I keep a list of regrets, and sometimes when I can’t sleep, I count them late at night, like sheep

I keep a list of regrets, and sometimes when I can’t sleep, I count them late at night, like sheep

My uncle married my aunt-in-law when I was very young. I was six and a half. The half is important when you’re that age. 

I remember my uncle’s hand shaking as he lit the candle. How beautiful the bride looked, like a fairy princess. 

I wore a dress that had scalloped edges, like petals, and my round-toe shoes dyed red to match. My hair was scraped back off my face in a French plait, a choice I still question all these years later as it accentuated my prominent widows peak. 

Weeks before the wedding, I’d fallen and split my hand open, necessitating six stitches across the palm, and the wound was still dressed in a white bandage. “Can you keep your hand behind your back?” the photographer asked me when he was taking the family photos and I remember feeling embarrassed. 

But the memory that has stuck with me isn’t one from the wedding itself but something that happened the day afterwards. The hotel had an indoor pool and, most exciting of all, a water slide. 

I stood at its entrance, watching as my daredevil sister went down head first, stepping out of the way so the other children could go before me. I stared at this cavernous black hole, the shouts of glee emanating from its hollows, and I was frozen with fear. 

“I can’t do it,” I told my father. 

“Are you sure?” he asked. “It’s fun, I think you’ll really enjoy it.” 

But I shook my head firmly. “No,” I said again. “I’m too scared.”

I kept thinking about the slide on the car journey home. I should have been brave, I told myself. I should have taken the chance. 

By the time we arrived home to Clonakilty that evening, I was begging to be allowed to return to the hotel immediately. It was the first time I remember experiencing regret. 

I am sure there were other incidences – times I wished I hadn’t lied to my parents or pinched my sister or eaten too many sweets – but the spectre of that water slide stayed with me for years, representing a lack of courage, perhaps, or a certain carefulness in the way I played that even at that young age I found distastefully prissy.

Whatever it was, I didn’t like the taste of regret on my tongue, caustic, bitter.

Popular wisdom would have us believe that regret is a waste of time. It’s something that I’ve advised friends myself – you can’t change what you’ve done, I’ll say. You can’t change the past. Guilt is a futile emotion. Learn from this, make amends as best you can, ask sincerely for forgiveness, then move on.

But I do have regrets. I keep a list of them, and sometimes when I can’t sleep, I count them late at night, like sheep. 

The column I wrote that hurt someone’s feelings. The ex-boyfriend I wished I had been kinder to, and the one whom I let treat me badly for too long before saying ‘enough’. The kind men I looked past, searching for the emotionally unavailable ones standing behind them. 

The fact I will never see David Bowie live in concert. The friendship I didn’t fight hard enough to save. The societies I didn’t join and the plays I didn’t audition for at university because I was too afraid of rejection. 

The boy who pushed me too far and I laughed it off because I was just a girl then and I didn’t know I could say no, that’s not right, you’re not allowed to treat me like that. (The fear that my laugh normalised his behaviour, emboldened him, and he has pushed other girls too far and maybe that’s my fault)

The room I walked into and limped away from, and nothing was ever the same again – why didn’t I just go home, when I had the chance? The money I spent on my addiction over 15 years– sometimes I add up the money spent, dizzying, impossible amounts of money thrown into the abyss in the hopes of stuffing the pain down my throat and I imagine the house I could have bought with it.

The times I passed my grandmother’s house and I didn’t call into see her, ask her to teach me how to make her soda bread. The flight from Dublin to London and I was almost certain the woman next to me was Maeve Binchy. I wanted to introduce myself, to tell her how much her work meant to me, and to admit I wanted to write a book too, but I felt too shy. I didn’t want to disturb her so I said nothing, watching in disappointment as she disembarked the plane. 

The last time I ever saw my uncle alive, and I pleaded with him to bring me to the shop in Ahearla to buy a Loop the Loop ice-cream and he said, Louise, you’ve had five already today, and I said, sure who’s counting? The triviality of those last words, how meaningless they were.

I regret words spoken and words unsaid. Choices made and others that I took too long to make. The roads not taken, the futures that could have been mine, that might be mine in parallel universes. 

Am I happier or unhappier in those worlds than I am in this one? I look down at the palm of my right hand, the line of raised flesh that lies upon it, and I think of that fall, 28 years ago, the thread which with the doctor stitched the skin together. That scar is part of me now, I think, and it always will be.

LOUISE SAYS

READ: All the Bad Apples by Moira Fowley-Doyle. This is beautiful, visceral writing, a primal scream that serves as a damning indictment of the way women have been treated in this country.

FOLLOW: Marian Keyes on Instagram @marian_keyes. Her feed is a mix of books, shoes, updates about the Keyes family, and snapshots of her inimitable wisdom. It’s an utter delight.

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