I sent my valentine,
a red felt heart
pinned to the card
by a gold safety pin.
my fierce heart pierced
by a soft voice.
inside I wrote
in red felt tip –
my felt heart bleeds
a heartfelt plea –
we put our past together
from fragments we find
in envelopes with yellowed paste,
on the tops of wardrobes
and at the backs of drawers.
overloaded drawers that only open
if yanked at a certain angle,
and taken by surprise, whose bottoms
billow out into the cupboard below.
or in a schreiber blanket box,
with its unsatupon black vinyl seat,
long-term resident of the landing,
a sanctuary for half-finished garments
sewn for small children long grown up.
washed out 110 instamatic colour snaps,
faded as if by the hot 70s summer sun
they captured in blurry matte oblongs.
or square monochrome over-exposed
polaroids, the nearest we came to magic,
as we posed awkwardly,
clutching our own elbows,
in front of the french windows.
letters from our neighbours,
witnesses who took an interest
in our welfare, postcards
from our younger selves,
cheery messages from foreign parts,
birthday cards from long-lost friends.
we reassemble our lives as they once were.
but they are jigsaws with missing pieces –
the edges of a cloud, the arrowhead tip
of a church spire, the verdant heart of a tree.
they will always be insoluble and incomplete,
vital clues absent or jumbled,
astray in the thickets of memory.
Incidentally found out the camera on the left is still halfway through a film …
through a casement shoots
shivers straight into her bones,
a gravestone cold
of exposed hilltops
and broken-down ploughs.
her view takes in the frosted
counterpane of fields,
clergy and conformity.
her words thaw the barren land,
expose the narrow insularity
of a town built on niceties
and frozen birthday candle wishes.
she disdains that chill
undergarment, civility, bucks
at the taut reins of convention.
a sentence strung
just so – and hung –
a lantern on a branch ,
chasing shadows into the dark
corners of the yard,
secrets of the heart.
her pen a wand
that touches all with wonder.
an intellect so finely spun
it seeks its own society,
subsists on solitude,
shuns the ebb and flow,
the shallow soirées
of polite parlours.
her difference – once dared –
stands free and tall
virginal and proud
clad all in white –
the colour of obstinacy.
there is no manual
to the heart
no rules are written down
a spirit’s wild desire,
a restless soul,
her candle a naked flame
of longing held in check.
she has scaled the wall
of her captivity,
of gender, to soar free,
to hover, iridescent,
a dragonfly on the breeze,
and release her passion
in a torrent of free verse.
and so – she writes,
in earnest fervour
like the sun –
to break the dawn
Picture from Emily Dickinson Museum.
writing done in the dark
that you can barely decipher in daylight.
lines crawling diagonally up the page
and colliding with each other
as if blindfolded and spun by the shoulders.
squashed and crooked letters,
snaking out of control
pell mell and gung ho
as dodgems at the fair.
words escaping the edges of the paper
rivulets of spilled ink
or runaway trains in old
grey TV westerns.
ideas that crowd your head
and will not be denied:
clamouring like vendors at the rialto
robustly proclaiming their wares:
make it mine, make it mine,
make it mine.
at the writing group
upsets the balance,
the pattern and flow
of read and response,
the kid glove critics
handing out biscuits
and circumspect approval.
she senses their mistrust,
an invisible wall
that must be scaled
or broken down.
she has to feel her way
past cold shoulders,
tentative, a blind person
in a maze of hazards,
nervous as a lamb
in unfamiliar pasture.
words detach themselves from the page
and crawl, unbidden, into his ears,
whispering in the lost forgotten
half-bled hour before dawn.
stick-written in sand on
an ancient shore in his mind,
they disappear with the tide
of consciousness in the daylight,
shapes drawn by fingertips down
the condensation of a windowpane.
sleep pressed its thumbs on his eyelids,
the gap between worlds yawned wide
as his future and he drifted into a dream
as if carried on a wave out to sea.
