On an ordinary day in the saddest part of the year – a time which varies depending on who is telling the story – I will find myself by the pond in the park. For me the saddest time of the year is also the coldest and darkest: the pond has calf-high loops of rigid wire in a fence around it as a nominal reminder that we must not stray into the ducks’ domain, and in winter they look like prison bars.
Everything else is beautiful, although it’s sad. You’d know if you were watching this. There are fern patterns in the ice on the windows of the closed-down green houses. The ice on the pond has black holes in it where the ducks congregate and quack like macaques in the hot springs of Japan. I would like to go to Japan.
All of the naked branches are clothed in frost and every person who passes is a dragon, or a sudden smoker, puffing out hot air with a little sigh that says they’re secretly delighted, still, with the miracle of breath made visible. My lungs are cold in spite of the coat.
The coat belonged to my mother. I tell all my friends it was inherited from my grandfather, which is true in the sense that he bought it from her, but it was my mother’s coat. The ones who know more about clothes look dubious but no one questions me. I know they gossip about it behind my back, but in the end I can take them to places they cannot otherwise access, so they will not subject me to the same friendly mocking they do each other.
Sometimes I wonder if this would be easier if I was a Catholic. My best friend is Catholic. He claims it makes no difference but I’ve seen him offer up confessions whenever we’re stuck in a toilet cubicle together. Small spaces and close company make him honest whether he wants it or not; I don’t think it’s the drugs.
He told me the important thing about the guilt you’re given is that there is a man in a special costume who takes all the guilt away at the end of the week. It’s like showering after a festival. All the dirt slides off you. God forgives you.
I think that’s why I’m telling you this. It’s easier to be honest with a stranger. I think if you could see this park you’d know why it makes me think of her. Everything is still, waiting for a chance to wake up but forgetting how to, like the world’s in a trance. The plants are hypnotised to near-death. My fingers are a colour they shouldn’t be.
And there are bars around the pond, decorated with icicles like no one told them Christmas has been and gone. They’re … symbolic, I think. They’re symbolic, aren’t they?
Issah (that’s my best friend), says the other thing a priest does is he leaves a silence for you to talk into. Tingting says the same thing about her therapist. But there’s such a thing as too much silence. I’d really like you to answer me. Some sort of sign that you already know what I’m telling you, and you’ve forgiven me. I don’t believe in God. And I don’t think anyone I know would be able to forgive me.
I watched a film. On my own, the day afterwards, because I couldn’t stand to … I didn’t want to be around anyone else then. It was already cold. I sat and watched it on my Macbook in this park until my fingers went numb. It was an old film, one where the black-and-white makes everything feel profound and you think that’s what the past must have been like, more profound. More important. The way the Seventies were just dampened colours and it’s easy to imagine the whole decade was faded and depressed.
It was called The Seventh Seal. I looked it up once I’d watched it, it was free with some promotion, because it was so old. It’s famous. I wasn’t really taking anything in, but I remember the line that they said:
“Faith is a torment. It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.”
I asked Issah about that and he told me to stop assuming he was an authority on religion when he didn’t even believe in God any more, and I said he still said things like God forgives you when you tell him the truth, and Issah said some habits are hard to break.
My head isn’t cold, because I put a hat on over a scarf. I look homeless. There are pigeons, and they’re loud and alive and even though their bodies are grey they seem colourful against the desaturation of frost.
A week after I asked him that Issah said that the reason it’s hard to let go of God even when you don’t really believe any more is God is the only thing that really has the authority to forgive you for everything. I thought he knew, then. I thought I was going to tell him. I thought he might take it with the dispassionate cast on his eyes that you have, and that I could absolve myself, and we would somehow still be friends afterwards. But the thing is Issah is here, and he can’t see the way you do, he sees things that aren’t the things I show him.
I don’t know if that’s better or worse. The grass has frost on it. Every blade is wearing a coat. Their coats are white and cold, and mine is brown and I had to pull off the lace from the collar. I watched my mother unpick stitches for years but when you come to do it yourself it’s different: my fingers and thumbs bled onto the fabric more times than I could count.
