One evening, some time after my wife had gone to bed, I heard a knock on the door, and when I answered it I found that it was myself. Only, it was myself when I was fourteen. Of course I had been expecting this meeting for some time, but I hadn’t expected it to occur so soon. I wasn’t even forty.
A little frayed at this sudden appearance, I invited my younger self in to take a seat at the kitchen table, and, quite uncertain of what to say, I offered him a drink, which he quietly turned down. I had no idea what one ought to offer one’s younger self. I couldn’t decide how I was meant to act around him either; normally with fourteen-year-olds one assumes an avuncular, perhaps slightly patronising interest in them, offering them things to calm their certain uncertainty. But with myself I didn’t feel I could do that. He was watching me with big, fascinated eyes. It was as if I could see through myself.
I looked at him sitting at the table. I remained standing.
“So”, I began. “I expect you’re wondering what I’m like now.”
“Don’t you know that that’s what I’m wondering?” he replied.
I paused, because he was right. I knew exactly what he was wondering about the thirty-nine-year-old me because I had wondered the same things when I was his age.
“Yes. I know exactly what you’re wondering. You’re wondering how it is I came to be here, and have this house, and these belongings, and this family. You’re absolutely fascinated to meet my wife.”
The child nodded, his eyes trailing around the room and taking in my home.
“I really want to know. I really, really want to know.”
“And my children. I can’t remember if I was as keen on the idea of children I was your age. Was I?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“But you’d still like to see them?”
“I… I don’t know.”
The younger me drew a staccato breath in. I was glancing around the room like he was, revaluing everything I saw from his perspective, wondering what it was he was thinking when he saw it all. I was worried I was letting myself down.
But, looking at the frail, ragged mess that sat before me, memories vivid with emotion pounded my heart. I had forgotten what it was to be fourteen. Yes, I could remember in terms of events that had happened and a basic idea of what I had been like, but I did not remember until the reality revisited me. You do not truly remember anything until you feel the emotion again. I had forgotten how scared I was at that age. I had seemed like such a bright young thing to so many people, and perhaps even confident. But within myself I had been terrified. I was terrified of people and events because I had this roaring belief that the world existed to attack me. I had forgotten just how awful my teenage years had truly been. And then I recalled, with something like the full emotion I had felt at the time, a night I had had at the age of twenty-three. I was with the first girl I had ever fallen in love with, and drunkenly I had said words I now conjured up precisely from memory:
“All my life, I’ve had this horrible feeling that I do not truly know myself.”
The girl dumped me not so very long after, and I was heartbroken for a while in a way I had never been before. I kept this to myself though. I didn’t want to tell my fourteen-year-old self that. We continued to be embarrassed and eye each other somewhat fearfully from across the kitchen. The situation was too awkward to be described. I said I was going to have some hot chocolate and asked if he would like some too, and he said yes, and so I made us both mugs of hot chocolate and finally sat down facing him at the table.
“What was it like?” he finally said. “Growing up? And the rest of school? Did you go to university?”
“Yeah, I did go to university.”
“Oh. I don’t know anything about that.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What about school?”
“It – gets better. As you get older. But life only really begins after you leave school.” I didn’t want to tell him that the remainder of his schooldays would be largely hell.
“How does it get better?”
He urged me with his frantic eyes. I searched for an answer on the ceiling.
“Well, you grow more confident, and you start to understand yourself more…”
“What job do you have?” he then asked.
I stuttered in surprise.
“I work for a pharmaceutical company.”
He lowered his eyes, and at that moment I felt an enormous surge of disappointment drop through me like a waterfall. I didn’t quite know what to say. When I was fourteen I had wanted to be an actor.
“It’s not like I owe you any kind of debt,” I finally said, though of course I didn’t believe myself.
“Don’t you? But what happened to my dream?”
“Things change when you grow up. Children have a very skewed view of the world.”
“But why did you give up?”
“I didn’t give up.”
“Then why are you here with a wife and a family, working for a pharmaceutical company?”
“Because your dreams were impossible.”
“So you’ve retreated into boredom and mundanity instead?”
“This is not boredom or mundanity! I have things now that you can never appreciate at your age. When you get to my age you realise the importance of security.”
“But did you ever do anything crazy? Did you ever become famous? Did you ever fall in love?”
“I – I don’t know. I think I did. But no, I was never famous. And yes I did fall in love.”
The boy hesitated and I knew that he wanted to ask me who the girl I fell in love was and what it was like, but he hid it and continued demanding answers of me.
“What did you do that was crazy?”
I scraped my mind.
“I did a bungee jump.”
“A bungee jump? You think that’s crazy?”
“Well I don’t know, maybe it isn’t to you, but it will be!”
“And what are you doing now? Do you have goals?”
“Yes of course I do, but you would never be able to appreciate them. Like getting promoted.”
“Is that it!?”
The boy sighed almost in desperation, and I felt angry at him.
“I don’t owe you any debt!”
“You should go. You shouldn’t be here. You are part of the past and you are dead. Please leave.”
“But I want to know more!”
“I know everything, and someday you will too. Now go.”
I walked him to the front door and beckoned him outside, but something stopped me when I made to close the door. I took a quick, searching look of my younger self’s face, and no doubt he was searching for something in mine too. Then I closed the door, and he was gone.
I was made to feel something that really I had known all that time that had elapsed since I was fourteen. I had covered myself over with layers of confidence, and had nourished empty spaces with my family and with my friends, and had distracted myself with material stability, but the truth was that I had never ceased to be that uncertain, frightened fourteen-year-old, and I had never managed to quell that little spot of panic that lay under all my outer layers. Still under everything there lay that insoluble spot of panic, and still above all else it defined the fear in my life. I was still the boy I used to be, who had entered into the world and had not known what to do about it…
When I re-entered the kitchen my nine-year-old daughter was standing by the doorway looking up at me.
“Lucy, what are you doing down here? Go to bed.”
“I thought I heard shouting,” she replied.
“There wasn’t any shouting. You must have dreamt it.”
“I wasn’t asleep?”
“How do you know?”