Three Letters by Nels Schifano
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It was autumn. Although still afternoon the journey had been spent peering at
slowly moving red lights through clouds of condensing exhaust and the
intermittent slip-slip of wipers. Now as she turned off the ignition
darkness gathered silently around her. She walked head down, hood up,
feeling plastic handles moulding themselves around her fingers, the
carrier bag spinning one way then the next as it clipped against her leg.
The pavement was thick with the slippery brown mulch of fallen leaves and
the smell of bonfires wafted across the common. A thin mist clung around
the streetlights producing a shifting yellow gas. Sounds were muffled and
movements lethargic. Cars slipped slowly by on a film of dirty water. At
her gate she delayed, unwilling to break the stillness with squeaking
hinges; not yet teatime and the city was being put to sleep.
The terrace before her hugged the curve of
the road tumbling erratically down the hill and into the gloom. Bending
around the edges of her vision she was conscious of curtains being swished
closed, stone faces bathed by the grey light of televisions, broken roof
tiles, satellite dishes, bay windows, the whole higgledy-piggledy
collection of guttering and skylights. For a moment her home was a
stranger, a simple compartment in this huge connected structure.
She rattled the key into the lock, tilting it
to the particular angle that would allow it to catch. She stepped inside,
her hand brushing the light switch as she closed the door behind her. The
softly lit warmth of the interior walls were a welcome contrast to the
dark slimy surfaces of the outside. Two elderly neighbours warmed the
house from the sides and soon she would hear the comforting noises of the
boiler rousing itself into life.
She kept her
mind occupied by these happy details of returning home as she walked along
the hall and into the kitchen. She lifted the carrier bag onto the worktop
and reached for the kettle. Standing in the centre of the room, still in
her anorak, she listened to the sound of the water boil and felt the house
adjust itself to her presence. Now she returned at all times of the day
she sometimes sensed she had caught it unawares. What ghosts that had been
running through rooms were now slipping reluctantly back into walls? While
its inhabitants had moved the house stayed still, preserving pockets of
time in dusty corners. The blue-tak tears on bedroom walls, a water-colour
sun and stick man hiding behind a fitted wardrobe, a dent in a table, a
crack in a mirror, were all passing moments etched into the physical
world, like voices pressed into vinyl.
Steam began to rise vertically to the ceiling where it changed direction
aware of the presence of some subtle draft (or draft of some subtle
presence). Through the window she could see the outline of the narrow
garden, the fuzzy grey shapes of a rusting climbing frame and overflowing
compost heap. Along one side a scruffy fence lent drunkenly one way then
the other, while a brutally straight line of six-foot high boards marked
the other side of the territory. What further anti-cat measures
(minefields, tripwires perhaps) lay waiting beyond? As if summoned by her
thoughts Rahel, green eyes and a flicking tail, appeared on the window
ledge, her silent meows making small circles of condensation. Smiling, she
unlocked the door. The cat padded in, figures of eight around her feet
represented by muddy paw prints on the kitchen floor. The kettle worked
itself towards a crescendo, beads of perspiration appeared on its sides
and it shook violently unable to contain the bubbling pressure inside.
Abruptly it finished, sat back on the filament and turned itself off.
She reached up to the top cupboards for the
coffee jar and bent down for those that contained the mugs. Here she
paused, confused by the vast number of assorted cup, mugs and beakers that
stared blankly back at her. Why did she have so many? Where had they come
from? She sighed as she straightened pulling out a standard shaped mug
with handle; colour - light blue; design - three letters emblazoned in
gold, S U E.
