I have been a foolish man; I started life off as a foolish boy which in turn led to my being a foolish man. I want to be honest about this fact from the beginning, because I want it to be clear that it wasn’t my fault. I know that it can not be my excuse for the life I am leading and have led up to this point, but I wanted you to know.
Another point is, that I do enjoy a rich tea sandwich, which by definition is two rich tea biscuits stuck together with a layer of butter and is best eaten when you can’t sleep. I also find a small drink of something helps when I am not sleeping, but I only do this as a last resort; because even now I still can’t do something too often that she would have hated. So the best thing I can do is sit in my kitchen and eat a rich tea sandwich.
I have grown used to not sleeping, it is a state that chooses you rather than you wake one day and decide, from this moment on I am no longer going to sleep. You allow your mind, your memories to take over your body and no longer allow it to rest, to sleep or to dream. I am thinking depressing thoughts as I think of sleep and I move my body to the front room and switch on the TV or as my friend call’s it, the idiot’s lantern. He’s an angry sort of fellow.
There is nothing on, but then it is the early hours of the morning and I can’t be bothered to think about complaining again to the BBC, they only ever send a letter thanking me for my suggestions and a free pen. I have enough pens. I am restless.
I know what I would like to do, where I would like to spend these early hours of a new day and that thought has already made me turn off the TV. I move to the front room door and stand in the silence of my own home, which for the most part I like, apart from the back garden. It’s too small and I also need to re-paint the toilet, but for the most part it’s very nice. I have managed to move myself half way up the stairs with those thoughts and I stand staring at my feet.
I am breathing heavily, I can feel my chest rising and falling and I wonder if I can go on. There are tears on my checks; I am a fool of a man who is crying on the stairs of his own home. Foolish, my feet find their rhythm once more and I continue to climb back up my stairs and as I land at my bedroom door I am glad I am no longer crying and wishing I was 70 again.
I should just throw my self back into bed, that would be the sensible option at this point but I move myself past the bedroom door and walk, rather shuffle to the spare room at the back of the house. The door is already open and I stare into the room. It’s beautiful and I can feel my self biting my bottom lip as I take in the bed, curtains, pictures and the stacks of papers leaning against the walls. I look back down my hallway and to my bedroom door, but as always it is too late I am here now and I know I am going to go in and sit on the bed, and so I do.
My feet are just off the ground and I feel like a small child sitting on the single bed gently swinging my legs. There is no other furniture in the room and I have never found that frightening or worrying in the way others might, I find it a great comfort. My eye’s then fall to the papers; they are spread all across the floor and are piled high. My legs have stopped swinging. I lower my self gently down and in to a sitting position.
I am alone with the papers, and I know that if I just stretched out my hand I could touch them. I do want them close to me, to hold them in my hands and so very carefully, so not to cause my self an injury I slide my right hand across the floor boards and pick up a small pile sitting to the right of my M&S covered feet.
The papers rustle as I raise them to my eyes and I realise they are old like me and so creek at being moved around too much. I laugh a little; when your alone in your own home and you make noises you do get a sense of being slightly crazy. The papers are now close enough to my face that I can read them clearly.
The handwriting is what I notice first. It is mine, scribbled on small pieces of paper that I must have stolen from an officer. The paper is turning brown and the words are fading but I follow the words slowly down the page reading the thoughts of a younger man, me.
I must confess that today is a hard day to be writing anything of love and hope. I have in these first few hours of the day lost two friends and also taken a friend.
This is how things start and end here my darling; I can no longer see my reflection in a mirror, puddle or broken piece of glass, I am a blur of a man, a lost image in the world of war.
I am sorry that these words of my mine are yours to read and bear, but it brings me release in writing them down and sending them away out into the world and I want to thank you for being my constant comfort.
How is your hand? I do hope it’s on the mend, you are always so clumsy! One of the many reason’s why I love you. It makes me laugh out loud even when the night falls and gun fire is heard in the distance. I think of you and I laugh as I remember the time you fell off your bike and fell into the lake at Witney, or the day we spent trying to rescue your hat from the swan in Regents Park, that swan must be the best dressed swan in the whole of England, although probably a little out of fashion these days!