Once God forgives you, Issah said, that means you have to forgive yourself too. That’s like the flag, the signal: you have to forgive yourself now. After that you’re going against God, and self-recrimination is indulgence. He got that part from Tingting. Tingting got it from her therapist. Tingting’s therapist says: “After a point, you are simply feeling guilty for the sake of feeling guilty. You’ve decided to be penitent. It’s become your personality. You don’t want to be forgiven, you just keep on asking for forgiveness because you’re stuck there, stuck in this moment of horror at yourself. It becomes inflated until that moment is all of your moments.”
People walk at different speeds in this weather. The ones who are in pairs shuffle along together, trusting that company will keep them warm. The ones alone are brisk and certain, even when they’re lost. They have no lassitude: that’s for when you can feel the sweat slide between the fabric of your clothes and the skin of your back, not when your breath is white and hanging before you like a warning. You must out-pace your breath.
In one of our toilet cubicle confessions Issah told me. He was leaning on the wall with his forehead and he had just been sick. I dodged most of it. He said:
“When I was thirteen I punched my sister in the punani. Smack in the pussy. Pow. I don’t even remember what we were fighting about but she cried like I’d just tried to kill her.”
He looked at me with that distant clarity of being high, talked with that far-off inflection of wandering through a brain that feels like it’s working properly for the first time. All revelation and no deception.
“I kept thinking afterwards that I ought to feel bad about it but it just seemed really funny,” he says, in my mind, like a loop. “Do you ever get that, do you ever want to feel one thing because you know that’s what you ought to feel, but you just don’t, you feel something else, you feel the wrong thing?”
That was another time I thought he knew. But that time I didn’t think I’d tell him, because I’d made up my mind that it was between me and my conscience. My conscience is creaking like a table with too much piled on it.
I just wanted to thank you for listening. I was wrong about the silence. You’re not judging me, I can see that now. Why would you? You’ll close the book and read another and there will be worse people. I’m not so self-indulgent that I think other people don’t do and think worse things.
And you’re not here, so you’re not seeing my skin lifted up to reveal an ugly streak of maggots underneath. And you don’t know me, so I’m not going to spoil anything for you. You take me as I am. Thank you.
I know you’re impatient. I don’t even know if I’m the main character in this story. I think Issah probably is, or Tingting, or Colin. Probably Colin. Colin’s white. You don’t get many stories like this one, and I think mine’s already finished. So it’s probably really a story about Colin, because he travels around the world and meets people and saves lives, and he always has stories. He is a story full of stories. So thank you again for listening to me, because I only have this one, this one story and the good graces of some swanky nightclubs.
Well, I’m thinking about what Issah said, here in the park, in the cold, with my back to the river that hasn’t frozen and my face to the pond that has. I could turn around and face the river: that would be symbolic too. Guilt is self-indulgence; sometimes someone else has to tell you that you can forgive yourself now; do you ever feel the wrong thing?
Something small with feathers shakes off the ice from the twigs over the bench when it flies off. This is where it becomes too complicated for bathroom stalls and cocaine to really understand. I don’t feel guilty about the thing, I feel guilty about the feeling, I feel guilty because I don’t feel guilty, and how twisted is that?
It’s easy for you, I bet. You seem a compassionate sort. You haven’t closed the book. You’re waiting to hear what it is. You’ll be disappointed when I tell you it’s not a murder or a rape or even one of those disputed places where someone doesn’t want a baby and takes it away, or has too much to drink and can’t remember anything except a girl crying.
I could be lying about that. Maybe I want to impress you. You seem nice. My friends aren’t nice. They’re clever and they’re stylish and everyone wants to be like them, and Issah knows how to say the right things and Tingting works her therapy angle like it’s a mirror, and Colin is polishing his halo and using it like a lasso to snare girls, I’ve seen him do it.
