Redemption

I forget about Bournemouth & Boscombe and dedicate myself to other matters, other places, other subjects, other themes. The world is a wondrous sphere, I am reminded, as I travel, as I learn. As I love: I meet new people, form new connections, find myself enthralled to new ideas and smitten by new beauty. New affections, new reciprocities, new inspirations. New experiences.

Out of the blue, an email arrives in my inbox, via my website: the kind of message that comes in the shape of a contact form. I get those now and then, though rarely. Seldom enough, in fact, for me to take note and think: ah, someone has gone to the trouble of writing to me.

This one is more unusual still: it’s a letter. Not a note or an enquiry, not a compliment or a rebuke, not a proposition of a collaboration or a proposal for a project. As I read, my hopes and doubts coalesce into a balm of both comfort and pain. The pain that has been caused and that has not been forgiven, the comfort of sensing that forgiveness may, after all, be attained. It is not, however, for me to forgive. I have not been wronged. No more, at any rate, and no less, than we all have by those who trespass not against us personally but against our understanding of what it is to be human, and to be good. The two don’t always go cheek by jowl, I know, but deep down, is it not the case that we would wish them to?

We know when our sense of justice, of respect and compassion is offended, and the offence this letter speaks to is a grave one, truly, genuinely. The way this offence offends is not the kind that we hear expressed now so often when somebody faces an opinion they don’t like or encounters an expression that is outdated maybe, even archaic. It is an offence that comes from a senseless act of destruction that ended and altered lives which had no reason and no need and certainly no desire to be so altered, so ended. It is the offence of an irredeemable act of violence, a cruel and wanton incision into a community’s whole existence.

The letter offers a kind of reconciliation. It is written in a direct, unembellished style, though carefully worded and a little formal. Its authors have clearly given it thought, and, by the looks of it, rather than simply typing it into the online contact form, they have composed it, edited it, spell-checked it: it contains no trivial errors as would be attributable to haste or lack of concentration. It is purposely positioned to be read and absorbed, not fired off as a quick response. It goes like this:

Dear Sebastian

We enjoyed your piece on the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll a lot. Enough for us to feel moved to break our silence. Our silence was part self-imposed, part decreed. We felt for a long time that no-one should hear from us, ever again. The anger we caused, and the pain. The loss. We don’t talk about it, ever, and we don’t like to write about it either. Words seem weightless, when put into the balance of what we have done. At the time of our trial, we were very young. Some people have taken us saying so as an insult. ‘You were young,’ they say, ‘but you knew what you were doing.’ We did, and we didn’t. When we say we were young, we don’t mean to make an excuse for our actions. We mean to say: we had very little experience of what it is to be alive and we had very little understanding of what makes us human. We had no excuse. Nor did we have a reason. But we did something we knew at the time was deeply wrong. We knew this, we just didn’t know how not to do it. That may not make much sense to you and you may wonder, what on earth does it have do with the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll?

You see, the hatred we faced and the anger that was vented against us, in words that were brutal and vicious, they shocked us. What did we expect? Praise? Obviously not. We didn’t expect anything. Once what we’d done and the effect that it had had sunk in, we didn’t expect any leniency or compassion. We couldn’t understand ourselves, how could we expect anybody else to understand us? But perhaps—just perhaps—it is true to say that we were hoping for some form of forgiveness. And we were frightened and perplexed that that wasn’t forthcoming. At all. From a society steeped in a religion that has sin and forgiveness at its core, we received no indication that this society at large was prepared to forgive us. Ever. There were some exceptions. But the general tone from the people, as far as we could hear, was a clamour for revenge. Newspaper journalists—again with some notable exceptions that you are well aware of—echoed this general people’s call for us to be hanged. And damned. Or, at the very least, locked up in eternity, ‘with the keys thrown away’. We were teenagers. Yes, we had taken innocent lives, including the lives of two beautiful girls. That that was not our intention is, we realise, irrelevant. We could have known, and we were old enough to appreciate, that setting fire to hundreds of beach huts with a series of small but devastating explosions would endanger people, and do so in a way that we could not control.

