I’m not big on regrets, I can’t see the point in them, but I’m sure I’m not alone in sometimes thinking it would be nice to get a little glimpse into what my life might have been. Part of me thinks that we probably live the life we are supposed to live and it’s mainly
down to luck or fate or whatever you want to call it. There’s no denying though that most of us, with a different twist or turn, could be living different lives.
The most satisfying glimpse into what might have been is when you bump into an old flame. The kind who you foolishly imagined might be the one, until they unceremoniously dumped you that is. I had such an encounter on a recent night out. It was gratifying enough that he was fat, balding and wearing one of those shiny suits that you really don’t see much anymore. It got better and better though when, over a drink or three, he bemoaned his shabby life. A middle-aged man he is reduced to renting a student style bedsit whilst supporting two ex-wives and several children all of whom purportedly hate him.
It didn’t take too much imagination to see why as he leered after girls young enough to be his daughters. There was something pathetic about him as the lovely young girls treated him with the contempt he deserved. I was left wrestling with feelings of both relief and horror. Relief that I wasn’t one of his ex-wives and horror that maybe I could have been if he hadn’t dumped me to move onto pastures new. Who knows if I would have ever been so stupid because thank God my life took the other path?
Most of us have faced crossroads when taking our first steps into adult independence, making life decisions for the first time. Mine came in 1980 when I was deciding where to go to university. This was in the rational days when all you needed were the grades rather than the hefty wedge of cash or the lifelong student debts of today. The accepted thing to do was to apply for universities but also polytechnics as back up, in case you didn’t get the grades. My dream at that time was to study filmmaking which was only on offer at polytechnics which were seen as more progressive than the traditionally academic universities. I had an unconditional offer from Liverpool Poly to study filmmaking as well as conditional offers for English Literature at university.
During the run up to A levels, I was invited to attend a weekend at the poly with all the other budding young filmmakers. Now I had never made a film in my life but had secured my place by writing an essay about the cultural relevance of films. God only knows what I wrote but it was no doubt the kind of excruciatingly pretentious tosh that only a seventeen year old can construct. Anyway, I arrived in Liverpool on the Friday night and found myself faced with the most self- assured, talented people I had
ever met in my life and they terrified me. There was just one other young woman, she was called Ros and seemed extremely worldly because she had had a year out and she knew all about Greenham Common. I remember her digging her fingers into
my arm at the poly disco hissing into my ear that as the only sisters we had to stick together but I didn’t want to stick together, I didn’t even like her. So I did the sensible thing and got up really early on the Saturday morning and caught the first train home.
That pretty much sealed my fate. I had left myself with no backup; if I didn’t get the grades I would be going nowhere. I ended up pursuing a much more conventional education but I’m not sure if it was strictly speaking a choice. At that age I wouldn’t have survived the filmmaking course, they would have eaten me alive. That doesn’t stop me though from sometimes wondering what my life might have been like had I travelled down that other path.
My most recent crossroads moment came when I returned to live in my hometown after living away for many years. I had been living in Brighton a fantastic but expensive city and, in my inimitable style, had lived far beyond my means for far too long. I crashed and burned quite spectacularly in a mountain of debt and found myself faced with two choices. I could continue as I was but try and live a more frugal existence or I could accept a promotion I was offered at a school in my hometown. The combination of a cheaper cost of living and a pay rise would clear me of my debt in no time at all.
I chose the latter but it all went horribly wrong. I realised almost immediately that I was ill suited to being anybody’s boss and I only did the job for a year. The seemingly bad choice, however, turned out to be strangely fortuitous in two ways. Firstly, I had barely been back a couple of months when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. There followed two years of total hell but how much worse would that hell have been had I been living at the other end of the country. I got to spend lots of time with my dad during the last two years of his life and I will never be able to put a price on that. Secondly, because I hated the job, it was easy to turn my back on it. What had previously been unthinkable became straightforward and my life became infinitely richer as a result.
There are all kinds of what ifs in life and some of the crossroads we face offer real choices whilst with others there’s really only one road we can take. I’m not sure how much of our lives are determined by fate and how much by free will but I like the idea that there are twists and turns along the way and the mystery of not knowing which road I might take.