It is 5:45 AM, and I can't sleep because for some reason I am thinking about Beth*. Please do not mainpage. I don't even know why I am writing this. I don't know what kind of reaction I will get. I just think writing it down might help me get some sleep and I guess you guys will understand why it troubles me so much.
It was years ago. I was only 13. Me and a big group of friends, at least 20, were sitting on the playing field at our school, enjoying the sun. I had never had many friends before, and I was thrilled to be a part of a group, and I felt secure in my popularity. The week before, some of us had been on a school trip to Paris, and a girl had brought back a tacky French magazine. On the front cover, a picture of Michael Jackson gazed up at us, with the slogan 'MJ RETURNS' written in bold print.
Of course, we found this terribly funny. Not old enough to appreciate his music but old enough know about the scandals and rumours that surrounded him, we shrieked and giggled and threw the magazine at each other. 'Watch out for MJ! He's returned!'
'He's going to abduct you and take you to Neverland!'
In my group of friends, close as we all were, the jokes got more and more brutal, and we mixed in other bizarre running jokes, and we laughed so much our stomachs hurt. Beth was laughing so much she could barely breathe and as someone cracked a joke about children having a go on MJ's rides, she turned to me and impersonated, almost perfectly, his voice.
'Hey children. Come and ride on my big dipper.'
We exploded into cackles and tried desperately to think up more terrible, barely there innuendos. We were so secure in our glee that we didn't think about what we were saying or who might be able to hear; even if we had, we didn't care. We were thirteen. The court cases and tragedies of children in an amusement park far away in America were worthy only of humour, and the scale and reality of what we were laughing about seemed unconnected with our privileged, white, middle class, rural England lives.
Another friend shouted 'He'll steal you onto his thrilling coaster!' with a saucy wink and a wiggle of her hips.
'Just like he stole your innocence!' I blurted out, delighted that I had finally thought of something to contribute to the conversation.
'That's not an innuendo, Floreat,' said one friend, Lucy*, with exasperation, but she, along with everyone else, was laughing, and I felt pleased that I had been part of that.
It did not continue for much longer before there was a sharp 'stop it' from one girl, and I turned to see her holding onto the shoulder of Beth, who was shaking from trying to hold in sobs. We could all see her reaction though. The tears on her face were testament to the fact that we had gone too far.
By some miracle, before we could say anything, the bell went. As we were walking back up to the school, we separated into smaller groups. I asked one friend what had happened.
'We just pushed it too far, I think,' she muttered.
'But Beth was joking with us!' I said defensively, feeling irritated at this girl who had spoiled our fun.
'Yeah but...' my friend looked uneasy. 'Well she got molested when she was five.'
'What? Are you serious?' Suddenly I was cold inside.
'Yeah by her neighbour. I thought you knew. We all do.' She paused for a moment looking thoughtful. 'I suppose you haven't been friends with us for that long. She hasn't talked about it in ages I guess that's why we forgot. But I think when Lucy made that crack about stealing innocence it just went too far.'
My stomach plummeted. They thought it was Lucy who had said my joke. In the confusion, voices had mixed and nobody had focused, and Lucy, the girl who had made most of the jokes, was being blamed for the joke that I made, the joke that had sent a young woman into tears.
I didn't say anything. I felt sick. I didn't see Beth in the next lesson and I went home from school silently. I didn't eat my dinner. I couldn't get her face out of my mind. I couldn't get the words I said out of my mind. I spent the evening looking up the Michael Jackson cases as if it mattered but it didn't any more because all I cared about was how horrible I'd been to Beth. I couldn't believe that someone so close to me had been hiding this secret away, and I had split it open like some kind of putrid, festering wound.
The next morning I arrived to school half an hour early and waited in her form room until she came in. I immediately leapt up. 'Beth. I am so, so sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. I should never have said that to you. I feel so guilty, I'm sorry.'
She laughed. 'It doesn't matter, it's fine. I was joking too. It's my defensive mechanism. I'm fine.'
'I still shouldn't have done it. I wish I could make it up to you.'
'Really, don't worry about. I'm fine. It was Lucy that made the worst joke.'
Oh god. She thought it was Lucy too. In my thirteen-year-old cowardice, I nodded.
I'm not sure if anyone found out that I made the worst joke, not Lucy. To my knowledge, Lucy never apologised, and preferred to pretend it hadn't happened. Me and Beth eventually drifted apart. Something had broken between us and to this day I completely regret it, because she really was a truly loyal and wonderful friend. I don't think I could face up to my own guilt and it was my biggest flaw. It still plays on my mind from time to time, if I say something offensive or proclamation, even to people I think I know inside out. I just remember that face, and I remember the shock, and how I realised that I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about the traumas and history of my friends.
A year later I began to be abused myself, by a grooming gang that operated online. Today my friends make jokes that trigger me in the same way that they did Beth, but as I am older I'm more able to quietly excuse myself to make a cup of tea until they stopped. They know. They know I don't like them. They have even see me cry. It doesn't matter if it is for comedy, apparently.
But I think that that fateful day on the school playingfield was the turning point for me. To this day I rarely make jokes that are offensive, and if I mistakenly do (lets be honest, it happens to everyone. We are truly stupid creatures), I am quick to apologise and admit when I am wrong. I am not perfect. No one is. I was not born a feminist and I have done some horrid things. But everything is a learning process. Unfortunately some lessons have to be learned in quite a brutal fashion.