You loved that hat, it was the green one with a black trim and gold lining, you wore it every day of the summer so that everyone in London would get chance to see it, I remember how pretty you looked. If the war had not entered our lives and if the world had not been divided I would be with you now. We would be walking down Oxford Street perhaps buying you a new hat. I would take you to dinner at the Savoy before dancing and then as I walked you home I would kiss you gently and thank you for a wonderful day. Now I see only death, she walks through us daily. She is not a night creature like they would have you believe; she loves all hours of the dying day and in war there is many for her to feed from. I believe that when I meet her either here or as an old man in my bed I will find in her face the smiles of boys and the eyes of an old man. Her hands will be of a woman and her skin that of a young girl, her body a mix of the land and its creatures that she has also touched with her breath and she will have the voice of a nightingale easing your passing from this life to hers.
I am not afraid of her my darling, of dying. I only fear the life before death, will my life be spent here in the darkness or will I see the light and freedom that we once had? I can just see you now reading this and wishing I was not being so serious, you were always the funniest of girls. Full of life and laughter, I think that you should be this army’s secret weapon. Brought in to make the men laugh and smile again, then they’d show the enemy that they are not giving up their life so easily. I like to think that every man in this war on both sides has time a day to write to their girl, and think of her as I do you. You are my hope and I will be home with you soon, that I promise. Just one last push here and then the shores of England will be my destination. I will leave you now as I can see the sun rising and I shall try to get my head down for the last hour of this night.
I love you.
You’re Henry. xx
Oh dear is my first thought as I reach the end of the letter, what a fool I was. I could write a lovely letter that was a certainty. But what a way to carry on, I was always trying to impress her with words and love. I liked to use that word a lot when ever I wrote Annie, love. Annie was always getting swept away by the romance of life and when ever I wrote a letter to her I would get so carried away with my own talent that I thought I had for writing, that writing to Annie became my opportunity to push boundaries. It was only after we were married and I asked her about my letters did I learn that Annie couldn’t read.
I giggle to my self as I put the letter to my side. Even now she could still make me laugh. The piece of paper in my hand is another letter.
I bring you news of home and of your family. We are all well and enjoying the summer sun, and I must tell you now that the roses are delightful; and I will be glad to have you home. The constant worry I will kill them is becoming too much to bear. Your father is a real pain, and is always complaining that I’m not attending the garden properly, and that you will get your self killed out there because you could not face coming home to a destroyed garden. I think this is a tad dramatic of the old fool and would just like to point out now that he has never once helped me in your absence. That’s the last I shall say on the subject of the garden. I hope you are well and thank you for your last letter, it was very brief and I would have liked more but I understand it is hard to write when you are fighting a war. I saw Mrs Davies only yesterday and she told me to send her love the next time I wrote. I can tell her now I have done so. I am afraid I have no further news or gossip I could share with you, but it is Wednesday and you know I always like to write to you on a Wednesday afternoon. Please keep safe my son and come home soon to us and those roses.
The letter was sent to my friend. A friend I lost. He was killed by gun fire and died at my feet; he was twenty-four years old. He was handsome, I remember that because I wasn’t and he used to joke that he could help me get a girl when ever we went on leave. He was called Peter Unwin.
I can feel the tears again and so I put the letter aside. Peter is a memory and until tonight I hadn’t thought about him for more than 10 years and that is why the tears are creeping in to my eyes, I had forgotten him.
I stare up at the ceiling. My bum is going numb. I have been sat on the bedroom floor nearly an hour now, and for a man of my age that is not bad going. Every night the same routine, I tell my self I’m going to stop, that I’m done looking. But I know it’s here among these papers. A memory, a letter, words that I am desperate to re-claim. Just another half hour and then I’ll retire to bed.
I look back at the remaining papers in my hand and cast my eyes over them. My first ever news paper article for the Times and my last, the speech I made at my boy’s wedding and the words to Annie’s favourite song. A picture of bud, our dog, he was really stupid. I am casting the papers and the memories to the floor as I search desperately for one in particular.
My half hour deadline has passed and the early morning sun is creeping in across the walls and floors of the little bedroom and soon the meals on wheels lady will be arriving and she can’t find me on the floor, like a crazy old man. They’ll put me in a home. I breathe deeply and rub the tiredness in my face, another night which has led to nothing.