She took off her coat and laid
it over the back of the oak kitchen chair and sat down. She let her feet
slip out of her shoes and raised them onto the fitted bench across the
other side of the table. Above the bench were shelves supporting
decorative plates in wire stands, a Charles and Diana mug (more mugs!),
and a collection of photographs showing either madly grinning or defiantly
sulky children (both on the verge of crying). As she looked the image of a
growing family seemed to slowly recede to reveal the image of a shrinking
There was the sudden sound of water
flooding into a drain as somewhere nearby a plug was pulled from a sink, a
toilet was flushed or maybe a washing machine emptied itself and she
realised that her coffee had gone cold. She moved to the sink and ran the
hot water. Staring out into darkness she listened to the succession of
far-off bangs and shudders from the network of pipes. Bathed in yellow
light hovering over the gloom of the garden she looked in at a woman
repeatedly working a tea towel around the inside of a mug. Who was she?
Why was she so miserable?
She shook herself and took out the plug. Slipped away again into nothing
time (that time that flowed into the gaps between the things you did).
Wouldn't a wasted minute become a wasted hour, wasted hours become wasted
days? Where could she be now if she hadn't been doing, what? - making tea,
sitting in traffic jams, reading the local paper, standing in a
supermarket queue. Best avoided, the thought of her life draining into
She unpacked the carrier bag.
She put away the milk, the orange, the biscuits and the cat food, then
struggled to slide the two pizza's into an already crowded freezer
spraying tiny shards of ice across the floor. An overflowing collection of
polythene bags scrunched inside other polythene bags in the bottom of a
cupboard was her commitment to recycling. When it was opened a white
plastic avalanche slid towards her. She threw in the latest addition and
slammed the door. A lone bag made a break for freedom and buoyed by the
swish of air it lifted across the room like a jellyfish. Two pairs of eyes
followed its progress over the spice rack and breadboard until it was
caught on a bottle of olive oil.
bench was not just a foot rest. She had made this discovery during a
rigorous cleaning session one New Year. Under the lip of the removable
cushioned seat she had found a small catch, rusty enough to break two
nails. Eventually it yielded and raised to reveal a dark, hollow chest.
Despite a few moments when her heartbeat seemed to fill the house, it
proved to contain nothing more exciting than a pile of old newspapers -
more dirtiness to clean. It was, she decided, an ideal place to store
tablecloths and tea towels, but steadily it began to swallow bedding,
pillowcases and blankets of various sorts. Really, it was ridiculous to
think that no one else was aware of its existence (was she the only one
ever to change a bed, lay a table?) Still, she always thought of it as
hers, and, when alone in the house, she opened it, she experienced a flush
of childish excitement. She felt it rise now as her fingers fumbled
beneath soft layers of folded cotton searching for the sharp cold of a
shiny metal toffee tin.
She put the tin on the table. Inside lay a medal from the Polish Airforce;
a commemorative coin; a pebble taken from Ilfracomb beach in 1978 (could
she really remember the heavy heat of that day or did she need the proof
of the pebble to tell her she had been there); a present bought but never
given; and inside a neatly folded bag, three envelopes. She glanced around
the room, from somewhere inside a wall a pipe clanked - the house clearing
its throat - and took out the top envelope.
An antelope leapt across a colourful stamp. It looked startled as
antelopes often do caught in the sights of the black postmark. The paper
inside was thick and cream-coloured, it had a blue letterhead and the date
in the top right hand corner was July 2000. As she let her eyes wander
over the page she noticed it was just a little crumpled, stiff in places,
as if it had been wetted then dried. *
This must be something of a surprise. If, that is, this letter gets
to you. I remembered your address, of course, but then it suddenly struck
me that maybe you had moved and I didn't know and anyway the post round
here isn't exactly reliable. So perhaps I am only writing a letter to
Really now that I've started I can't
think what it was I wanted to say. I think it was just the act of writing
that was important, just to feel as if I was still in contact with things,
although I guess a blank piece of paper in an envelope would have seemed a
I've really no need to ask
how things are with you. It all seems to have worked out pretty much as
you planned. But still I hope you are both healthy and happy.
I am afraid I've done nothing very exciting
to tell you about. Here is just an endless succession of long boring
tasks, and then there's the heat and the clouds of flies that rise from
the river and make everything twice as hard. But this evening as I washed
and dried my clothes suddenly there was this feeling of satisfaction.
