I'm not talking about "I shouldn't have had that tenth beer" kind of regret, I'm talking about real regret. The kind of regret you feel when you've done something irreversible. You never talk about it, because you hope against hope that your loved ones have - at least for a moment - forgotten or forgiven you. The thought of reminding them about it, of bringing it back to the surface, fills you with stomach-swirling terror.
I am lucky enough to have only two such regrets. This praxis is my attempt to Undo one of them.
I was bullied as a child. From the age of about nine to eighteen I pretty much hated school as a result. But I'm deeply ashamed to admit that in one particular case I was the bully. There was one child even lower in the bullying food-chain than me: we'll call him T.
He was an awkward child. Tall and spindly, red-haired, pale, with meticulous Received Pronunciation
. He clicked his tongue as he talked, as if he had a tic. And he always smiled. I think I bullied him to try and get a rise out of him. But he never stopped smiling, even as he told me he hated me.
I called him names. I kicked him, harder and harder when he wouldn't stop smiling. Sometimes I felt guilty and left him alone, but he was such an awkward boy that he made an easy target.
Sounds lame, but it was painful to write that. I feel like including a thousand disclaimers so you won't think I'm a bad person, but no - that was bad.
A while ago, I started volunteering for Childline
telephone counselling service. The training involved a lot of soul-searching. They made us dig up all of the darkest secrets of our past so that we could start to face them. After all, we couldn't counsel bullied and abused children properly unless we had faced our own demons first. During this process, I thought about T for the first time in ten years.
Then, recently, my friend and I were taking a bus home from an evening out in Walthamstow. A group of four kids - age maybe eleven or twelve - started picking a fight with us. We tried to ignore them, tried to tell them to mind their own business, but they wouldn't leave us alone. As the bus pulled up at the next stop, they snatched my friend's laptop and ran off the bus. He ran after them, until one of them produced a knife - so he let them go.
I felt angry, helpless, guilty, deflated, betrayed, ashamed... in short, for the first time since graduating secondary school, I felt bullied.
I made up my mind then, even though the prospect filled me with anguish and self-hatred, that I would face my demons. I would find T and apologize to him.
T has a double-barrelled surname, and it turns out that in his adult life he is an avid political blogger, so a Google search was sufficient to track him down. His blog had no contact details, so I messaged him these words:
*I used my real name here!
It's been about 12 and a half years since we last spoke, so I wouldn't be surprised if you don't remember me. My name's Charlie Fish*, and I attended Downsend School with you.
I recently started volunteering for Childline as a telephone counsellor, which involved quite a bit of soul-searching as part of the training process.
One of the types of calls that Childline often fields is from children being bullied at school. I spent a large portion of my school life being bullied to various degrees, but I am ashamed to admit that in at least one case I was the bully myself.
Please accept my sincere apologies for the grief that I caused you.
Later that night, he called me.
I hadn't given him my number - he clearly used Google too. I must admit, I was quite thrown. I'm not sure what I had expected to happen, but whatever it was, I had expected it to happen later.
The conversation was terrible. I was clawing my eyeballs at the awkwardness of it all. It was something like this:
"I just wanted to apologise for the way I treated you back then. I mean, I know I bullied you and I feel bad about that. But anyway, you seem to be doing alright for yourself now?"
"What gave you that idea?"
"Well, I mean, on your website it said that you're studying for a doctorate. Your blog is interesting, by the way, I read a bit of it. It sounds like you're doing well for yourself. [long pause] I'd like to buy you a drink sometime, if you'll accept it."
"Well, I've got your number now, so I'll give you a call."
I hung up, bit down hard on my finger at the thought of all the things I should have said, then immediately wrote another comment on his blog.
Apologies for posting the previous message on this blog - it's not the most appropriate forum, but I couldn't find up-to-date contact details for you. I presume you have the ability to delete these comments if you see fit?
When and where
You sounded like you had more to say when we spoke earlier. If, like me, you just hate phones, feel free to email me (it sounds like you found my website already so I'm sure you found the email address!).
I would genuinely like to buy you a drink sometime next month when things have quietened down here, if you'd be gracious enough to accept it.
I had stayed my execution for a month (cowardice!), and I ended up putting it off even longer. But eventually, I sent him a text message (more cowardice!), he sent a terse reply, and we arranged to meet at a pub in central London. Not one of my regular haunts; somewhere I barely knew (cowardice strike three!).
I arrived five minutes late, but I couldn't see him among the people in the bar, so I ordered a beer and waited.
Every time the door opened to let another person in, my heart skipped.
I got to thinking, is this attempt to Undo - this quest for redemption - the right thing to do, or ridiculously pretentious? How would I feel if an ex-bully contacted me one day out of the blue? I wouldn't want to meet him. Why was I here? Why couldn't I have let sleeping dogs lie?
Just then, T walked in. I didn't recognise him with enough confidence to call his name, but he walked straight over to me. He looked me up and down and said, "You used to wear glasses." (True. See pic.)
What a terrible anticlimax. If he'd punched me and left I could go home feeling hard done-by, having paid my moral debt and being secretly smug that he reacted so immaturely.
But worse - he remembered me. That means I wasn't totally insignificant to him - I had made some lasting, unwelcome impact. Perversely, I wanted him to like me, or at least believe that I was a good person.
What followed was possibly the most uncomfortable conversation I've ever had. I tried to engage him by asking about his doctorate, about his interest in politics, about anything - but he mostly gave me one-word answers. How can I counsel suicidal children, and yet not engage with this man?
I got so frustrated with him (with myself) that at one point I had to suppress an evil urge to tease him about his tongue-clicking tic (which he still had). OMG, I am truly evil. I did not know this about myself.
I still hadn't gathered up the courage to apologize to his face, so some masochistic impulse in me suggested that we go somewhere to eat together. We walked there in silence.
How could I put it tactfully? What did I want to hear? Did I want to hear that he had suffered? Did I want him to forgive me?
We ordered our food, and I said it. "I'm sorry that I bullied you."
And he completely ignored me. As if he hadn't heard me. I felt so small and stupid I couldn't bring myself to say anything else. We passed the next half an hour barely exchanging a word.
I realised that I could not take back what I had done.
So yeah, right now I feel like I should be fired from humanity.