No debt

Blame my irrepressible blues, blame contrition: March was the month of reaching out. I suppose there was nothing new here, for I had spent the month of February a year earlier doing the same, this time apologising to my parents and siblings. Indeed, much of that year was spent looking for those to whom I felt I owed an apology. Only one of them was I able to reach, but by then — twenty-five years on — they said they only remembered me fondly and couldn’t remember anything negative. All of the rest, it seems: completely lost in the mists of time.

So 2022 began exactly the same as the last one, but by then my thoughts had moved on from family and friends, to others I had once held in contempt, projecting onto them my unfair assumptions forged in the crucible of ignorance and misunderstanding. An inner agitation, emanating from a winter of writing, now pulsated through me, demanding I apologise for every contemplation and written word I had assembled since we parted company nearly three decades ago. Others would call this insanity. The charitable might diagnose anxiety. But to me, it suddenly seemed so necessary, and urgent.

The first to hear from me, I can’t say I was ever cognisant of at the time. He was at one point unavoidable for he would occupy a corner of the common room, right next to the door of the main thoroughfare of the college. But I had no personal interactions with him. He was about the same age as one of my older brothers, and indeed may have started college at the same time as him a couple of years earlier. I had no reason to interact with him. Not least because he seemed to be into the gangster rap of NWA, while I was into the upbeat reggae of Lucky Dube.

While there was a time I took to avoiding him at all costs, it wasn’t because I feared him. It was for the same reason that I was avoiding everyone: because I had made a fool of myself writing an extremely embarrassing letter to a girl I had erroneously assumed to be lonely like me. It was debacle, that’s for sure: the worst possible way to introduce myself to a new college where everyone was trying to act tough and cool. Such was my humiliation that at the time I didn’t notice what was going on around me at all.

In fact, it took me years to make sense of those events and all I had experienced. Some of it should have been quite obvious, of course, had I been worldly-wise. Some of it I should have worked out or implicitly understood, had I not had impaired social skills. Much of it was down to my own ignorance and, frankly, incalculable stupidity. At times, I had misread glances, and misunderstood exchanges and interactions, and let my imagination run away with me. By the time it occurred to me what was probably going on, the earth had circumnavigated over 2,500,000,000 miles around the sun.

So it was that the first of two letters came flying through my fingertips at the beginning of March, tapped into the keyboard in the early hours one Thursday morning, the words that had kept me from sleep appearing before me on my screen. Spontaneous stupidity perhaps. But it was too late, for by 10.00am I had already posted it, my inevitable regrets and second thoughts landing too late to do anything about it. I’m sorry for thinking ill of you for so many years, I said. I signed it with my first name only and didn’t provide an address. I didn’t think it was important at the time, and would only interfere with my sincerity.

The second of the letters followed twenty days later. This one was more considered. I to-and-froed for days, contemplating whether to send it or not. And the address I had for them was pure speculation — it might not reach them anyway. But in the end, on the eve of Ramadan, I felt compelled to at last express my remorse to the only one of three individuals I could realistically reach. This time it would go beyond words, inviting them for iftar one evening, to break their fast with my family.

“I appreciate this is quite an odd invitation,” I wrote, “but those old days have been on my mind a lot recently. I feel I need to apologise for some things that happened in those days, for conflict and bad opinions I once held of you and your companions. Please forgive me.” I gave them my wife’s phone number, just in case they felt like accepting the invitation, and asked them to call her to make arrangements. Talk about insanity: I had now taken it to a whole new level.

My wife would receive the phone call on Friday evening, just as we were waiting to hear if the moon had been sighted to commence our month of fasting. To my wife they had described themselves as a friend from college, way back, but as soon as the phone reached my hands, we would return to reality. “I’m really sorry,” they said, “but I can’t place you.” We would go through the courses I was taking then, what year I was born, who my friends were. “No, I’m sorry, I can’t picture you at all.”

I mentioned the name of a chap who I’d always imagined was her brother. She didn’t recognise the name; either I was mistaken about their relationship, or I had completely forgotten what he was called. It could have been either. What about such-and-such, she asked: did I know him? Nope. The next name they mentioned — in fond terms, clearly held in high esteem — I couldn’t help but recall: he was the recipient of the first of my letters. “And his best friend,” they remembered, “he was lovely. Always looking out for us.” Yes, I remembered him, but no, he wasn’t one of my friends.

“And, let me read your letter again. It says here…” She mumbled my words back to me. “You mention there was conflict. I don’t remember any conflict. I think we were all finding our feet back then. But, no, I don’t remember anything like that at all…”

Had my wife not been milling around, trying to get her phone back, perhaps I would have explained exactly what I meant by that. I would have explained that the lovely lad they had mentioned had been charged with protecting them from me and whatever they perceived my intentions to be. Had I had the freedom to express myself — had I not been speaking to an unknown woman on my wife’s phone — I would have explained clearly that this was exactly the conflict I was talking about. The conflict between me, them and those friends she had spoken of so fondly, with whom she had stayed in touch for years.

But of course, I couldn’t say anything like that. I just listened at length as they recounted all that had come to pass in the intervening three decades: the recollections of the town we had both left behind, the trials and tests of poor health, the evolution of their career, them finding faith. I learnt a lot, reflecting on the passage of our lives. How daft of me, I thought, writing to apologise for brief moments in the dim and distant past, completely forgotten.

After the phone call, it perturbed me that I had not been able to say that we had not actually been friends. I was the one held in contempt, from whom it was felt every young woman of an ethnic minority background had to be protected. And that was what my apology was about: that conflict, which came to define every single day of my life in those days, and the bad opinions I held about everyone involved for several years afterwards as a result. But it was just the same as it always is: I had been unable to coherently express myself. I would have to follow up with a text message a few days later, clarifying that we had not been friends at all.

I guess the main problem was that I was mostly apologising for all that had happened after we had parted company — and mostly for thoughts. For thinking the worst of them. I thought the worst of a young man for nothing other than him guarding young women he felt protective of from the unknown intentions of a stranger in their midst. I had equally thought the worst of these young women, blaming them for what I perceived at the time as harassment and unjust interference in my life. But of course, they wouldn’t have a clue what I thought or wrote about those days afterwards.

But I am sorry for my behaviour back then. I’m sorry, particularly, to one of them, who suffered my gaze more than any other. I’m sorry my imagination ran away with me even after they made clear what they thought of me. I can’t explain why that happened, or make sense of it, mindful as I am of every actual interaction between us. And I’m sorry that I projected onto their brother my poor relationship with my own siblings, and came to think myself more worthy of respect than one so cherished. I’m sorry that I came to see him as an ogre, standing in my way, when clearly he was really only trying to ward off the harm of one with unknown intentions, who to date had represented himself so badly.

In the intervening years, I have realised that none of those folk owe me anything at all. There’s no debt to be paid. For a time it became an obsession of mine, because I had misunderstood some glances between us. That’s to put in mildly. Perhaps I was wilfully blind; perhaps I was just overburdened by my whole being, which I seemed unable to manage or control. Those who employ passive coping mechanisms in regulating emotions are often found taking refuge in fantasies; perhaps this partly explains what happened. Or perhaps there is no explanation at all.

Those letters back in March came from some place deep within: from that inner agitation which bubbled up with such force through a winter of writing. In that moment, I was absolutely sincere — probably more sincere than I have been in the intervening months, as my ego took to convincing me that I was the one who was wronged. Perhaps now I must affirm that reality once more, reminding myself that those folk have no debt to pay. Nothing to apologise for. So leave it now, O soul: let that declaration of peace be sufficient for you, and move along and on at last.

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