So, Jude had been right all along…
He couldn’t believe it. Or at least, he didn’t want to. He raked his shaking hand through his thinning, greasy hair and stared through blurring tears at the letter. The crumpled, faded pages torn from an old school workbook shook slightly in the breeze – or perhaps from his own tremor of shock and denial of the truth it betrayed.
The contents of the letter he’d found tucked into the personal effects handed over when he left jail a month ago had delivered a body blow as real as a sledgehammer to his solar plexus. He didn’t want to accept them, but they were irrefutable, and the hurt was just as deep every time he’d re-read it since settling into the halfway house.
Could it really all have been for nothing? Was everything they had done, everything they had been through, everything they’d sacrificed, all been part of an elaborate fraud? Everything they’d believed nothing but a web of lies built around the delusions of a charismatic megalomaniac?
And he had believed. Believed, because he needed to feel, to know, that he was part of a bigger story, a nobler cause, a greater truth. Because he needed something to refill the empty glass of his existence with meaning and purpose.
He’d believed that night Jude and The Teacher quarreled bitterly for the last time. He’d believed when the police burst in, scattering their numbers to the night and arresting those not young enough, quick enough or streetwise enough to make a run for it. He’d believed all through his three-year sentence.
But now, he didn’t know what to believe.
Jude had been the one who first got him involved. Moving among the dregs of society, animating them with his passion and compassion, he was the one who’d convinced them they could do something about their miserable lot, filled them with hope that together they could put right the wrongs of a world besieged by injustice. That was before The Teacher joined them, first of all quietly, unassumingly, but with the fervour blazing brighter in his eyes with every day that passed. Soon, he’d eclipsed Jude’s burning passion and his position as their natural leader.
It’s not that they hadn’t done good, made a difference. They had. At least to the most wretched and desperate. At least for one day. Old men reduced to rifling through rubbish bins for scraps of discarded food were given a hot meal. Dried-up nursing mothers received formula to nourish their babies. Children faint with hunger gulped down warm milk. The uninsured sick got medicine to ease their pain. Shelter was offered to those with none to protect them from the cold and cruelty of the streets.
All that was asked in return was that they believed. And they did. Because they had to. They needed to believe that, despite their torment, they were the chosen, the special, the ones who would be rewarded – one day.
As the months passed, Jude’s intense gaze had gradually clouded with doubt and confusion. He started to question more, and to accept the answers less. And as he did, he was increasingly ostracised by the group he had created. His bitterness at their rejection burned like acid. Cynicism grew like a tumour within him, fed by the anger that smoulders in the heart of a disappointed idealist.
After that last night together, he’d heard nothing more of his old friend. He simply ceased to exist, his name only ever mentioned in contempt and anger. As a man, who cared, struggled for justice and hoped for a better future, he had been erased. All that remained was a new name for treachery.
The letter in his hand was undeniable. The upright letters unmistakably in the bold, commanding hand of The Teacher. But the words seemed so much at odds to the message he’d followed and given himself up for.
They gave step-by-step instructions for a Master Class in deceiving those only too keen to believe, from faking miraculous cures to manipulating ancient texts to prove that they were destined to inherit everything they had been denied by harsh reality. The promise of a higher power handing out reward or punishment was the motive, and along with a little succour delivered to the desperate along the way, the result was the elevation of one charismatic man to a pedestal which fed his pride and delusions, and ultimately led to his martyrdom.
He stared at the pages for the hundredth time. The letters danced in front of his eyes, mocking his gullibility, his willingness to do things he would never have dreamed of, all for a cause they now revealed to be a con. A well-intentioned con, to start with at least, but a con nonetheless.
He’d given up everything for the cause. His free will, his family, his friends, his freedom. He’d thought it gave everything he needed. It had felt right. It had felt like ‘home’. And now he was faced with evidence that it was all for nothing.
There was no reward for him, and no penalty for those who’d opposed him. The only reward for the good he’d done was the knowledge that somehow, somewhere, he had helped someone – even just a little.
He tried it on for size. No. It didn’t satisfy. It wasn’t enough.
The truth will set you free, they say. Bullshit. The only thing it had done for him was imprison him in a cage of regret, resentment and self-loathing. If that was freedom, he preferred the enslavement of blissful ignorance. He envied those who still believed. He wanted to rejoin their ranks.
He tapped a cigarette out of the battered pack in his pocket and lit it. He watched the line of red march up the paper as he greedily sucked in its acrid smoke, squinting as it stung the corner of his rheumy eye and blinking away a tear of regret and resignation. He made his decision.
He held up the letter – lost to him through all those months in jail and unknown to him before he was sent there – delicately between thumb and index fingers from the top left corner. With his other hand, he flicked open his ancient Zippo lighter and held it to the pages until the flame licked at the edges of the paper. A line of black followed the vanguard of glowing embers eating up the pages, swallowing the words that revealed the truth that had tormented them since he first read them. A familiar scent of bonfires filled his nostrils and he smiled through the smoke as the flames devoured the pages.
He dropped the last scrap before the creeping heat blistered his fingers, stamping it to brittle black fragments as it touched the ground.
The letter was lost again, leaving him free. Free to believe there was a reason for everything.