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Winner: Sarah Evans

A New Agenda

I dress soberly, pulling on the black jacket I last wore to my mother’s funeral, though I’m unsure why. Likely I’ll meet only with a junior clerk and fill out some bog-standard form. My outward presentation is unlikely to figure in the bank’s decision. But still. I want to create the right impression, whatever that might be.

In the car, I practise what to say. For personal reasons. I’m hoping something as vague as that might be enough. I have not saved prudently, the way I ought to have done. I find myself mid-life, owner of a highly-mortgaged and expensively furnished flat. I need cash. Now. I have a very personal agenda which cannot wait, an investment in the future which will reduce my earning potential and increase my outgoings. My proposal hardly sounds convincing put that way and that’s before I mention that any result is far from certain. Which is why I am hoping that I won’t have to spell it out: what exactly I need this bank loan for.

 

Two months ago...

 

I took one last glance at my reflection in the tall window, made sure my chin was high and strode with perfect balance on kitten heels into the Cavendish Hall. I set my smile, accepted a fizzing glass of champagne and allowed my gaze to cast around the chattering groups. I was a calculated fifteen minutes late and the pre-dinner drinks jig was in full swing. I spotted once familiar faces before they spotted me, a huddle of five, off to one side, the two men in black tie which had seen better days, and the three women in evening wear, nothing type dresses which did little to disguise thickened waists and thighs. I walked over. ‘Hey!’ I exclaimed. ‘How are you all?’ I watched as their conversation stopped mid-track, as they turned towards me to appreciate my star appearance. I always was the one to bring a bit of glamour to the science-nerd group.

We did the round of social kisses and I inhaled perfume and aftershave,  thinking how we never used to do this, not back when we had known one another in college. Back when we would stay up all night talking about the meaning of life. When we drank endless cups of hangover coffee in a bid to postpone getting down to work on this week’s tutorial sheet. Or got wasted in the college bar while commiserating over broken hearts. It all seemed a lifetime ago.

We started on the back and forth of questions. ‘No,’ I heard myself say. ‘I didn’t stick in academia.’ Three years completing a biochemistry PhD – a non-ending round of pipetting samples and my supervisor claiming the larger share of what small results emerged – that proved enough. ‘I moved into industry. One of the big pharma companies.’ I didn’t mention how my glittering rise has levelled out, younger recruits being promoted above me.

I asked the obligatory questions back and tried to keep the condescension from my smile as I gathered in the replies. A school teacher. A minor civil servant. A librarian and something or other in local government. Somehow they all looked more careworn than me, older, the missing decades etched onto their faces.

A bell rang, stopping conversations midsentence. We were welcomed by the master, a dowdy looking woman who invited us to take our places at table. I slugged back the last of my champagne, refixed my smile and headed with the others towards the dining hall.

I’d half forgotten the seventeenth century grandeur of the place. The high beamed ceiling. Stained glass windows. All those former masters of the college looking sternly down. We found our places, just below high table. It seemed so long ago that we had eaten in here regularly, mostly wolfing down doled out food from the canteen, with just the occasional formal hall.

Over the starters and crisp white wine, we talked holidays and property, and I felt the glow of pride in my own contributions. The Grand Canyon. The Inca trail. A penthouse flat in Fitzrovia. My answers compared well with European city breaks and damp walking in Wales. With terraced houses in suburbia.

Over the main course and a heady Burgundy, we delved down deeper into more personal matters, filling in the details of missing years. I couldn’t remember, not precisely, why we all lost touch: all of us with too-busy lives. I kept my head high. I smiled at the tales of marriages and kids. I pressed my lips into a self-mocking moue. ‘You know me. Not the marrying type.’ And I recounted, as amusingly as I could, my latest romantic disaster, hoping that reducing it to comedy would diminish the aching of my heart. As for kids, well that had never been part of my agenda. I reeled out my oft practised disparagement. The unending round of messy demands and never having two quiet minutes to yourself, never mind the financial drain. Kiss goodbye to exotic holidays and a well maintained home. The long slog for no reward, kids blaming their parents for their own failings and expecting to be at the centre of everybody’s lives.

The others laughed and grimaced, but I knew from the looks they exchanged with one another that they figured I was missing the point.

Perhaps I was protesting too much. But with Adrian gone and the cliff-edge of fertility just ahead, there seemed little sense in questioning my long held assumptions.

I sawed through the non-too-tender beef wellington, and I listened to the smug marrieds and parents, all so certain they were doing the better thing, yet there being little evidence of it amongst their tales of sleep deprivation and zero cash, the brakes on their careers and the sheer frustration of dealing with small irrational beings. Some got started a decade back, getting in on the reproduction act in good time. For others the project was more recent.

Alison had cut things fine. Her hair was streaked with grey; her forehead lined. She launched into an overly precise account of her difficulties in conceiving. ‘It wasn’t even as if we’d left things that late,’ she protested. ‘I was only thirty-five when we began to try.’ Compared to my three months short of forty. ‘We weren’t getting anywhere and the NHS in my area was useless, I’d have been on some waiting list when the last thing we could afford to do was wait.’ But there were clinics abroad and you’d be surprised at how professional they were, how high their success rates and what good value they offered compared to here. ‘So eighteen months ago we had our beautiful baby girl.’

She passed round her phone with a series of photos in proof. Babies never used to do it for me, I didn’t see the appeal. But I wasn’t lying when I joined the others in saying, ‘Awww. How sweet.’ The tug of yearning was unwanted and would surely pass.

