Selfish or selfless?

I had a little encounter today, at lunchtime, which made me think about selfishness and selflessness.

When I left HMV to buy some food for lunch, I caught the eye of one of those clipboard charity girls from about twenty feet away. As I approached I made a big deal about angling away, I put my hood up, then I tugged the cords so my face peered out of a little fabric window. I was all cute and shit, basically.

I stopped and chatted to her. She was pretty cute, as these girls tend to be. Slim, nose ring, parka. No actual clipboard, but she was representing Friends of the Earth. Sure, why not? Go green. Save the Earth. I’m down.

I had two problems. One, I genuinely can’t remember if I already ‘subscribe’ to that particular charity. It seems possible I set something else up years ago, snared by the charms of some other cute girl with or without a clipboard. Two, I have less money coming in right now than I have for… decades? Probably decades.

So we chatted for a little bit. I gave her the quick version of my current circumstances. Maybe she’s trained to be sympathetic, to ask how I’m doing, in order to increase the % chance of engagement/conversion or whatever. It’s possible. I said I wanted to stay in Cambridge, and she asked if I was a student. Bless her. She gave me an appropriately shocked expression when I said I just turned thirty-eight.

I shook her hand as the conversation ended. It was like ice. I did a slightly risky thing, and reached out to take her hand a second time. I told her it was like ice, because it was. I knew that already from the first contact, I didn’t need a second. I sort of shook it slightly the second time too, in a feeble attempt to legitimise the act, but I knew it was unnecessary.

I went to buy food. I walked past her again towards HMV, and I had an idea. I should buy this girl a coffee. To warm her up, if nothing else. Why did I want to do this? Well. It would sure be swell if I was the type of person who simply did nice things, on occasion, without agenda.

I am not that type of person. Yet. I did it partly because it seemed like the kind of thing someone in a movie would do, and I like to imagine myself in that world. I did it because it might make her like me, and it’s nice to be liked by attractive girls. And lastly, I did it because it was something cheap and quick I could do to make someone’s life slightly better. I have a friend who does a lot of promo work, and it’s unforgiving. Stand out in the freezing cold for hours, stay on your feet, keep that smile going.

But it didn’t happen the way it would in the movies. On my way back she was talking to another prospective subscriber, so I walked past them. I went into another shop. I bought yet more food, which I did technically need (for dinner, after work ended), but really I was stalling. Waiting. Hoping she’d be free on the next pass so I could swoop in and do my good deed.

She was not free on the next pass.

I went into HMV, up to the staff room, and thoughtfully ate my lunch. Maybe the moment had gone. Maybe she’d think it was a bit odd, anyway. Maybe she doesn’t even like coffee.

I read a little of my book while I chewed, but I wasn’t ready to give up on this plan.

After finishing my lunch, I still had enough time, so… Fuck it. I went out again, and found her. This time she was free, so I went for it. She was surprised, flattered, confused. “I can’t accept that!” she said, but her heart wasn’t in it. Her training probably didn’t prepare her for this eventuality. “What kind do you like?” I asked. “I don’t know. Anything!”

I went into Starbucks, and ordered a grande latte. The girl asked if I wanted to use slightly different beans for a taste of honey and nuttiness. Sure. Okay. An extra twenty pence? Fine.

When I got back to the girl, Marion (she had a name badge), she was talking to another prospective subscriber. His body language and tone betrayed him as a bit of a ditherer, so I felt like I could interrupt without too much worry.

I walked up and handed her the coffee. The important thing, at this point, was to just go. Get the heck out of there. No big deal. Staying and trying to wring some more conversation out of her would just sour the whole experience, make it seem more like a tragic bribe than a nice gesture.

The ditherer kind of carried on dithering a little. Poor sod. I had upstaged him, but I didn’t feel too bad about it. This is the scene where I win her heart, after all.

Or not.

I was just turning to go when she put her arms out for a hug. This surprised me, and might even have surprised her too. I went in for it, but of course she had hot coffee in one hand, so it was a loose affair. Nice, though.

I smiled, turned, and went back to work.

I don’t know if she’ll be there tomorrow. Maybe I’ll see her again, maybe not.

If I was cool, I wouldn’t make any further effort at communication. It wouldn’t even occur to me. Good deed done, life goes on. But I am not the man I would like to be. I am more selfish than selfless. Maybe she would ask for my number! Maybe I’d bump into her by accident in Sainsbury’s, near the chilled chicken breasts!

It was not a selfless act. I did it to feel good about myself, to make a pretty girl like me, and – most pathetically of all – to make my life feel very very slightly more like a movie.

The end result still made a stranger smile, of course. So I wonder if the motivation matters, if the ends justify the means.

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