Dear Jake, Aaron and Youri,
I couldn’t decide how to begin this letter, since there was so much pressure to make you read on.
Maybe that’s done the trick? I guess I’ll only find out if you reply. I won’t blame you if you don’t, but it would be nice not to hear the sound of silence. Hello, darkness, my old friend…
How are you guys? I was really sorry to hear about the tour. No, come on, Gylfi, you can do better than that. I’m really sorry I ruined the tour. Maybe you don’t believe me – maybe you think I’m too crooked for remorse – but I hope you know me better. I could never do what I did without regretting it.
I guess you’re asking why I carried on in that case. I wish I knew the answer. An emptiness in my heart is probably the closest I can get. I’m sure most addicts know deep down that what they’re doing is wrong. We try our best to resist, but the harder we try, the greater the temptation becomes. I wonder if it’s a really twisted form of OCD. Maybe I just let a compulsion grow too big until the only way to get rid of it was by giving in. But it always came back with a vengeance.
That’s the main reason I’m relieved I got caught: I was worried the compulsion had even more room to grow. I could never turn myself in – I’m too proud for that. But I was relieved when the police put those handcuffs on me. I felt strangely at peace. No more lies, no more violence.
Unsurprisingly, none of the women have agreed to speak to me. I’d like to write them letters too, but I guess I’ll have to give it time. Maybe if even one of them replied with some kind of forgiveness, I could begin my life again. My lawyer tells me I’m looking at ten years, but I can’t tell the difference between five, ten, fifteen, twenty… I’ve done what I’ve done, and I can never change that. I can never wipe their memories clean. Those women will carry my guilt forever – I only hope they won’t carry their pain. That is my one real hope in life.
I spend most of my time singing. Some of the inmates love my music, others threaten to kill me. No-one dare disturb the sound of silence. They tell me I’ll be sent back to Iceland soon. I wonder if it’s better to be in prison at home or overseas. The thought of being locked away ten miles from my family makes me want to start this life all over again. But maybe I’d only make the same mistakes. How sad that the sweet little piano boy turned into this monster. Silence like a cancer grows.
Thank you, Aaron, for taking Melanie to the police. Thank you for turning me in. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be feeling this constant guilt, and that’s exactly what I deserve to feel. The compulsion left as soon as they locked me away.
The real reason I’m writing is to ask for your forgiveness. I know that must seem like a crazy thing to expect, but maybe you can prove yourselves better than me through one impossibly simple act. They let me go to the library here the other day, and I read something beautiful: forgiveness breaks the circle of human weakness. A counterattack may seem courageous, but the really revolutionary thing to do is accept the punch. Turn the other cheek, I guess. Oh man, I could do with a god right now. (And the people bowed and prayed / To the neon god they made.) I’ll never believe I’m the product of a loving creator, but maybe you guys could be. I’m not trying to guilt-trip you into forgiving me – that would hardly be forgiveness. Honestly, I don’t want it for my sake, I don’t deserve that. I just don’t want to create a domino effect by making your hearts bitter and angry. So maybe something good can flow from this instead.
Whatever you decide about me, I hope you guys stick together. Keep writing songs. Keep recording. Keep performing. My second biggest regret is screwing up the chance to play music with you three. We had something really good going on and I destroyed that. I’m sorry. It would kill me if you broke up. Hopefully that doesn’t convince you to pack it in – an act of revenge against your traitor. Please just make a new album. That would be like forgiveness.
Like I said, I’ll understand if you don’t reply. And I’ll understand if you just want to insult me. But forgiveness is the one thing I wouldn’t understand, and that’s why I hope you choose it.
Good luck to you, my old friends. I’m sorry for what I’ve done.
Anna, Peter and Johannes had collapsed into bed. A week spent saving the planet took its toll, after all. As for Ernest, Rosa, Sophie and Bert, they were sitting in their living space with the remaining members of 38 Children Called Stone. Two bottles of wine were in circulation, along with a surprisingly unpopular jug of water.
Everyone felt calmer after seven days at ECOCAMP. Everyone besides Bert, that is, who’d recently received a message from an Oxford pal called Archie Clarke. Ever since his conversion, Bert had been feeling distant from the likes of Archie. The old spark wasn’t quite there at their reunions, and Bert knew it would never reignite – barring the unlikely possibility of Archie, Buster, Becca et al. undergoing a similar transformation. This distance was less acute when Bert spent time with schoolmates. Their bond had deeper foundations: house sport, endless ‘banter’ (mild abuse), the drudgery of maths and chemistry. His university friendships, on the other hand, were founded upon booze and games of ‘never have I ever’. Bert realised how obsessed he and his peers had been with social standing, with public image. They would go to the bathroom at a restaurant and come out looking completely different. Buster was just like that. He practically had a haircut every time he went to the gents.
