NOVEMBER ISSUE: Regret

Eye Image from Tanya Shadrick's collection of The Book of Life (Marshall Cavendish)

This month’s advance extract from The Cure For Sleep is about regret: those moments of painful awareness that often come at the end, when it feels too late – as when I arrived so suddenly at what I believed was my last minute of living.

Readers were asked to respond as follows: Have you experienced terrible regret as a result of your own actions – or failure to act? Did it change you? How?

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below.

November extract

I’M NOT DEAD I’M NOT DEAD I’M NOT DEAD

I bellowed this, over and again, with increasing force (although only my lips moved, I learned later, from the woman holding my hand). And each time I shouted, I came only a little further back, and with the unsteady motion got on a river, as if my voice and words were oars. The Awful Rowing Towards God: book by a poet who’d tried to die several times before she did. Yes. This was that. Where she had gone, I was going. Heavy now with duty, I fought the pull, even as I hoped it would carry me away.

The pain began.

Not the body. This was anguish. Of mind, soul: acute, unsparing. Regret – sharp and precise as a knife slipped inside an oyster shell – broke me open, exposing something raw, ugly and absolutely true.

My cowardice.

[Full extract on Substack]

The Cure for Sleep

Reader responses

‘Remember how this feels.’

The last words she said to my face.

Said with compassion and love, but knowing how deeply both sides of the sword would cut me. She meant ‘learn from this’.

‘Remember how this feels.’

She meant: ‘feel my love but feel my anger’.

The bright sunshine of a Queensland winter streaming through the departure lounge on her perfect skin. Light as bright and warm as the English summer I was returning to without her, because I had lied. I’d lied to immigration and I’d lied about that to her. A lie I had desperately tried to turn into a truth, because everything else between us was a pure and powerful truth. She was the one for me and I was the one for her, and we’d become bonded together like a yin and yang. We both knew how that felt.

‘Remember how this feels.’

But my lie was like the lone prop holding up an ancient mine-shaft; it was rotten and fragile and it was always going to be when, not if, it would splinter and collapse.

‘Remember how this feels.’

It felt like the end. The end of everything that mattered and the end of everything that I had cared about – not just for four years – everything I would ever care about. The end of something perfect and irreplaceable, like watching your home be consumed by a fire.

‘Remember how this feels.’

The love is still real. It hasn’t abated or withered or slipped away or been bettered or replaced.

We still speak most months. Her winter mornings are my summer nights, and we laugh and care and reassure and help and we have not forgotten.

‘Remember how this feels.’

She only ever said it once, because she knew that was enough.

Tim le roy

They say there are no coincidences.

The very same November morning that I received an email notification for Tanya Shadrick’s recent book excerpt, I also experienced one of my life’s greatest regrets.

Just thinking about it generates a cold sweat as I’m made aware of the first wet rivulet inching down my spine; I become the source, a headwaters for streams of sweat and tears. Sorrowful fingers wander the keyboard’s checkerboard landscape and I wonder if there’s sufficient letters to type the words I’m hunting; can I summon them?

My stomach growls, not from hunger, but from that incessant gnawing of knowledge I’ve done something irreparable. In times of distress an immediate loss of appetite ensues as I enter a state feeling less human…something less likeable, less recognisable. A zoetrope of thoughts flashes an incessant reminder of my regret.

Regret: the very word implies an occurrence from which there’s no recovery and that is an agony. I blame my thinking for releasing its leash on insecurities; the tight rein on demons was loosened – their freedom lashed out with words deadlier than any weapon.

What did I do or say, you may wonder? I destroyed something most rare and exquisite, a unicorn manifest as human. Its decent nature shone brilliantly in any light; a gentle creature who stood patiently for me to come closer.

Great tenderness arose from the heart I’d forgotten, coming back to me in great waves, new and fresh. I’d been lifted into that world I’d only glimpsed from the distance of dreams, and faced an opportunity for new beginnings through a narrow portal, just wide enough to enter.

Almost there and I crashed, my words destroying the very thing I held so dear.

I face ultimate regret.

Diane auby

I have many feelings – anger, frustration, grief – but regret isn’t a massive one.

When I was young, I sought out adventures. I made a point of saying yes. When I first told people about my cancer diagnosis, one friend confessed that her immediate thought was ‘Thank God she’s done so much travelling.’

I’ve been lucky. I married the right man. I have two children, who are becoming adults I enjoy spending time with. I had a satisfying career. I could have had more, but I could easily have had less. I sometimes wonder how things might have been, but they are idle thoughts, not regrets.

The regrets I do have are small but sharp. Here’s one:

I was a student. One of my great aunts was ill. Seriously ill. I bought a Get Well card – it had snowdrops on it, her favourite flower. The card sat on a shelf in my room for days. My aunt died. I hadn’t sent the card.

I told myself it didn’t matter too much, I wasn’t a big part of my aunt’s life.

The next time I saw my mother, she gave me the jewellery that my aunt had wanted me to have. It wasn’t much, nothing valuable, but she’d worn it when she was my grandmother’s bridesmaid, and she wanted me to have it, as the only granddaughter.

I regret being careless, and thoughtless, and selfish. I still regret it – it still hurts me. And I wish I could say that that incident changed me, but it took years of similar missed opportunities for me to realise that it really doesn’t take much to give someone a moment of pleasure, of feeling cared for. That we should take every opportunity to be kind.

Sarah Connor

Unforgotten

It’s always there, wandering in the backstreets of my mind. In idle moments, fragments of woven memories stitched together from old photographs of ‘her’ meld with faded childhood impressions and become someone I remember.