I have to move from the floor and so with great effort I lean against the bed and push with my back and feet and heave myself back into a sitting position on the bed. I can feel the night’s activity painfully on my chest and I lay myself down on the single bed and close my eyes.
The knock on the front door wakes me. I have been asleep for over an hour and the meals on wheels lady has arrived with my daily supply of food. I move my self slowly off the bed and re-trace my steps from the night before. Across the landing, pass my bedroom door and gently down the stairs, where I reach my front door. I can see her reflection in the glass; I take a minute to steady myself, preparing for what’s about to enter my home.
‘Henry?’ Her high-pitched noise hit’s my ears.
‘Henry is that you?’ I am going to have to let in the beast.
‘Hiya love, you alright? How was your night? Did you sleep ok?’ she has pushed passed me and walked straight in to the kitchen, where she is unloading her horrible meals in to the fridge.
‘Ok. You have porridge for breakfast, then a tuna salad with fruit cocktail for lunch and then Shepard’s pie and chocolate pudding for dinner. I know I shouldn’t do, but I’ve brought you some more biscuits and tea.’ I remain standing at the open front door and watch her potter around the kitchen, talking rapidly and setting me up for the day ahead. I have never once enquired her name, she is just the meals on wheels lady and we have had that relationship for the past year.
‘Henry love, you ok?’ Meals on wheels is suddenly looking down on me and her heavily made up face looks concerned.
‘I’m fine thank you’ I really want her to leave. She’s staring at me; I can’t remember the last time someone stared at me so intently.
‘My name is Gemma’
‘Ok then, I am fine thank you. Gemma’
‘Bye Henry, see you tomorrow’ and with those words meals on wheels, Gemma, left. And I realised, she thinks I am the beast. I will try to be nicer to her tomorrow.
My house is once again quite and I am glad for it. I move slowly in to the kitchen and smile. She has left me a pack of rich tea biscuits. I do believe meals on wheels may be trying to be my friend, and I have been nothing but a rude old man to her. If Annie were here she would scold me and my manners. But Annie isn’t here, she died two years ago and with out her, I forget the small things.
I realise I am just standing in my kitchen, not really doing anything. I must at least try to start my day. Breakfast, wash, change and then a small walk perhaps. My life has been reduced to this. I sigh deeply because no one else can hear it but me. I feel very alone.
After breakfast and a little sit in the garden, the sun is actually out today and the heat is a welcomed gift. I move myself up stairs to take a small wash and change my clothes. Annie always picked out my clothes for me and I haven’t brought an item of clothing since she passed. I wouldn’t know what looked nice. I take a quick glance in the mirror, my gray trousers, white shirt and navy blue cardigan are placed neatly over my old bones and I look smart. Annie would approve. It is now late afternoon and I am thinking about lunch. Eating is such a good way to pass the day when you are retired.
I reach the landing and I realise I have a choice. I can make the journey back down the stairs to the kitchen and eat my tuna salad or I can go left, back to the little room of papers. I choose to go left. I re-enter the room and take my place on the floor. My legs are stretched out in front of me and I lean my body against the bed for support. I have to have peace.
I scan the papers and realise I have been going too slowly, taking my time, lingering over my past. I grab a handful of the papers and start flicking through them. There must be a hundred letters here, to Annie, my boy, my parents. News paper clippings, a time line of my career. There are old records and sheet music, from when we had the piano in the dining room. Photo’s of old friends and family, who now as I look at their faces, I can no longer remember their names. I can see broachers from places we visited on holiday and programmes of plays and musicals we saw over the years. My life is laid out in front of me on the different pieces of paper we collected along the way. But none of them hold the memory of a little girl called Beth.
Beth had lovely dark brown hair and blue eyes, which as a father could melt your heart and grant her permission for anything. Even a chocolate biscuit before dinner after her mother had already said no. She was very smart, and at times she could be a tad devious. Beth was learning to play the piano. She was born in June and was our first child; we had my boy two years later. After Beth was born I started teaching Annie how to read because she didn’t want her child to be ashamed of her.