And now, to further complicate Bert’s feelings towards his Oxford cohort, Archie had sent an alarming text:
Hey Bert mate, how’s life? I hear you’ve jetted off to Germany – hope that’s treating you well. This might seem a bit out the blue, but I just wanted to chat about your Twitter. Some of the stuff you’ve been liking and posting is kind of offensive, so as your friend I wanted to let you know to be careful – cause obviously this stuff is up there forever, and you should be aware you might upset some people. I don’t want to attack you or anything, but this is what friends are for, right? I’ve got your back. Just thought you should know people have been saying things, so I’d recommend toning it down. But I hope everything else is great, looking forward to catching you soon x
As the feeling took hold, Bert realised he’d never experienced paranoia before. Questions began to hound him. Were his friends watching his every move? Did they think he’d finally lost it? And who were these ‘people’ who’d been ‘saying things’?
Now, Bert was not a stranger to trouble. He’d been called out for political incorrectness a few times at Oxford, and he was familiar with the wrath of womankind. But this was an attack on his beliefs. His tweets had been placed under the microscope, and the agenda-driven scientists were going to find the results they wanted. He appreciated the irony: after years spent tweeting pearls of wisdom into the abyss, he was finally getting engagement for all the wrong reasons.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” Bert reflected on these verses. This was the first time he’d encountered a challenge to his faith, and he was sorry to admit that he did not feel blessed. He felt uncertain and alone. He felt unable to trust his friends. Indeed, a part of him no longer wanted to trust them; he would turn his back on Oxford and tread the path of the disciple. Bert tried to douse the anger flickering in his heart.
And yet, he also wondered whether Archie was right. Maybe he had gone too far. Maybe his tweets weren’t Christlike. It was hard to judge, not least since Jesus would never have joined Twitter.
Bert scrolled through his feed and saw how strange it must have seemed. He was posting about the need for repentance, about Jesus being the only route to Heaven; he was liking tweets about Trump’s importance in defending Christian principles, about the need for people to stop feeling sorry for themselves and start contributing to society; he had retweeted a woman whose bio claimed she was ‘recovering from atheism, liberalism and feminism’. He realised the intensity of his approach. But did he feel sorry?
Soon losing any clarity of mind, Bert turned to Ernest. There was something about having a rake in hand that encouraged debate, and, thanks to Johannes’ obstinacy, they came to know those weapons of mass collection rather well.
‘Oh dear,’ was Ernest’s immediate response. ‘What are you going to say?’
‘I don’t know, brother. I can’t tell if I’m sorry or not. I mean, obviously I’m not backtracking on the Christian stuff.’
‘But you’re not so sure about the… social commentary?’ Ernest managed a particularly deft leaf-sweep.
‘Yeah, exactly. The issue is, I didn’t give it much thought in the first place. A like here, a retweet there, it’s hardly life and death – whatever they say about being responsible online… And it’s not as if clicking a little love heart means I wholeheartedly endorse something.’
‘Yeah, I get that. I often like tweets just because they’re bold.’
‘I’m glad you get me.’ Bert managed to extricate a root from the ground, which added to his reassurance. ‘And don’t you think it’s pretty weird they’re trawling through my Twitter?’
‘It’s kind of scary, to be honest. I can just about deal with big companies collecting my data, but when friends start doing it?’
‘It honestly never crossed my mind anyone would care what I think. Why are they so offended by what Bert Eynsham has to say? Ooh, nice leaf pile.’
‘Thanks, brother.’ Right on cue, the leaves scattered in the wind. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’ Ernest leapt to the floor to protect his remaining crop. ‘Can you get the wheelbarrow?’ In a vain attempt to save as many leaves as possible, he pressed his forehead into the mud. Bert could always count on Ernest for a medley of light relief and serious debate.
Once they’d stuffed the leaves into a bin bag (ready for the children’s’ arts and crafts session), Bert continued his diatribe. ‘I just can’t stand how conservatism has become this taboo. Like, as if they’d be calling me out for tweeting hardcore left-wing content.’
‘The intolerance of the so-called tolerant.’
‘You said it, brother.’
‘And it’s just the fact Archie presents himself as some kind of authority on this: like what you did was unambiguously wrong.’ Ernest pocketed a stray plastic bottle – best not to let Johannes know. ‘I guess the cultural relativists can believe in moral absolutes when it’s convenient for them.’
