I remember primary school. The brass bell that would call us in from the playground, each peal ringing out over shrieking playtime voices. I remember reading early, completing the course books and being allowed to borrow Treasure Island from the shelves outside the Headteacher’s office. To my great shame, I also remember Carl Phillips. I remember what we did to him and most importantly, I remember what happened to him afterwards.
I see Carl now as a slight, waifish boy, all sprouting limbs and thick glasses, topped off with a mop of unkempt curly hair. To be brutally honest though, Carl Phillips wasn’t his name. It’s a name I picked a while back hoping that it would somehow lessen the guilt I feel for forgetting the name of the boy I helped to bully back in primary school. As clearly as I can see our old house when I close my eyes, I have no idea what Carl’s house looked like because I never visited, not even when invited there for his birthday.
Everyone got an invite to the party but nobody wanted to go. Carl had no friends in our class and going to his party would have been as embarrassing as being seen shopping with your mum or wearing no name trainers or riding a bike that wasn’t a proper BMX. The idea of no one going to his party seemed so funny back then.
Over the years I’ve imagined the tables piled with sandwiches and cakes, trifle and biscuits, sausages and chunks of cheese impaled on cocktail sticks. An empty table where the presents would haven been piled had anybody arrived carrying one. I’ve imagined his parents checking the time repeatedly, confused by the lack of guests, doubting whether they wrote the right time on the invites. It plays out in my head like a scene from a movie, the camera panning round the room to take in the collective embarrassment as visiting relatives realise their nephew, cousin, grandson has no friends.
The movie always ends the same. Fade out on the tearful Carl at the party table, a slice of uneaten birthday cake sitting on a paper plate in front of him like a punishment. Fade back in, a few weeks later, on his body floating in the stretch of canal behind the shops. Fade to black. No was to blame, the papers said, just a tragic accident; he was out playing alone and fell in. That didn’t stop me feeling guilty then and it doesn’t stop me feeling guilty now.