Photo by Belinda
She leant over the side of the well, remembering the smell from her dream, holding on to the top of the bricks. A small hand closed over her left one and her eyes followed the arm upwards to see Luke. He was tanned and healthy, his cheeks red and eyes bright, brown hair glossy and thick again. ‘Shall we go in?’ he asked, nodding at the well.
‘What? How on earth do you think … ?’ but she stopped because he was using both hands to throw a rope ladder over into the well. So that answered the how.
‘Why would we want … ?’
‘Don’t you want to see what’s inside it?’
He was tugging on the ladder to make sure it was secure. This end of it seemed to be fastened down into the ground with thick metal pegs, bigger than the ones they used on the tent ropes when camping. Elisha had always imagined the inside would be wet brick and cold, deep water, like with an ordinary well. She had no real desire to check it out for herself.
‘I’ll go first if you promise not to kick my head.’ He already had one leg over the wall. It was all going too quickly for Elisha, like someone had speeded up a cine film of them. She wanted to yell ‘Stop!’ but was ashamed to be such a wimp when Luke showed no fear at all. So she found herself following him down the well, descending the rope ladder slowly and carefully, conscious of his fast, excited breathing below her.
Once they were a few feet down, it got very dark and rather cold. Like caves could be cold in the summertime when you wished you hadn’t gone in in just a t-shirt and shorts but had listened to your parents and brought your pullover from the car. She started to shiver and wish she were climbing back up.
‘Come on, Elisha.’ Luke’s voice echoed a couple of times off the shaft. ‘Wow,’ he said quietly, ‘did you hear that?’
‘I’m coming.’ She started moving again, but put one foot down carefully to join the other on a new rung, while he was skipping this stage and proceeding very fast, foot over foot.
‘You’re miles behind now,’ he called and the echo went round Elisha’s head, making her feel dizzy. It was pitch black in the well now. When she looked up, she could just see a tiny circle of light high above her. Why oh why did she agree to this? She peered downwards but couldn’t make Luke out any more and started to panic.
‘Luke!’ Her own voice came back at her, somehow more pathetically, so that she felt stupid. But he didn’t answer, so the feeling of panic grew. It was swelling up inside her and she couldn’t stop it. Something hairy and spidery ran across her hand and she screamed. Then she felt angry with Luke for abandoning her.
‘Luke! Where are you?’ She tried to speed up and suddenly she was knee-deep in freezing cold water, which made her gasp. Hm, exactly as she’d imagined after all.
‘Up here, up here, Ellie.’ Luke’s voice was hyper and breathless.
Her head jerked upwards. So fast that she felt that sharp twinge in her neck because the brain signal hadn’t got through in time again. She really didn’t like that feeling.
Tiredness washed over her, like it was creeping up from the water. She pulled her feet up with quite some effort, sighing. They were almost numb with cold.
‘Come on!’ yelled Luke from somewhere above her, but further away than before.
She started to climb, her legs heavy so that she had to drag them like dead weights.
‘Are you coming or what?’
She made a face at the bricks in front of her. ‘Okay. But I can’t see where you are.’
‘There’s an opening a few feet up from you, just to the right of the ladder.’
After a minute she saw Luke’s head seeming to pop out of the wall towards her and yelped with surprise.
‘Through here, see. It’s quite a small opening but it widens out. It’s like a tunnel, you’ll see.’ He took her hand to help her up to the hole. The rope ladder swung unexpectedly and she had to stop herself from screaming.
Determined to be brave, she said, ‘Move out of the way and I’ll get in myself.’
‘Okay.’ He retreated out of sight.
She managed to get a good hold inside the hole with her right hand first, leaning across and then found it relatively easy to pull herself up. It was like she was boosted somehow from underneath or like her body had turned very light and buoyant. Normally in her dreams she could float-walk and dance around, a foot or two off the ground, like the people in the Cookeen commercial. She could just make Luke out by the whites of his eyes and teeth, because he was grinning.
