It was a competition organised by the local bookshop. “Knowing what you know now, write a letter using exactly 100 words to yourself at the age of sixteen.” That might be fun, thought Nick. Surely it was only fair to give the boy the benefit of his experience?
Nick felt contented as he stacked the dishwasher and sipped the last of his beer. Jenny had cooked a very tasty curry, and the dinner table had vibrated with the happy, lively banter of their two daughters. Business had gone well today: he still enjoyed it, but was planning to retire perhaps in five years’ time, when the girls were both off to uni, so that he and Jenny could do more travelling. They could certainly afford it, and Nick wanted to retire, he liked to say, while he could still put his socks on without sitting down.
What would he say in this letter? His first instincts were commercial: find some ancient horse racing results and tell himself to put twenty pounds on an accumulator, and then reinvest the winnings in Wal-Mart. But if his younger self acquired huge wealth through a stroke of luck, would that really make for a good life? Nick had worked for everything he had, and that made him feel good about it.
Of course he had made mistakes in his life – who hasn’t? But none that were irretrievable, or had led to lasting damage. Nick had learned some caution and humility from those mistakes: surely he shouldn’t deprive the lad of those crucial learning opportunities? Ok, it didn’t work out well early on when he had trained with a firm of accountants, but he had been able to use his experience there to get the job from which he built his City career: put the boy off accountancy and his future might not work out so well.
He took the coffees into the lounge and kept half an eye on a high-school drama. Good-looking and preppy American boys and girls filled the screen, while he tried to picture himself at age sixteen in the lower sixth. Immersed in A-levels, struggling with the maths. Socially awkward, and immature for his age. No girlfriend in sight: he had attended a boys’ grammar school, and the only girls he even knew had been his brother’s girlfriends. Often a lonely boy. A boy who worked hard, mostly, who desperately wanted to succeed, and who beat himself up when he failed: a boy who knew he was loved by his Mum and Dad, but also felt that their love was guaranteed, and that love could mean little if it wasn’t earned.
Nick weighed his middle-aged contentment against his memory of the anxious, stressed-out kid, and he wanted to give the lad a hug, to tell him everything would work out fine. Getting tired, he decided to get something written down before bed. He cast around for some paper and pulled out the Disney Aladdin Genie Magic Notebook from the bookshelf where it had sat ignored for ten years.
Dear 1973 Nick
I know things seem tough for you now, but trust me, it’s going to be all right. You will go to a good university, then find a job that you love, and be well rewarded for it. You will find love with a wonderful woman, and have lovely children. You will live in a big, comfortable house in the countryside, and you will be happy.
Don’t be so hard on yourself when you fail at something. Take plenty of time to do the things that you enjoy, relax more. You worry too much.
I promise you it will be all right. Hang in there kid.
from 2011 Nick
He counted the words – 111. Did a contraction count as one word or two? No matter, he could trim it on the way home from work tomorrow. The leisurely rhythm of the Metropolitan Line could be conducive to creativity. He carefully pulled the page from the book and slotted it into his briefcase.
He slipped into bed and kissed Jenny goodnight, and soon fell asleep, next to her warm body.
Nick woke up alone. It was 10 am. He stumbled as he stepped off the edge of the mattress on to the rough floor, and put his foot into cold pizza sitting on a cardboard box. A naked light bulb hung in the corridor. He relieved himself, mostly into the toilet. Something moved him to look in the mirror. Nothing there to surprise him: three or four days of stubble, the long greasy hair, the belly hanging over his sagging pyjama bottoms. He saw self-pity in the drink-ravaged eyes. Suddenly he heard himself hissing at the face in the mirror.
“Why did you lie to me? You promised it would be all right! You fucking promised me!”