‘So true.’ Bert tore up the earth. ‘And don’t they get that my opinions will change? I’ll put my hands up: some of the stuff I liked was harmful, and I’m really sorry if I hurt anyone. But can’t I make a few missteps along the way?’
‘They don’t exactly leave room for nuance.’
Unfortunately for Bert, he received a second text before he could reply to Archie. Another Oxford friend, Kai, said that a mate had noticed something on his Twitter – a retweet condemning pre-marital sex. It seemed that the floodgates had opened, and Bert succumbed to the deluge: he was more apologetic in his response than in his heart. He admitted to Archie and Kai that he needed to be more careful online, that he’d forgotten about the real-world implications; and although he still agreed with a lot of what he’d posted, he promised to be more aware of how people might feel. And Bert did recognise the importance of compassion – how could he call himself a Christian otherwise? But spreading the Gospel was ultimately the most compassionate response in his eyes, since it had the power to set people free. There were different ways of going about that mission, of course, but the truth was going to hurt at times. And yet, Bert was still too eager to be liked. After clicking send, he felt distant not only from his friends but also from himself.
And now he was sitting with 38 Children and his three compadres. By sheer coincidence, the band had replaced the thirty-eight young Germans now tucked up in bed. This was enough to make Bert smile, and he tried to spread God’s love anew.
He noticed how Sophie scraped her tongue along her teeth, desperate to remove the remains of dinner; all those bread rolls must have been a nightmare, crumbly as they were. To Bert’s surprise, Sophie had hardly mentioned his conversion since they’d left England. Rosa, by contrast, had proved eager to learn about the upheaval in his life, having always been blessed with empathy. Bert suspected that her more modest upbringing was responsible for this quality, although he wasn’t going to express this view on Twitter. He hoped she would believe in the Holy Trinity one day. For now, Rosa held to a monotheistic God whom all the major religions had glimpsed in part. As for Ernest, he was exploring the questions that their raking had provoked.
And then there was Sophie… Bert was worried about adding to her anxiety, but surely he could offer the hope of Jesus without mentioning her teeth? The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became: saving Sophie was his God-ordained calling. He wondered if Ernest or Rosa knew how broken she was.
‘Are you okay, Bert?’
Bert turned to Rosa. He realised he’d been staring into his glass for the past two minutes. As much as he liked water these days, his appreciation didn’t extend that far. ‘Huh? Oh, sorry, I was just thinking.’
Her eyes showed understanding. ‘I could tell. Something bothering you?’ Rosa said this quietly enough that only Bert and Ernest could hear. Sophie, meanwhile, was chatting to Youri about how difficult he found being away from his daughters. And his wife, of course.
‘No, not really. Just…’
They smiled. And then, as Bert reached for the unpopular jug, Ernest led the lamb to the slaughter. ‘Any word from Archie?’
Bert wondered if someone had turned up the heating. ‘Uhh…’
Ernest cottoned on to his friend’s discomfort. Unfortunately, so did Rosa. ‘What’s happened with Archie?’
Can we get a window open in here? Bert finished pouring his drink, but he wished he had something stronger. Where was Jesus when you needed him? ‘Well…’
‘Come on, Bert, we’re all friends here.’
As Bert’s social media presence testified, he was not very good at holding back. So whilst he recognised that telling a white lie would be the sensible move, he’d also just reached certain conclusions about truth and compassion. ‘Archie had a problem with some things on my Twitter.’
Rosa tried to give Bert the benefit of the doubt, but her protruding cheekbones revealed her unease. ‘Like what?’
‘He didn’t make it explicit, but I think it was mostly my Christian posts.’
‘What have you been saying?’
‘Well…’ Bert looked at Ernest. His friend was helpless.
‘What’s he been saying, my love?’
‘Oh, you know, just some fairly orthodox views. Old-school, I guess you could say.’
‘Don’t be facetious, Ernest.’ Rosa switched gears. ‘Let me guess, you’ve been talking about Hell and sin and all that jazz?’ Her tone suggested she didn’t actually associate Hell with John Coltrane.
‘Well, not exactly. I just liked a few tweets.’
Rosa finished her wine ever so slowly. She swished the alcohol around her mouth, causing Sophie serious anxiety about the tannins staining her teeth. Rosa swallowed. ‘What are your views on homosexuality, Bert?’
It was at this point that the rest of the room turned their way. Jake sighed, Youri looked like he didn’t want to be asked the same question, and Aaron pretended to munch on popcorn. As for Sophie, she worried about the man with the goat-like hair.
‘Oh, well, you know…’ Bert tried adding a soft touch to his eyes, but this seemed to annoy Rosa. Ernest was staring at the ground.
