Tuesday evening, Tottenham Court Road. 6.50pm.
I'm standing outside McDonald's opposite Tottenham Court Road station, waiting for my husband to meet me for dinner. For once, I am early, which gives me the chance to people-watch, and I have my eye on a girl who is going from person to person requesting their small change, with little luck. She is giving a well rehearsed speech about the predicament she's in, but it's a tale with lots of holes, and when people apologise and tell her, "No, sorry," she moves onto the next person and repeats her story word for word. Moments prior to this, I had just given the remainder of my lunch to a man on the tube, who was asking for money or food if anyone had anything spare. You can see that some people have become hardened to this, as they look away, eyes fixed to the floor. It happens all the time and it's hard to know who to believe and who to help. I guess there are only so many loose coins and uneaten satsumas rolling around at the bottom of your bag. You can't give to everyone.
Completely absorbed in thought, I'm a little thrown when somebody nearby asks me a question.
"Excuse me. I was just wondering. Do you like reading?"
It's the voice of a young man, standing awkwardly close, and clutching a book to his chest. There is an endearing vulnerability to him; he has a polite but slightly robotic edge to his voice, and he can't quite look me in the eye.
"Yes I do like to read," I tell him. I'm not quite sure where this is going.
"Do you know if this book is any good?" He holds the book out for me to read the title, and I see that it's Michael Parkinson's autobiography, Parky. I let out a little laugh at the surreality of this situation, but then realise he is being deadly serious and I straighten my face. Of all the books he might want to discuss, I wouldn't have guessed this. I actually thought it might be a Bible.
"Oh. I'm not sure actually. I haven't read it," I say with regret, but he brushes over my response as though this is not an important detail.
"It's worth £20. Look - " and he turns the book over to show me the RRP. "Do you want to buy it?"
"I'm trying to make some money. To buy some food."
"Oh I see." Well, this has taken a sad twist. "I'm not really keen on autobiographies," I confess. And that's the truth, although more to the point, I'm not especially keen on Michael Parkinson either.
"Okay. That's fine, " he says, and draws the book back towards him, to hug it once again. "I'm just really hungry."
"Are you homeless?" I ask.
"No. I'm not homeless. I'm just...really broke."
And there it is. No sob story. No tricks. Just the sad truth of someone feeling like they have absolutely nothing. Welcome to London, everyone. The third richest city in the world.
I really don't want to buy the book, but there's something so honest and heartfelt about him that I can't just turn him away.
"I can buy you some food if you'd like?"
His face brightens. "Oh. Really? That would be. Really kind of you."
"Sure. What would you like?"
"Chicken and rice. Please."
It's quite a specific request and I look around, scanning the high street for a suitable eatery. Nearby there's a Japanese noodle bar, a pub, a Primark and, of course, McDonald's right behind us, none of which are likely to do the trick.
"I don't really know where to go for that...." I say.
"I think. Down that street. Down there. They sell chicken and rice," and he points behind me onto Goodge Street. It sounds like he has a particular establishment in mind, and I feel suddenly guilty that I can't properly follow through with my offer. I explain that I'm meeting someone so I can't stray too far. Instead, I suggest McDonald's (which ordinarily goes against my principles) and he seems grateful for the offer, so we head inside, with him hovering a few paces behind me.
I haven't been to McDonald's for years and it seems to have gone very new age. We don't have to queue up and order from a real person, but can make our request via a giant touch-screen machine near the entrance. Ironically, it is an actual human being who tells me to do this.
At the machine, I ask him for his preferences as we advance through each screen - chicken or beef, juice or Coke, fries or no fries? He looks very awkward about having any kind of choice at all, but he sheepishly makes his request - beef burger quarter pounder meal, with an orange juice - whilst looking at the floor. To insist on a veggie burger to appease my own moral compass seems like a pretty selfish good deed, so I pay for his food and hand over the ticket that the machine prints out.
He takes it, gratefully, and stares at it for a moment. I gesture that he can go and collect his food from the counter and he thanks me several times over. Before he leaves, he holds the book out for me to take.
"Here's the book," he says.
I had forgotten all about that, and smile at the sweetness of the gesture.
"That's okay. You keep it. Maybe you could sell it to someone else?"
"No, please take it. I insist." He presses it into my hands and I can't do anything else but accept.
"That's very kind of you, but it's really not necessary," I tell him, and I feel bad for taking something that he deems so valuable. I am 99% sure I will end up re-gifting it to my dad.
"It's all I've got. But I want you to have it."
And with that, he is gone, immersed in the throng of fast food junkies.
I wander out of the restaurant, clutching this absurdly weighty hardback book in my hands, and it makes me feel all glowy inside. I decide in that moment that I won't regift it after all. I will add it to my book collection - even though it is taller than my paperbacks and will send the organisation of our bookshelf into complete disarray - but I will keep it there as a reminder of how it is always possible to be kind, even when you think you have nothing of value to give.