Have I ever told you how I got here?
You already know bits and pieces, certainly - I remember talking to you about some of it. Just the very basics. But there’s quite a bit more, as you’d expect.
We have some time right now, don’t we? Then let me tell you about my path - the one I’m standing at the head of. Every moment before now, leading up to the present.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to go back the whole way. We can start in the year 1995. You won’t even need many details.
Suffice it to say that I was in high school, in my fourth year. That’s when you had a set of examinations called Standard Grades that determined which subjects you could take to Higher level in your fifth or sixth years. Those results, in turn, determined which university degree courses you could apply for.
My Standard Grade subjects were English, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Computing Science, Latin, and Economics. I enjoyed every one of them, but two in particular really sang to me: Computing, and English.
I knew even then that I was at a branching point in my life; a fork in the road. A choice had to be made, and with comparatively little deliberation, I threw myself down one of those two paths.
I chose English.
I was writing all the time, for my own enjoyment as well as for coursework. Essays, critiques, pieces in the styles of other authors, reports, and so on - but original fiction was my thing. Tens of thousands of words, all printed out in hardcopy for red-pen editing, and kept (treasured, really) in a box file. My studies were important to me, but writing fiction was my true love.
I continued with it in earnest. I focused my Higher year, and my sixth year, on maintaining the highest possible grades to ensure freedom of choice when it came to applying to universities, but I gave most of my time to English. In whatever time was left over, I wrote. One box file became two, and then three, and more. I began to submit pieces to magazines and short story collections. When the final examination grades arrived for that critical Higher year, I had the joint top mark in the country for English.
I allowed my pursuit of Computing Science to slacken, throwing myself entirely into writing. I applied to university to study English Literature, with a joint minor in Computing, and was accepted to three different institutions. I chose Glasgow, and when the time came, off I went.
I passed all my classes, but my passion was clear: I would be a writer. During one particular Summer, I attended a two-week residency course up north, for budding authors.
As my Honours years approached, I let Computing Science fall by the wayside, converting to single honours in English Lit. I’d had some interest from publishers already, and I was impatient to leave education behind. I graduated with a hunger to share my words, and little by little, those words began to show up in print.
By the time that self-publishing online became viable, years later, I was well-positioned to finally make the most of the path I had chosen. My knowledge of the machines I used everyday had long since atrophied, and I was now merely a user. I never wrote a single line of code after the year 2002.
But, oh, the words.
I still vividly remember the day that my first published novel appeared on bookshelves, in actual stores. My family knew all about it, of course, but I insisted on going to my favourite major bookshop - the Waterstones on Sauchiehall Street, in Glasgow – on my own.
Two floors up, and around towards the left, along the back wall. Past the featured new arrivals (it’s still early; there’s still time), then a frantic alphabetical search towards G, and there it was. Three copies, no less; two spine-out, but one with the cover visible for all to see.
I remember how my pulse thudded in my chest. I remember the lightheaded feeling. I remember the tide of emotion rising up, and not being sure whether I was going to laugh or cry.
By god, there it was: the realisation of a dream.
I decided to buy the thing. It’s what you’d do too, isn’t it? Of course it is.
So I reached out - I remember this with perfect clarity - and as my fingertips brushed against the cover–
–but none of that happened.
It’s just one more work of fiction.
In 1995, I chose Computing Science instead.
My degree was joint in Comp Sci and Psychology, and it was Psychology that fell by the wayside after my second year of study.
My career was resolutely in my chosen field. I wrote countless lines of code in those decades. My work was used in tens of thousands of pieces of software, everywhere in the world. I spoke at conferences in many countries. My name became known, within a small subset of the software engineering community.
That’s very likely how you found me, and it’s how the vast, amorphous memory of the internet still recalls me. Perhaps that’s how it’ll always be.
I did not submit pieces for publication. I did get the joint top mark in the country for English, but I didn’t begin to get interest from publishers. When self-publishing online became viable, the only thing I had ready to hand was a vague but persistent sense of regret.
There were nights when I’d wake up, just as my fingertips were about to brush against the cover of that book (I could never see what it was called; the letters would swirl and change from one moment to the next). In those confused, twilit moments between the dream world and the reawakening of everyday memory, I’d feel unanchored. Thrown up in the air, just before bumping back down. Like I’d slipped the rails at speed, and jumped the points.
In that halfway place, it’s unclear which world is real, and which is just a dream.
It’s painfully easy to tell you that I should have made the other choice. It’s easy because it suits my aspirations now, but more so because I really have learned, by looking within myself for a very long time, that this is the work I’m meant to do.
But time is a chain, forged one link after another, not a collection of isolated, crystalline moments that we can browse and shuffle. There’s no way to pick and choose some parts of each destiny.
Had I made that other choice, I wouldn’t exist - the me who’s writing this for you now. I would never have met my beloved wife, and the mere thought of that is appalling. It’s an abyss that permits no exploration.
You’d probably never have encountered me, and even if you did, … well, I’d be a different person entirely. It’s almost impossible to regret my very self.
But I should have. I should have. I should have.
I should have been a writer all along.
It’s fair to say that I’m preoccupied with alternate paths through life. Ribbons of fate and folly, intertwined with others, woven into tragic, beautiful, but ultimately random patterns that just happen to define this particular moment.
The year 1995 was twenty years ago. Two decades of life whipped by in an instant, just to offer me the chance to reflect on that choice I made - to repent at leisure.
The thing is, we’re here again.
That moment, when you made the critical choice that defined your path for the last twenty years? It’s right now. As I sit here in my armchair, and the clock winds towards 9 PM, I’m at that point again. We’re there every moment.
Opportunities have been missed; I won’t try to deny it. Some were mine, and some were yours. Those threads are gone now. Their junctions are long past, uncountable miles behind, with their tracks already ripped up and overgrown.
The opportunities of tomorrow, though, are the ones you’re weighing up now. I’m doing it here, tonight. You’re doing it as you read this, on the impossibly futuristic-sounding date of Monday, the 27th of April, 2015.
The past permits reflection, but never alteration. Maybe you can learn to come to terms with that. I know I can’t, but everyone’s different. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter. But we still have a chance.
When you look back on the past, you can see those forks in the road so clearly. The times when you made a decision about something, that much later turned out to be about everything.
There’ll be a day when you look back at some of the big ones, from your own life. The destiny-changers. You can trace it all back to a handful of those points. If only you knew.
If you knew back then, when the technology was simple, and your body worked so much better, and you still had so much ahead - if you had the foresight, instead of waiting for the useless, melancholy hindsight - well, wouldn’t that be something?
It’d be magical.
Two futures, laid out ahead, and each one available at the mere pull of a lever. Back when the air was cleaner, and the cars mostly let you do the driving. When you could still get a newspaper on paper.
When the dates sounded so impossibly antiquated - like Monday, the 27th of April, 2015.
What I wouldn’t give to have another shot at that day.