In our session on forgiveness, Stephen read an extract from a book called Blue by Nick Page:
"For some time they had been floating, riding the thermals across the countryside. Now the landscape puzzled him. He saw things that he recognised, but they looked strange. Some of them, particularly familiar offices and workplaces, seemed much
smaller. Others, hills and woods that he dimly recognised, seemed bigger. Some landmarks were missing altogether.
‘Where's the ring road?’ he asked. He was looking at a city below him, a city he knew very well.
‘There's no ring road.’
He stared again. ‘And the shopping centre has gone... Maybe there's been some kind of calamity. Maybe they've pulled it all down. But it was there only a few days ago, I'm sure.’
He rubbed his eyes. It couldn't have been an earthquake - there was no sign of destruction, and anyway, he would have heard about it. But it wasn't there. It was as if it had never existed.
The girl remained silent. She stared ahead with those strange green eyes, her tiny frame swathed in the outsize clothes, her big blue hat pulled down over her ears. She ... she was the biggest puzzle of
all. Sometimes when she laughed she was just a little girl. At other times he stared into her eyes and she seemed as old as the sea.
He looked down again. ‘I don't believe it,’ he said. ‘There!’ He poinied a quivering finger at the field below him. ‘My old school!’
‘That's nice,’ she said, dreamily.
‘No, you don't understand. It shouldn't be there! They pulled it down 10 years ago.’ He jabbed a finger at her. ‘Now, you listen here, young lady. What's going on? Is this some kind of joke?’
‘Oh no.’ she said, seriously. ‘Not this bit. No, believe me, it's deadly serious.’ She looked down at the school. ‘It hasn't been rebuilt,’ she continued. ‘It hasn't yet been destroyed.
He stared blankly at her.
‘Not all journeys go straight ahead,’ she said, ‘it depends where the wind blows us.’
‘You mean we're in the past?’ He laughed. ‘Oh, this is getting really silly now. I don't mind compasses that don't work or maps that slide about, but balloons that go back in time? No, there's got to be some other explanation. Maybe it's a film set or something?’
He looked again, but he knew it was real. ‘But they pulled it down years ago...’ he said.
‘They might have destroyed it,’ she replied, ‘but you never have!’
‘If you mean I remember it, of course I do - and not with any fondness, I might add. In fact, I wouldn't mind flying low so I could spit on the place.’
‘There are better ways to use spittle,’ said the girl.
She shrugged, ‘Licking envelopes, curing blindness, that sort of thing.’
He stared. ‘You're mad. And anyway, you don't know what my life was like down there. I have no fond memories of it at all.’
‘I never mentioned fond memories. Exactly the opposite. The school exists still because you hate it.’
He looked down. The school seemed closer, more defined. He could make out children playing in the playground, tiny shapes whirling around. There was one child huddled in the corner of the playground alone, scared. ‘You're right. I hate that place. I don't care if it's real or not.’ Memories swirled around him like clouds. The air
was thick. The balloon juddered and began to descend, dropping down towards the playground itself.
‘What's happening?’ he said. ‘Why are we going down?’
‘We're too heavy,’ said the girl. ‘You're weighing us down again.’
‘What do you mean? I've thrown out virtually everything I brought with me.’
‘Not everything. You haven't thrown out the really heavy things,’ she said. ‘The balloon can't carry the weight of your hatred.’
‘I don't want to go down there!’
‘You've never left. A part of you has always been trapped there.’
‘Please ... let me escape! What do I do?’
The balloon's descent stopped. They hovered, a few hundred feet above the grey tarmac of the school playground. All the experiences of those years rushed up from below. Was she right? Was he still there? Had he really never left?
‘You must leave the place behind and move on,’ she said quietly. ‘You have to try to forgive.’
‘I... I can't! I mean, I thought I was going on a balloon trip - I never signed up for this kind of thing. I don't feel like it. It's hardly the time…’
‘And when would be a good time? There never is a good time for forgiveness and we never do feel like it.
‘You think it's easy?’ She was almost angry now, ‘You think, perhaps, that we wake up in the morning one day, look up at the blue sky and think, ‘Oh, I'll forgive everyone today - I just feel like it.
‘Forgiveness isn't a feeling, it's an action.
‘It's too hard.’
‘Hard, yes. Too hard? That's up to you. Surgery isn't easy, but it saves your life.’
He was sweating. Beneath them the roof of the school glimmered grey, the sun glinting off the slates on the roof. ‘But why should I? Why should I forgive them? You
don't know what it's like, being bullied every day. Being spat at, punched, kicked. And for what? For being who I was. You don't know what it's like.’
She was silent, but he got the feeling that she did know what it was like, only too well.
‘Why should I forgive them?’
‘Because if you don't, you'll never fly.’ She pointed up. ‘Look at the balloon. if we're to fly; all of it needs to be filled with air. If some parts of the balloon are torn, then we can't get off the ground. It's the same with us. Hope, faith, love, can't fill us totally it there are parts that are cut open with bitterness and hate.’
She smiled gently. ‘How can we fly if we're always tethered to the ground?’
He listened to her words and he knew, in his heart, that she was right.
‘Let me tell you the truth. Those boys who bullied you at school, they've forgotten you. They can't recall what went on. They would be surprised if anyone told them. It isn't that they're in some kind of denial, it's just that they genuinely can't remember. They have enough of their own shame and bitterness to deal with.’
‘... it's not fair.’
‘It's totally fair. Everyone can be forgiven. Everyone needs to forgive. What could be fairer than that?’
‘But I was the innocent party!’
The girl looked at him and smiled. ‘And have you always been the innocent party?’ she asked. ‘Or are there times when you too have been guilty? You can be forgiven too, you know,’ she said, and her voice was as gentle as a kiss.
‘But if you want to be forgiven, you must forgive. It's fair. Some would say it's more than fair. Some would say it's generous.’