‘No, I don’t know actually.’ Rosa’s voice grew punchy. ‘Do you think it’s a sin that my brother’s gay?’
Bert blew air from his mouth. ‘I mean…’
‘You do, don’t you?’
“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Bert steeled himself. Whilst human nature told him to keep his mouth shut, his conviction lay elsewhere: ‘Yes, I do. But I still love him.’
‘No, you don’t, Bert, stop pretending you’re such a saint. How can you love him if-?’
‘Please, just stop talking. You’re not going to convince me, so don’t even bother.’
‘That seems a little unfair, but okay.’ Bert looked at Rosa. Her eyes were wet. He wondered if this was the future awaiting him. ‘Can I just say one thing?’ She remained silent, and Bert looked to his Father. ‘I don’t get why people only ever focus on the uncomfortable parts of Christianity. Sure, some teachings don’t sit well with our modern, Western way of thinking, but that’s because they’re actually true. And can’t you see how amazing the overall picture is? That God loves you forever and He’s offered all of us a chance to get right with Him? To join Him in Heaven?’
‘As much as it might pain you to hear this, Bert, I don’t believe in Jesus. I think God will let all of us into Heaven whatever happens.’
‘But that would make him an unjust God.’
‘Are you saying my brother deserves to go to Hell?’
‘I’m saying we all deserve to go to Hell.’ Ernest buried his face in his hands. ‘But God has given us this gift of gra-’.
‘You know what, Bert, I was worried this would happen. It was so great when you found your faith and felt like a new man. I may not have agreed with you, but it was awesome seeing your trust in God.’ Rosa’s voice started to crack. ‘But now you’re this fundamentalist and I…’
‘Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I’m a fundamentalist.’
Rosa was doing her best not to cry. ‘Ernest, are you going to back me up here?’
To be quite honest, Ernest had been hoping to metamorphose into a woodlouse. He would roll into a ball and avoid life’s biggest questions. Alas, his recent Bible study told him that God didn’t grant such miracles.
Woodlouse or not, Rosa was going to crush him anyway: ‘Oh my word, are you kidding me?’
‘I didn’t say anything!’
‘Exactly, Ernest! You should have been jumping up to defend me. But clearly your best bud has convinced you-.’
‘No, no, Rosa, that’s not true. I just think Bert is entitled to his opinion.’
‘Okay, fine. But can’t he see how offensive his opinion is?’
‘Dare I say it, my love, but your opinion is probably pretty offensive to him.’ Aaron choked on his imaginary popcorn.
‘This isn’t one of those moments where you say ‘my love’, Ernest.’ Ernest had never known Rosa to use his name so many times in quick succession. And were the italics really necessary? ‘You’ve been acting weird all week.’
‘That’s not fair, I’ve just been…’
He realised what was going on here: Rosa was turning him into Bert 2.0. Truth be told, Ernest had been a little anxious since his chat with Bert about God and sex. Although he and Rosa had shared some wonderful moments over the past week, the initial meeting of their lips now shone a light on the seed that Bert had planted. Luckily, Ernest’s love was still winning out, but he worried that the seed might grow into a tree whose fruit he dared not pick. And yet, amidst his confusion, he maintained his more liberal stance. ‘Come on, Rosa, I’m not in the same boat as Bert. I have so much respect for his faith and, yeah, for his conviction, but you can’t be suggesting I side with him on everything? I’m just questioning a lot of things right now, but that doesn’t make me an evangelical Christian.’ Ernest begged Rosa’s face to relax. ‘Look, I understand how much he’s hurt you, but you’ve got to remember that’s the last thing Bert wants to do. But you asked him a question point-blank, and he had to say what he thinks.’
Rosa looked at Ernest. He didn’t feel like her life’s comfort right then. She wiped a tear from her cheek, put her cup to one side, and walked out of the room.
Ernest might have felt better if she’d given him a clichéd ‘Fuck you’; that would have been less frightening than her stare. He returned his head to his hands. His chest heaved up and down as he tried to ignore the silence. And then he felt a palm on his shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, Ernest. I didn’t mean for that to happen.’
Ernest looked up. His best friend’s eyes were bloodshot. ‘You didn’t do anything wrong, Bert.’ Anticipating his next sentence, he managed to smile. ‘Sure, you could have kept your mouth shut for once, but I get why you didn’t.’ He sighed. They were growing up too fast. ‘It had to come out eventually.’
‘I guess so.’ Bert tried to stay his mind on the cross; Christ’s suffering grew sharper. He could endure losing Rosa; yes, he could bear that pain, however fierce it might be. But if he ever jeopardised her relationship with Ernest, his cry for God’s mercy would travel to Earth’s four corners. ‘Thanks for sticking up for me. That meant a lot.’
