Nearly twenty-five years ago, my dream of becoming a novelist received a knockout blow. I'd moved to Bristol with the bones of a manuscript, and a literary agent back in London hungry for me to give it body and soul. I wanted to seize the opportunity, even if that did mean living on the breadline in a bedsit until I'd reached the final full stop.
Eighteen months later, all I had to show for my effort was a letter from the agent suggesting we go our separate ways. It wasn't him, he pretty much said. It was me. The overblown book I'd completed just hadn't delivered on its promise, which left me adrift, skint and determined to hunt down the bastard and deliver righteous justice.
Once I'd got over the hurt and humiliation, and accepted that he was basically right, it dawned on me that my part time job in a call centre was no longer a means to an end. It was the end. I had taken a gamble to pursue something I loved, and lost. Any fire to write that I had left in me just fizzled away. I spent my mornings in bed before drifting into work to jockey a phone, listen to customers blowing off steam and apologise to them for everything.
The call centre was in the heart of the city. To get there, I would cut through a shopping arcade and then torture myself by weaving through Waterstones for the side door into the street. When I was writing, it served as a reminder that this crappy job of mine was funding what I really wanted to do, and that one day my book might grace the tables in there. Then reality struck and the titles on display just taunted me. It didn't stop me looking, of course, and even losing myself for a short while to avoid thinking about my shift ahead.
As good times go, this didn't even come close to qualifying. In fact, it was a chapter in my life I would've filed as 'wasted' had I not been browsing books on my way to work one day when I sensed someone looking at me. I glanced across to see a broad-built, smartly dressed figure whose face would've been almost expressionless were it not for his eyes. They were pin sharp and pinched at the corners, as if I was about to become the punch line to a joke that I'd also find funny. More immediately, I recognised the man without a shadow of a doubt. For a second, I simply stared at Muhammad Ali before remembering to blink and then breathe.
I looked around thinking perhaps he was trying to get someone else's attention, but it was so quiet at the time that the only other people in the store were grouped across by the till. Then Ali, one of the world's most celebrated living legends, beckoned me closer. Without thinking I did just that.
I honestly wouldn't have been more surprised had I just run into Neil Armstrong in full astronaut gear or even Elvis incognito. Slowly, trembling slightly, but with his eyes still gleaming and a hint of a grin, Ali took a handkerchief from his top pocket and showed it to me. Next he closed his great fist so the handkerchief seemingly disappeared. The next thing I know, he produced it from behind my ear before shuffling away with a chuckle. I wanted to say something, anything, but having lived in a shell of my own making for so long I just stood there with tears streaming down my cheeks.
Naturally, at work, nobody believed me. No wonder I couldn't get published if I tried to pass off that kind of fantasy as fact, they said. As my afternoon wore on, taking one tedious call after another, I began to doubt myself. It seemed ridiculous, after all. What would a player in world history be doing here on a rainy Tuesday in the West Country? I really needed to get out more, I decided. Preferably as far from this soul-destroying job as possible.
After my long shift finished, and everyone had got bored of ridiculing me, I decided to go back to the bookshop. It was about as quiet as it had been at lunchtime, though the staff were busy repositioning tables and gathering in a velvet rope cordon. Something big had happened here, and the posters on the pillars told me just what. I braved asking, and learned that Ali and his entourage had arrived surprisingly early. While the team were discussing security for the forthcoming event, Ali had drifted off to look at books, and unwittingly transformed the life of a dreamer who had all but thrown in the towel.
Soon afterwards, with the champ's best quotes fresh in my mind - having hungrily read the autobiography he'd rolled into town to sign - I climbed back into the ring. It wasn't easy. My next novel never saw the light of day either, but everything changed on my third attempt. There's no need for me to trot out what Muhammad Ali had to say about sheer determination and self-belief. We'll be sharing those lines for centuries. I'm also well aware that countless people have similar stories to tell about their encounter with such an inspirational figurehead who made time for everyone. I'm just forever grateful that it happened to me at such a fragile moment when I'd all but written off my ambitions. Without Ali's unwitting intervention, I'd still be wearing a headset at the call centre and wondering what might've been. He was, and will remain, the greatest. No contest.