“You alright?” my friend says to me in a bar.
I nod. Of course I am. I am at a Christmas party in bright pink shoes and feeling fine. Most of the time, having some of my health back makes me feel as if I’ve won the lottery, but sometimes, I can’t help but feel that I haven’t won anything, I’ve just avoided losing too much, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a loss at all.
When I was seventeen I was doing five full A-levels and an awful lot of ballet. Everything was very carefully balanced in my life and in a way how I am at the moment reminds me of that time: I methodically planned out my time then, and I am having to do the same now, in a different way – enough rest – but similar enough, because it takes quite a lot of time to build a legal career and write a novel to a deadline on the side (and I do so like to have a very methodical plan to make sure my book is on time and as good as it can be). But when I seventeen I pulled my right hamstring, had two weeks off ballet, and it was never the same – still isn’t. I was at a stage where I noticed if I didn’t dance for 24 hours. It was not the reason I decided not to be a professional ballerina, and I could still dance perfectly well, but for a while there were two parallel Billygeans; the one who had those two weeks off and the one who didn’t. I often wondered if there was another Billygean who was just slightly more flexible, slightly better en pointe. Nothing would have been different – and I wouldn’t want it to be – but that was my first real taste of something going wrong that was beyond my control.
After I got glandular fever it took a really, really long time to stop running the parallel narrative of how things would be had that not happened. It was such a discrete event for me – my life literally changed (so far) forever, overnight – that I found it hard not to think that way. On every significant date – birthdays, Christmas, the date I got sick – I would wonder where that healthy Billygean was. She would be four years qualified, probably earning twice what I am now, probably married, probably with her own property. The divergence of our lives became too painful to think about – there was just so much loss – and of course it was useless to think about it anyway. Somehow, I trained myself to stop thinking about it, even though even this time last year, when I was incredibly healthy, really, I still had to think about my health most days: could I do X, Y and Z, did I have to cancel my night out as I’d worked a few twelve hour days, how could I make sure I had fun at the weekends but still got enough sleep, could I start exercising again? I can’t overstate how much my health infiltrated the way I lived my life.
And now, here in this bar, there is yet another parallel Billygean standing nearby. She did injure her hamstring, and she did get glandular fever, but she did not contract what I did in the spring. She’d be almost qualified. She’d probably be full time. She would likely be wearing the same pink shoes I am, and she would definitely be shattered, but her hips wouldn’t be hurting quite as much as mine are, and the weird joint pain suffered for six months wouldn’t have resulted in a stiff wrist which she really needs to get checked out. She’d have approximately £2,000 more than I do now. She’d have danced more. She’d be working the day after the party, ruefully eating a cheeseburger at lunchtime, too busy at work to rehash tonight’s events in her mind.
She wouldn’t, it is probably fair to say, be writing a novel, nor would she have an agent ready to send it to. But that’s not really a fair trade off, is it? I would always choose my health over any number of other riches. Until you’ve been there, you don’t know how it is. It is non-negotiable: a condition precedent of living.
I recall a quote from one of my favourite books:
There’s never no going back! In snooker, you learn the hard way that every shot is for keeps. I got no time for prats who hair-tear about Oi, if only I’d not used quite so deep a screw on the blue. Well, you didn’t. You potted the blue, or you didn’t. You’re on the next red, or you’re not. You live with it. You make the best call you can in the moment, and then you deal with the consequences.
I sip my wine self-consciously, banish the other Billygean from my brain. I stop trying to emulate her, to go backwards. I head to the dancefloor and try to move on.