‘Of course, brother. Freedom of speech and all that…’ Ernest imagined Rosa crying in their room, her sobs muffled by a pillow. ‘Do you think I should go talk to her?’
‘I’d give it five minutes. She’ll need some space.’
‘Uhh, this is torture.’
‘It’ll all be fine, brother. Between you two, at least.’ Ernest nodded, unsure how to respond to the anguish in Bert’s voice. So he embraced the hope alongside it.
Bert looked towards Sophie, whose eyes turned his way. They pursed their lips, acknowledging the situation in all its mess. Then Sophie smiled – not to tell Bert that he’d done the right thing, but simply to say that she understood.
It’s Jake here. I’ve got Youri next to me, making sure I don’t mess this up. We were actually thinking about sending you a letter. I’m not sure what we were going to say, so I guess you’ve made half that decision for us.
There was a bit of an argument within the camp last night. To fill you in, the three of us are driving around Europe with Rosa, Ernest and two of their friends called Sophie and Bert – they’re good people. Anyway, it came out last night that Bert had written a few choice words on Twitter, which some of his friends were questioning him about. When Rosa asked him what he’d posted, he bumbled away like a complete mug, then eventually he said he was expressing his faith. He’s a Christian, you see – like a proper Deep South kind of Christian. That probably wouldn’t have been too bad, but then Rosa asked him what he thought about her brother being gay. I’m sure you can see where this is going… She got furious at Bert, then Ernest didn’t back her up, so she stormed off and it was all a total shit-show. Eventually Ernest went to comfort her, but we hit the hay without any peace. Breakfast was pretty awful this morning.
And that sucks, man. Three great friends divided over this. You’ve seen how much Rosa and Ernest love each other – watching them fight was honestly heart-breaking. And then your letter arrived this morning and I couldn’t help joining the dots. You know, like, will Rosa forgive Bert? I’m sure she will eventually because she’s such an understanding person, but it’ll take some healing. And it’s just really hard to watch because they’re so close. And then there’s Ernest. Man, that dude should have just stood up for his woman, no matter what he thought. They’ll be okay, no doubt about that, but they’ll still need time.
So when I read your letter I just thought, heck, life would be so much better if Rosa just forgave them. Should Bert apologise for what he said? I guess that’s up to him. Who knows what he’ll do, he seems like a complicated guy. But wouldn’t it be amazing if Rosa just dropped it all anyway? If Bert stuck to his guns and she still turned to him and said, ‘Bert, my friend, I think you said some really cruel things. You were insensitive and a bad Christian. But we’ve been through a lot together. You helped keep Ernest happy when I was away. You’re always there to crack a joke and make me laugh.’ (Sorry, I should stick to writing lyrics, but you get what I mean.) And then she’d say, ‘So even though we don’t agree, and even though I think you’ve behaved like a twat, I love you all the same. I may not like you as much, but I still love you.’ And that’s when Ernest barges in and puffs up his scrawny little chest, and he’s all like, ‘What did you just say? You love him?’, and then he marches towards Bert and lands a properly feeble punch on his nose, and we get two private school prissies howling out with pain. But I’m getting carried away here…
The main thing is, I could see how great it would be if Rosa forgave them both, no matter what they said. And when I saw that, I realised I had to live up to that standard. Look, Gylf, I think you’re one of the most disgusting people I’ve ever met. Actually, no, you are the most disgusting person I’ve ever met, no doubt about it. I wish I could go back in time and stop you being such a pig. I’d do anything to have that second chance. I can’t understand how you behaved like that, but I guess you’re just really sick. You need a lot of help, Gylf. I don’t care if you say the compulsion’s disappeared – it must have left a lot of scars.
But I forgive you. It feels good to write that. I forgive you, Gylf, because you’re right: that’s the only way to end the circle of pain. The world is that little bit better now. And Youri forgives you too. He started talking about how Yahweh is merciful and I got properly confused, but the main thing is he forgives you. Aaron hasn’t come round yet, but we’ll keep talking to him. And hey, two out of three isn’t so bad, is it?
We hope you get the help you need. Youri and I still think you’re an evil, evil guy, but I guess that’s the point: we can only forgive broken people. So I guess we have to forgive everyone in that case.
Keep singing from your cell. As your mates Simon and Garfunkel would say:
Memory brushes the same years
Silently sharing the same fears.
Good luck to you, Gylf. You’re gonna need it.
P.S. We’ll miss your crazy keys.