At our trial—it has been noted with disgust—we did not express any remorse, let alone ask for forgiveness. It is hard to explain why: did we not realise we had wronged people, and not just the ones who were directly affected, but also everyone who knew and loved them; in fact, everyone, because who would not see and not know that destroying people’s property while risking their lives is wrong? Again, we don’t want this to sound like an excuse. But expressing your sorrow, your remorse and contrition for something that is so obviously and so categorically wrong is almost impossible. If you accidentally make a mistake and knock into someone on the pavement or spill a drink and cause a little damage: that’s easy. It’s easy to say ‘sorry’ for a mini-misdemeanour. But for a crime against society? We didn’t have the words. We didn’t have them then, we barely have them now. When today we write to you to say: we are truly and profoundly sorry for what we have done, do you accept that as our apology? Maybe you do, because maybe you can, but you are just a distant bystander, an observer: a recounter of events, a narrator. What about the parents of the girls? The grown up children of the elderly couple? Those who loved and needed and cherished them? What about the owners of the dog? And what about those who nursed and attended the injured. In the end we were responsible for the deaths of two girls aged five, an elderly couple, and the little dog; and there were seventeen injured; two, we later learnt, with life-changing injuries. Can they ‘accept an apology’? Ever? Even we don’t see how. Even we don’t see how anything we could say would ever be enough. How anything we could do would ever be enough. We are unable to atone for our crime, because the crime was so futile, so pointless, so deliberate and yet so random.

Us being unable to atone for our crime, and there being no words that we can find to say we are sorry, it took us a long time—until now—to formulate anything at all. We have lived in silence, mainly so as not to compound our offence. We’d been separated at our arrest and were kept apart for a while after sentencing. But our social workers and eventually our probation officers agreed that we were not a danger to society any longer, and we were allowed to get back together. We have been together ever since: we live together, with our new identities that we were given to protect us from the wrath of the people, in a remote part of these isles, which of course we cannot and wouldn’t wish to disclose. And we thought: perhaps there is something we can try. It was, yet again, not something we fully thought through. But at least it was harmless. And we had to break the terms of our parole, but we’d been out of prison a few years by then, and we thought, perhaps this is not going to redeem us and it certainly isn’t going to make things good for those whom we’d wronged, but perhaps we can almost run this as a test. We will either be caught and found out and probably—so we felt—torn to pieces on the spot, or we will get away with it and that will be that. The world, we will then accept, has found a way to allow us to be now. We are, after all, now completely ordinary. Really. We both have jobs in our local community. Nobody knows who we are, and they like us. We are the kindly, now soon-to-be middle aged couple who shop at Waitrose together and go for walks. We admit it: we enjoy our lives. That alone, we also understand, will to many people be outrageous. It is unfair, unjust, even.

We have done time in prison, we have undergone many hours of therapy with our workers, we have cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds. And we are happy. We are not light of heart or full of joy: that will never be possible. We are too conscious and too conscientious for that ever to be the case. The burden of our past and our offence will rest on our shoulders forever. But we are content. We are content that we have found a way now of being good citizens and of contributing to our community, without fuss. It is not atonement, so much, as it is a rational way of handling the day to day reality of being alive, after all. Was it worth sparing us, or would the world have turned into a better place if we’d been done away with? We can’t answer that question objectively, we’re too close to ourselves. But we like to think that the world is a slightly better place for having us in it, still. It can say: ‘These boys, they did something unforgivable, but in a way we forgave them. We rose above their crime, we allowed them not to be defined solely by their premeditated act of cruelty. Ours is a world in which that is possible.’ This, we believe, is a better world than a world that can only say: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and you wronged me so I wrong you back just the same, and your right to life is forfeit because you took life: you have no chance of redemption, ever.’

