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.
11 Responses to Guilt
That is so beautifully written and such a sad tale. It perfectly captures the unthinking cruelty of children and the lifetime of guilt when (or if) they finally grow up and revisit those memories.
<wipes tear from eye>
We can all identify here, on both sides. Good but sad story.
Beautifully written and well worth remembering, for as adults we often carry on those same slights toward others.
Beautifully written. I think what got me most was
turning birthday cake into a punishment.
Dan, thanks for the story,compelling visual.
Ouch. That goes right in deep. I echo Chris' comment above – the slice of birthday cake as a punishment is an inspired image.
The "sound" of the piece is no less wonderful – the deep sadness and guilt in the voice of the narrator rings true and clear.
Very good work.
Very intense, and very well-written.
I think this is perfect flash fiction because it wouldn't be served by being any longer. You provided just the right amount of words and imagery.
This is incredibly vivid.
I know how kids can be cruel and thankful I never followed the crowd… but it is just as bad to sit back and watch someone else get hurt.
I too feel the sting of guilt.
What a powerful piece. As a parent, I can relate to the emotions transferred upon Carl's parents in this story. Well done.
Excellent piece, Dan. The images seem so real, the emotion quite intense. Very moving.
This was awesome writing. I didnt even know that I was holding my breath as I approached the last paragraph. And I didnt realize that I let out a sharp sigh.
I am loving your site and your flash fiction.
Comments are closed.