You would have thought I was trying to get rid of something illicit. I felt awkward and exposed, in the middle of a crowd, trying to make eye contact with likely looking people while keeping one eye out for approaching officialdom in case what I was doing was actually illegal.
I wasn’t dealing drugs. I wasn’t selling stolen goods. I wasn’t soliciting anything. I was merely trying to give away a railway ticket that I couldn’t use, and naively thought that perhaps someone else could. I’d bought a return from London to Brighton, but realised that staying overnight made more sense, and felt that doing a charitable good deed would be a good way to end the day. Full of cheer and hope, I sauntered out onto the station entrance at Brighton, convinced that it would take me mere minutes to find someone who would equally cheerfully and gratefully accept my ticket with a warm smile and get on a train to London, their faith in human nature restored by my kind offer.
All I can say is that it’s incredibly hard to give something away in England – nearly as hard as it would be to ask for it. Clearly, I’ve lived in England long enough to absorb the essential feature of English life, as wittily identified by Kate Fox: embarrassment. About everything. Embarrassment about monetary transactions; about giving or receiving charity; about drawing attention to yourself in public; embarrassment about being embarrassed about all these things. It’s a subtle, complex, irresistible vortex of spiralling awkwardness that can have only one result: hopeless paralysis in all social situations and a deep disinclination to take any action that might deviate even slightly from the norm.
My early optimism was, I regret to say, short-lived. Bright-eyed sauntering rapidly became hunched, shifty shuffling. Every time I managed to bring my courage to the sticking-place and approach someone, they had already bought their tickets. The two people I managed to speak to weren’t going to London, and pointed this out rather quickly. They looked rather startled when approached in this fashion, and I can’t blame them. I’d be wary of being approached by total strangers at a train station myself, especially shifty, wild-eyed characters that crab-shuffle up from behind, nervously looking over their shoulders from time to time, enquiring huskily but sincerely if people are going to London. My instinct would be to deny everything, just in case, and clearly, these people came from the same school of thought. Alternatively, of course, they were just not going to London. I was thinking many things – what if I offended someone through this? What if they thought I was trying to scam them in some way? What if someone called the police on this suspicious behaviour? We live, after all, in an age when “If you suspect it, report it!” is the slightly hysterical exhortation from every corner. Paranoid? Certainly. But it was also quite interesting, from a personal perspective, that I was unable to overcome this deep-seated anxiety and just get on with giving the damn ticket away.
The scheme was a total bust. I just got more and more tongue-tied, shifty and hoarse, eventually admitting defeat and giving up without even a faint glimmer of success. The ticket was still burning a hole in my pocket, however, so, urged on by the equally altruistic and charitable encouragement of a friend, we went back later that evening to give it another chance. Brighton station at around 10:30pm is not the most salubrious place for two men to stand and size up passers-by for their suitability for a spot of friendly ticket-giving-away. On all sides, we were beset by packs of students returning from a night on the town, in various states of undress and sozzlement, yelping to each other in unintelligible near-ultrasonic voices. Not a single person looked sober, industrious and serious – the sort of person to whom we could hand over the ticket with a clean conscience, knowing that he or she would take good care of it, appreciate it, look after it, and in due course, send it to the great ticket machine in the sky. We stood around for quite a while, hopeful that some miracle would bring us such a saint of clear-eyed acceptance, but eventually, we gave up and silently slunk away in defeat. Not the most glorious of endings to a venture that started with such high hopes, but it was interesting.