Destiny’s Calculus

Chance is a theme that runs through all my novels – because, of course, it also so runs through all of life. Happenstance is a word – along with quotidian – that seems to inveigle its way into everything I write. Because so much of life is based upon the accidental, the coincidental, the look that lands your field of vision upon another person, the street crossed at the right (or the wrong) moment, the instant where the entire trajectory of your life changes because of something unforeseen or happenstantial (and now I’ve used the word twice in one paragraph).

When musing on how chance can totally redraw the parameters of your own existence, I always think back to an evening in Glasgow in March 1983. At the time I was twenty-eight years old, in my final year running the Abbey Theatre’s studio theatre (I’d given notice, determined to become a writer), and just out of a relationship that had left me feeling very sorry for myself (I was very much a sad romantic back then). And I was in Glasgow because I had produced a film for Irish television – my one and only experience as a movie producer – that was in a film festival there.

On the evening in question I had just returned from a boozy dinner (well that’s what you do in Glasgow: drink) with the crew of the film, and was installed at the bar of the hotel that was hosting the film festival. While there a very lovely young woman – Scottish, who spoke mellifluously with educated Edinburgh vowels – sat down at the stool next to me. Her name was Helen. She was doing a doctorate in literature, but had gotten a week-long gig at the film festival which would allow her to pay the rent next month (though she looked like someone with a well-heeled Daddy). And she certainly could drink, as we went through three whiskies and around six cigarettes apiece (I was a heavy smoker back then) during the hour we were chatting. But then she looked at her watch and told me that her ‘chappie’ was expecting her back in Edinburgh (“You have a boyfriend” I heard myself saying, the disappoinment in my voice this side of monumental). Wishing me well, she headed off.

I snubbed out my cigarette, cursed my ongoing bad romantic luck, then wandered over to the hotel reception to call a taxi (as I was staying in a guest house on the other side of town). The cab arrived. But as I was about to get into it, a drunk – around thirty, with the build and the disposition of a pit bull – shoved me out of the way. He was accompanied by a rather brassy woman – blonde, overly buxom, wearing the sort of dress that one usually associates with ‘femme de nuit’. And besides being clearly intoxicated he was also in the mood for fisticuffs.

“That’s my taxi, Jimmy” he said, oozing aggression. And if there is one rule I regularly practice in life it is: always dodge a pitbull with attitude… especially one who calls you ‘Jimmy’ (Glaswegian for ‘pal’) So I smiled and said:

“But of course it is your taxi, sir”.
And wishing him a goodnight I returned to the hotel desk and asked the guy on duty to call me another taxi,
At that very moment, a woman named Grace Carley – whom I’d met twice before in Dublin (and had asked her out then, only to get turned down) – walked by the desk.
“Hello Grace” I said.
“Hello Douglas” she replied.
“Time for a drink?”
She hesitated for a moment, then said: “Why not?”

At that very moment I met my future wife. It was a relationship that eventually ended in divorce – but that was some twenty-five years after that first evening in Glasgow. It produced two wonderful children and it did have its happy periods. But… as I often thought during the most virulent moments of the divorce process… say the fetching Edinburgh woman hadn’t announced she was off to meet her boyfriend. Or say this announcement arrived just a few minutes later. And say the taxi had arrived and the drunk hadn’t been there. Say I had returned that evening to my guesthouse as planned. And say Grace hadn’t passed in front of the hotel desk at that precise moment…

All random elements, all predicated on the haphazard. But because they came together at one specific moment in real time… shazam, my life embarked on a different course that evening. As did Grace’s. And all because some drunk nabbed by cab.

Destiny has its own absurd calculus.

  • Glenn CV

    I loved reading that. Ive read all your novels, loved them all (Ok, maybe I didnt love Woman in the Fifth, maybe I didnt even really like it that much, but you dont wanna hear that) and always loved the notion that chance is everywhere. And always wondered what YOUR chance story was. Now I know.
    I think you are an incredibly gifted writer, and editor. Every word counts. I love that most about your books. And the phrase I`m about to bastardise “When going through hell, keep going” is the advice I now give.
    So thanks for your books, and for the blog.
    Glenn, in Dublin.

  • Maggie Roche

    I’m so glad to know your ‘real life back story’ Douglas, thanks for sharing it. It’s seems to lend itself to some of your novels, hence why they read so real, & touch so deep. Your work is truly amazing, thank you.