameron’s ‘Broken Society’; just an acceptance that a society is at its strongest when trust exists amongst its citizens, and its deeply saddening to see it being eroded.

But when I’m done with the sadness, the self-flagellation and the selfish pining for society, all I’m left with is compassion. Compassion for her addiction: that it was easier for Rebecca to create an identity, act out a scenario and cry in front of each person she approached than it was to kick the drugs should tell you everything about how destructive heroin can be. Compassion for her sentence: anyone with even a passing relationship with this blog will already know what I think about our prison system, particularly its effect on women, and I worry for anyone – anyone – who enters that system. And compassion for her future: this is Rebecca’s second time in prison, and I can only hope that – against all the odds – she can survive and build the kind of life her talent deserves.

From the moment I read yesterday’s paper I’ve had one recurring thought: she didn’t grow up wanting to do this. Rebecca Cosgrove is young enough and smart enough to build a great life for herself. I hope she finds the desire to build that life, that someone will take a risk and give her the opportunity, and that maybe one day she’ll be able to show the kind of kindness to a needy stranger that so many of us had shown to her.

Image by flickr user deneyterrio (Creative Commons)

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