My mother was taken on a school day, an ordinary day; a day of algebra, geography and metalwork which shaped the contours of that day until she became no more. That school day became a desperate, misshapen day, unfocused and unformed.

I knew she was ill. She led in bed for days. No words. No movement. Only glimpses of her blonde, Diana Dors hair style, now limp and drained of its shiny vibrancy. She wilted and became cold.

I lost her. She was locked away in forbidden territory, hidden under a sad sea of blankets and sheets. The glowing coal fire in her bedroom had no one to warm.

Fourteen years old. Crushed and cast adrift into an adult world of be seen but not heard and speak when you are spoken to and keep away from that door.

My emotional compass was compromised and spun out of control. I needed to get close. Skin to skin. Look into her eyes and see life’s spark, get past that adult door closed by adult rules.

Emotional intelligence was something from a psychology book. No books in this house. Unable to process. My fourteen years had given me an incomplete deck of coping cards. I was not equipped to navigate my way through the powerful theatre of emotions that played out during her last days.

Reflection. Time was in a hurry to take her. I had all the time in the world to regret my weakness and forgive myself for not being strong enough to open that adult door and rescue myself.

Steve Harrison

‘It will be informal,’ they said.

You could say the white Formica tables had the air of an old school canteen about them. But there was nothing informal as the coroner entered the courtroom, pronouncing ‘All rise.’

Proceedings began. The driver took the stand. He avoided our gaze and mumbled well-rehearsed words. Bubbles boiled in my stomach. The judge asked whether there were any questions. I glanced at my Mum and sister before releasing the grip of my hand from theirs. Slowly, I stood. My mouth, dry as sandpaper, was now level with the microphone. The room was silent. I had no idea what I was going to say. How can you articulate everything you want to vocalise to the person who took away a part of your very being?

All I wanted was for him to acknowledge us. To have some respect for the family that was no longer four, but three.

To buy me some time, I asked a lame question. ‘Did you call the ambulance?’ At least he turned to look at us now.

‘Yes.’

I thanked him, then had to know. ‘Was Dad dead when you attended to him?’

Another single-word answer.

‘Yes.’

I was trying to process the cold comfort that at least Dad hadn’t suffered. I sat down as a whirlwind continued to swirl around in my head.

No, the driver hadn’t premeditated Dad’s death. He hadn’t gone out to kill him that day. But why hadn’t he seen him crossing the road? He couldn’t explain. And yes, I am sure he suffers daily, too.

My regret? I wished I had asked the driver to say sorry. To honour my Dad’s life. And to apologise for the gaping hole that he left in ours.

Vanessa Wright

We were a four.

The night my brother died my mother put her arms around her two surviving children. Now we are three she said.

Things have to go back to normal the day after the funeral. Said my brother who lived. You can’t stay here.

Are you having your wedding? Friends asked from another world.

The tablecloths I had bought for my wedding were used for my brother’s funeral.

Christmas. A text. I asked her to marry me! said my brother who lived. Wedding at home this summer. I almost fell. Our brother’s messages days before he died: Thank you for having it at home. I’m honoured to be an usher. I’ll be there.

I was sure he would understand, my brother who lived, but he did not. Why aren’t you happy for me?

My mother gave them a ring she’d promised to me. Don’t be so selfish she said when she heard I was sad. I saw the invitation at my Grandmother’s. Would they exclude me, because I was sad?

My Grandmother called him. She was sure it wasn’t true. He was surprised I expected to be invited. I wasn’t in charge of the guest list said my mother.

I do not go home now. I used to a little with my tiny son. But now my brother is always there; owns half the house. They had a baby and moved it into my dead brother’s bedroom. Their second child will soon be in my childhood room.

What will they feel watching their baby sleep in a place that sings with my memories? You will regret this Mother said when I called distraught, again.

I do not regret. I long. I need to stop.

anonymous

It was so long ago, I’ve forgotten what I did to deserve it.

Buried it deep, perhaps. Or more likely it was insignificant, anyway. Perhaps, tired of being teased, I’d had a tantrum, designed to let them know how fed up I was. The design, clunky and immature. But whatever I had said or done, it awakened a force so strong in Dad that he finally voiced the words I’d so long felt.

They had never wanted me.

It was this taboo that created the bond between my parents and my brother: a bond that was not strong enough to hold me too. Once broken, he came to the door of my bedroom, ashamed and asking forgiveness. Expressing regret, to his biggest regret.

It was the only power I had ever been offered and I didn’t know how to wield it. I would later regret my denial, and forgive any man, ever after, for any sin.

Regret to regret, shame to shame, ashes to ashes.

It turned out to be true. Some years later, an admission that there were money worries. Another child was not an option. Facing unemployment after working since he was a child himself, my dad resented that I had somehow made my way into the world, as if he’d had nothing to do with that.

He never spoke of the others who hadn’t made it. Those good, obedient ones.

Laura

Regret was passed around easily in my family.

I don’t think I’d be around if my parents and grandparents had had access to a time machine.

Myself? I could have made different choices as well. I could have been braver and bolder, and my life would have been different. Would I have liked it more? Or would I still wonder ‘what if’?

It’s true I’ve been a drifter; following the downstream of life with very little defiance. Taking opportunities that were given to me, but never seeking them, never being strong enough to single-mindedly follow an aspiration. Maybe I didn’t have any aspirations apart from one for safety, however fragile and illusionary it was.

Knowing what you want beyond safety is a gift. I had to take a long and winding road to get that knowledge and I’m still not sure if it’s right. But I won’t regret being mistaken yet again as I know I had a go at it and did what I could.

Elena
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