Did you ever have to deal with a feeling of dread? That one where your stomach sinks and clenches, and you want to be sick just to be rid of the gnawing in your guts? I’ve got that now. Because I think that there are times when trying to be transparent is way overrated, and too painful, and just too personal. And yet…here I sit, ready to bare all.
I’m going to tell you about the worst thing I ever did.
It makes me burn with shame just to think of it, but I have to get it out of me, so you can all make an informed decision, knowing some of the best of me…and this – by far the worst.
When I was 17, I fell in with a bad crowd. Actually, I didn’t fall – let’s not pretend. I walked with them willingly. I immersed myself in their culture, their outrageous attitudes and their rejection of all things ‘authority’. We swore at policemen, screamed obscenities at other drivers, graffiti’d our tags all over the city and lived a great big ‘middle fingers up’ to The Man.
Partly this was because I wasn’t happy at home or college, and there were few prospects for a job for me. Partly because I was scared of trying to fit into a mold. Mostly because I didn’t much like the boring, starchy person I’d become, and I wanted to lash out, reinvent myself and have a last hurrah before settling down to adult life. Actually, no. Mostly because I was young and dumb and easily-led. I allowed myself to be easily led.
It was all fun and hi-jinks until one day near Christmas, the shit got real.
We were goofing around, vandalising bus stops and wondering where to light a fire to stay warm or what to shoplift next (because that’s how we rolled – and why not, we thought – the shops will write the loss of a few items into their budget, and the astronomical profits they made would defray the loss. And anyway, why should we care about a thinner lining in the profits of those fat-cat capitalist PIGS?!), when we saw that the house we were walking past had an open front door.
Not nicely, ‘come on in’ open, or ‘I’m just getting stuff from my car’ open, but hanging open, off its hinges.
The street was deserted.
The curtains weren’t twitching.
No alarms were going off.
Our eyes gleamed fire as we silently dared one another on – up the path, to the front door – a pause to catch our breath at the magnitude and audacity of what we were doing…and in!
The house was a mess. Everything had been up-ended. There was a glaring space where the TV used to be. The kitchen was ransacked and cupboards were left open. Upstairs, the drawers were open, and a couple of jewellery boxes lay empty on the floor.
It was a proper job.
So just to be little dickheads, we made it worse. I shudder to recall it now, but we emptied the rest of the drawers, squirted shampoo and liquid soap all over the bathroom and emptied the coffee, tea and sugar all over the kitchen. We were hopped up on adrenaline and destruction.
In the living room, there was a small tree, which we knocked over, laughing as the tacky plastic ornaments flew off in all directions, stamping on them with our wicked feet.
One of the lads reached down behind a sofa and pulled out a couple of large bags, both full to the brim with beautifully wrapped presents.
“SCORE!” he yelled “Presents all round…”
At which point, we heard far-off sirens, and legged it out of the back door and burst through the rickety wooden gate into the alleyway behind the houses. From thence back to the squat in the outskirts of the city, where a couple of the guys lived.
We walked nonchalantly, but once ‘home’, we lit a fire and celebrated our glory. The lad who’d taken the presents threw them to us, and we caught them, giddy with delight, pulling off the glittering, coloured paper and leaving the ribbons in tangles on the floor.
We ate the eatables, our mouths bulging and our bellies rejoicing at the rich foods. Some of the presents were pure junk, and they went onto the fire. One that I’d caught, though, was a small photo frame with a picture of a smiling child. It was pocket-sized and quite cute, so I kept it out of the fire, and hid it in my bag. The little smile was quite captivating, and I didn’t like the idea of burning a child’s photo.
We got drunk then, and had a bonfire with most of the rest of the presents (apart from the ones we kept – I got some gorgeous new earrings and a warm scarf out of the loot) and slept, all huddled together, in mince-pie dreams.
Morning came cold and hung-over. The leaden skies and creeping chill reminded (those of us with the luxury) that there were warm beds to be had elsewhere, and we snuck home, morose and spent.
The robbery was in the paper a day later.
Front page, no less – not because of the theft, per-se, but because of the utter vileness of thieves who would not only vandalise so thoroughly, but the despicable act of stealing Christmas presents from a sweet, old widow. Her smiling photo accompanied a description of her heartbreak and disbelief that people could be so cruel. That shocked the community.
It shocked me.
The vehemence and bile poured out against ‘the robbers’ from all corners, deserving though it was, proved to be the wake-up call I needed. I went back to college and knuckled down, making sure I got good grades. I cut all ties with those ‘friends’.
