The Secret Diary of Donna Merchant, aged 50 and Three Quarters

Submitted into Contest #54 in response to: Write a story about someone going back to school as a mature student.... view prompt



I last kept a diary when I was in my twenties. The same applies for going to university. So I may as well start both again at the same time. I can abandon the diary any time I please. Theoretically that also applies to the university course. But only theoretically!

     There are many reasons why persons of maturer years go to university, very few of which apply to me.

1.  Didn’t have the chance earlier on in life. No. Not true. I did my BA at the normal time of life.

2. Couldn’t afford it before. Patently disproved by (1).

3. Thirst for learning. Well, I’ve always liked to read, and I’m certainly interested in local history. But I have no burning obsession with boffin-hood. 

May as well be honest, here if nowhere else. After all, when I first started diary keeping in my early teens, wasn’t that my mantra, this is where I can be honest and don’t have to care about what anyone thinks. Mum knew I kept a diary, said she would never read it, and I believed her, and was never given any reason not to. Mind you, the trouble was I never gave her any particular reason to want to, whether out of curiosity or concern. I was basically a good girl. I think she was almost relieved when she caught a whiff of wine on my breath after Jenny’s 16th birthday party. I didn’t tell her I didn’t like it. Well, some things change!

Yes. Here I can be honest. Since Mum passed away I’m lonely. I want something to do. Oh yes, I have friends and had my volunteering work at the Hospice Shop, that I enjoyed, but it still didn’t seem like enough. At first I didn’t take it entirely seriously, thought it would be a passing fancy. But then I discovered the MA in Local History Studies (not sure why they feel compelled to add studies to the end of it, but no matter) at my nearest university. 

I could commute if I wanted to, but decided to get a room in hall. I’m entitled to in my first year. And sitting in it now, I wonder if that was the right decision. I could afford a flat in the nearby town, and as I’ve discovered, and of course it isn’t fair, when it comes to renting a room you’ve hit the jackpot if you’re female and a mature student. We’re every landlady’s dream combination. 

It’s true, this room bears little comparison to the one I had when I was at university at the “normal time” as my colleague at the hospice shop Lucy put it, offence neither meant nor taken. I have my own bathroom, the heating actually works and is free, and the bed is comfortable. The kitchens are pretty impressive, too. 

All of which is absolutely fine. But I still feel out of place and restless. I suppose I should make the effort to go to some of the freshers’ events, but I don’t feel much like it. I’ve met Jessie, who’s to one side of me, and she seems very nice, but somehow I doubt if we’ll do much more than exchange remarks about the weather on the corridor. Well, the weather outside! During my “normal time” spell it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two!

Though I can’t see myself being much of a “joiner”, I decided I had to join the mature students’ society. We had a get-together – for some reason they don’t like the word “meeting” – in the lounge of the Union Building this evening.

     I have come to a somewhat depressing conclusion. Mature students tend to split into two groups, though both, especially the first, are diverse. So there is “Group One” – whom I will call, though no doubt they would hate it if I used the term, or at least pretend they did, the Inspirational Exceptions. The kind who appear in magazine and TV and radio articles. There’s Joanna, who’s in her seventies, makes no attempt to hide the fact, but has, as the cliché goes, the energy of a woman half her age. And Kieran, the single Dad, whose young children are now at school and can follow his dreams, at least, or Rose, who has been doing incredibly worthwhile work overseas (I’m not quite sure what, but know it was incredibly worthwhile). Group Two are The Blenders-In. They are technically mature students; the cut-off point being (I think) 27, but are pretty indistinguishable from the regular students.

     I am neither. I am middle-aged, and lonely, and want something to do. 

     Yesterday I would have said, the sooner these few days are over and actual studies start, the better. But now I’m not so sure even about that. It’s not that the subject has stopped interesting me, in the polite, unobsessive way it always has, but I can’t wax lyrical about sitting in classrooms and lecture halls, and (here I can be honest!) even less so about field trips. True, from what I gather, the Local History field trips are not on a par with, say, the geography or biology ones when it comes to trekking and trudging, and I’m sure that if Joanna (even if she does have the energy of a woman half her age) can manage them, so can I. But the truth is, I’m quite content to let others dig up my artefacts for me (being a huge fan of Time Team) or to be a passive tourist at stately homes or outside museums, not be expected to write any essays or come to any conclusions.

     I am beginning to feel I am here under false pretences. It has also occurred to me that though I don’t for one minute doubt Joanna would be capable of coping with a field trip, she won’t be on one as she’s studying English Literature. We are dotted across the disciplines. I don’t know if that’s a relief or not.

     There’s no shortage of people to advise us, indeed, we’re positively urged to seek out advice. But the thing is this:  if I went to anyone, whether the counselling service, or the chaplaincy service, or whatever, there are, I suppose, two pieces of advice I could be given. Either to realise that perhaps this isn’t for me and to consider withdrawing from the course, or to realise that everyone has teething trouble and to at least give it a chance. I know both these options exist already, and neither of them especially appeals.

