Matt Gemmell

40

writing 5 min read

We’ve all had the dream.

You find out that you have an exam today, and you haven’t prepared for it. Or maybe it’s homework, or a presentation. Or your plane leaves in an hour and you haven’t packed, or even looked out your passport. The details vary, but the feeling is the same.

That’s mostly how this feels too.

Not necessarily the unpreparedness, but certainly the abruptness and uneasiness. I thought I’d have more time. I thought I’d feel like I’d got things more together by now. I thought that most of the reaching and the wanting would be in the past. But that’s not how it is.

As of this week, I’ve been alive for forty years. A four-decade unbroken record of not being dead yet. My longest streak so far — just like every year.

This particular birthday only has significance because we count in tens, and we only do that because we have ten fingers and ten toes. It’s a fluke of evolution, but it’s become the basis of everything. So, for that arbitrary reason, this is a big birthday. A time for reflection, as well as celebration. I’ve never had any trouble with finding time for reflection. If I could change something, perhaps I’d change that.

I should clarify: if I could change something retroactively. The conventional kind of change — which takes effect from now onwards — happens all the time, and is completely within my power. I’ve made a lot of those changes, and choices that have altered the course of my life.

I met my wife because of the flip of a coin.

That’s not just an expression; it’s what happened. I’d finished the third year of my Computing Science degree, and the summer holidays had just begun. I had no plans. There were some studentships (paid work placements in the Department of Computing Science) available, and one in particular sounded interesting, so I emailed for more information. The relevant academic replied, we talked, and I was offered the position. I said I’d think about it and let her know.

I truly didn’t know if I wanted to do it. It would mean going back into the lab every day, and I’d just spent a year doing that. I was going to be back there again after the summer anyway. I could just spend my time at home instead, working on personal projects, relaxing, and maybe get a part-time job.

In the end, I flipped a coin — and the coin said I should take the placement. I started a few days later, and when I walked into the lab, there was another group of students from the year below, all beginning a different placement project. One of them was a girl in a Superman t-shirt. That was early July of 2004. By the end of that October, we were together, and we have been ever since.

I think about that coin-flip often.

A couple of years ago, we were having one of our semi-regular discussions about getting a dog. I grew up with dogs and I love them dearly. My wife had never had pets, but she knew that a dog would be good for me, since I’d worked alone from home for ten years at that point.

We would occasionally look at online listings of available dogs, but we’d never gone to see any. I’m change-averse, and I prefer to just relax at the weekend instead of doing anything especially productive. In this particular case, it was a Saturday, and we’d gone out for lunch as always. My wife was looking at something on her phone, and she showed me a photo of a litter of ten labradoodle puppies; the listing had only gone up in the last couple of hours. It was a forty-minute drive, and I was still finishing my meal. I wasn’t especially motivated, but for whatever reason, I just shrugged and said OK.

When lunch was over, we walked home and got in the car, then drove south. When we got to the place and were invited inside, one of the puppies — with a distinctive face, red-gold coat, and much less curly than the others — toddled over and started playfully gnawing on my right thumb. I fell in love with him instantly. I remember how it felt in my chest. I still feel that way whenever I look at him.

We paid the deposit less than five minutes after we walked in the door. The seller asked if there was a name we had in mind, so she could start imprinting it onto the pup, and my wife spontaneously said Whisky. We hadn’t discussed it beforehand. It was the first time either of us had heard it. Just a moment of inspiration.

I can’t imagine my life without either my wife or my boy, but it all hinged on a casual decision, taken in the span of a moment. Each of us can trace back a chain of trivial causality for our most momentous life events, but I can hang it all on an actual instrument of chance.

I’d say that’s something worthy of reflection.

I was a software product manager before I got my degree, and I was a software developer afterwards. A consultant. An interface designer. An open source contributor. It seems like another lifetime.

Now, I’m a novelist. I feel like I’ve only just realised it’s what I’m meant to do — even though I made the jump several years ago — and I also feel that I can finally stop doubting and second-guessing my path through life. I’m ready to start.

But somehow, I’m already forty.

I feel younger than I did before, but also more anxious. I feel more settled than I did, but also like I’ve lost time. I feel like I’m ready to tentatively try adulthood, and self-assuredness. I assumed it was all a dry run up until now. But the calendar says it’s not.

It’s a good lesson to take home. It’s maybe not four decades’ worth, but that seems to be the exchange rate I’m stuck with. So let’s keep going.

One of the gifts of having a few more wrinkles around the eyes, and a lot more greys in the beard, is that my goals have become very clear. First, I want to stay married to my wonderful wife, at all costs, for the rest of my life. Second, I want to tell stories. Third, I want to find some peace within myself — because while forty years can blink past when you’re not looking, it’s also a long time to be afraid.

I want to keep writing books and publishing them, building my readership until this new career can sustain me the way that software did, and above all I want people to discover and enjoy my work.

Three quick links, then.

  1. I want to make audiobook versions of my KESTREL technothriller novels. The upfront cost of production is prohibitive, so I’m experimenting with crowdfunding. If you’d like to help out, you can contribute to the project here.

  2. As part of my birthday celebrations, book two of the KESTREL series, TOLL, is on sale. If you don’t have it yet, you can find out about TOLL and buy it here.

  3. I also have an Amazon UK wishlist. It’s all video games. I’ve never been especially compatible with real life, as you can probably tell.

This is the part where I think I’m supposed to say here’s to another forty years, but I find myself hesitating. I don’t want the same again. There were big parts of it that I didn’t want the first time around. I feel like I’ve only just become myself, and I have no desire to turn the clock back. They also say, though, that life begins at forty, and that at least feels plausible.

In which case: here’s to getting started.

Thanks for reading.