So a few years ago, when we were still quite young, but no longer the juvenile delinquents of yore, we did something we thought was worth a try. We took a train to Bournemouth. We were not strictly allowed to do so: we are not now and will never be allowed to set foot on the scene of our crime, but we did so anyway, because we wanted to test the water. Not literally, but metaphorically. We wanted to find out what the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe were really like. We’d seen so much of the ugly face of people’s understandable scorn and anger, hatred and pain, we had forgotten, we felt, what being normal, human and gracious would be. So we stripped off all our clothes. We were going to run, at first, because we were incredibly scared, as you perhaps can imagine. But within minutes we realised: these people, these good people of Bournemouth & Boscombe: they are not angry or hateful at heart. They were angry and hateful because we had wounded them so. But now, now that we laid ourselves bare and walked along that same beach in front of those same huts—the huts that had taken the places of those we’d destroyed—people smiled at us. They started talking to us. They even joined us. They had a laugh with us, and a banter. A pint and a stroll. All we’d really wanted to test was whether we’d survive the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe for half a day.

We did not mean to start a new thing. But here, and this is something we are today really glad to tell you, we were met with love. People were friendly and generous, good-humoured and kind. That’s what we will forever now cherish and what we will take to our graves. We are both not very religious, but we light five candles every night: two for the girls, two for the elderly couple, and, yes, one for the dog. That dog was somebody’s friend. It deserved not to die at our hands. And while until a few years ago that moment in the evening of honouring and remembering them was mainly filled with remorse and sorrow, since we went on our beach stroll in Bournemouth & Boscombe in the nude, it is filled now also with love. The love these people gave us—those same people whom we had so badly abused and who had therefore so understandably hated us so—sustains us today. We are grateful for it, and we appreciate it. And we love you all back.

We take no credit for having ‘invented’ the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll. If the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe didn’t have it in them to do this every year, it would not have caught on. The fact that it did and that it now attracts visitors from all over the world has nothing to do with us. Nobody even knows about us. It has everything, and only, to do with the people who make it happen each year: the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe. They own it, and for as long as they want it, they may keep and enjoy it.

So should we even tell you about us, if we don’t matter at all? We thought long and hard about this, and many times before we sent this letter to you decided against it. But there was something about your piece that convinced us, in the end, that the truth—even though it is painful and maybe unwelcome—still forms part of the picture, and the picture is only truthful if in the end, at some point, when it is ready to be so, it can be rendered complete. The colours, the layers, the light and the shade. And so we commend this letter to you to do with it as you see fit. But we thank you for having prompted us now to write it.

Yours humbly

Andrew & George

I’m struck by the fact that they’re signing it ‘Andrew & George’. Was not Andy the junior partner, drawn into the maelstrom of cataclysm by the older, more devious George? Maybe time has levelled their relationship, as it levels everything, and in all seriousness: does it matter? By sending me their letter they have given me two options only: to either be the keeper of their secret, or to be the agent of their revelation. It is a simple choice to make. I cannot be the keeper of a secret that was volunteered to me as a revelation. And as I believe in redemption, and in catharsis as a step towards it, I opt to let this stand now, here, as it is.

In my universe, hatred to love is as darkness to light: one may not exist without the other, but there is no question, ever, of which yields to which:

Love conquers all.

Istanbul

We wander on for a bit, and I breathe it all in: the people, the tourists, the tram and vendors; the noise and the scent and the flavour.

George, I’m beginning to realise, is telling me everything I need to know. He’s hardly said more than a couple of dozen sentences since we met, improbably and unfathomably, a few hours ago, but I know now that seeing him, listening to him, looking at him, being with him—in his presence, in no other than that simple, literal sense—has triggered in me the abundance of memories, connexions and emotions, the thoughts and the synaptic excursions, the diversions, the captions, the mild insurrections of heart, mind and soul, that I need, to move on.

Move on from what? Had I got stuck? Most severely. Had I manoeuvred myself into a dead end? More than of sorts. Was I on the verge of becoming obsolete, not just to myself, but to the universe that has somehow produced me? I fear me I was. Is that now all at an end? Who knows…

I again put my arm around George, instinctively, without thinking, and he doesn’t shirk or pause or look at me, he just lets it be. My George: that’s how I know him. We wander, like father and son, like brothers, like friends, but not lovers—can one constellation embody all these in one, even, ever?—and I feel me an abundant sensation of love. Of loss too, and of forgiveness. Most of all of forgiveness: I forgive you, George, for everything, really. All your inadequacies. Your presumptions, your misunderstandings. Your aloofnesses and your hesitancies. Your delusions and your noble intentions. Your foibles, all of your weaknesses. Your constant quest to connect, your patent inability to do so in so many senses. There are too many things to mention.

