I’m not sure where I contracted such severe scruples, but I did. When I was 18, I was a naiive, curly haired eejit with bad clothes, six pairs of underwear, more zeal for the Lord than was good for me, not an ounce of common sense, and a pathological predeliction for thinking everything was my fault. That’s right. Everything.
I was working with an church group that used to do school retreats with unsuspecting teenagers. We’d go and talk about how great our life was, and how the Lord had helped us be better people, and the Lord made us all happy, and how our lives were great now - and shouldn’t the teenagers think about going to mass more often.
Never mind that one of our group thought he was possessed by seven demons - each of whom he knew by name. But… that’s another story.
In the church group, we were all dirt poor. So, anything that was going free was a good bargain. One of the priests had heard about some free radiators - so he piled myself and a few other lads into a car to go and lift the free radiators. We got talking to the couple who were looking rid of their heaters and they happened to be Swiss French. I was delighted to practice my French - so I said to them that it had been two years since I’d been speaking any French. That was that and we were driving back, late on a Thursday night with some half hearted, leaking radiators from a Swiss French couple who thought we were all fools for taking what only should have beenmelted down….I realised, with a jolt, the awful truth. I had said to them that it had been two years - deux ans - since I’d spoken French. But that wasn’t true. It was only one year.
I knew what I had to do. I had to phone them. I had to phone the Swiss-French couple and say Sorry. Desolée. You know the conversation we had last night. The one where I said to you in Cork-accented French that it had been two years since I had spoken any French.Well, I’m sorry. That wasn’t true. It’s only been one year. I lied. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. Desolée. Mea Culpa. Brón orm.
The Swiss French man had given the phone number to the cheapskate priest who was driving - and I saw where he’d placed the number on the dashboard. I reached out, casually, as if curious, or lightheartedly perusing the pieces of random paper on the dashboard, and I lifted the paper.
42 37 39 30 31, 42 37 39 30 31, 42 37 39 30 31, 42 37 39 30 31 …..over and over and over.
I repeated it until I got home. I decided that it was too late to call the Swiss French couple at 11pm, so I thought I would wait until the morning before I kept the Lord happy.
The next morning we were out again, talking to the youth of Ireland, about the Lord, and how good he is and how he makes us all happy… and I made my excuses. I went to the staff room. I fished out the number from my pocket where I’d written it the night before. 4237393031 … and I phoned it. It rang. It rang, and it answered. It was some company. It must have been the Swiss French man’s work number. I said “I… my name is Pádarig,and I want to speak with a Swiss French man to clarify something I said to him last night when myself and some others went to pick up a radiator that he’d advertised he was giving away for free”.
“What?” said the man.
Never mind. I said. Sorry.
Later on that night, I spoke to my colleague Siobhán. Siobhán was a nurse by training, a south armagh farming woman with with brothers.. she was highly skeptical about moralism and probably the most normal, the most human, and by consequence, the most sincerely honest about religion, than all of us.
Siobhán, I said, I’ve got to apologise to the man we got the free radiator from, because when I was speaking in french to him last night, I said it was two years since I spoke French and not one year.
Siobhán, who was used to my pathological scruples looked at me with a mixture of… well, actually it wasn’t a mixture of anything. It was pure incredulity “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” she said, “are you trying to convince him you’re part of a cult?”
One time I tried to apologise to my mother for something that I’d said- something clumsy. I cant’ remember what it was. I sat her down, and I said “Mum”, you know yesterday when you asked me to help around the house, and I did, but I know I slammed the door, and I’m sorry, because my atitude was really agressive.
Ah for God’s sake what the hell are you on about? She said.
I am surrounded by women with little patience who simply do not understand my need to speak apologies.
Years later, I met myself. Myself came in the form of a 6”6 handsome German guy. He was attractive, and he worked for me. We both lived and worked on a campus that taught young people about the Lord, and about how happy we were, and about… you get it.
By this stage, I had stopped apologising. Siobhán’s south Armagh wisdom had rubbed off on me.
So, when this German man came to work for me, Wolfgang was his name, I recognised the symptoms immediately.
One time we were all late for a meeting. A meeting I was convening. Wolfgang was the only one early. We arrived in at ten past two for a two-pm meeting. Wolfgang asked if he could start off the meeting with something. “I just want so say sorry” he said “I was here early and you were all late, and I was judging you for being late, so even though you were late, I was sinning because I was judging.”
Everybody else looked at him with curiosity. He was handsome, so it was pleasant to look at him.
I looked at him with understanding. I know your pain Wolfgang, I thought.
We spoke afterwards. He said that yes, he often feels like things are his fault, and that saying sorry helps him feel better.
What about when nothing’s your fault? I asked.
Well, but if it feels like it is, I must apologise.
One time, Wolfgang borrowed a car. I know this for a fact. He borrowed the car, and then returned the car keys to the owner’s house. He let himself in, put the keys in the bowl like he’d been told, and then left.
Later on, he found the car owner, and said “I need to apologise”. The car owner, said with dreary patience “for what?” Well, said Wolfgang, I got to your house, and I opened the door and I put the car keys in the bowl like you asked me. But when I was walking back to the door to leave your house, I .. I… I.. Farted. I’m sorry.
That’s alright Wolfgang, the car owner said. As soon as Wolfgang had left, the car owner phoned me. We were good friends - and killed ourselves laughing at the latent German Flatulence that would forever hang in the hallway, between the keybowl and the door.
Wolfgang finished working for me, and was moving to work in East Timor. Telling peopleabout the Lord, and how happy the Lord makes us and how the Lord… you get the point.
I was having sympathy for the residents of East Timor,who by the time 1999 had come around had suffered enough. I said to Wolfgang - listen, when you’re there, and if you feel the need to apologise to anyone. Why don’t you just email me first, tell me what you think you should apologise for, and I’ll tell you whether it’s going to make you come across weird or not.
He looked at me with his big beautiful eyes, and said “okay. Thanks”.
A few weeks later, I got an email.
I am in East Timor.
I said I’d tell you if I was going to apologise. But yesterday I apologised without telling you.
From Pádraig, for Sorry, Tenx9 October 26, 2011.