I’m sat in Birmingham Central Library on a February morning in 2016. A man approaches me. In his right hand he clutches at a few pieces of crumpled up paper, in his left he holds a roughly-sharpened pencil.
“Excuse me bro, can you please help me? I need to send an email, it’s a really important email. I can’t use the computers here because they said I’ve got fines which I didn’t know about and I can’t pay them.”
I look away from my screen towards this man and see he is small and skinny. His clothes are dirty and shabby, shoulders covered in a thick carpet of dandruff. His face is sallow, full of spots. He looks tired. He sounds desperate.
I ask what he needs to send.
“Just an email to my friend, it’s really important. I just need to use Gmail. I can’t use the ones [computers] here and it’s distressing me.”
I hesitate for a second. The way he said “it’s distressing me” sounded fake, rehearsed even. My subconscious assesses the situation. I say OK.
“Oh thank you bro, thanks.”
He sits down next to me and begins rapidly scribbling lead words on one of his battered pieces of paper. I press CTRL+SHIFT+N and a new incognito window opens up. I navigate to Gmail.
I ask what his email address is.
“T-O… hang on.”
He continues writing. I wonder what this man needs to send so desperately. It can only be something to do with money, considering his appearance and inability to pay his library fines. Thoughts of phishing emails from Africa and Asia cross my mind and I hope he hasn’t been taken in by one. But if he has, would I say something or let things chart their own course? He stops writing, suddenly stands up, leans over my shoulder.
I ask again for an email address.
He tells me and I type. I offer him the keyboard so he can type his password. It doesn’t work.
“Maybe it’s gmail.co.uk. I can’t remember.”
I don’t think that’s the case. He tries another password but that doesn’t work either. We give @gmail.co.uk a go but Google informs us that domain name doesn’t exist.
“This is what happens when you’re distressed. You can’t remember things.”
We revert back to @gmail.com and he tries another password. It works.
He clumsily shifts my laptop so its easier for him to type, navigates to SENT, opens an email thread, begins to compose a reply.
For the whole time he’s been sniffing his dripping nose at regular intervals. Now, waiting while he leans over me and types with his index finger, the sound is magnified in the silence of the library; the stroke of the keys are punctuated by his sniffling. I’m suddenly aware of his smell - not entirely unpleasant, but odd.
It occurs to me that this man, this stranger, has entered my physical and digital personal space. Rarely do I, or people in general, allow friends or family to handle our laptops, phones, tablets - let alone invite complete strangers to compose entire emails on our devices.
There is clearly something about his desperation, sad appearance, and my own human nature that caused my subconscious to instruct me to help this man send an email.
I read his email as he types. He is asking someone he knows for £38. He needs to pay his bank charges, which have accrued because he couldn’t pay his mortgage. It seems he has no money until March, when his sister arrives back from a holiday with his father. I feel a detached sense of empathy. But I’m not hopeful for him.
I can see a previous email where he asks this same person to help him find a job. There’s a reply asking about him and his family, sidestepping the request (demand?).
I wonder if I’d agree to help someone find a job, or give them £38, if I received an email from them. I don’t think I would.
I imagine the recipient of this email as a long-lost school friend or long-vacated neighbourhood acquaintance. Perhaps the man writing an email on my laptop has some deeper problems?
The language he uses in the email he’s writing now is that of desperation, emotion, and urgency. He even supplies his bank account details so the recipient can pay £38 in straight away - no need to waste time replying. He wouldn't be able to read a reply anyway.
Before sending it, he gives the email a once over. And then he just walks away. Not a word. Nothing. He even leaves himself signed in to Gmail.
I’m left feeling quite strange. This man’s troubles entered my life for five minutes, and I accepted them. And then he was gone.
He left his pencil behind.