Postface to ‘Marley & Son’: Things to Do Before You Are Thirty. A Morality Tale

by A J Kirby

I spent my twenties chugging along in mind-numbed cruise control, unaware of the fact that I was careering headlong into a brick wall. At the same time, I sat at my writing desk, full of lofty ambitions to be a great writer, but completely stuck for anything to write about.

Suddenly, the satellite navigation system kicked in; it flashed grave warning signals which finally broke through into my consciousness, initially as a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I hadn’t done enough, I hadn’t experienced enough… Maybe that was why I couldn’t think of anything to write about.

It was this that got me thinking. Admittedly, things weren’t exactly going swimmingly in my life. Maybe my cruise control system was faulty? It had allowed me to slip, almost unnoticed, onto the wrong track; a late twenties malaise brought on by the recognition that this might very well, be ‘it’; this might very well be all that life has to offer. My best years were spread out, invitingly but unattainably behind me, and all that lay ahead was a brick wall.

What I finally realised though was that the brick wall was daubed in garish graffiti; two numbers, a big three and a big zero. And what was beyond that wall was even scarier than the current truth; beyond that wall lay the downhill slope into experience, into the dreaded cul-de-sacs of marriage, children and pets… It would soon be the case that my experience would be something I was supposed to be passing on to others. And it was then that it dawned on me: experience had to be personally and physically experienced. It sounds awfully like something from the mid-life crisis section of a self-help text book, but I decided that I had to actually gain some tangible, visceral experiences. Maybe this would cure my interminable writer’s block.

The spark which really caused me to change my outlook was an idea; the simple, yet effective idea that the opportunities to make life exciting again (and what is life if it is not experience) are there if you only open your mind to them. I began to make life-changing choices which I have been very proud of, as well as doing some things which were simply for the fun of it. I went to art galleries; I went to see music concerts, films, football matches. But it all still seemed rather passive. I needed to act. So, I joined a creative writing class; something I’d been wanting to do for years, but had put off for stupid reasons. I made contact with friends I’d not seen for years. I agreed to write a number of features for a local magazine. I gave up smoking. I learned how to make home-made hummus. I didn’t throw myself out of a plane, not yet, but I did appear on a television game show.

I began to feel as though I was on the crest of a wave, surfing towards my destiny with a smile on my face. I convinced myself that I was going to win the game show. Small comments, little signs, all pointed to the undisputable fact that I was going to come away from the show with my life changed for the better. I was going to have money–an adequate replacement for experience, I thought.

And so to the show: it was screened on Channel 5, a slick half-hour portion of nothing-TV, which filled the pre-soap gap. But for me, one of the contestants, it was a chance to change my life, with hardly any work required at all. Despite the fact that the game was constantly referred to as a psychological battle, to be honest, I simply saw it as a very easy game. It felt like a game snap for high stakes. Would it really be this easy to change my life?

The myth about your mind going blank when faced with a TV camera could not have been more apt for me at that time. As soon as I stepped up to the plate, everything was an almost alcoholic blur. Cruise control took over yet again, and in what felt like the briefest of moments, my life was changed yet again: I hadn’t won. All of my childish dreams were dashed once and for all. There was to be no easy escape route from my existence…

Mind-numbed by the realisation that I would have to return to mundanity with nothing to cushion the fall into my thirties, I have never felt so low. Fellow contestants tried to perk me up at the post-show drinking session. Quietly, I surveyed the human zoo around the table, the hopes and fears, the dreams which they all had, not just me. I realised that we all had our own dreams which were all wrapped up with money; be it for cosmetic surgery, to buy a house, to pay off crippling debts. I had now paid my debt to society and had joined this human race; I finally shared their dreams and fears. I had experienced.

As I sat in the hotel bar that night, I had already started to rationalise the events of the day–after all, it wasn’t like I had lost the massive prize fund; I never had that kind of money in the first place. No, I had had a chance of winning something, and for one reason or another it hadn’t happened. There was no fate, there was no destiny; it was a simple matter of choice. I had made a decision to be on the show, and had therefore put myself in a position to win money, but it hadn’t happened; however, what I did have was (cheesy, I know) some memories which I would never forget.

Whenever I’ve seen losing contestants on game shows they always say similar things, and I’ve always thought that they were lying, but now I know that the sentiments are true. I have met people I would never have met in ‘real life’, I have spent a week in a pretty plush hotel, and I have had the experience. I have learned from experience. I walked away from the studio with nothing, and yet I had still won.

What I won is the realisation that that there is no fate or destiny; it was not written in the stars that I would win the big money and then suddenly be free to devote all of my time to writing. What I discovered is that luck is just a binary thing, good or bad depending on the situation you’re in at that particular moment in time. The old cliché that you make your own good luck is completely true. It’s about working hard, making your own opportunities and making informed decisions at the right time.

By taking part in life, I realised that I had a lot more to offer; I had a lot more to write about. I realised that approaching thirty wasn’t a roadblock; it was actually a crossroads. When I got home from the trip, I started the real hard-work part of my transformation into a man who can look up at that graffiti of the big three and the big zero on the wall, and can stare it down. I realised that I wanted to do things which I could be proud of. I completed a book which had lain dormant on my computer for six months. A novel I’m really proud of. It would be great to write that this novel has been picked up by a big publisher and the film rights have already been sold, but that would cloud the moral which I’ve learned; the fact that only through experience, through action, through determination and hard work can I really be the person that I want to be.

A J Kirby is the author of three novels; Bully, a supernatural horror novel of revenge from beyond the grave (published by Wild Wolf Publishing in September 2009); the crime-thriller, The Magpie Trap, which has been published by Youwriteon.com and Legend Press through their UK Arts Council initiative (April 2009), and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, which won third prize in the Luke Bitmead Memorial Bursary run by Legend Press in 2008. His published fiction also includes a volume of collected short stories, Mix Tape, which was published by New Generation Publishing in 2009.

Andy’s prize-winning short stories have featured in a wide number of publications, including anthologies (Legend Press’s Eight Rooms, Nemonymous 8: Cone Zero & Nemonymous 9: Cern Zoo from Megazanthus Press and Graveside Tales’ Fried: Fast Food Slow Deaths) print journals (Sein und Werden, Jupiter 24, Skrev Press, and Champagne Shivers) and webzines (New Voices in Horror, Pumpkin, The Second Hand, US Short Story Library, and Underground). Award recognition has come from Huddersfield Literature Festival, Mere Literary Festival and in writing competitions run by Cinnamon Press and People in Action. He received an honourable mention in the worldwide Best Horror of the Year 2008/9, judged by the esteemed editor, Ellen Datlow.

Andy lives in Leeds, UK with his girlfriend Heidi and his incredibly noisy, but lucky cat, Eric. To find out more, visit Andy’s website: www.andykirbythewriter.20m.com