     I wonder what Mum would have said? But for the last couple of years of her life she wouldn’t have said anything, as that cruel, hateful disease had eaten up and corroded her wise, kind, wry, compassionate, ironic mind. I do not want to think about that. IT IS NO GOOD THINKING ABOUT THAT. At least this course will give me something to think about, something that doesn’t ache and throb with grief mixed with guilt and regret.

     I made myself a mug of coffee (we have kettles in the rooms) and made some effort at reading one of my course books. Typical “student” things to do. I may as well at least go through the motions. 

The very dark mood I had yesterday passed, or at least retreated into its own shadows. I have joined the choir and the chess club, though I don’t have any especial enthusiasm about either, and I think that will most definitely be all I join. I have had a word with my course tutor, Jack McFarlane. We got on well enough. He seems to be about my age, maybe a bit older, though with men it’s sometimes harder to tell. I have realised that a fair number of my tutors will be younger than I am. That’s fair enough. We only scratched the surface of the course content, which was natural enough. Come to think of it, Jack reminds me a bit of one of my old school teachers, and my memories of Mr Brandon are good ones. I expect he’s long dead, now. Before I left his study, he said, “It’s quite a coincidence, two mature students AND on the same course, ending up next to each other in Hall.”

     “But Michaela is studying Geography!” I exclaimed, having now met my neighbour on the other side, who is a pleasant child but – well, still seems basically a child, though I suppose she must be at least 18.

     “No – Jessie!”

     I was about to ask “Are you sure?” but realised that looked very rude, and there’s still part of me that’s in awe of a “teacher”, even a very informal and amiable one.

     When I went back to Hall, Jessie was already in the kitchen, reading (and rather to my relief, not a course book, but a Minette Walters psychological thriller – she’s one of my favourites, too!) as she waited for her lasagne to be ready. Evidently, like me, she preferred a conventional oven to a microwave if she had the time. We said “hi”, and weighing her up as inconspicuously as possible (which was probably self-deluding!) I realised that she probably was considerably older than I had thought at that first meeting. She might be a “blender” but was probably at the upper end of it – or was it because she had a careworn look, despite her friendliness? Unusually for me, I decided to take the initiative. “Jack says you’re a mature student, too. I didn’t know!”

     “Yes, I meant to tell you, Donna, sorry about that. I wasn’t at the first meeting of the mature students’ society because I had to see the solicitor about Dad’s will.” She said it in a practical way, but there was a catch to the voice and a look in the eyes that I recognised – from myself. Though neither of us were, I supposed, automatic “heart on the sleeve” people, we exchanged stories. Jessie was only in her late twenties, but she had been caring for her late father, who’d had Parkinson’s Disease. 

     We have been brought together by something that neither of us would ever have wanted in a million years, by the suffering of a loved one. But I at least didn’t have to cope with it until middle age. 

     And now I have made a friend, and I fancy it will be far more than a freshers’ week friendship.

     Perhaps this isn’t such a bad idea after all!

August 14, 2020 06:31

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Amogh Kasat
10:05 Aug 15, 2020

It's an amazing story! P.S read my both story what is a Second Chance The Secret Mission Meeting


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Bianka Nova
15:02 Aug 18, 2020

After seeing the title I just had to read the story (big Adrian Mole fan, not 100% sure if that's where you got it from). Not bad at all, I think it has the potential of becoming something more ;) My only remark would be regarding the "diary" element, which is actually missing - you should separate the text into different diary entries.


Deborah Mercer
09:01 Aug 19, 2020

Yes, I did get it from Adrian Mole! Possibly it would fit better into a longer format, and in retrospect if I were rewriting it, I would probably "date" the entries. Your comments much appreciated.


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Kristin Neubauer
18:17 Aug 15, 2020

I liked this story too, Deborah - for many of the same reasons that I liked the Reluctant Dragonslider. I really appreciated how you spent time with your protagonist, delving into all the crevices of her character, giving us a raw look inside her thoughts. The doubt, the hope, the pain...and at the end, the hope. I like that you introduce us to the characters, give us an unvarnished look at them ....but then allow us to feel hope for them at the end.


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Aditya Pillai
09:06 Aug 14, 2020

Aww, I loved this. Such a great read. You did a fine job making the narrator so relatable and having us sympathise with her. Glad that she found someone she could talk and relate to. May she find satisfaction and happiness! :) Wonderful and engaging.


Deborah Mercer
09:37 Aug 14, 2020

Many thanks! I have to admit that while I don't always necessarily like my central characters, I have a soft spot for Donna (yes, perhaps some of myself in her, not that that would make me necessarily like her!).


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