Have you ever wished for a new start? That you could do it all over again, but differently? Better? Then be careful what you wish for…
At 50, Tom Fletcher had reached a sort of crossroads in his life. No, not a crossroads, a dead end. The feeling that had haunted him for most of his adult life emerged from the shadows to take up noisy residence in his head. It did not make for a particularly happy birthday. How could it when he he felt he had wasted those 50 years? He really didn’t like his life.
Superficially, he was successful; he was a businessman and company director; he had a presentable wife, two reasonably stable children and a large house in what was known locally as a highly desirable area.
He knew he had to do something. He couldn’t stay with Joyce; that the house was highly desirable while she no longer was, was an irony that was not lost on him. It wasn’t so much that they’d drifted apart but that, at some unspecified time in the past, they had each jumped into separate vehicles and had hurtled off in different directions.
He needed a solution, if one were possible, that did not entail solicitors, law courts and tearing apart everything he’d ever worked for. The kids were more or less independent and he’d been a hopeless parent anyway. While most of their upbringing had fallen to him, he always had the feeling he’d let them down and should never have been a father. Someone should have told him, back when Joyce started insisting it was time they started a family, ‘No, not you, mate. You’ll be lousy at it.’ But they hadn’t and instead he and Joyce had had two children in quick succession; babies she seemed to lose interest in once they stopped being babies. But he was becoming bitter, and he didn’t want to be. What he wanted was some way of putting things right; for himself, mainly – he acknowledged that – but also for the kids.
If anyone could return to an earlier time in life simply by willing it, it would be Tom. His thoughts were perpetually occupied with the idea that if he could find some way of returning to, say, the months leading up to his marriage, in the late nineteen-seventies, he’d be able to set things right and correct all his mistakes, second time around. He wouldn’t marry Joyce, that’s for sure, wouldn’t pin himself down to marriage at all, not until much later anyway. Everyone had said they’d been too young at the time. Of course this would mean Daniel and Penny wouldn’t exist, at least not in their current form, but Tom was pretty sure they’d be around with at least half the genetic complement they had now – their mother’s – with someone else providing the other half; the man she’d marry instead of him. It was an absolute certainty she’d find someone else, and that she would have children with him. She had been the driving force behind their marrying as well as their becoming parents; that wouldn’t change. Who knows, maybe she’d have more children with another man. Maybe the third or fourth child that Tom had denied existence when he’d had his vasectomy would see the light of day in the new reality he envisaged. And with a bit more luck maybe all of them would find themselves with a better father than he had been.
What would happen to the reality he intended leaving behind? The one where none of this had occurred – the unhappy marriage, the failings as a parent? Perhaps it would cease to be entirely, like a cauterised artery. Or maybe he’d just be found dead in his bed and the rest of it would go as normal, or…
But he couldn’t think too deeply about what was going to happen to the present here and now. He’d just have to leave that to fate, or God, or whatever it was that was in charge of such things; the same controlling force that was going to grant him, he felt sure, special dispensation to take another crack at it. With this conviction, his wishful thinking intensified. On this his birthday, he would will himself back to that easier time and start again.
At first it felt like mild vertigo, a dizzy spell that took him by surprise and caused him to lose his balance. He slumped in his office chair and closed his eyes. He gripped the arms of the chair but then realised that this might give the wrong impression to whatever cosmic force was now taking charge of him – that he wanted to cling on to the present – so he let go and allowed it to lift him out of his body.
Once he started to fall, he fell rapidly.
Back beyond the day in September that changed everything, back before his own promotion. Before hysteria over the royal death, before his first breakdown (how strange that feels in reverse); the kids leaving home, past the difficult move to the new house and, eventually, out of the digital age.
…Into the callous eighties, when he made his money, which, with an unexpected relief, he now feels falling away; his children becoming ever younger, ever more demanding, until finally they vanish.
He feels himself falling further, back into an even more primitive age. The nineteen-seventies, where he’s young again and slimmer, both physically and mentally, all of the accrued wisdom of his years, which he hardly ever noticed he had, stripped away somewhere in his backward flight. It is, he thinks, a small price to pay, especially now that he feels his body returned to its twenty-something state that pleases and re-invigorates him. His burning ambition has returned too, along with all of his worries about ‘making it’ and supporting his young wife and the family she wants… and of failure. But it doesn’t matter; he will deal with all of that much better this time. He won’t have a young wife or children waiting in the wings; he’ll know how to marshal his anxieties and use them productively. Enough of his old self will survive to guide him through that. He’ll reassure his younger self that all will be well.
