‘So why are you living on a boat on the Nile?’ I ask.
‘Like everyone else here, I’m looking for the source,’ she laughs. I smile.
‘I value the solitude, the heat and being independent. Now though I mostly feel lonely; all I have for company are mosquitos. It’s self-enforced exile. I can’t forgive and can’t be forgiven.’
‘So you punish yourself in exile. How long will you do that for?’ I ask.
‘There’s no way back; I’ll probably be eaten by a crocodile and no one would ever know.’
Her head swivels around as she takes in her dimly lit cabin. It’s tiny, a few brilliant shards of sunlight pierce the darkness through a hatch behind her. I think of mummies cocooned in tombs.
‘Is there anything else keeping you there?’
‘No, apart from my boat, nothing.’
‘What’s your boat called?’
She looks embarrassed. ‘Dignity. You know, like the song …’ – she sings – ‘… a ship called dignity’.
‘I know that song.’ I reply.
‘The man in the song is a street cleaner. He wants to get away. He saves his money for a boat he’s going to call Dignity.’
‘It doesn’t sound like the right name for your boat.’
‘Uh, how so?’ she asks.
‘A ship called Guilty seems more apt.’ I’d not really seen the link before between dignity and guilt; they’re quite similar … I begin floating away on my thoughts.
She interrupts my thinking, I’m back with her again, ‘I see what you mean but you don’t know what I’ve done.’
‘You could tell me.’
‘You’d hate me.’
‘It must be awful for all your care to be taken up with what other people think of you.’
She looks away. ‘Like a ship’s captain I’ll probably go down with this bloody boat.’
‘That’s up to you. Forgiveness, no forgiveness; either way it’s up to you.’
‘Okay I’ll tell you.’ She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. I feel like a priest in a confession booth – the computer screen in place of the lattice opening both separating and connecting us.
‘I allowed my husband, my ex-husband, to do things, terrible things, to our son.’ Her breathing stops for a moment. Apart from the hum of my monitor there’s silence.
The cabin looks to be closing in on her. Rather than lighting her way out, the sunlight is a chink in her self-created cell.
‘Where were you when he did these things?’
Tears start rolling down her cheeks. ‘At church, for Sunday evening prayers.’
I feel sick.
‘Did you ever tell the priest?’
‘I think he knew. He’d see my son in the morning at Sunday School. He would go on about forgiveness. I don’t think he believed what he was saying, maybe he did, in any case what the hell does the Church know about abuse or forgiveness.’
I wonder if she’ll ever have any peace. With this thought my peace is gone and I feel priestly again. I can feel the tension mounting in the ether somewhere between her cabin on the Nile and my home in Cambridge.
‘So, what do you think?’
‘About what?’ I reply.
‘About what I’ve done, what I failed to do as a mother? What else?’
‘It is awful and yes it’s hateful. Did you know at the time?’
‘No, not consciously, I knew something was wrong … You think what I did was unforgivable, I can tell?’
‘You want to know if I forgive you?’
‘You wouldn’t tell me honestly.’
‘You don’t know, you’ve not asked. I don’t think you want to know.’
‘You’re avoiding the question.’
‘You haven’t asked the question.’
‘I know what you’d say: “I’ve got to forgive myself first”, blah, blah, blah; that’s a dodge too. What I’ve done is unforgiveable, that’s it. Anyway what’s your problem with forgiveness?’
‘It’s self-absorbed. It has nothing to do with your son. Besides that it won’t free you.’
‘Wow! You really don’t like me very much do you?’
I smile. She replies, ‘Okay, now you’re going to tell me that it’s not important whether you like me or not. Come on, really?’
She’s right, it’s an uncomfortable question, I can’t avoid it; ‘I don’t forgive you; your son won’t forgive you. You’ll never forgive yourself, your ex-husband, the priest or the Church. And you’ll never forgive God.’ I give these words time to penetrate her cell.
I add, ‘You don’t need forgiveness; it’s about finding a way to live with the pain.’
She looks sad, then a smile, ‘The priest won’t like that.’ Then letting out a deep breath, her voice now coming from her diaphragm, ‘If that were true I could come back to England. I’d have to sell the boat first.’
‘Maybe you could give it to the priest for dispensation?’ We laugh.
‘You could just leave it behind.’
Glenn recommends …
… The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche
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