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The Road Taken

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She reads more; that's the first change.

Donna used to read two, maybe three books a year, usually trashy blockbusters she purchased hastily in the airport shop, read on the beach and forgot before she'd unpacked her suitcase on her return. But one Sunday afternoon, bored, she picks up one of Grandad's books about astronomy, and somehow, by the early hours of the next morning, she's read it from cover to cover.

Grandad gives her an odd look when she gives it back to him, and when he asks if she liked it, he sounds strange, hopeful and worried at once. Donna hopes he's not going funny in his old age.

She joins her local library, and starts to work her way through the non-fiction section: a book a week, then several, then half a dozen or more. The library staff get to know her, and let her flagrantly breach the maximum borrowing rules. She stops spending her evenings at the pub and starts going straight to the library after work, staying until it closes at eight or nine. She likes the library, although some evenings the shadows in the corners make her uncomfortable for reasons she can't explain.

Sometimes she gets home late and finds Mum and Grandad sitting at the kitchen table, having low-voiced conversations that always end abruptly as Donna comes in. She's pleased they're getting along so much better these days, even if she can't quite shake the feeling that they're talking about her.

She signs up for an Open University degree in history, because it sounds like fun. And it is fun -- fun, and interesting, and easier than she expected. When she's finished it, she does another, joint honours in maths and physics. It gives her a quiet sense of satisfaction, because when she was at school, teachers were always telling Donna she could do better if she just applied herself. Maybe she's finally discovered how.

By coincidence, her fortieth birthday is a month after she finishes her second degree. She thinks about this a lot, and makes a decision, and tells her mum and Grandad on the night they go out to dinner to celebrate her graduation. Her mum gets a little teary -- she's had a couple of glasses of red, which doesn't help -- but Grandad seems to understand. "You always did want to travel," he says as he hugs her. "That's why you went the first time."

Donna frowns. "I've never --" But then the taxi pulls up, and by the next morning Donna is too busy planning her trip to think about what Grandad meant. She's put away quite a little stash over the last few years, and it's amazing how cheaply you can travel, if you're not choosy about your destination or how fast you get there.

At first, she's a tourist, taking snapshots she can email back to her mum and Grandad. In Paris, she mills with the crowds through the Louvre, peering at the Mona Lisa from a distance. At the train station in Rome, she intervenes when she sees a man stealing a girl's handbag. The girl's name is Susanne, and she's a student on her gap year. She buys Donna dinner, as a thank you, and somehow they end up travelling together for the next month. The night before Susanne flies home, they split a bottle of wine, and Susanne clinks her glass against Donna's and says, "To good travelling companions," and Donna smiles back and says, "To companions."

In Istanbul, her savings run out. She thinks about going back to England, and instead gets a job in a café until she can afford to move on.

She still sends emails home, but not as often.

In Romania, she finds work on a farm; in Ukraine, she helps to build a school. Languages are never a problem. She always seems to pick up as much as she needs. She meets people and becomes, briefly, part of their lives. She helps, where she can. She moves on.

She is trekking somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas when, one evening at dusk, she looks up at the sky in time to see a shooting star burn itself out in the upper atmosphere. She remembers, for a moment, Grandad's astronomy book. The next day, she passes a shack with a corrugated tin roof, a satellite dish and a single computer which the owner boasts is the last internet connection between here and Kathmandu. She barters the price down to something reasonable -- her bargaining skills honed to perfection by years of practice in the Harvey Nichols January sale -- and logs into her webmail account for the last time.

Thanks for everything, she types. You can stop waiting for me.

She clicks send and deletes the account. Then she shrugs on her backpack, and starts to walk along the mountain path, going wherever it takes her.