A cruel receipt

There once again was that letter, mixed in with the old postcards and photos that are ageing as badly as the shoebox that they live in. I didn’t mean to open that box, I was just tidying up.

That particular letter though, I always knew that it was a cruel receipt, and, that one day… One day.

I had done this before, slide out the compressed pages and sink into a dimly remembered past. Dated the 3rd of May 1997, over the last eleven years I had recognised myself less and less as the person referred to in the confident rolling script. It was true now too. The alternating waves of guilt, horror and affection, that the letter once invoked had become less of an irresistible draw towards an agony and more like an old friends sharing of some ancient confidence.

Reading the letter as if for the first time I understood that she too must have felt the same as me to be able to send such a thing. With that understanding I knew I had got over it, I had grown up. She was way ahead of me, it had taken her thirteen years to write that letter, and me eleven more to be able to reply. At long last we could talk together. Twenty three years after we parted hands through that train window.

We are immortal when we are young, and blithe in our selfishness. The two of us had clung together, like frightened rabbits through one dark winter, sharing a bed, and a room with strangers in a bleak town. We helped each other survive physically and emotionally through the chaos that we had each carefully aimed ourselves towards. We were both teenagers that thought we knew the risks, perhaps we did, but not the stakes. This woman had saved my life, in a battle that I was ill equipped to deal with. I ran… She stayed.

I had never really forgiven myself for what I thought was an act of desertion. Her letter had not been written lightly. Her precision had created subtexts that were unbelievably generous, lacking in blame, annoyance or agenda, other than someone searching for a friend that had witnessed old times; an ally to share reminiscences of a lost past with. Strangely she did not seem to feel deserted.

I realised then that I had missed her all the while.

I started to search for a way to contact her, the address on the letter was years out of date. In running I had lost everything, papers, photos, contact with any shared friends who might still know… Where to find her? It did not take long. On Google a single entry is all that exists for her name, it is her obituary. She died in 2002.

I try to remember her face, once more familiar than my own, and it is like looking at the Pleiades, more invisible the harder I try. I attempt to remember small details of our life together, it is like negotiating thick fog, all is lost, no meals together, no specific words, not even being outside, it is less real than if I had invented it.

I have only one clear moment of memory left, of her blonde dreadlocks and her piercingly pale blue eyes, the wax-like smoothness of her skin, firm over her thigh as we wake up together to a winter sunrise through the room’s small window. The feint smell of red wine as she smiles, good morning to me, that particular, wry smile that I cant quite see but remember so well.

While I had that letter unread, despite the guilt and horror it caused me, I was still a thoughtless boy and she was, to me at least, a warm living girl. Now that I have finally read what she had to say, that cruel receipt has had its day, she is gone, and I am left, old.

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