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He gave me some money and left me there, standing on the corner. I had compromised myself in a way I never thought possible. But I was broke and on my own in a huge metropolis. Rent was overdue, the heating had been cut off and I was unemployed. Pride prevented me phoning home, hundreds of kilometres away.  That’s not much of an excuse, and it doesn’t make me proud of what I did.

The day started hopefully enough. It was a Saturday morning and I could just scrape together enough for a coffee. If not exactly beautiful, the frigid streets of London were almost benign. Outside Selfridges, the Big Issue seller had already claimed his patch, relentlessly intoning WILL SOMEONE PLEASE ACKNOWLEDGE ME. I dodged eye contact, burying my chin in my scarf.

The wind gnawed at my knuckles as I exited the tube at Holloway Rd. At least it’s not charity mugging, I thought. No sign-ups, just a pound or two. The office occupied the top floor of a draughty multi-purpose building. I joined the subdued huddle at the bottom of the stairs. Ukraine, Nigeria, Cameroon, Latvia, Essex. We smiled at each other warily. At least it’s not charity mugging – I only needed to take people’s money once.

Twenty minutes later we were ushered into a boxy room that resembled a hackers’ den. Earnest young men in ratty jumpers hunched behind Macs. The first few people through the door got chairs, the rest of us had to stand. An Indian man with a clipped voice collected our passports. His tucked-in shirt hung in semi-casual folds over his jeans and he waited theatrically before speaking.

‘I’m expecting you had a look at the website, isn’t it?

Everyone nodded.

‘Actually can anyone tell me what it is we do here?’

‘HIV prevention in Nepal,’ someone said. ‘Education for disadvantaged children in the developing world,’ says another. I piped up: ‘Programs to stop child trafficking in Bangladesh.’

‘Yes.’ He handed out buckets emblazoned with the charity’s logo. ‘But what I need you to say publicly is about the disabled children. Even we are finding it better to avoid saying information on the international details.’

My jacket, also branded with the charity’s name, was too big to provide any warmth. We trudged back out to the street. Those buckets were unsettling, vice-tied with plastic cable, as though the charity knew from experience what precautions to take.

The shopping centre was a shabby collection of discount shops in an arcade that soon became a wind tunnel. I loitered outside Boots. ‘Help for disabled children.’ People charged past, eager to get out of the cold, and/or avoid me. I dropped a few pennies from my change purse into the bucket so there was something to rattle. Finally an old lady stopped. ‘Oh, I’d do anything for the children,’ she assured me, nudging 20p towards the slot.

Snow fell from the latticed ceiling. I exchanged tentative smiles with a team member stationed outside Morrisons. Soon, the other girl approached.

‘This is proper undignified,’ she said, sitting on her bucket. ‘They ain’t even gonna pay us if we’re not in the quids!’

This was true.

‘I’m going back to the office,’ she announced.

‘But it’s only been half an hour!’ I said, my voice a hastily improvised mix of horror and concern.

‘For shame,’ she says, and shakes her head. ‘I just don’t want the job this bad, innit. Good luck, yeah?’

She strode away, docile no longer. I envied her but I needed to stick it out. Theoretically, less competition made it easier to reach the target. But it was also lonelier. After a couple of hours, I was the only one of my team left. I didn’t know for sure whether this was admirable or stupid, but my almost-empty bucket and numb lower extremities led me to believe it was the latter.

I persevered. ‘Help for disabled children.’ I stationed myself on the high street outside Greggs and tried a new approach. Against the boss’s advice I began to mix it up.

‘Help fight child trafficking.’

My hands were purplish with cold. I watched a hunchbacked beggar drag himself up and down the street. His crippled leg trailed behind him like a bad conscience.

‘Help fight disabled children – oh shit, I mean…’

Nobody was listening. I fought the urge to howl into the wind, something pithy, something that would challenge people’s apathy and grab them by the throat. WILL SOMEONE PLEASE ACKNOWLEDGE ME?

The socialists arrived at noon. These guys were pros, motivated by genuine conviction and not the minimum wage. They waved flyers and walked alongside shoppers, pestering them sideways down the street like determined crabs. The high street was a maelstrom of solicitation and I tried to mark out my territory. My bucket was as good as empty and the clock was ticking.

