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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 self-hatred.
I am lucky to have few such regrets. This story is my attempt to undo one of them.
A few months ago, I put my name down to volunteer for an organisation called DialChild, as a telephone counsellor. I'd done a brief stint of counselling at university, and I got on with children, so it seemed like a good project.
The interview was pretty brutal. Not like a job interview - it was personal. I guess they were trying to get under your skin to scope out whether you were a secret psychopath who might be tempted to take advantage of the vulnerable children on the other end of the phone.
They asked me all kinds of questions, about my attitudes to children, my experience of being around children. My own childhood. I hadn't thought about my childhood that deeply for years. Maybe ever.
I told them as much as I dared. I told them about being bullied for years at school. I told them about how angry I was when my parents split up. I told them that I once lost my temper with a child I was looking after.
There were some things I didn't tell them.
They were pleased with my interview, and invited me to attend the training. I learned counselling techniques, and I did a lot more soul-searching. I learned how to talk to a child who is being sexually abused. I learned how to stall a child on the brink of suicide. I learned how to empathise with a war-worn refugee child.
And I learned a lot about myself. I re-lived puberty. I dug out the worst experiences of my own childhood and faced them. I discovered our my prejudices and learned to put them aside.
I was surprised by how many feelings I had been denying; the petty grudges I still held, the regrets that were still raw. Foolish, little things, like the time I forgot to pay for a packet of crisps. The time my sister kissed my best friend. The time I got caught cheating on a test. Guilt. Betrayal. Shame. Small transgressions, perhaps, but hardy demons.
It was during that process that I thought of Peter Pitt-Sankey for the first time in thirteen years.
I should explain. I attended Hillfront School for three years, age eleven to thirteen. I had three or four friends, and we were pretty much at the bottom of the food chain. We were picked on by the fat kids, who were picked on by the geeks, who were picked on by the dumb kids, and so on up the chain.
Well, I don't think the chain ever ended, it just looped back in until everybody was being picked on by somebody. So, naturally, my friends and I picked on Peter.
He was an awkward child. Tall, red-haired and pale, with meticulous Received Pronunciation. He clicked his tongue as he talked, as if he had a tic. And he always smiled. I think we bullied him to try and get a rise out of him. But he never stopped smiling, even as he told us he hated us.
We called him names. Pitt-Stinky, Bitch-Wanky, and a hundred other derivations. We kicked him, harder and harder when he wouldn't stop smiling. Sometimes I told my friends we should leave him alone, but he was such an awkward boy that he made an easy target.
I had put thoughts of Peter Pitt-Sankey to the back of my mind until recently, when I got mugged on the bus home.
There were a smattering of other passengers, all facing forward in solemn silence as is the custom on British public transport. I noticed the driver give me a worried glance through his mirror as he pulled up to collect a handful of pre-pubescent rabble-rousers. The sombre silence somehow intensified in response to the unspoken threat.
I felt intimidated as the gang of kids sat down and spoke in whispers. They occasionally pointed at me, prompting the other passengers to turn away, glad that someone else had been singled out.
Quoting from a film that was made before his parents were born, the youngest walked up to me and asked, "You talkin' to me? Who the fuck do you think you're talkin' to?"
I tried to placate him, while pushing my laptop bag out of sight under the chair in front. I was sure they could smell my fear like a pack of dogs. Boldly, I announced: "I do not appreciate your behaviour."
The youngest imitated my voice, mocking me: "I do not appreciate your behaviour."
I grappled for a diplomatic response as they stared at me with hatred in their eyes. Disgracefully, I settled for, "Fuck off."
That was the cue. These kids, these bored, powerless kids, enjoyed their moment of potency. One went for my laptop, one went for my face, and three more pairs of grappling hands darted into my pockets for my mobile, wallet, keys and anything else they could find.
The bus stopped and they ran. I made a token effort to run after them, but I felt thoroughly deflated. The bus driver apologised and gave me his details. Apparently, this happened a lot on his shift, but the police were too busy to do anything about it. And they were only kids, after all.
