Round the Bend is a Nevil Shute novel about Tom, a British airplane mechanic who moves to the Middle East after his wartime marriage ends in disaster.
In our online book club, I had a long but inconclusive discussion with my father about why Tom did that. This vignette is my attempt to explore that question via an alternate reality.
F. Hello my son. Can I help you?
T. Sorry, Father. I just came into this church for a break. I can leave. (Starts to get up)
F. Not at all, my son. The church is meant to be a house of rest for all nations. Please stay as long as you like.
T. Thank you, Father.
F. If you don’t mind my asking, though, what exactly are you seeking a break from?
T. (Looks uncomfortable). Well…
F. (Sits there quietly, noticing Tom’s discomfort without judging or apologizing)
T. You see Father, I met this girl during the war. (He sees the Father raising an eyebrow, then adds hurriedly). Oh no, nothing like that. We got married properly and everything. But then… (looks down) well, things didn’t work out. (Looks up) I’m not blaming her. Sure, she made her share of mistakes. But really, it was my fault…
(Tom’s voice trails off. The Father merely sits there. Watching, attentive. His face showing no impatience, only gentle concern).
T. Anyway… this area is where I met here. Where her family lives. I was just offered a job here. And it’s a great job, too. My kind of work. Great people. Fantastic salary…
F. But… you don’t want to take it?
T. I… I just can’t, Father! I’d go round the bend! Even today, I spent the whole day terrified I will run into her family. In fact, that was why I came in here. I thought I saw one of them coming out of the subway.
F. (Concerned). I see. Is her family angry at you? Do they blame you for what happened? Are you worried for your safety?
T. No. Yes. I’m… not sure.
F. (Confused) Then why… Oh!
T. (Nodding). Yeah. They say they don’t blame me. Even the inquest said it wasn’t my fault. But I know better.
F. Even if they don’t blame you, you feel like they should. And you can’t bear to face that.
T. Of course not! Don’t you understand, Father? I loved her. Honestly. I tried to do right by her. I did the best we could, given the war and everything. I know it was selfish of me to leave, but there really was a war on. Wasn’t it better to get married first, so at least we’d have that instead of regrets in case something happened?
(Tom pauses. The Father looks at him thoughtfully.)
F. (Gently) But something happened anyway, right? (Rests a comforting hand on Tom’s shoulder)
T. (Whispers). Yes. I… I should have told her I loved her. I should have let her know I was excited to take her back, despite everything that had happened. But I was too busy, too proud. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I never imagined she would… (starts weeping)
T. (Sniffling). Sorry to make such a scene, Father.
F. (Smiling) No need to apologize, son. Even Jesus wept. And it sounds like you’ve earned it.
T. (Suddenly angry) No, I haven’t. Damn it Father, it was my fault! I don’t deserve grief. I don’t deserve comfort! I’m the one who killed her, as surely as if I was the one who turned on the gas. There’s no hope for me. That’s… that’s why I have to leave. (Starts to get up) There’s… there’s nothing for me here. (Begins to leave)
F. (Almost too softly to hear) Forgiveness.
T. (Stops at the door. Turns around). What did you say?
F. (Louder, looks him in the eye) Forgiveness.
T. (Turns red) I… I don’t understand.
F. (Walks toward him slowly). I am not exactly a priest, Tom. But I have heard your confession. And while I would like to say it wasn’t your fault, you wouldn’t believe me even if that was true. Right?
F. I know you feel like a failure. I know the weight of your guilt and shame seems like more than you can bear. I understand you feel like you just have to get away.
T. (Savagely, though with tears in his eyes). Do you, Father? Do you really have any clue what I am going through? Are you going to make up some cock-and-bull story about how all this happened for a reason? And then tell me pretty little lies about how Jesus forgives, and blah blah blah. Forget it, Father. I don’t need you and your God. You don’t know anything about me!
T. (stands there shaking with rage. But does not walk away. He keeps looking at the Father).
F. (quietly) You don’t know anything about me either, my son. I was not always as you see me now. This isn’t my first war. And I… I was young once too. I too loved a girl. And… well, that too ended badly.
(Tom looks at him sharply. The Father sits down, reflective. Tom sits down next to him).
F. I’m not going to compare our tragedies, Tom. Perhaps yours really is worse that mine. And frankly, you seem a lot more self-aware than I ever was. But I do know what it feels like, this need to run away. In fact, that was the main reason I joined the church, because I wanted to run away.
F. (Chuckling). Of course, that wasn’t what I told them. I couldn’t even admit it to myself. But there was a wise old vicar who saw right through me. He was an ex-convict, so he knew a thing or two about running from shame. He sat me down and asked me point blank whether I was joining the church to pursue something, or to escape something?
F. (Gets up and walks towards the altar). I honestly could not answer him. I ended up staying here all night, wrestling with my conscience and my fears. Finally it dawned on me. All my religious fervor, all my pious claims to want to help people. It was really just a cover. I could not offer people hope and forgiveness, because I had none for myself.
(The Father turns and walks back to Tom, who is still seated, staring at him with rapt attention. The Father sits down across the aisle and looks him directly in the face.)
F. I won’t bore you with the rest of my story, Tom. But the bottom line is that at the end, I really did find Hope and Forgiveness on the other side. It did not come quickly, nor did it come cheaply. It is easy to lose sight of with all the politics, fancy buildings, and intellectual sermons. But behind all of that, there really is a Jesus, and He really did set me free of all my shame and guilt. And while I truly don’t know all of your story, He does. And I’m willing to bet He can do for you what He did for me.
(The Father smiles and leans back.
Tom takes a deep breath and breaks eye contact. He looks down, the turns at stares at the altar for several minutes. Finally he shakes himself and stands up. He walks over to the Father and holds out his hand.)
T. Thank you, Father. You’ve given me a lot to think about.
F. My pleasure, son. You are welcome to come back anytime, to talk or just to sit. Even to hide (he adds, with a twinkle in his eye)!
T. (Laughs, and it is as if ten years melt off his face). I may just do that. You will be here?
F. Always, my son. I have found where I belong. I know who I am, and Whose I am. I have nothing left to run from. I am not going anywhere.