They were peas in a pod my girls. Over the years I have tried so hard to hold on to the memories of Beth, to never forget her, not my girl. But I have forgotten her, I have lost her. I can’t remember why I no longer see her, how old she is, what her favourite colour is. I have no idea if she plays the piano still or if she cry’s when she has to have a bath. Did she like carrots and jelly? Or if she sleeps with brown teddy still, I can’t remember her middle name.
I am still on the floor and the thoughts of Beth are making me panic, I am frightened. I desperately pick up the papers and scan them and then cast them aside. Paper after paper, I have to find my daughter. I must have searched this room night after night for the last two years, looking for her. Is she in a letter, newspaper article, photo, song lyrics? Where did Annie and I put her for safe keeping in case we forgot?
Again time is passing with my search and I know I have missed lunch and should be thinking about dinner. Paper after paper, I can’t eat in till she is found. My hand brush’s a small envelope, and it is the colour that makes me suddenly stop. A little pink envelope, I am staring at it and I can fill the hope rising in my chest. I don’t know who I’m saying it too or why, but suddenly out load I hear myself say the word ‘please’. Please let this be her.
I hold the envelope in my hands, and as I slowly turn it over I can see the name Beth written clearly on the front. And once more out load, in case anyone is listening I say, ‘thank you’. I open the pink envelope very carefully and pull out the paper in side.
I am writing to you because I know you well enough to know that you will always read words when they are put in front of you. That you hate the colour pink and so will be drawn to my envelope and that you will not recognise my handwriting. I turned twenty-one today and my first thoughts were of you and mum, I wondered if you had remembered and if you had brought me a birthday cake?
Dad, I am so sorry and I want to come home. Please write to me and tell me you forgive me. That it was just a stupid mistake and I’m only human and that you want to see me. I am not the daughter you thought I was, but I do still have some of your qualities. I am hard-working and I am doing well at the newspaper, I am writing the weekly horoscopes and Robert the editor has asked me to work on small local stories. I have my own small flat and Lucy and I are very comfortable, the kitchen could do with a lick of paint thou, perhaps we could do it together? I am not married or dating anyone at the moment, that was probably a stupid sentence to write.
I know you find it hard to understand but please try dad. I ran away because you and mum both wanted to make a decision for me that wasn’t yours to make. Lucy was my mistake and my doing and at sixteen I was too young and foolish, but I knew I couldn’t have an abortion dad. I knew. You asked me to choose between my baby and you and I made that decision, and you have to forgive me. I forgave you a long time ago. You are not an easy person to talk to; it is much easier to write to you. That was a joke; I hope you are at least smiling. I know mum has my address and number, and so when you are ready dad, please get in contact.
Love your girl,
I re-read the letter three times. I have been a foolish man. I was never ready. I remember. I wanted Beth to remain the little eight year old girl I had loved and cherished, but as she grew up she turned in to a young women I neither liked or knew. I had been afraid of Beth. On the day we discovered she had run away from home, I decided to kill her. I took my memories and made a new one. At the age of eight Beth died. But now I am hunted by an older Beth, her shadow and the small shadow of her daughter, my granddaughter, is ever-present in my life.
I could never forgive her for not being the person I wanted her to be, for not choosing me. As parents we are meant to love our children unconditionally, but what if you can’t. I feel the tears rise in my eyes, I am admitting to my self openly, that I had hoped to find my lost memory was of a small dead child and instead I have discovered I am a murderer, I am responsible for the loss of my girl Beth.
I need to leave this room, to close the door on my paper past. I heave my body off the floor and take the letter with me, I again shuffle to the open door. I don’t even look back. I close the door and place my hand on its wooden frame. From now on if I am to be haunted by a shadow, a memory I can no longer remember I shall let it remain lost, because I have discovered it is lost for a reason.
I take the little letter and its pink envelope to the kitchen. The journey down the stairs is difficult, I feel the weight of my life and I need to go slowly. I place the letter on the table. I am hungry and allow my self the tuna salad sitting in the fridge. The letter and I stare at each other; she said Annie had her contact details. She said when I was ready to let her know. I am not ready. The pain I felt when I lost her the first time nearly killed me and I can not bear to lose her again. I take her letter and the words she wrote at 21 to her old man and I throw them away. I’ll ask meals on wheels to empty the bin for me tomorrow. I think I shall see what’s showing on ITV 1 and then later tonight I will call my boy and ask him to visit. I am a foolish man.