I finished my glass of red, feeling the slide into melancholy. I’d accepted the invite to the College Gaudy in a bid to cheer myself up. It wasn’t exactly working.

Dessert was accompanied by sweet yellow wine and a shift in conversation.

Someone asked about my mother, remembering meeting her at graduation all those years ago and I swallowed, hard. ‘She died,’ I said and despite myself my voice cracked a little. ‘A year ago. Breast cancer.’ People offered their sympathy, said they understood how hard it must be. And I didn’t know how to explain how it was both harder than they imagined and yet easier. We weren’t close, I wanted to say. We were so different. I don’t even know if we liked each other very much and yet those things were somehow beside the point.

Mum disapproved of career women who remained single and gave no thought to having babies. Sitting there while the chit-chat moved on to other things, I wondered, as I had done increasingly, whether that was what drove me to become the woman I am. She was always so certain in her opinions on my life and it always make me want to do the opposite and she never learned that, never learned to play me at my own game and goad me in the opposing direction.

I was sinking further and further into my alcohol low. What if I only ever didn’t have kids to avoid hearing Mum say, I told you so? What if – after all – I’d allowed her opinions to dominate my life, just in the reverse way to the one she intended? What if my ovaries were hurtling past their sell-by and I was hurtling into lonely middle age?

 

Meal over and we headed to the college bar. We occupied a wobbly table in the corner, struggling to hear one another above the mournful line of a badly played trumpet. Inside my chic black dress, I was badly wilting, on the verge of heading back to my rather dismal college room in the new block.

Then I spotted him. Simon. The hunk of our year. Was that really a word we even used? He was older, clearly. Had less hair. His body had filled out within his well styled suit. But he still looked fit. I remembered occasional drunken trysts, which I viewed romantically at the time: he loves me after all. Though looking back, I know that love had certainly not been on his agenda.

Just as it was not on my agenda now, but I needed something to rescue the evening and cheer me up. To make me feel desired. And maybe even... I pushed the thought away.

I made my excuses to my friends and headed off to the loos where I refreshened my lipstick. Tipsy logic may not be the highest form of logic, but it felt pretty compelling right then.

Luck was on my side. He was standing – alone – at the bar, with a space beside him, just enough room for me to sidle close in beside and catch a whiff of his beer breath. ‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Remember me?’

For an awful moment I thought the answer was no. I was flushing with all the accumulated humiliation of one-sided love from all those years ago. Get real Sandy! Sober up.

Then he smiled, his famously sexy smile. ‘Sandy?’ he said. ‘Sandy Saunders.’ And I was stupidly pleased he remembered. See he did care a little after all.

We grinned at one another. ‘So how are you?’ we said simultaneously and then laughed.

‘Still free and single,’ he said, ‘just not quite so young.’ He pulled a wry face. ‘Can I get you a drink?’

I had drunk several too many already, but what the hell.

‘Sure.’

And my mind was busy calculating and simultaneously putting calculations aside.

I was bang on mid-cycle. His alpha genes would be perfect. And while this was absolutely not the way to calmly approach a major life decision, somehow that seemed right. If I stopped and weighed the pros and cons, the cons would come out on top, the way they always had done. And right at that alcohol-befuddled moment, I longed to cast my die into the wind and see what happened.

 

***

 

I park the car badly, mind preoccupied with the coming appointment. I have no idea what questions the bank will ask, am hoping the equity in my flat is sufficient to secure the loan against. If things go to plan, I could sell up and move somewhere outside the city hustle, somewhere cheaper and more suited to raising a child. Raising a child alone. Mum still wouldn’t have approved, but it isn’t her I’m doing this for.

It’s for me.

I cast my mind back to that evening. The jazz band swinging on. My earlier companions drifting off, Alison giving me a sardonic wave. The crowd thinning out. The band announcing their final number.

Simon and I had slipped back into that flirtatious way we had of being together and it always meant more to me than it did to him. Only this time my agenda was different. This time romantic notions were not in play.

We stumbled out into the night air together, leaning into one another for support, and then...

All at once the wine and whisky caught up and I found myself throwing up into the flower bed surrounding one of the quads.

And that was that.

Except the thoughts remained, right on through the awful hangover and the sober days and weeks that followed. It’s not exactly that I think I had things wrong all those years. But time passes, you change, and that’s only natural. I just want to discover a different way to be, to have someone to love and nurture, to create my own family, no matter how small.

This way is better than a chancy one night stand. IVF. Three magic letters. An anonymous donor. A medical procedure. Going abroad is cheaper, and the success rates are good. Perhaps I’ll tell the bank that the money is for a very special holiday. That wouldn’t be a complete lie. A holiday somewhere quiet with the hope of bringing back a very special memento. I just need a loan of a few thousand pounds to get me started on my new agenda.

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Following a career first in theoretical physics and then economics, Sarah unexpectedly found herself starting to write short stories. Over a hundred of these stories have won awards and/or been published in competition anthologies, journals and online, with publishing outlets including: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Riptide, Shooter and Best New Writing. She has won a number of short story prizes, including Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York. She obtained a diploma in Creative Writing from the Open University in 2010.

Along with writing, she enjoys reading, fell-walking and opera.

Sarah Evans lives in Welwyn Garden City with her husband. She tweets at @Sarah_MM_Evans.