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Ten in the morning. That time when sleepiness has properly given way to a gentle sense of alertness and potential even if you’ve had a lazy day so far, and Sarah had had exactly that.

She had rolled out of bed at nine, and only then because her thoughts had become increasingly concerned with the idea of the croissants, coffee and orange juice waiting in the kitchen. 

It was late August. The start of her final year at university seemed a lifetime away and her days were tranquil and long. Plenty of time to read, drink coffee, and settle comfortably into her parents’ soft sofa for hours on end.

Sarah reached the end of a chapter in her book. Her coffee cup had been empty for the last twenty pages, so she stretched and slid off of the sofa and wandered towards the kitchen. 

The kitchen was a perfect realisation of country cottage chic. Sunlight streamed through the side window and the window at the end over the sink. It was already 22 degrees and the windows had been open since her parents left for work earlier in the morning. Steam was wafting up from the felt roof of the garden ottoman that was just out of sight below the end window, drying away the early morning rain that had lasted about five minutes but long enough to make the dry concrete paths smell wonderful.

A welcome light breeze lifted all of the light kitchen curtains. Sarah filled the kettle and yawned half a yawn. The day was too relaxing to make the effort of a full yawn appropriate. She mooched around the chunky mellow pine dining table whilst the kettle got going. Everything about this moment was comfortable; temperature, breeze, lighting, the feel of her favourite well-worn jeans and slippers and cotton T-shirt. The taste of earlier coffee and croissants still on her tongue and in the back of her nose.

With the kettle boiled, Sarah filled her cup and stirred her coffee in, stifling another half yawn as a lazy soprano saxophone sound played on the kitchen radio. OMD’s “Talking Loud and Clear”.

It was at this point – when the sax played after the lyrics “Just what you feel today” – that I first met Sarah.

I say “met” but a more accurate word might be “imagined”. I don’t know. See what you think.

It was about ten or maybe fifteen, even twenty years ago. I was in the passenger seat of an executive saloon car being driven by my manager along the A34 in Berkshire, England. We were on our way to a meeting with our customer organisation in Wiltshire. It was going to be a long day. PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheet models, actions closed and opened. More work coming my way for sure. 

The day ahead had a very masculine feel to it, and not just because we and our customer representatives – all twelve of us – were male. There was also something about the mental fencing matches over the interpretation of words, the forensic examination of the meanings of contract clauses and action closure conditions – many of which were words that I had written when I had drafted parts of the contract just after the turn of the millennium. It was enjoyable, like doing a crossword puzzle with clues supplied in real time and taking turns with our customer to write clues and write answers, but I was tired; acutely, and chronically, tired. I craved release but didn’t know what I wanted to be released into.

OMD was playing on the car radio. “Talking Loud and Clear”. About a minute and a half into the song, after the lyric “Just what you feel today”, is a beautifully lazy interlude played on a soprano sax. As the sax melody played, my world and Sarah’s world somehow collided. I saw her clearly as she stirred her freshly made coffee and stifled her second yawn. I felt her close by. She seemed to be somewhere in the same county or maybe the next one along, maybe no more than 20 miles from where we were and somewhere to our west. 

In that moment I envied Sarah. I would have swapped places if I could have, at least for the day and maybe for longer. 

I’ve thought about Sarah several times in the two decades since then. The moment of connection was strong, and clear, and vivid, but also quite brief. I wonder what she represents. A part of me? A version of me aged 20 who might have had a life less filled with mental sword fights and semantic battles? 

When I’ve told this story I’m often asked if I wanted to be that character because she’s female. The answer is no; the reason she’s female, I think, is because if she had been male she would simply have represented me exactly as I was when I was 20 and her future would have been the life I was living, which I wanted to escape. Her femininity identified a potentially alternative future to the one that I had had.

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