I had such an unpleasant encounter in the book shop last week that it’s taken me a few days to reach the point of writing about it. In fact I’ve been very much in two minds as to whether to write about it at all. But I’ll give it a go because I might see it more clearly afterwards.
We’ve been shortstaffed in the shop for ages now so it wasn’t unusual for me to be alone when this happened. You are always alone when these sorts of things happen. I’d just finished the transaction with one customer who was picking up quite a lot of shopping bags, when a diminutive woman came in the door. She was in her late 50s or early 60s with a cloud of fluffy ginger hair and watery pale blue eyes that were on the verge of tears the entire time she was speaking to me. She drew attention to herself the moment she walked in, trying to help the other customer – a middle-aged and perfectly able-bodied woman who looked at her in some bewilderment – with her bags and the door. Once the customer had left she fixed me with her gaze and sighed very deeply. She had a breathy voice that was strangely insistent.
‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ she began. ‘You’re not going to want to hear this.’
And I knew in that moment she was perfectly correct. My heart sank and I wanted nothing more than to run away. I was surprised by my extreme reaction and gave myself a little shake. After all, it wasn’t like I was without practice in dealing with troubled people.
‘I don’t know who to turn to…I’m all on my own and I’m desperate, desperate….they’ve blackballed me, I think… yes, I’ve been medically blackballed.. they’re altering the doses behind my back. The doctors in Edinburgh and the doctors in London, they’re talking behind my back… and I am not a difficult patient, not at all… It’s bankrupt me, I need a lawyer but I can’t possibly afford one… I don’t have a permanent address. Can you imagine that? I’ve been forced to move from one place to another, I don’t even have a phone, and when I have a phone my hearing isn’t good… I can’t always hear the person on the other end…But I’m desperate…’
She pinned me with a frightening look. ‘I’m going to die you know.’
Immediately the thought popped into my mind to reply, well we’re all going to die. Wise Litlove suppressed it. Shush now, she said to me, you’ve got to figure out at least some of what’s going on here.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but I don’t quite…?’
‘I thought Amnesty would be able to help me… but I understand they don’t take on individual cases? I need a lawyer but the legal fees…. I am quite desperate, I’ve tried everyone, everyone….’
‘Have you tried the Citizens Advice Bureau?’ I asked.
She gave an angry sigh, rubbing her hand across her teary eyes. ‘Of course I have,’ she said, her voice laden with bitter contempt. ‘What on earth do you think…..’ she pulled herself together again. ‘I just thought that you would know about Amnesty? What they could do for me?’
The correct answer here was that I was a volunteer in a book shop, not a representative of Amnesty. But she was pushing every button she could find, and one about knowing the right thing to do was a good choice on me. I instantly felt I ought to provide her with an answer, even though I had absolutely no idea still what the matter was or what she wanted.
‘I’m afraid I really don’t know that much about Amnesty,’ I said. I took a magazine off the stand on the counter. ‘Let me look up head office number for you.’
‘It’s on the wall behind you,’ she said, quick as a flash. I felt wrong-footed again. I rarely look at the wall behind me, but I supposed I should have known it was there. At this point the telephone began to ring. I knew who it was: it was one of the other volunteers who’d said she’d ring later in the morning about a book she was reading and wanted to recommend to me whose author and title she’d forgotten. ‘You’d better get that,’ my troublesome customer said to me.
I felt I was confused enough already. ‘No, that’s okay, I’m helping you at the moment,’ I said. Thankfully, the phone stopped ringing and I could think. ‘Do you want me to write down the number…?’
‘But I can’t hear well on the phone… I told you, and I don’t have a phone of my own and I can’t give a fixed address. I just thought you would know….I’m desperate. And I’m frightened, I’m so frightened.’
I thought I saw the light. ‘So you want me to ring up head office for you?’
Obviously I had said this too stridently. She took a step backwards. ‘Oh I didn’t mean to distress you… I don’t expect you to do anything. I’d do it myself if I had a phone… if I weren’t so afraid.’
I found I was getting very impatient with the fear thing. I leant towards her, put a finger very gently on her arm and said, ‘If you need help then this is not the time to be afraid. You just have to ask for it. I’ll ring up for you.’
It was a relief, frankly, to be doing something. I was concerned that I would never get her out of the shop and I’d be stuck in this nightmare forever. It was also a relief to find a competent woman on the other end of the line. All the time she was talking to me, my troublesome customer was talking at me too. It was very disconcerting. Finally she started waving her hands about, holding them out for the phone. I passed it over, gave her a pen and a pad to write on and tried to regain my equilibrium.
The thing was, she could be in genuine trouble. There could easily be some serious injustice in her situation. But at the same time, I was feeling increasingly played. She was sharp enough when she wanted to be and she was extremely manipulative. Every time I’d gone to make a suggestion, she had been talking over the top of me or brushing it away. Essentially, I knew she fell into the category of emotionally unbalanced people who, when it comes down to it, cannot bear to have their victimhood taken away from them. Or, I reminded myself, who have met with disappointment and resistence so many times they can’t quite believe in any other response.
She put the phone down and looked at me a tad defiantly. ‘I can’t always hear voices on the phone but I just happened to be able to hear hers… I’ll pay for the call.’
‘No really,’ I said. ‘It was for Amnesty business, so that’s fine.’
She had written another number down on the pad I’d given her. ‘So can I call this one…?’
Why didn’t I just let her? I suppose I felt it had all been going on so long and I couldn’t shake off my misgivings about the whole conversation. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘While it’s fine to use the phone for Amnesty business, I don’t think I could allow you to use it for other calls.’
The phone started up ringing again.
‘You’d better get that,’ she said.
When I picked it up, it was the other volunteer, giving me the name and title of the book. I took them down, undoubtedly sounding odd but unable to explain why and my colleague ended the call abruptly, probably offended.
‘You know,’ began my troublesome customer, ‘I’d really rather you didn’t talk to me as if I were silly. It’s very rude of you. This is something that’s very, very difficult for me to talk about.’
Now I knew the situation was really getting to me. I felt dangerously as if I might cry myself. I wanted her out of the shop, this minute.
‘I’m really sorry if that’s how it sounded,’ I said. ‘That wasn’t at all my intention.’
‘I’ll pay for the call.’
‘No really, it’s not necessary. Well,’ I so wanted her gone. ‘Good luck with your problem, I hope you find an answer.’
For some reason this incensed her more than anything else I’d said. In a spurt of fury she wrestled a pound coin out of her purse, slammed it down on the counter and stalked out of the door.
Once she’d gone, I found I was shaking. For the rest of the day, I felt I was wearing her on me, her suppressed rage, her resentment. It reminded me why it was such a relief sometimes not to be working study support any more. So few people who ask for help actually want help. They want confirmation that the world is a bad, friendless place, that their fears and anxieties are well founded, that they can do no more than they have done, and most of all they want a punch bag for all the emotions that result.
A friend of mine who is also a counsellor put a slightly different but more useful spin on it. ‘When you see someone giving off victim vibes, you want to get out of there and fast,’ she said. ‘Victims set up a triangle, with themselves at one apex, a rescuer at another and a persecutor at the third. What does that tell you?’
‘That the rescuer and the persecutor very easily become the same person,’ I said. This had been exactly my experience in the shop. From the moment I had begun to help her, I could feel myself poised on the brink of becoming the enemy.
But of course I still wonder what I could have done differently. And I wonder what her situation actually was and whether she is in as much trouble as she claimed to be. Cravenly, I hope most of all that she will not start to haunt the shop so that I am forced to find out.