‘What an adventure!’ he breathed, seemingly awestruck by the fact that they’d climbed down the inside of a freezing cold old well and discovered some manky tunnel.
‘Yeah,’ she said, rather sarcastically. ‘Well, let’s see what’s down here then.’
But she let him go ahead of her in case of spider webs.
‘Ugh!’ he exclaimed and recoiled into her, having hit one. They had to feel their way along on their hands and knees for a bit. But suddenly the area seemed to be opening out into a kind of chamber.
Elisha became aware of an eerie blue light and blinked a couple of times trying to adjust to it. The walls around them were polished dark rock, worn smooth by something, maybe water, over many years. The blue light was coming from a large, roundish pool roughly in the centre of the chamber. They could hear the gentle sound of tiny waves lapping its edges. Luke took her hand and she grasped his gratefully. They were both drawn to the serenity and glow of the blue pool, approaching it without saying a word to each other, as if no other course of action were possible.
A slow dripping from a number of stalactites above the pool was what agitated the still water into life, creating the ripples that reached the shore, the gentle hypnotic sound they could hear. Elisha gazed into the sapphire water that also seemed to be light, feeling suddenly giddy and cold.
‘What makes it so bright?’ Luke whispered, hushed by the strange calmness.
‘I don’t know.’ Elisha shuddered a little, feeling a chill run down her spine, also in awe, like they’d run headlong and clattering into a vast cathedral and found people praying. ‘I think we should go back.’ But when she looked around, the chamber walls were solid rock; there was no tunnel; it had disappeared.
‘I think we should go on.’ Luke felt the water with his hand, exclaimed, ‘It’s warm, Elisha!’ before stepping into the pool. She was sure there must be some Green Cross Code for stepping into strange pools that he wasn’t paying attention to.
She didn’t even have time to tell him the tunnel was gone. She reached out a hand to grab him but he moved further in so that she nearly overbalanced herself. The water was getting deeper around him. ‘Luke! Stop! Come back!’ she called, as he waded out of her reach.
And he went on, smiling calmly back at her, almost soothingly, a mischievous glint in his eyes, tilting his head as if to taunt her, till the water was over his head and he was gone.
She sobbed a minute, breathlessly, then realised that she had to follow him, no matter how scared she was — she had to get him back. But she couldn’t swim — she’d have to stay close to the edge, duck her head under and see if she could reach him. While her brain was telling her this, she found herself taking a deep breath and closing her eyes before letting herself fall forward into the water.
He was right — it was warm, like a tepid bath. Opening her eyes again, she was momentarily blinded by the light, but then saw Luke ahead of her. He seemed peaceful, unconscious, inert.
The water didn’t make her eyes sting like it did in the swimming baths. She found herself swimming towards him. She could normally swim easily in her dreams but this wasn’t like that. It was really hard, her clothes and shoes like heavy stones she had to tow, the effort of holding her breath making her chest ache. Catching him under the armpits, her temples beginning to pound, she used all her might to hoist him, to shove them both up towards the air, kicking hard with her feet. He surfaced moments before her.
Later it would seem strange that a day that had begun so ordinarily, holding so little promise of excitement or adventure, should have ended up being the day that would change things forever.
Even though it was Sunday, Elisha wasn’t looking forward to the afternoon at all. It seemed a shame that on such a gloriously sunny day, she probably wouldn’t be able to play outside because it was their turn to visit Great Aunt Jessie.
Aunt Jessie was very old, maybe 90 or 100, and her grandmother’s older sister. She’d had a heart attack a year before and, although she’d recovered well, Elisha’s mum still worried about her.
‘She’s much frailer than she looks,’ Mrs Goodman told her husband, while packing up things to take into a large bag of white woven straw. Elisha’s father just snorted in response.
Elisha tried to snort too, copying him, but hers was a pale imitation. His brown eyes twinkled as they exchanged glances.
‘Don’t encourage him, Ellie,’ warned her mum. ‘One day you’ll both be old and maybe no one will want to go and visit you … ‘
Elisha giggled. She couldn’t imagine being old but she always liked it when she and her dad clubbed together to tease her mum. He felt more like an older brother then.
