Thursday, 5 November 2015

Where There's Smoke There's Fire

Can you right someone else's wrong? And if so, even if it's years later?
That's a two-part question I've been working on for almost twenty-five years, and the more I try to apply it to different situations the more tied and tangled I get.
You think if you take just the first part it will be straightforward, but it's not. If you're directly related to or an acquaintance of the perpetrator then perhaps, but most distance themselves or hide; some deny any involvement with the offender, and in a few cases that denial is true, but still wouldn't you want to redress their actions? Or at the very least try to understand why, how they were led there?
Can anything undo the hurt, the harm, someone else has intentionally caused? Probably not, not even if in a twisted sense it's opened up doors that were previously unseen or closed.
I was once assigned a story along those lines, and the questions it raised have bugged me ever since. At the time I was a baby-faced reporter, I still only had a vague idea of how the real world worked, when this supposedly feel-good tale came into the news desk from an anonymous caller.
I didn't take the call myself, but apparently this low-gruffed male voice gave the barest of outlines: said a woman had shown up a year ago and started doing good, nothing big, just small deeds: volunteering with local charities, befriending the confused and elderly, and generally going out of her way to be helpful, and he was suspicious. Nobody did this much good for nothing! Her name was Angela, he said, and she was renting the flat above the dry cleaners. That was it, he rang off without leaving his name or contact details.
The paper had been running a weekly article on local heroes, good Samaritans, that kind of thing which the public could nominate, and this call was so bizarre it was interesting, so the Ed dispatched me to the village where the call had been traced to interview this woman.
And this village was small, the smallest in the Surrey county; the sort of place where everything, every cruelty, every kindness, every stranger, was noticeable. I did what I always did in chasing up a lead, dug around and flattered the locals. Everyone seemed to have some anecdote or something 'beige' to say about this Angela who'd just pitched up one day about a year ago, although everyone was vague as to the exact date and month she arrived. Other than her good works, nobody I spoke to knew much about her – her last name, age, where she was from, if she had family, all those usual things you might exchange when you're getting to know somebody, and their ignorance made these informers blush and stammer, look down into their drinks and mumble. A handful, however, their tongues loosened by a free drink or lunch, were openly mistrustful; wary of this woman's do-gooder motives.
Who was she? What was she doing this for? If she was a Christian why didn't she come out and say so? Those were the kind of questions they put to me, confiding in me as someone unknown and neutral, when all I wanted to know was where would I find her? And how could I arrange a meeting? I'd located her flat but nobody answered when I knocked and the owner of the dry cleaners had no interest in her comings and goings. Whoever she was she didn't seem to want to be found. By me. Word gets round in villages.
Yet despite my methods I never did get to see or meet her for on the night I and the emergency services gained access to her flat, all that was left of her was a smooth lower leg alongside a pool of oil as rich as butter. An greasy offensive odour, like the smell of deep-fried chicken, hung in the air and clung to the walls and floors, but apart from that the furnishings were untouched. There was just the leg, the oil and some greasy soot in front of a high-backed armchair placed near a stone fireplace. I'd heard of such cases before, though I never imagined I'd be a witness to one, when the coroner confirmed the cause of death as SHC (Spontaneous Human Combustion).
In the after-event the story was spun that she was an Angel with many demons thrust upon her.

Picture Credit: Where is Mr Krook, Bleak House by Charles Dickens