The Damage was Done

Karleen was going into town, it’s fifteen minutes’ walk, and as usual asked me to check the weather. The Met Office said 10% chance of rain, so she didn’t take an umbrella.

I thought it was time to write something, it often starts with dictation then you can just say whatever comes and I started with this:

What I have been given is what I can give back. In order to know what I’ve been given, I need to know who I truly am. If I am alive at all, I have been given something. To give back provides a purpose in life.

Dictation goes with walking, and so I went out the door, only to discover that it was drizzling slightly. OK, so I would take Karleen’s umbrella and meet her in town. As giving goes, it was the tiniest thing. On my way, I passed down Ashridge Road, at the end of our road. Nothing ever happens there—except sometimes extreme parking, all over the sidewalks, double yellow lines, corners, making it risky, whether driving or on foot. We have parking wardens to catch these things so it’s only a hazard on big days at the mosque, when godliness claims special protection and the authorities are more indulgent.

I say nothing ever happens, but there was an incident there once which still makes me feel guilty. A huge truck, so long it had difficulty going round the corners of these short narrow streets, stopped to ask me the way to Ashridge Road. “Do you know it?” said the driver. “Sure, I’m from round here”, I confidently replied, while confusing it with Linsey Avenue, which runs parallel fifty yards away. It’s one-way only, so my instructions were rather involved, as I thoughtfully took into account the truck’s inability to do a U-turn. The driver was grateful and it was only after he’d gone that I saw the road sign behind where the truck had stood: Ashridge Road. If only I’d told him, “This is it! You are here.” But the damage was done.

Anyhow, this time, on this road where not much happens, I beheld a man coming my way. His face was hideously disfigured. He was wearing an old-fashioned fawn raincoat, which I found incongruous because you see all kinds of people and outfits round here, from several far-flung corners of the globe, but that kind of coat signified elderly white middle-class. You never see them. Unless other people think I am one.

When I got close to the man, I saw the “disfigurement” was actually a set of tattoos, most prominently three horizontal bars on each cheek. All in a deep black. There were more in other places but my glance was oblique and hasty. At all costs I didn’t want to stare, even though it’s fair to assume that flamboyance desires to be looked at. So it was the swiftest of glimpses, before he could catch my observing eye. What I saw in him, unless it’s my imagination, was regret, grim and inconsolable. There’s something in us, I’ve found, which presses us to live up to the way we look: to meet the expectation of others.  So I guessed he felt pressured to address the world with aggression, or at least defiance. Thus to carry the results of some drunken bravado for his whole life, stigmatized at his own hand. The damage was done.

From this, I see that it’s easier to forgive our enemies, or to accept the cards dealt us by Fate, than to deal with what we have done to our own selves. Strangely enough, I’ve written before about a man with a tattooed face, eleven years ago, almost to the day. At a certain stage of his life, he owned a tattoo studio in Minnesota. Now he devotes his life to giving back. He changed his name officially to “The Scary Guy” and preaches the abolition of bullying, across the world, starting in England with presentations to schools.

It’s taken me all my life to see that there’s little difference, if any, between the damage we do to ourselves and the knocks that life gives us. Either way, there is a choice: succumb or transcend. A theoretical choice: we cannot do these things on our own.

What I have been given is what I can give back. In order to know what I’ve been given, I need to know who I truly am. If I am alive at all, I have been given something. To give back provides a purpose in life.

I wonder what the tattooed man I saw on Ashridge Road will do with the rest of his life. Or did I imagine it? Either way, shit can turn into fertilizer. It’s nature’s way.


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