In Sydney Harbour on a warm November night there floats a party boat. You know that this boat is a party boat because of the coloured lights that flash inside the cabin, and by the music and vomit it leaves in its wake. You also know that this boat is a party boat because of the meandering circles it’s making around the harbour. The party boat ambles about the inky blackness as if it’s killing time, waiting for a friend outside a shop. Its destination is exactly where it started, with no stops in between. There is, to put it another way, no practical reason for this party boat to be in motion, nor is there any practical reason for this party boat to be a boat. If this were in a film, the boat aspect of the whole thing would feel like a gratuitous afterthought - a meddling producer sticking his hand up in a script meeting. Love the party scene guys, very good and all that, but - and I’m just spitballing here - it feels like it needs to be a bit… maritime.
Inside the party boat there are only men, and they’re all dressed in suits. When the party boat moors hours later and the men finally disembark, the crisp white shirts now yellowed with sweat and beer, the man who owns the party boat - a cursed man (“may all your boats”, the crone had said, withered finger extended at the boat captain that wronged her, “be party boats”) - will take a mop from the cupboard behind the kitchen and get to work attempting to erase whatever evil has visited the urinals on this latest Voyage To Nutbush City Limits.
It’s a high-school reunion. A ten year high-school reunion that you very nearly didn’t attend. But there you are, wearing a bow tie, heroically trying to ingest the entire ticket price at the open bar. There has to be a reason you came, you think, as the party boat makes its way under the bridge. You order another beer and decide to find someone to talk to.
It’s then that a man walks up to you, puts his hand on your shoulder and, addressing you by name and pointing to a part of the boat that’s either port or starboard, asks if you can have a word. Thinking that none of this augers particularly well, you follow him into the November air. Partly because you’re curious and partly because you’re trapped on a boat.
‘I feel,’ he says, bringing his hands together and looking out to sea. You take this pause to consider that conversations at ten year reunions that begin with the words I feel aren’t likely to be enjoyable.
‘I feel horrible’ he says to you, and you notice he’s struggling to make eye contact. ‘The way I treated you at school was inexcusable. I was a bully and I know I made your time really difficult. I don’t expect you to forgive me, but, I’m glad you came tonight because I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.’
You look up at the man and for the first time since he stopped you inside you realise with a ferocious clarity that you have no idea who he is, and your mind tries to do a few too many things at once and trips over itself, causing you to nod impassively. Because here’s the problem: you didn’t have a bully in high-school. You weren’t, and we should be clear on this, popular in the least, and kids were cruel to you and you were cruel to them but this was all the run of the mill transactional cruelty that happens whenever enough children assemble - but no one singled you out for specific bullying. You’d remember that. Wouldn’t you?
He stands silent in a posture of deep penance while you try once again, slower this time, to think through what’s happened here. You come up with three scenarios.
First, the man in front of you bullied someone at school, but the passing of time and haze of the party boat atmosphere has caused him to mix things up. If that’s the case, the best course of action is to tell him that someone on this boat is the actual person that he needs to apologise to, and wish him luck, adding that you hope he doesn’t have to have too many of these encounters. Possible, but not particularly likely.
Second, the man in front of you did try to bully you in school, but was such an ineffective bully that you didn’t notice. If that’s the case, though, you can’t help but feel that correcting him on this score - telling him that there was really nothing to worry about, that his awful jeers barely registered at the time, far less now - would actually cause a lot of undue embarrassment to this man who is, really, only trying to do the right thing here.
And third, what if this man actually bullied you in school, and he bullied you so hard that you managed to repress the memory of it? This is a very disturbing possibility. If that is the case, then the news you have for the man is even worse than he’d possibly hoped for, and he's about to be told that he’d essentially bullied someone into amnesia. And furthermore, if this was your bully, repressed or not, is this why you were drawn here? To settle the score with this man? Should that be the case, you can't let the opportunity slide.
You’re pondering the best way to go about dealing with this, when another party boat drifts past, its revellers on the decks shouting and waving at you, and if you’re honest, undercutting what must be quite a sombre moment for the mystery bully.
You decide the best strategy here is to play for time while you gather some more information. You’ll talk to some people inside about this and work out which of the three scenarios is most likely. So you give a shrug that you hope covers all three of these disparate realities and tell him that you’re going to get a drink, leaving him staring into the harbour as you walk away.
Despite looking, you don’t see him again that night. You don’t see him when the Grease Megamix plays. You don’t see him when the speeches are apologetically mumbled into a battery-operated PA. You don’t see him when the party boat docks and everyone stumbles onto the pier - not a “party-pier”, we’ll discover, as our legs wobble - adjusting to life on a non-party surface. In fact, you never see him again.
But you're still wracked with doubt, tormented even, as to which of these options are true. Could you really have forgotten? Could he really be so confused? You’re troubled by this to the point that when the 15 year reunion came up, just one week ago from today, you didn't attend for fear of running into him and having to find out for sure. And that makes this man, accidental or not, an astonishingly effective bully.