Coulda Woulda Shoulda

My phone starts vibrating in the middle of breakfast and manages to shimmy straight in to the butter dish before I can reach it.Wiping the screen I can just make out a smeared text message.

“Jst ws thnkng of U hope yr well! Missng U.”

My wife looks over and I know my ears are reddening under the scrutiny.The thoughtful, if vowel-lite, text message is from T. an old, once significant, girlfriend.We had lived on a boat together in the mad old days and when I sailed off into the uncharted waters of parenthood, with someone apparently more sorted.It was she who stood on the waterfront of my child-free life, shouting, “I coulda been a contender.” But if something coulda, you’ll always ask yourself whether it woulda.

I look at the text as casually as possible, as if it was just one of my twenty-a-day spam messages offering to upgrade my phone, but for a second, I feel the vigilantly repressed young buck inside me rearing triumphant.I pretend to delete the message whilst, at the same time, remind G. to eat with his mouth closed and I slip the phone, a little too easily, in to my jacket.

Of course, I know I should have just deleted it immediately but a voice from a rose-tinted past is a sirensong and the older I get, the significance of what an alternative life might have been, becomes ever more poignant.

“The past is a foreign country…,” said the writer L.P.Hartley, but it isn’t, or there’d be a budget airline offering 9p tickets there.“…they do things differently there.”Wrong again.In fact the whole problem with the past is it is so terribly unchangeable, however you look at it, whatever was done, it’s always exactly the same.I think if you’re going to be remembered in the Oxford Book of Quotations for just one line, you rather owe it to yourself to get it right.

Of course if the past was another country and you could get there on EasyTimemachine® then of course you’d do things differently.Wouldn’t you?

Later, in the loo, I examine the buttery grease stain in my jacket lining and toy with the idea of replying.Using the now well established excuse argument, the Clinton Literality Defence, I convince myself that texting, technically, is not like I’m making an actual call.But of course in some ways, like fellatio, it is much more intimate.And if I did, what would I say?

“Hey lng tm no hear, I’m good, U?” or

“Miss U 2. Stay hppy” or

“O Gd wht hve I dne, it shd hv bn U. Pls frgve me.I Lv U, cm bck nd tk me awy frm all ths.”?

Or, of course, I could just take the patently sensible option and delete it.

My thumb hovers over the delete option and I realise that that the one thing that defines this mid-life that I’ve blindly stumbled into is that the world is no longer just about possible futures and directions, most of my alternatives are just what coulda been.“What if,” has become, “if only”.That, and the fact that nowadays my back goes out more often than I do.

Sitting looking at the message I feel I am constantly frozen between the two diverging headlights of reigniting feelings that may damage my often troubled but known-quantity status quo, and the infinite delights of a fictional alternative life.

And, like so many resultant rabbit pies.I do nothing.The phone’s backlight turns off and I put it away again.

Of course it’s only a few days before the wheels of the reality lorry pound me into the road.

It’s after dinner, story time.I’m upstairs trying to make Count Olaf sound like Vincent Price.My phone, back on the kitchen table, starts vibrating.Before it can sidle into the unidentifiable gunge that eternally surrounds our youngest’s uncleared plate, my wife helpfully picks it up and reads the text.

“Upgrade your phone now and receive…”

She deletes it from the inbox and, without really thinking, glances at the screen.She says nothing until later.The kids are in bed, their lights are out and they are quivering beneath their duvets desperately trying to think of some ray of hope in a world darkened by the evil Count Olaf.We’re both reading at the table and without even looking up she says, “Do you ever hear from T.?”My stomach crashes and I know I’ve been rumbled.

“Yes,” I say, trying to breathe evenly and think of icebergs and penguins and cool, cool, desperate not to blush, “she sent me a text just the other day, out of the blue.”

“Oh, really?You didn’t mention it.”

“No.Well.Thought it best to ignore it.”I hold back from attempting anything that might appear affectionate, a dead giveaway that I might have something to compensate for.

“Do you ever think about her?” she says, “The past? You know, what might have happened if we hadn’t got together?”

“The past?” I laugh thinly, “oh no, you know me.Seize the day, stay focussed, look to the future, live in the now…”

“Yes,” she nods with her arch smile, “I do know you.”

And, I suppose, the contents of my outbox.


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