A few months ago I met a woman selling the Big Issue outside a supermarket in north London. Her name is Anna; she is from Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. She was wearing a headscarf and sitting on a crate.Straight from Central Casting!
I bought a copy of the magazine. She looked at my baby son in his buggy, and said she has a son of three months and a two-year-old boy as well. Their father has gone, she told me, and she is now a single mother. The children are with a friend while she sells the magazine to buy nappies and food. The Big Issue, I know, retails at £2.50, and the vendors pay £1.25 a copy. Sometimes, she told me, she makes £30 a day. Do I know, she asked me, where she can get a buggy? She cannot take both children out at the same time because it is dangerous without a buggy for two; the older one may run into the road, or she might hurt her back from carrying the baby for long distances.Because that’s just the sort of thing you ask random strangers, I guess.
She also asked: do I have any baby clothes?Or maybe just gullible looking Westerners…
Over the following weeks, Anna and I spoke on the telephone about a buggy. I was anxious to provide one. She did not want a twin buggy, she said, where the children sit side by side, or in tandem front and behind; they would be too big to get on public transport. (Women with buggies on public transport are despised.) Anna wanted a buggy where one child sits above and one below, as if they are stacked on shelves.And if you are suddenly thinking of that old adage ‘beggars can’t be choosers’, congratulations! So is everyone else.
I found one online: a brand new tandem buggy, on sale. I somehow forgot – or rather ignored – Anna's instructions on the shape of the buggy, even though they were precise. I decided it would be unpleasant, even unsafe, for the baby to sleep under his brother and ordered an enormous, stately buggy with two equally sized seats in tandem, one of which could go flat for the baby: less shelving, perhaps, than a small portion of an aircraft. I obviously thought I knew better than Anna what she needed – isn't a gift always on the giver's terms? And who could doubt my generosity when my gift was so large?Oh, it’s not your generosity we are doubting. It’s your sanity…
I presented the buggy to Anna as she sat on her crate outside the supermarket. And although she thanked me kindly, she said: "It is too big. I cannot get it on and off public transport. It is too heavy." She was right, of course. I felt only anger and shame: anger because she was not grateful for my gift, as I wished her to be. Shame because – why should she be? I left her and the absurd buggy on the street, gracelessly.There. Are. No. Words!
But Anna's small sons should not be dependent on the whims of a flaky stranger. A civilised society does not leave single mothers sitting in the streets, begging for basic items to ensure the health of their children.A civilised society like England? Or Moldova?