You Needn’t Look Far
The mother seemed to be moving in a mechanical fashion. She certainly wasn’t acknowledging the child beside her.
There’s a section in the front of the store where pre–packaged sandwiches, fizzy drinks and crisps are sold. I watched the woman reach for a sandwich. As she balanced the smaller child in her arm, she fumbled with the packaging, ripping it open, and extracted one of the sandwich halves. She took a large bite out of it and then pointed the sandwich into the mouth of the child in her arms, who bit into it immediately.
She then handed the remainder of the sandwich half to the small girl. By that time I had moved close enough to hear her. ‘Hurry up, eat it,’ the woman said to the child. She then took a bite out of the remaining half and again pointed the sandwich to the child in her arms. The child, I couldn’t tell whether it was a boy or a girl, again, quickly swallowed the piece of sandwich. And then the woman did something quite strange.
She placed the packaging back onto the shelf and quickly shoved it towards the back of the cooler, so that it would be out of sight. The woman then moved a few steps towards the beginning of the fruit section of the store. As if it didn’t matter what would have been in the crates, she reached over and picked up a plum. The woman quickly took a bite out of it and repeated the routine with the children– feeding the child in her arms and handing bits of food to the little girl.
I watched this for a few minutes. The woman never once looked around her to see whether anyone was watching her. She never looked up to see if there were cameras about. It was clear that eating and feeding the children was her priority. The fact she was committing a crime or that she might get caught seemed not to matter at all.
We followed her to the back of the store towards the bakery section. It was clear that she was going to repeat what she had done in the front of the store. I walked up, almost beside her, as if I were going to select a bread that was next to her.
‘Excuse me, are you hungry?’ I asked. I tried to say it quietly–almost in a whisper. The woman jerked her head towards me with a look of fright and as if she were preparing for a battle. I quickly held up my hand and said ‘don’t worry, I’m just concerned. All of you look very hungry.’ You could see her trying to size me up. ‘Don’t have no money,’ she rattled out as she looked back at the breads, ‘DSS (Social Services I’m sure she meant) won’t give me any cause we don’t have no address.’
I asked her where she was staying, being mindful of how cold it was outside. She said they were staying in a caravan that belonged to a friend. She and the children had come down from the Northeast a week earlier. I asked her if there were anyone else with them, trying not to ask in such a way to make her feel as if she were being interrogated. She told me they had left her partner because he was drunk all the time and they ‘had to get away.’ She said she’d never seen the sea so she thought it would be nice to come to the coast.
I asked her about Social Services and why couldn’t they offer her any help. I tried to say it in a way that she wouldn't feel I was trying to grill her. She said that they would if she had a ‘proper’ place to stay, but because she didn’t there was nothing they could do.
I can understand how government rules and regulations can often create a ‘Catch 22’ and perhaps this is one of those times. I’m not certain.
I told her my name and said that I felt the most important thing to do right now is to get some food for all of them. I asked if she had anything to cook with. She said there was a cooker, but there wasn’t any gas for it. It needed a new bottle. That led me to ask about heat. Yes, there was an electric oil heater that they used and because the caravan was small it ‘worked good.’
I asked her what she thought they needed most for tonight. She said they all liked ‘crisps.’ That wasn’t quite what I had in mind, so I thought we’d better help the process a little. As we were standing there at the moment, I picked up the bread at which she had been gazing.
We collected some oranges, bananas, a mild cheese, milk, a litre of orange juice, a box of tea, bag of sugar, corn flakes, butter, sliced ham, some (more) plums and a few other items. I also discreetly collected the empty sandwich container, so that we could pay for it and told the till clerk that ‘we had eaten one of the plums…sorry,’ and smiled at her. I don’t know whether she adjusted the price for that or just accepted it as a case of a consumer practicing a bit of quality control in the produce section.
I know where the caravan park is they’re staying in and I’ll go by tomorrow to see if I can get a better grip on the situation.
Situations such as this always remind me that if you want to help people in crisis, those who are suffering, or those who are less fortunate than yourself, you needn’t look any further than your own community.