Too many things too, for which I do not need to forgive you, for which I can quietly, humbly, respect you: even admire you. Your sense of justice and your faith in humans. Your optimism, your hope. Your openness, your curiosity. It may, ultimately, have killed the cat, but the cat had nine lives and so it continued. It lived. You’re not unlike a cat, George, I’ve known this for centuries, for all the millennia that I’ve known you. And I’m beginning to know you now, George, and I’m glad on’t.

We reach Taksim Square where we take a turn to the right and keep wandering. Not aimlessly so much as non-directionally. We both have no particular place to go, not at the moment. We end up by a steep small street that looks a little familiar and quite attractive, and decide to head up it, rather than down, and before long we recognise a wooden house and a half hidden entrance: we have inadvertently come back to right where we started: the Limonlu Bahçe.

There is, probably, in some way some significance to this: have we actually gone round in a circle? I like to think not, not least because we are not moving in three dimensions. We have, at any rate, walked a spiral, a triangular shaped one, as it turns out, but that is most likely quite by the by. Some things have meaning, others less so. Some things are profound though we but capture the surface, others are really surface. Or maybe I’m being lazy. At some level, most likely, everything has some other layer, some other meaning, some other significance that could or could not be, or become, at some point quite relevant. We can’t take it all in, all at the same time: we do need a filter. And that’s yet another insight I’m having, right there.

We’ve not walked very far, maybe less than an hour, perhaps a bit more; we’ve been ambling really, rather than striding. We’ve not been saying all that much more. Metaphorically, though, we have come a long way. In my mind I have travelled a little light year. Is there a big light year? Or even one of average length? Aren’t all light years the same? It is not, of course, and I realise, a year, and it’s not one of light. Some metaphors don’t stack up. I have percolated, I feel me, through my own conscience and come out enriched. If that makes sense. Does it have to? Make sense? To me, it doesn’t have to, even though somehow it does. I don’t think it matters to George if it does. Does it matter to you?

I realise I have a reader. I realise I need you as my reader, because without you I don’t exist. I realise I am not alone in this, nor only with George: I realise we are, in our own constellation, triangular. Hello, Reader: welcome to my world.

George and I are both creatures of habit, and having walked for an hour or so—maybe a little less, possibly just a bit more—we both fancy another drink, and we readily, easily, without thinking or negotiation, decide to go back to the Limonlu Bahçe: we liked it there, we were comfortable there, why would we not now go back there, seeing we are already here.

I like that about George and about me: we can stay in one place for hours and never get bored. We both never get bored, George and I. That is a realisation I had and passed on to him long before I knew I would be him: if you watch paint dry close enough, it’s entirely riveting. At molecular level, let alone subatomic: there’s a riot of things happening, a mesmerising display of spectacular wonder. How could you ever get bored?

We head down the hidden staircase back into the garden which is now not full and not empty, but at that agreeable mid-to-late afternoon state when luncheon has petered out and dinner hasn’t yet started. The table we had been sitting at has been taken, but we find one as pleasant in the mid-to-late afternoon speckled shade two or three tables removed and sit down, and our angular waitress returns and recognises us and smiles, and we order another couple of mojitos and some chips, just to nibble.

Now, for the first time in maybe a million years, I am here. George, because of the configuration of the table, the bench and the chairs, has naturally sat down next to me, not opposite, so he can survey the garden with me, this paradise of our own making. This Eden. “Look at me now, and here I am,” she had said, and I had understood her, immediately. Joyce, Shakespeare, Stein. Then Shakespeare again, then no particular order.

I can be at home with myself in a paradise of my making that doesn’t know what it is, in a city I’ve never been before, within an instant and find me not tempted by knowledge, in no need of a companion, at ease. Not forever, of course, just for now. The curiosity and the fascination, the alertness and also the need will soon get the better of me, that I know, it has ever been thus.

But now. And here. We are.


< {Memories of the Past}



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