This was a submission to the Chorleywood Literature Festival short story competition in 2009.
The brief was 800 words around the theme: ‘Life is all about making choices’. I came second.
The judge was Ann Cleeves, the crime writer. She said it was: ‘well written and describes a feeling that anyone who’s reached middle age will probably have experienced at one time or another.’
I’m choosing to take that as a compliment – I was only 33 at the time.
His heartbeat thundered in his ears when he caught sight of himself through the mist of condensation in the bathroom mirror. Looking back at him was a face he barely recognised.
In his mind he was still twenty-five. Nothing fundamental had changed in the intervening years – or so he thought. However, it was frighteningly apparent that the slightly befuddled face blinking back at him as he stooped to spit out his toothpaste that morning, was not that of a twenty-five year old. The extra bottle of Merlot and the late finish last night meant that he was looking at himself with the sort of detachment and ruthless clarity that only tiredness and an approaching hangover can bring. As if for the first time he noticed the bags under the red rimmed eyes; the thinning hair flecked with grey spreading up from each temple; the lines joining the edge of the nostrils to the corners of the mouth that had become deep grooves. It was a face that you’d see above a shirt and tie or a comfortable jumper, a face that wouldn’t look out of place on a politician, a weathered and lived in face, the face of a middle aged man.
He had no idea how he’d got this old. Where had the last twenty years gone? When he was younger his life had been punctuated neatly. School had been marked year by year, then there were two years of exams and three years of university all marking time handily until he was twenty two. It was only after he’d been released into the outside world that all the years had started to merge together and he’d lost track of time completely. The year his nephew was born? When was that? 1998? 1999? The weekend in Barcelona – was that three or four years ago? When had he met his wife for the first time? How long had he been married for now anyway?
He was trying to piece together the last decade of his life, almost frantic with the dawning realisation that he’d not been paying attention properly. This was precious time that he’d never get back and only now did it occur to him that he might have wasted it. He hadn’t been living so much as killing time: counting down the hours at work until he could go home; counting down the days until it was the weekend; counting down the weekends until it was payday; counting the paydays until his two week holiday in July.
He used to have enthusiasm and a passion for life, an energy that was all too easy to dismiss as immaturity and wide-eyed exuberance. These days all he felt was beaten and jaded. Experience had made him punchdrunk. His spirit had been gradually eroded by steady routine and the dull practicalities of everyday life. He suddenly yearned for his youth when his future hadn’t been so organised and limited by responsibilities. Now he was too deeply ensnared in his situation to pull himself free. He had a wife that he had grown used to rather than loved, a house filled with lots of nice things that was bigger than he needed and a miserable job that paid for his home comforts but left him very little time to enjoy them. There was all that added pressure that came with owning a few nice things, pressure that was piled on top of him, weighing him down. He was part of a continual cycle; he had to earn a decent wage so that he could afford to have a nice car and a big house. But, when he was finally able to afford them, then what? He’d find himself wanting a nicer car and a bigger house and he was back to square one. It would never end, he’d always want more, he’d never be satisfied, never be content, never be happy.
And if he wasn’t happy, then why was he living like this? How had it happened? It seemed he’d just drifted into this lifestyle without thinking about it very much, sleepwalking into his forties. All the things that now anchored him – the wife, the mortgage, the job, the home comforts – had he tied himself to them because he genuinely wanted them or because at his age, he thought he ought to want them? He’d paid for his sensible, settled life with the freedom and irresponsibility that he’d once had and it was as if he was now studying the bill properly to realise that he’d been overcharged.
He breathed deeply and splashed water onto his face to try and calm the rising panic. Then, without waking his wife, he got dressed and walked out of the house leaving his birthday presents unopened.
Backing the BMW out of the garage, he still didn’t know whether he was going to drive to the office or the airport.