The big money was outside Poundland. It made sense. That was where the socialists had set up. Their supporters couldn’t resist being seen to give to charity as they picked up a newspaper or pamphlet or leant over to sign a petition. Hesitantly I walked over, standing a couple of metres away from the man who just wanted to have a quick chat about your internet provider.

‘Alright,’ he said by way of greeting. I shrugged.

‘What’s the problem though?’ he said.

‘It’s freezing and I’ve only made about five pounds.’

He weighed my bucket and grimaced.

‘This thing, right, it’s simple. You just gotta think in terms of A-double-P.’

‘Go on.’

‘Approachability, pace and personality. Now you got the first one down, but I seen you in action and darling, you got some work to do!’

‘How does one acquire pace and personality?’

‘Some fings can’t be taught – jokes! You just gotta believe in what you’re doing and have fun, innit?’

For a while, it seemed to work. Someone even dropped a two pound coin in. I began to feel hopeful I would make enough money to get a few more shifts. But it was getting crowded outside Poundland. The foot traffic made it prime real estate. Nearby, the man offering incredible deals on mobile phones was engaged in heated conversation with the head socialist.

‘He disappeared for a few Saturdays,’ confided the internet spruiker, nodding towards the socialist. ‘We thought he’d jetted for good.’ We all converged by a laminated placard protesting library closures.

‘I thought we’d been through this,’ said the socialist. ‘Loads of times, no?’

‘Oh my days!’ said the mobile phone man. ‘You got massive cheek to bring this up again.’

‘I was stood out the front before you even arrived’-

‘Stop it, you is going to make me cry!’ said the internet provider.

The beggar wandered over and I tried to distance myself from his mouldy smell.

‘Understand this’- the socialist primly deposited his coffee cup into the recycling – ‘the public was willing to engage until you and your mates showed up selling rubbish products no one wants.’

‘Bruv, this ain’t your patch, it don’t belong to no one in particular!’

‘Welcome to the party.’ The socialist smiled at me sarcastically. ‘I suppose the charity muggers can’t be far off.’

I had just about thought of an argument in my defence when the security guard showed up. Although on the high street, we were apparently still under the jurisdiction of the shopping centre. He asked us to move on. Regulations demanded that as employees of remote organisations, we were obliged to operate at a certain distance from shopping centre traders.

‘What about him?’ said the socialist, nodding towards the beggar.

‘He is considered an independent contractor.’

Sheepishly we retreated. ‘I could have sworn it was him driving a range rover in Chelsea the other day,’ mumbled the socialist. I wondered if that was true. Subsequently I’ve hoped very much it was. Because soon afterwards I stole twenty pounds intended for him.

This is how it happened. The socialist, despite his scepticism, must have been making a point. Before his crew took off in a convoy of vans up Holloway Rd, he pushed a purple-flecked note into the beggar’s top pocket. The beggar looked confused. I had been watching for evidence of his limp being an elaborate ruse when I saw the money fall into the gutter. There was no one around and I was so cold I could barely walk, but as the beggar fumbled around on the footpath I sidled over and shoved the money into my pocket. I spent the next half an hour hiding out in the toilets at McDonalds. As I say, rent was overdue, the heating was cut off, and I was unemployed.

Back on the street, I realised it was a no-win situation. If I had enough money in my bucket when I got back to the office I’d have to do more of the same – beg in the freezing cold – and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have a job.

‘Help for disabled children.’

The street was deserted. Five minutes later a woman wrangling two young children hurried by.

‘HELP FOR DISABLED CHILDREN!’

She didn’t stop. I took off. The woman swore under her breath but didn’t turn around. I marched along behind her, so close that I could smell her hairspray and see the fear in the children’s faces.

‘Disabled children with HIV are being trafficked in Bangladesh and no-one fucking cares!’

My spittle grazed the woman’s ear. I stopped, swinging my bucket down into a puddle and slicing through its scummy top layer, aiming at the woman a satisfying spray of dirty water. Now the children were crying. All of them were running. I was due back at the office soon with my takings.

Ten minutes later a police car pulled up outside Poundland. I stared straight ahead. The officer approached me uncertainly.He was wondering if there’d been a mistake.

‘I’m going to have to ask you to move on.

I nodded.

‘We’ve had some complaints,’ he explained, almost apologetically. ‘There are children around.’

Crying now, I shook my bucket. It made a tinny, pathetic sound.

‘A few more minutes then, love.’ The policeman dropped some coins into the bucket and left me there, standing on the corner.

 

 

 

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