He can, he suddenly realises, become a gambling man and with his future knowledge make his fortune betting on the outcomes of Cup Finals and Grand Nationals and even Christmas number ones. With a little application, he’ll be able to recall all of these and decides he’ll write them down as soon as he arrives at his destination, in case they fade from his mind over time. He feels a frisson of excitement at the success he is going to make of everything this time round.
He becomes aware, as he hurtles through the vortex, that he isn’t slowing down. He is going to have to jump, to disembark from his backward journey at some point soon. It’s the early days of his marriage, and a sense of the elation he’d felt then catches him by surprise. He’d forgotten it, smothered as it has been by all the later complications. He braces himself as he experiences, in reverse of course, his own wedding, sensing again his uncertainty and lack of conviction. But it doesn’t matter, the mistake is being undone.
Then courting, as his mother always called it – old fashioned even then – when he is free and life enjoyable, though, knowing what lies ahead, also uncomfortably ominous. He will jump any time now, even though he is aware he’s travelling faster than ever, deeper into his own past. He braces himself; he’s reached a point before he’s even met Joyce. This is further than he intended to go but it will do; his teenage years, unlike his childhood, were happy. He has no objection to experiencing them again. So he tells himself to jump. But jumping, he now realises, was only a metaphor. He can no more jump than he can stop to blow his nose; this is a metaphysical experience where legs and noses are an illusion, physical attributes that will only return when the ride ends and he surfaces again in his own younger body. So he wills himself to stop instead, like he used to will himself to wake up from bad dreams, but instead he just keeps falling.
He’s a boy now. Young Tommy. Alone, feeling the abandonment and anguish of his father’s leaving. Grief, as he now recognises it. The shiny kernel that should be at the heart of this younger self is dented and dull. His older self makes to touch it, to give the young boy comfort and consolation, but it remains out of reach. He cries, experiencing the pain all over again, until he collides with the moment he learnt of his dad’s death, the single event that wrenched the life from him and closed down everything that was warm and bright.
Then beyond. His daddy alive again, lifting him onto his shoulders, the thing at the centre of him bright and shiny once more. He wants to live here, in this one moment, perpetually, with time stopped, prevented from travelling forward again.
But he keeps on falling backwards, further back into the past of his own life. To where he’s happy, with mummy and daddy near, and nothing to worry about. He doesn’t even know what worrying is any more. The big dog next door sometimes frightens him but once his mummy comes out in her sunny apron and he can wrap his arms around her legs. He is happy again even if everything is silly because it’s all back to front.
The smell of milk. That is all there is to him now. He smells of it, he wants it. He is warm. Words have failed him; he has no words. They have gone. They have not arrived yet. Smells and feeling warm or cold or hungry or messy. That is all. A little world of his own little body.
Then he’s back where it’s dark and red, wet and warm. There’s noise; steady and loud. Nice noise. And he feels a sense of unravelling, of everything coming apart, unknitting. Until anything that might be considered consciousness – his consciousness – is obliterated.
He is a string of nucleotides, but he doesn’t know it. Doesn’t know anything. He is a strand of RNA in search of another strand of RNA; he is a chemical half.
And then he is nothing at all. The strands that once made him are absorbed back into the bodies from which they came.
Everything about him has gone.
And time lurches forward again. Another string of nucleotides, not his, finds its way in the dark to one that waits for it.
And another child is born, another grows up with his mummy and daddy. There is no accident this time because the new child is ill the day his dad should travel and he stays at home instead. Another child, still whole and happy, goes to his school in his place and, later, finds true love where he didn’t.
Another has a successful career and raises a child – just the one – instead of him. She doesn’t know, this other, that hers is an alternative life, one that might never have been and was never intended to be.
In some other reality, Tom lay slumped in his chair. His body was still warm, and his heart beat rapidly, but he was not there.
He had had his birthday wish, his second chance to begin all over again.