I sent the earrings and the scarf to a charity shop, and told myself that the woman would have been reimbursed by her insurance company.
But I kept the picture of the little girl, and her smile accused me daily. Her sparkling eyes, squinted against the sunshine, reminded me that her loving gaze was meant for another, not me.
I tried shutting her in a drawer. I could still feel her there.
I tried giving it time. Time didn’t heal the fact that she was looking upon me – the vile robber – rather than the intended recipient.
It took me five years.
But I went back, half hoping that the old lady had moved house.
I stood for half an hour outside, walking past, chickening out and then walking past again. Sometimes I made it halfway up the path, but each time I got near to that front door, I would remember it hanging from its hinges, and our glee as we entered to ransack and destroy.
Every time I looked at that door, I felt such fear and misery.
Eventually I went up and knocked. Sharply, to give myself the courage to do it. There was no reply, so I knocked again, more boldly this time – perhaps I was off the hook!
A tap on my shoulder nearly made me faint from shock!
“I’ve been watching you for a while now” said the old lady “Would you mind ever-so-much telling me what on earth you’re doing pacing my front garden?”
She was so sweet-looking, with clouds of wispy silver hair, a blue jacket and powder on her face, collecting in her wrinkles. Her cheeks were downy, like the skin of a peach, and her eyes were piercing blue. And shrewd. And looking for an answer.
“I…” I began
“Um. I…er…Sorry. Uh. I need to talktoyouaboutsomethingandit’sreallybadandI justwantto…”
It all came garbling out.
She stopped me mid-flow “Dearie me! You are in a tizzy! I think you’d better come in and have a cup of tea!”
These moments. Branded on my memories.
She pottered around the kitchen, and as she rattled the china and unpacked her shopping, I couldn’t help but imagine this same room coated in soap and coffee, and the heartbreak she must’ve felt whilst tidying it all up.
My hands trembled as I accepted a dainty china cup full of tea, and shook my head wordlessly, biting back the tears, as she took the lid off a tin of biscuits and offered them to me.
We sat at the table, and she turned to me again “Now you’ve calmed down a bit, perhaps you could tell me what the matter is.”
I burst into noisy tears.
She looked shocked and sorry for me, and patted my hand, but I wrenched away from her and rooted desperately through my bag for the photograph.
I thrust it towards her, face-up, and she froze, her face a mask of anguish and sudden realisation.
Her own hand shaking, she reached out so slowly, brushing the side of the frame with one fingertip, then tracing the outline of the little girl’s face.
Inscrutable now, she continued to caress the photograph, and said so softly I could barely hear her “That was the worst Christmas of my life…”
I choked, not knowing what to do, but knowing that this pain of hers was sacred, and I wasn’t worthy to try to offer comfort – this was the beginning of my penance.
“My daughter developed a drug habit to cope with the way her ex-husband treated her. She was half-way through the divorce when he found out, and he used that as leverage to take Shellie from her. I wasn’t allowed to keep Shellie because the courts decided that I’d be too soft on her mother, and potentially expose the girl to a harmful influence. That autumn was the last time I saw my precious granddaughter as the beautiful little girl I knew her to be. Each time I see her now, she’s ruder and more unkind – more like her father, and it leaves me so unhappy after her visits.”
“I knew that Karen had taken this photograph for me, and when I discovered that it was missing along with all the other presents…well…my heart about broke.”
I sat, horrified, struck dumb by the unimaginable hurt my stupid friends and I had caused this lovely, sad woman.
She turned to me and I flinched, ready for the tirade.
“You did a terrible thing”
My face, awash with tears, nodded agreement, and I choked out a pathetic apology, tasting the salt snot and water which were clogging my cheeks and dribbling over my lips as I spoke.
She stood and came towards me, then reached out and swept me into a hug. Snot and tears and all!
I was utterly gobsmacked.
I pulled back sharply – “You do know that I’m telling you I robbed you – I caused all that destruction and awfulness and ruined your Christmas and stole your photograph of your granddaughter and…”
She ‘shushed’ me, sternly.
“My dear girl” she said “I know people. I’ve lived a long time and I have enough experience to know that you have a good heart. I daresay this photograph has been torturing you for some time, and the fact that you even kept it speaks volumes. That you returned it shows courage, bravery and a genuine commitment to wanting to do better. Those things I respect and I expect you’ve been beating yourself up over this far more effectively than anything I could say or do to you now.”
She smiled and patted my shoulder as I bawled with disbelief and gratitude.
That was the beginning of my redemption.
This was in response to the ‘moods’ prompt for the Creative Buzz blog hop