Generally speaking, I don’t like making sweeping statements. But I’m going to make one now. The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read. There. I’ve said it. And that’s coming from someone who has read lots and lots of books.
I used to think it was a flaw in me – the dreamer part of my psyche, the incurable fantasist, someone who constantly browses through old diaries, constantly wonders what if – but now I’d say, judging by the book’s success, that there are a hell of a lot of readers out there who muse over the exact same thing. Not just readers. People. Human beings. The species that evolved with a gene to dream and wonder and conjecture.
Conjecturing about how your life might have turned out, if you’d taken a different road at some critical turning point in your past. A point that didn’t even appear to be critical at the time – just a decision you made, one decision among many others. How were you to know, back then, that it would prove to be a critical one? How could any of us know? We’re not soothsayers or clairvoyants or prophets. We’re just dreamers and thinkers. Wonderers.
Wondering about a single action we took, or perhaps didn’t take; a thing we said or didn’t say … and then, lo and behold, our life takes a turn that leads us to that particular man or woman, or no one at all; that particular job, that other job, that house, that town, that move, that decision which seemed innocuous at the time. And now, years down a completely different road, there’s no turning back.
So here’s one of my what if stories. Just one, among many others.
I was once deeply in love with a Benedictine monk. Or perhaps it was just fantasy-love, given my youth and naïvety at the time, and given that the monk in question had taken vows of celibacy and pledged his love to God. (Presumably a very possessive god, considering He couldn’t allow His ‘chosen few’ to spread their seeds through other loves.) But sometimes I wonder, when I look back at old diary entries and gaze fondly at old photos – one photo in particular: that charming smile, the kink in his dark hair, those crinkled blue eyes, blurred by falling snowflakes, this being wintertime in North Yorkshire – sometimes I wonder, what if?
What if I’d replied to that Christmas note he sent me – a haunting, poignant note – just two months after my last visit to the Benedictine lair, when I’d told him this was the end of the road? When I told him that I’d decided to stop writing, stop hoping, stop coming back again and again, because it was all pointless – yes, pointless – and I was actually angry with him. What if I hadn’t done my own version of ‘finishing with him’? (As if he’d ever been ‘mine’ to finish with!) What if I hadn’t decided to finally get on with my real life; to accept that this foolish road I’d been meandering along for the past few years – hopelessly, blindly – was taking me nowhere other than to dreamland? Well okay – it was also taking me through all those mystical Yorkshire hills, valleys and forests that surrounded us whenever we were there together, on one of our many country rambles. But no. My mind was made up. Time to move on, I told him, and the next morning caught the bus back to York, then the train to Preston. Home. To my mother, who understood. (Or thought she did.)
And then, two months down the road, that poignant Christmas note. An unseen hand stretched out.
What if I had actually replied to it, instead of made a decision not to? A critical decision, unbeknownst to me at the time. One that led me down another, even longer road, leading to Hubby Number One (wonderful person), and Children Number One and Two (gorgeous little things, now young adults); and then, down yet another windy road, to Hubby Number Two (more challenging, but still special), and then Child Number Three (last one to fly the nest, bless her). No regrets there. How can you wish your children unborn – essentially sacrifice them – for the mere desire to wind the clock back and take a different route?
So if, on a wet, misty afternoon such as today, I sit here by my laptop and gaze out of the window – the raindrops smudging my garden view, just like those snowflakes had once smudged the face of my unobtainable man of God – is it okay if I smile to myself, and think and wonder?
Laura Barnett says it is okay. And I say to her: thank you for writing a book that is not only beautiful, but also that finally stopped me feeling guilty about all those what if’s I have tried and failed so many times over the years to submerge. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ version; there’s just the version that actually happened, and all those countless other versions we can innocently speculate on.
Yes, innocently. As innocently as that seventeen-year-old girl who fell for a monk once upon a time, and who is now the protagonist of my novel, Infinite Stranger. That’s the wonderful thing about fiction – all the magic we long for, all the what if’s we muse over, can at last become word made flesh.