Here is a clipped version of story that got shortlisted in a competition almost a decade ago, but it never found a permanent home. In the modern flashion, I have cut it back to just under 1200 words. Not bad for a story covering 25 years!
‘Charlie is such a dear little moppet!’ Victoria says to Annie, showing her the latest photograph.
Her friend Annie already has two ‘moppets’ of her own, and the two-year-old is throwing uncapped felt-tips at the expensive soft furnishings of the sitting room that Victoria designed, whilst Annie breastfeeds his baby sister. Victoria proclaims that she has probably saved Charlie’s life. Not that he’ll have a life anything like Annie’s children’s, of course. Charlie is large-eyed, frail, much too small for his age, which is five. He is no bigger than Annie’s stocky two-year-old. She tells Annie that Charlie will do until she has children of her own, sometime before she gets to forty.
Victoria is 35, and reckons that she can pass for 29. Plenty of antioxidants, gallons of mineral water. Botox, collagen and a personal trainer, called Grovotny, from somewhere in Eastern Europe. He tells her he was one of ten children, but that his mother had a figure like a sack of potatoes by the time she was Victoria’s age. ‘You don’t want to have babies, Victoria,’ he said, gravely, as if she was planning a defection to some alternative and decadent culture. More particularly one where she wasn’t around to pay him quite so generously.
Victoria gets bulletins about Charlie’s progress that she shows her husband, Marcus, as if they were a product of her latest art class. Charlie has sent her a crayon picture of his family, lined up in order of height. He is the next to smallest wearing red shorts but his mother has a new baby who will soon take its place at the bottom of the line. Charlie cannot write, of course, as he is only just five, and has not had the benefit of nursery education. However, the missionaries in the refugee camp where Charlie lives are holding classes, supported, of course, by Victoria’s sponsorship.
Two years later, Charlie has learned to write. Victoria is not yet a Yummy Mummy, but – gosh – she has another three years to go to the big four-oh… The missionaries say that Charlie is exceptionally bright and has the reading age of a 15 year-old. They hope that someone in Britain may sponsor him to go to abroad for a proper education. Victoria replies that she must consider her own future children, and hopes that a rich sponsor will be found, but she sent Charlie a Christmas card and photographs of herself and Marcus skiing. Charlie eventually writes back in neat printed letters to say that he has never seen snow, but he dreams of a beautiful country so pure and white that angels must live there. He says nothing about the conditions in the refugee camp, only that his father died and had gone to Heaven and that his mother is very sick after having another baby and that she is expected to die too. He hopes that Heaven is like the beautiful white place in the photograph Victoria sent. The photograph of Charlie that Victoria shows to Marcus before dinner, is of a thin child in ragged clothes with a disproportionately large head and abdomen. His eyes are now covered by recycled adult-sized spectacles donated by an aid agency. Everything in the background seems dusty and bleached, as if it has been left in a shop window and forgotten.
Victoria waves the photograph at Marcus.
‘Maybe it’s time we thought of having a real child.’
Marcus spills some wine on the polished granite surface. It bubbles like seltzer.
‘Isn’t Charlie real?’
‘Of course he is, but he’s poor. He doesn’t have much of a future. A child of our own could be anything.’
‘I’d rather thought of going to Tuscany again this year,’ Marcus replies. He sips his fizz dreamily.
Children and Tuscany have to be placed on hold when Marcus’s firm collapses and Marcus is made redundant. He says they have to cut back until he can find something else. Victoria’s interior design business doesn’t net her much income after her expenses are taken into account.
‘Surely we can’t be that poor?’ Victoria asks.
‘Our investments are worth bugger all,’ he says, gesturing to his laptop. He has drawn a graph with a dangerous-looking line that goes downhill like a black ski-slope.
They manage to trim a few luxuries from the list and agree to go out less. However, their virtual exercise upon Marcus’s laptop still shows negative cash flow. It seems like a computer game, where nothing really hurts, especially with a bottle of Rioja for anaesthetic.
They get to Charlie. In annualised terms, Charlie suddenly seems almost expensive. She scratches around for things she can do without to save Charlie… Marcus has his own ideas.
‘There’s always Grotny. You could pay for a dozen Charlies for one Grunty!’
‘There is always Lena. Now that you aren’t working we can cut her hours.’
Lena is the cleaner, who is as as exquisitely pretty as Grovotny is ruggedly handsome.
‘I’m sure that you could manage a bit of dusting…’
‘I shall be out there looking for another job. We’ll think over Charlie and decide tomorrow. Lena is on borrowed time.’
In the morning, Marcus is hung-over. The postman brings another batch of rejections from potential employers and an even bigger batch of bills,.
‘It’s crunch-time, Victoria. We need to lose Grotty, Lena and Charlie. At this rate, we’ll be in debt by Christmas.’
It isn’t easy. Marcus struggles to find a job. They sell the house and move to a smaller one. Marcus tries setting up on his own, but he is not a good businessman and ends up working in local government for a paltry salary. Victoria’s friends show their true colours. It’s one thing to sponsor a poor person but quite another to associate with one.
Victoria goes to work in a department store as a soft furnishings advisor. At least she gets 20% discount on everything, and she manages, by dint of heartbreaking economies, secretly from Marcus, to keep Charlie.
At forty-two, Victoria is taken unawares by an early menopause. The question of having her own little Charlie is now irrelevant as she can’t afford fertility treatment. She consoles herself with the increasingly irregular bulletins about Charlie, which cease after his refugee camp is overrun by hostile forces. No one knows what happens to him.
At sixty, Victoria will be in hospital for a hysterectomy under the NHS, or whatever it is called then. Facilities are basic, more like a transients’ camp where everyone is shunted in and out within a few hours. Perhaps she will be attended by a small-framed African doctor with heavy glasses and a serious face.
‘I wish I’d had children,’ she tells him.
‘It is a hard world to bring children into.’
‘Surely most woman want a child?’
‘There are too many women having children. The world does not have room for all of the babies. You have perhaps done the world a favour.’
‘I sponsored a child. A little boy in Africa. I don’t know if he lived, or grew up to something better.’
‘One can always hope, Victoria.’