The Letter by Kate Whitehead

The steps to the house were worn down with the years of trampling feet but still grand like the smooth white pillars in front of the conservatory. I was juvenile and an aspiring author so pounced on any new adventure as a catalyst to the beginning of something. That was all I owned; a lot of openings which lay around for a while then became crumpled balls before disappearing under the detritus of my everyday life.

This unexpected excursion was a break from my daily routine which revolved around looking for two elusive things simultaneously: work and long term accommodation. It was beginning to seem that neither of them would ever be available to me which left me in a grey nowhere place somewhere between the heart of the metropolis and the village wastes I’d left behind.

My temporary home was in the heart of Soho above an Old Italian cafe unchanged since the 1960s. I needed not only the slight buzz of the espresso coffee but also the unforced warmth and laconic banter of the waiters to set me off in the mornings. Next door but one to the cafe was the old junk shop where I found the book. I was supposed to be hunting for clothes for mythical job interviews but was soon enticed by the dusty piles of memorabilia. I bought the book simply because I liked the cover which was green with the black outline of a corpse.

As I reached the top of the stairs the two crisp pages of the letter fell out. I lunged quickly to retrieve them before they were whisked away by the fresh northerly breeze and then rang the doorbell. The face of the man in the doorway contrasted with the picture of him in my imagination. I’d expected someone elderly with a slight stoop and kindly smile not the modern Adonis with raven black hair and meticulous attire who was standing in front of me.

He didn’t speak immediately but stared at me slightly confusedly as though he’d been awaiting someone much more interesting who was standing just behind me.

I bought this in a junk shop”, I said thrusting the book nervously towards him. His hand trembled slightly as he reached for it.

My God Margot Maudsley please please come in.”

A sleek, well fed black cat brushed past my right leg as I entered the high ceilinged white room. An image of it would be permanently lodged in my imagination because it was the first flat I visited in the metropolis. It was crammed with objects that tugged at the senses: smooth glass paperweights demanding to be touched and held and an ornate chandelier whose pieces dazzled as they caught the rays of the late afternoon sunshine and a colourful bead curtain which tinkled faintly in the breeze. The bitter aroma of burnt coffee filled the room.

So strange you should come here now just too late, my father died last week.”

I’m so sorry. Shouldn’t I go?”

No please stay I feel there’s a revelation here, anyway it’s good to have company since the funeral I’ve holed myself up in here in an introverted bubble, reminiscences insomnia — you know how it is with grief”.

We sat side by side on the high backed sofa and read the letter. It was my second time.

Dear Lucas,

When you receive this correspondence I will certainly be dead. I could have posted it but need these elaborate steps from me to you and I am as always gambling with chance. As I sit here in the dusk hunched over with the burden of all my ailments so many what ifs? Are drifting in my mind but somehow I am certain my instructions will be obeyed. I am desperately in need of a final opportunity to do well not only in apologising to you but also in the reward I am offering the anonymous messenger for completing the task.

The last time I saw you we were drinking black coffee in the faded but opulent art deco lounge whilst outside the snow began to fall powdering the tram lines and people on the other tables communed in hushed tones. We were both tired since we’d walked round the city all morning endlessly spurred on by the prospect of yet another revelation of the cities immense beauty. Ideas were forming in my mind and then dissolving in a sea of drowsiness. I think we were both almost nodding off when the waiter called me over to the phone.

That was that I didn’t look back at you snoozing there contentedly wondered how long you’d wait before realizing that something was wrong. The truth is my husband was back from the dead.

I must tell you that we weren’t ever happy but the mediocrity and undemanding nature of our relationship allowed me success as an author.

When we were almost neighbours I wondered where and when we would collide but aren’t you reclusive as well tired of the brute ugliness of reality as I am. In your absence I created a detective with some of your attributes but I’m sure you know that already.

Yours we’ll be dancing in the next life Margot.

In the silence that ensued I gazed curiously around the room.

Finally he spoke: ”When things are this strange you need to breathe deeply and have a stiff drink will brandy do?”

I knocked it back in one, savouring the taste and the burning sensation as it hit my gullet. It relaxed me slightly but I was still on tenterhooks, awaiting a word from him that indicated that the money wasn’t mine but his mind was on other things.

I can’t believe it it’s all too much the timing of this bloody Margot Maudsley thing it was one of those passionate love affairs cruelly cut short. He couldn’t have her, so settled for my mother as a substitute. From there it was all knock-on misery more or less softened by alcohol. I am the sad and only product of this misalliance.”

I could sense his desperation he was a man in need of a friend and confidant, a diminished figure from the one who greeted me on the steps now marooned in a sea of alcohol and opulence.

Still without much reflection, I left him on the doorstep, swaying slightly as he clung to the railings, promising another visit soon. From there I made my way to the offices of Grayson and Brockett where the dead stultifying rooms sobered me up as did the perfunctory manner of the clerk who unsmilingly handed over the money.

It was the obvious thing to do to follow in the footsteps of the doomed lovers to rake over the ashes of their liaison in an attempt of creating something of my own.

Like them, I was utterly intoxicated by the beauty of Prague. I sought out the grand Art Deco hotel where they had met for my daily scribbling routine. It looked as Margot had described it but was now frequented by the nouveau riche and slightly criminal who spoke in low voices for different reasons. Before long I was completely absorbed in her story and the realisation of my own limitations. I wanted to wallow in nostalgia, feel vicariously grand emotions and the consequences of historical upheavals. Aside from the grandeur and immense beauty of the architecture, precious little remained of the splendour of former times. I was surrounded by people scrabbling for money and embarking on enterprises that were sure to fail.

Every morning I sat at the same small table which afforded me a panoramic view of the comings and goings. Nursing a small black coffee I scribbled away for a few hours. The rest of the day I squandered in various denizens lingering over an unhealthy lunch, appreciating the hustle and bustle of the buffet and then sitting in the dark corner of a small patisserie until early evening when the tram rattled me back to my basement room in the suburbs, where I watched Czech children’s cartoons soothed by the gentle mice and rabbits. It was a completely solitary existence only punctuated by day to day interchanges and the occasional encounter with my land lady who was so snowed under by the whirlwind world of work and family seemed slightly bewildered by my apparently idle and undemanding lifestyle.

The news of his demise reached me six months later in the midst of my solitary celebrations of my publishing victory. I was celebrating in one of the more upmarket patisseries with coffee cake and hot chocolate .The international papers lay in a smart teak rack at the side of the counter.

Seeing his body spread-eagled across the floor with the caption suicide of diplomat’s son both sickened and appalled me. I paid the bill with trembling hands and walked shakily to the tram stop.

That night in the Czech basement all of my excitement and jubilation had been obliterated by the sombre news and I dreamt vividly and frantically only of him. In my dream, rather than callously abandoning him to his lonely fate, I stayed in his opulent home and nursed him through the dark stages of his grief.

Awoken by the thud of the children’s footsteps on the stairs above me, a still grey morning with the promise of rain awaited me. Slowly with a heavy heart I gathered up my scattered belongings and prepared for my departure.

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