Today's Weather for Cliftonville

Friday, 18 May 2007

Taken for a ride?

It could well be that I was taken for a ride last night. I don't know.

At around 10.00pm I remembered I needed to fill up my tank, so I drove around to the petrol station opposite Tesco in Northdown Road, less than a minute from home.

Having filled up and paid paid up I went back to my car and opened the door, but before I could get in I heard a voice .

"'Scuse me, mate".

Now, call me middle aged and stuffy, but normally I hate that kind of assumed familiarity from a stranger. It was cordial enough, though, so I did at least turn to listen. Approaching me was a tall lad of perhaps 17, dressed in jeans, trainers and hoody. I waited for the expected request for a light or for a cigarette. Directions, perhaps. But no:

"Goin' anywhere near Palm Bay?" he asked.

"Not really," I replied (truthfully).

"A gang of lads from Ramsgate is threatening to beat me up," he continued, "and I could do with a lift home".

At that point my conscience flickered briefly into life. But then, just as quickly, it fizzled out.

"No, I'm sorry. I'm only going round the corner, and I really need to get home quickly," I said, avoiding eye contact. Well, it was half true.

I got into my car and started the engine, drove ten metres and then stopped abruptly. Why had I just refused to help a fellow human being? Only last year I myself was forced, on at least two occasions, to ask strangers for a jump start late at night. Surely a refusal went against everything that had been instilled into me since a child. Had sunday school counted for nothing?

Well, the only two reasons I could think of were firstly that I really couldn't be bothered to put myself out sufficiently to give up five minutes of my precious free time, and secondly I thought there was a fair chance that this alleged threat of violence from our Ramsgate friends was mere fabrication. My suspicion was that this lad had most likely squandered all his money on booze and hadn't any left to pay for a bus or a taxi. Let him walk.

But then how was I going to feel when I opened next week's local paper to read of a brutal attack on a Palm Bay youth as he walked home at night through Cliftonville? Could I risk that?

No, of course I couldn't.

I wound my window down and called to him across the forecourt.

"Ok, jump in," I shouted.

"Thanks, mate," he said, running over to the car. ""I respect that."

Respect? Yes, well.

Yes, there was indeed a faint smell of booze about him. But he was quietish. And not impolite. And when we reached the Co-Op in Palm Bay barely two minutes later he jumped out with a brief and mumbled word of thanks, then disappeared off into the night.

Well, that was harmless, I thought. And didn't I feel better for it? Well yes, I did!

In less than five minutes I was back home with a full tank of petrol and, I admit, just the hint of a self-righteous glow.

It was only the reaction of my teenage sons to this this story that brought it home to me just what a monumental and naive risk I'd taken. My initial instinct to refuse help had been based on laziness and not wishing to be exploited as a soft touch. The safety element wasn't a consideration.

What a fool I'd been. Those local headlines might, in fact, have read very differently. "Hijack at filling station". "Good Samaritan knifed at the wheel".

What instant considerations, balancing risks and morals, each of us can be forced to make in this day and age.

Had I been a woman, of course, I don't think giving a lift to a strange male at night would have even crossed my mind. But I'm not. I'm a middle aged man.

What if the request for help had come from a girl in distress? Would my gut reaction to refuse have been so strong? I don't think it would. But then what kind of allegations might I have been laying myself open to by inviting her into my car?

How on earth is anyone to know? Oh, for a return to simpler and more trusting times.