But they’re not nice. Not like you. You picked this up and you’re listening to me. I bet you’d give me some gloves or a cup of coffee. You might even try to hustle me into the nearest café: you might just sit with me in the cold. I guess in a way you’re sitting with me in the cold right now, and I would never say this to any of my friends because they’d snigger at me but that thought makes it a little less cold.
Have you ever felt the wrong thing? I meant to take good care of her clothes and deliver them to her but I didn’t, I just put them in a charity box, except for the coat. They asked me if someone had died. I lied and said she had. I don’t know why I lied to them then, but I know now: it’s easy, everyone knows what to do when someone’s dead. You feel sad and you cry and you move on and you throw their things away and you leave flowers by their gravestone.
I have nothing to feed the pigeons and they are going to leave me soon. Are you going to leave too?
If this was a toilet cubicle and we were doing MDMA crystal and I’d come up I’d say to you, I just feel so guilty that I handed her over to them like that without trying harder, because that is the kind of shit that everyone says when we’re fucked up. Emotions we don’t feel but that we know we’re supposed to feel come on us like a revelation and I suppose that’s why I go out with Issah and Tingting and all of these people whose names don’t matter. It’s only when you’re under the right conditions that you can trick yourself into believing you have the right feelings.
I don’t feel guilty about handing her over. I didn’t feel guilty about picking up the phone and calling them to my house. I don’t feel guilty about wearing her coat after I did that to her. And I know I should, but I don’t.
Instead I just feel guilty that I don’t feel any guilt at all, and it’s so much easier to say this to you. I think it’s because I can’t see your face. I don’t know if you’re a man or a woman or a bearded lady from a freakshow or a drag queen or an elephant that learned to read, even. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t my story and you’re just reading through this conscientiously to get to the interesting part with Colin paragliding or whatever the story is really about. Honestly now, and you know I’m telling you the truth because I’m not in a bathroom stall riding on a crystalline wave of fake truths and pretend feelings with you: I love you for this.
So now you know that for the time it takes for me to tell you this, I love you: can you hang on a bit longer and listen? I haven’t said this to anyone. I’m not going to say it again.
I was relieved.
It was like someone had picked up the whole of her weight out of my arms when I picked up the phone. Every word I said, every time they agreed with me, I felt myself getting lighter and lighter. When they told me a date and a time it was dancing there like the cautious flames of a fire. When I was ten I used to light fires in my bedroom. That’s one of the toilet cubicle confessions I gave Issah. That one at least was true.
You could have burned the house down with the heat of my relief when they came to take her to the hospital. I didn’t feel guilty. You’re supposed to feel guilty and filled with self-hatred and all I could think while she screamed at them and bit them and begged me under three different names – none of them mine – to make it stop, was:
I don’t even know who you are. Just go. Just get the fuck out. Please go.
I haven’t visited. That’s the other thing: if I told anyone about the guilt they’d think I felt guilty about sending her and they’d understand why I don’t visit. The fact is, as deceptive as the black ice on the path over there that’s claimed three couples already, I’m not withholding my affection. I just don’t have any left. I don’t know who she became. I don’t know what happened. I just know that one day it was easier to have her put away somewhere away from me than it was to keep answering her.
And I didn’t feel guilty. And I don’t feel guilty except I think I might be defective. As a person.
And then I think about Issah punching his sister in the cunt and how he just thought it was funny. Or how Tingting’s written a song about the rape that got her that therapist and she calls it “My Asshole Got Busted Now I Get Free Attention” when we’re high. It’s so ugly, like Colin’s girl-getting halo and the shaving scar he claims is from a machete. We’re probably all defective as people.
Are you a defective person too? Is there this one thing that you did, ten things that you did, a hundred things that you did that can drive you out into the freezing cold in the park to watch the sun go down ten minutes after it’s risen? Did you punch your sister in the cunt or have your mother sectioned, did you lie, did you cheat, did you steal? Have you thrown up on your best friend’s shoes, waiting for the rush of honest emotions to beat down all the lies in your mouth, only to realise half-way through the next week that the honesty is the lies you’re telling when you’re sober?
Would you even be able to love me back?