Walking home, I checked to see that nobody was watching and I let out a scream to release some of the adrenalin. My jaw was badly bruised and I tasted iron. I started crying. It pissed me off that they would get away with it. I should have stood up for myself and punched their lights out. Guilt. Betrayal. Shame. Small transgressions, perhaps, but hardy demons.
It was then that I decided to face up to a particularly uncomfortable demon of my own. It was then that I decided to find Peter.
With a name like Pitt-Sankey, all it took was an Internet search. The top result was his blog, a right-wing political rant. His surprisingly chubby face stared blankly at me from one corner of the page. I remembered him as much leaner. I looked around for contact details, but there weren't any. I think I would have lacked the courage to use anything more personal than an email anyway.
I left this comment on his blog:
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 Edward Norecki, and I attended Hillfront School with you.
I recently started volunteering for DialChild 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 DialChild 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.
He called me later that night. I hadn't given him my number, but I guess he found my contact details on the Internet. After all I'd found him easily enough, and my name, Norecki, is as unusual as Pitt-Sankey.
"Hello. It's Peter Pitt-Sankey."
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. I stumbled over my words.
"I just wanted to apologise for the way we treated you back then," I stammered. His silence coaxed me to go on. "I mean, I know we bullied you and I feel bad about that. But anyway, you seem to be doing alright for yourself now?"
"What gave you that idea?"
I still pictured him as a lanky and defenceless pre-teen with self-esteem so low you couldn't help stepping on it.
"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."
Another uncomfortable silence. A pregnant pause. Then, just as he started to say something, I interrupted him. "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."
More dead air. Eventually, he managed another, "Ok."
"Goodbye, then," I said, clawing at my left eyeball from the awkwardness of it all. I hung up, bit down hard on my finger at the thought of all the things I should have said, then immediately started writing 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?
You sounded like you had more to say when we spoke earlier. If, like me, you just hate phones, feel free to email me.
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 given myself leave of absence for a month, but during that time it preyed on my mind. And then another month passed and I still hadn't called him. I added him to my to-do list. And each time I created a new list I copied him across because I hadn't done it yet.
I felt like I needed to follow through. I felt like I needed to take on my demons face-to-face, or the apology wouldn't count. But it was easy to find excuses to put it off.
Eventually I sent him a text message.
Ed from Hillfront here. I said I'd buy you a drink - would you like to meet up?
He replied immediately.
When and where?
I suggested a quiet pub in the city centre that I'd only ever been to once. I guess it felt like neutral territory. And I proposed meeting after work on Thursday, at five-thirty if that wasn't too early for him. I don't know why I chose Thursday when I was free after work on Tuesday and Wednesday as well - maybe because Thursday was farther away.
He replied tersely: 5.30 is fine.
For the most part, I put it out of my mind for the next couple of days, but when I thought about it I felt nervous. The nervousness reached a crescendo when the day inevitably arrived. Five o'clock came and I suddenly remembered about several other emails I had to send before I left work.
Eventually I peeled myself away from my desk and walked towards the pub. I felt like calling a friend to tell them how difficult this was for me. To stall. But I resisted.
I ran through the worst-case scenarios in my mind. Had the bullying ruined his life? Or had he been bullied much worse in later life, and would he transfer that anger to me?
I got there five minutes late. I wandered up to the bar, trying to look casual as I cast my eyes over each and every face. Satisfied that Peter had not yet arrived, I ordered a lager.
I started drinking it far too quickly, glancing at the clock no less than seven times in the next ten minutes. Every time the door opened, my heart leapt. I did another anxious tour of the pub in case I'd missed seeing him.
Was this quest for redemption noble, or ridiculously pretentious? I tried to think how I would feel if an ex-bully contacted me one day out of the blue. I would be freaked out. I don't think I would want to meet him. Why was I here? Why couldn't I have let sleeping dogs lie?
