Friday afternoon and as I push open the door to the petrol station’s shop I experience a flutter of panic. Earlier, my card had been rejected at a cash point and after making two hasty phone calls I had to accept being without it until after the weekend. What remaining cash I had on me was spent on food and two parcels that needed urgent posting, after which I went home and got on with my day. By the time it came to collecting my children, I had forgotten all about the card issue and, unthinkingly, stopped off on the way home to fill up the car. That’s what brought about the panic; I now had a full tank with no means of paying for it.
The shop feels like Siberia with its wall of open fridges and despite it being only one measly degree outside they have the air conditioning on. As I walk towards the attendant busy serving a small, elderly lady, I tell myself that this is not the end of the world. I have been using this petrol station for years. They all know me. Surely, it will just be a case of leaving my details. One look at the attendant, garish in his neon-red uniform, however, tells me otherwise. He is not one of the regular members of staff.
‘Hi,’ I say companionably, giving him my most winning smile and explain my predicament. I don’t get the reaction I’m hoping for (reassurance, accommodation, possibly a little sympathy.) Instead I get blank indifference and when I suggest paying by cheque, receive the disdainful look of someone who has just been asked to remove their clothes.
‘All the staff know me,’ I say in my most cajoling voice. ‘I’m in here all the time.’ Which is true. I am, but he just shakes his head.
‘Sorry. No cheques. Cash or card only.’
Five minutes ago the shop had been empty. Now, I am acutely conscious of the long line of people behind me silently waiting to pay. I don’t know what is more embarrassing, the fact that I can’t pay or that the attendant is being so unhelpful. He gestures impatiently to the next person in line and a tall slender man in a black polo neck steps forward. He tells the attendant the pump number he has used then turns to me.
‘What do you need?’ he asks, in a sympathetic voice. He has thin grey hair and a slightly fragile disposition that makes me think of the actor Bill Nighy.
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ I say, becoming all English. ‘It’s fine. I’ll sort it out.’
‘I’d like to,’ he insists. ‘We’ve all been caught short before. How much do you need?’ And he opens out his wallet, exposing the crumpled notes inside.
Again I turn down his offer. He obviously thinks I’m short by just a few pounds.
But now the attendant jumps in, no doubt sensing a possible solution, ‘Do you want to pay for her petrol?’
‘Absolutely not.’ My voice is firm. ‘Thank you, but honestly, please don’t even think of it. It’s far too much.’ And I let slip the amount.
At this point I expect Bill to fold away his wallet with a regretful gesture and slink quickly out of the shop. Instead, he does something quite unexpected.
‘Just add her petrol to mine,’ he tells the attendant, who is quick to oblige. Before I can do anything Bill’s tapped in his pin and taken his receipt.
I am momentarily lost for words. This man, someone I have never met before and who I am unlikely to see ever again, has just forked out £86.00 on my behalf. I thank him profusely, feeling a mixture of embarrassment and relief and start to write down my details but he just hands me his business card and tells me to send him a cheque when I can.
‘Well, thank you again.’ I say, conscious of the inadequacy of the word. ‘You have been incredibly kind.’
‘Happy to help,’ he says amiably. ‘I’m sure you’d do the same for me.’
The following week I put his post-code into my SatNav and set off with an envelope stuffed with cash and a rather good bottle of wine. I have the news on in the background, droning on about the usual war atrocities, corrupt policemen, ranting politicians, domestic abuse but I’m not listening. Instead I reflect on some of the other times I have been rescued by complete strangers; when I found myself at the wrong airport in Venice with my then seven-year-old son and a sympathetic Italian couple drove us 29 kilometers to our destination, taking us straight to the gate so that we didn’t miss our flight; the time my car conked out on me in the middle of nowhere and a family not only stopped and gave me a bed for the night but arranged to have my car towed and repaired; a teenager who rang to say he’d found my mobile in a park I’d visited; the woman who handed me twenty pounds when I found myself short at a supermarket.
There is much to celebrate about the human spirit. People do kind things every day. While I’m not entirely sure I would hand over the best part of a hundred pounds to a stranger in a petrol station- perhaps I would? – I’d like to think that when it came to someone needing help, I would pay attention and do the right thing.