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What if?

This post, my first of 2023, has lagged behind other writing priorities, in particular the final touches to a novel I’ve been working on for the last two years.

My first work of fiction is a story driven by a single persistent question: What if? The answer can be light or dark. Mostly, the answer is dark, because darkness is the birthplace of conflict, and conflict lies at the heart of every good story.

The make-believe world appears to have encroached on my view of real life, for even in the most benign circumstances, the What if? question often pops up. Being in the habit of answering with darkness—the dark side of my imagination having been exercised for the last two years—I sometimes find myself reeling from the grimmest of possibilities. Some of them tear at my heart.

Last weekend we visited our daughter and 19-month-old grandson. We sat on plastic chairs outside their back door and drank wine in the afternoon sun. Without a care in the world, we talked and laughed and watched the tiny child—for whom any one of us would readily die—make pretend holes in the cracked concrete with his toy drill. A playful north-westerly ruffled his baby-blond hair. More wine. More laughter. Not a care in the world, apart from it being a bit windy. ‘Bring your car up the driveway, Steve. It’ll give us some protection.’

I walked around the corner and down the driveway towards the chest-height bull bars of my four-wheel drive. I opened the door, slid into the driver’s seat, and looked for the key that I’d left in the central console. I found it and pushed it into the ignition. The engine revved into life. I grabbed hold of the handbrake, pressed the release button, and with my foot on the pedal I looked through the windscreen in time to see a wisp of blond hair disappear beneath the bull bar.

What if?

And when you’ve answered that question, ask it again: What if the mother’s despair morphed into a deadly rage? Then ask it again: What if she then directed her rage on herself? Cause, and effect. Cause, and effect. How dark can you go? Dark enough to leave—out of the four of us who’d just been sitting or playing in the sun—only one demented survivor?

Such is the headspace of the fiction writer. But what makes this scenario all the more harrowing, is that it’s happened for real. Fiction helps us empathise with those for whom such trauma is not fiction.

I will forever be grateful for the split-second sighting of my grandson’s lock of hair. There was no, what if? Instead, there was gut-wrenching relief. I turned off the engine and leapt out of the car and found him in the path of the front wheel. I gathered the toddler into my arms and kissed his beautiful blond head. We got into the car. Grinning with delight, he sat on my lap and held the steering wheel while we drove up the driveway to his mother and grandmother who were drinking wine in the sunshine without a care in the world.


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