Just then, Peter Pitt-Sankey walked through the door. I didn't recognise him well enough to call his name, but he walked straight over to me. I braced myself for a punch, or maybe he would pick up my drink and pour it all over me.
But he didn't. He looked me up and down and said, simply, "You used to wear glasses."
I felt like this was a terrible anticlimax. If he had punched me and left I could go home feeling hard done-by, having paid my moral debt and being secretly smug that he had reacted so immaturely.
But worse - he remembered that I used to wear glasses. He remembered me. That meant I wasn't totally insignificant to him - I had made some lasting, unwelcome impact.
I searched for something to say. "I thought you had ginger hair."
"My hair's always been this colour. You saw my picture on the website, anyway."
Great, now I felt stupid. Perversely, I wanted him to like me. I offered to buy him a drink. He asked for a cider. I pretended that the next few gaps in the conversation were a result of me trying to catch the eye of the bartender.
"So, is your doctorate in politics?" I asked.
"Do you have to write a thesis or something like that?"
"What's the subject?"
"Oh," I exclaimed, clutching desperately for some common ground. "I watched that film, Elizabeth, the other day, about Queen Elizabeth the First. I have to say I didn't know much about the Reformation until I watched it. It was fascinating. Have you seen it?"
Okay. Different tack. More open questions. "I loved your politics blog, by the way," I tried. "What political societies were you a member of at university?"
"Conservative Future, of course. And I was the Conservative delegate at the NUS Conference for a couple of years running," he explained. At last, he seemed to be opening up. "You must have been involved in the NUS while you were working for your student union, weren't you?"
The NUS - the National Union of Students - was a purgatory of bureaucracy that I did my utmost to avoid while I was working at the student union, and I said so.
"The Conference was appallingly organised," waxed Peter. "Vocal minorities were allowed to filibuster to the extent that we were lucky to hear a single motion. I argued to reconstruct the constitution from the ground up, but they wouldn't listen."
Indeed. What did he expect me to say to that? I caught myself forming a judgment that he loved politics because it allowed him to have hundreds of colleagues, and to occasionally be the centre of attention, both of which were substitutes for having no friends.
The dialogue dragged on, stilted, superficial. How could I counsel suicidal children, and yet not engage with this man? I longed for the evening to be over, but some masochistic impulse in me suggested that we go somewhere to eat together. I think it was because we still had not broached the subject that had brought us together in the first place.
He knew a place nearby, so as we walked there in silence I psyched myself up to ask him about the bullying. 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?
I felt foolish again. A lump raised in my throat. I bit the inside of my cheek to quell a surprising wave of self-loathing. We ordered a meal. I braced myself, swallowed my pride, and said what I had come here to say:
"I'm sorry that we bullied you."
"This is a nice restaurant, isn't it?" he commented, ignoring me.
"No, I want to talk about it," I insisted.
He shot me a dark glance. "Go on, then."
I squirmed in my seat. I didn't know what to say. He stared at me, challenging me to make eye contact. Our food arrived and I looked at that instead.
"I just wanted to apologise, that's all," I asserted.
"I do not accept your apology."
His tongue clicked as he talked. I suppressed a grotesque urge to tease him about it.
"Shall we eat?" he asked. I groped around for something to say, but nothing came. We ate. The next half an hour was the most hollow and uncomfortable of my life.
I thought back to the bus. When I was mugged by those children it brought back memories of how awful it had been to be bullied. To be ganged up against. To be impotent in the face of injustice. To fear, and to hate.
This man sitting opposite me had hated me as a child. I had been cruel to him, and shown no mercy.
And now I wanted to show him that I was not evil. That I was remorseful, and wished to be recognised as such. I wished to be absolved, and move on.
Yet he remained unmoved. He betrayed no flicker of passion or charity. He merely waited. He waited while I realised that I could not take it back. He waited while I absorbed the eternity of my guilt.
He waited, and I failed.
I said goodbye to him at last and we went our separate ways. I felt quite empty on the train home, but the feeling soon subsided. I never saw or spoke to him again.
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