Strange, five months of toil and worry then calm descends as welcome and
unexpected as an ice-cream van clattering through the bush.
Maybe that's why I am writing this letter. Perhaps it's thinking about
England in the summer, perhaps it's the sounds of the river at night but
my mind wandered back to the place of long afternoons, listening to Pink
Moon and Lay Lady Lay. Can you still find a way back to the taste of cheap
wine, the feel of grass between your fingers and a world that was all
All those people
disappeared into the world. How would they be recognised now - perhaps
only by the sound of their laughter?
afraid I once damaged the environment in your name and took a penknife to
the willow we used to sit by. I can remember wondering if the bark would
ever grow back. If you ever find yourself driving past one weekend . . .
Well perhaps not, it's probably so sadly different. But I know your name
will still be there, carved in the memory of a tree.
She re-folded the letter and tapped it several times
against her top lip. From the hall the clock calling out the quarter hour,
then a moment of stillness - time stalling - before, faintly, the clock in
her study responded.
She took out the next
envelope. While her fingers searched for the flap she looked at the
Queen's silver silhouette. The letter was written on paper so white and
thin that as her gaze fell across it she saw it as a shade of blue. The
date was April 1976.
Do I remember that September afternoon when I first
met you? Is it possible to remember the slide into sleep or the
hypnotist's fingers on your eyelids? I only know that it happened because
at some stage I awoke.
Some things are clear,
the lucid fragments of a dream, a conversation over the phone one Easter.
We both felt down because I was working in a stuffy shop and you in a
sorting office. I hated it and asked you how it was that time moved so
slowly. It's okay, you said, it doesn't matter, because it will end and
time passed is all the same, and anyway, in the end it's not time that
you're left with.
You told me to go look for
happiness and bring some back when I found it. But you can't bank
happiness. You can't keep it for when you need it and you cannot give to
someone else simply by having it yourself.
I thought I would be content to watch the river flow past and drift away
on the scent of water lilies. I watched days become nights and nights
gently give way to days, believing I was shedding my cares when really I
was storing regrets. Now I know that reading is dreaming, that dreaming is
sleeping and thought inaction. When I wake I find that all I have left is
thoughts of you.
The noise of the cat jumping clumsily onto her lap,
the feeling of her pressing up and down with alternate paws, claws
snagging loops of cotton.
This time the
silhouette is not the Queen's but that of Nehru, a white head against an
orange background. The stamp is stuck on at an odd angle (but still stuck
after all this time!) and he stares down at the scraggly lines of a
familiar address. The letter itself is written on a school child's lined
paper, as her eyes run down the page they linger on the date, Nov. 1968
and the dappling of yellow blotches. What were they? Had they always been
I still can't believe you decided to go. Why go back
to the grey, the dirt, the noise, the rush? There is a lifetime to do
those things. I know you chase that dream of yours, but the dream is so
sweetly deferred here. Here I feel as if I am absorbing the sunshine and
Since you left we moved further
east where the earth here has a reddish tinge and so does the food. Today
we met a group of Americans. We got a ride on the roof of their van and
helped them collect firewood. They say there is an old man who sells the
beads you wanted from the front of his hut, and eight miles of white sand.
I am writing this in a flickering of orange
and blackness. This is the best time, talking and reading, the world
melting away into words, although sometimes a phrase is so beautiful I
have to walk around a little just to let them settle in. One of these made
me think of you. 'Do that which makes you happy to do, and you will do
The freezer's cooling mechanism rattled, then fell
silent, and she realised that she hadn't been aware of the noise it was
making. In its absence the air in the house seemed to hang with that same
question; how would her life have been if she had managed to send just one
of them? But the air received no answers and went back to its lazy
In time she would fold the letter away and place it back in the envelope,
place the envelopes back into the bag, the bag back into the tin and the
tin into the trunk. She would cover it with layers of cloth and place down
the seat and lock the catch. But now she just sat for a moment, the noise
of the cat's contented breathing filling the house.