Skipping down the garden path, she hovered by the car door, waiting for her dad to unlock it. He had to get in first before reaching across to lift up the little knobs by the windows on each of their doors. It was a half-hour drive in their little Austin Maxi, which was the exact colour of the gypsy tart you had for afters at school, and she hoped she wouldn’t be sick. Sometimes she felt very ill in the car. But there was no point taking a tablet now as it might take twenty minutes to work. She liked the tin the Avomine™ came in – it was slim, green and yellow, with a slide-off lid – but she hated having to swallow the pills, even though they were tiny.
Aunt Jessie lived in an old people’s home about ten miles away where everything was painted in cream, beige and a rusty orange colour that Elisha’s mother called ‘burnt umber’.
Elisha looked at the corridor walls as they walked along to the day room and thought her mother probably meant amber, as that was a kind of orange, the type in the middle in traffic lights.
There were lots of old people in the day room, watching the colour TV or playing cards or talking. Some of them were in wheelchairs but mostly they sat in big easy-chairs with polished wooden arms. Elisha’s father said some of these chairs had loos underneath them, ‘in case of accidents’. He laughed when Elisha wrinkled her nose at this, putting her head on one side to see if she could spot any of the giveaway white plastic bottoms.
She always wondered what the day room turned into at night.
She couldn’t see her aunt at first and just followed her mum’s khaki gabardine raincoat, trying not to look at the old women in cardigans knitting grandchildren’s clothes in garish light greens and sickly pinks or the old bald man with the thick-lensed spectacles that made his eyes look huge. She could hear wheezy breathing and smell stale cigar smoke as another old man’s sleeve brushed her hair in passing.
But then she saw Aunt Jessie, plump and cheerful, sitting on a straight ordinary chair, reading a book at a table. Elisha felt bad. It was mean not to want to visit Aunt Jessie because the old lady seemed to enjoy seeing them so much.
Her hair was snow-white against a red-cheeked face; and she beamed all over to see her relatives, setting aside her large-print romance from the mobile library.
‘Oh, I’m so glad you could make it!’ she said, as if they’d fought through a raging gale outside to get there. ‘I’ve been looking forward to seeing you all week. Especially my little Elisha.’ Elisha was hugged to her aunt’s big bosom, which smelt of clean washing mixed with lavender. Her mother and father started to talk to Jessie, as they unloaded magazines, boring ones like Woman’s Realm and Women’s Weekly, satsumas, Walnut Whips (her aunt’s favourite), a box of Milk Tray (which Elisha hoped her aunt would open straight away) and some bubble bath (one of the pink bottles from Avon, shaped like the bubbles were trying to break out on each side) from the straw bag.
It seemed a bit unfair that in this way her dad took half the credit for the gifts when he’d actually had no hand in acquiring, collecting or packing them.
‘Oh, you really shouldn’t have,’ said Aunt Jessie, releasing Elisha from the clench, fingering all the goodies. ‘These are splendid. You mustn’t spoil me like this.’
Elisha got a white pear drop out of the little white paper bag her Mum handed her, inhaling the nail-varnish smell of it before popping it into her mouth and wandering over to the window where the sun shone brightly on a beautiful garden. Some of the residents tended it, her mother said, and they did a very good job. Aunt Jessie always said it was better than Kew Gardens but Elisha didn’t know what that was. It sounded like you had to wait in line to get in.
This garden was pretty though, with irises, hydrangeas, roses and hollyhocks and a bird-feeder under frenzied sparrow attack. Sighing, she turned her gaze back into the room and looked up at the big wall clock, trying to tell the time.
The heating was turned up too high in the day room and none of the windows was open. It was much too stuffy. Elisha longed to escape into the garden and play – but she was stuck inside with mum and dad and her aunt and lots of old people. It wasn’t fair. Returning briefly to the group, she delved in her mum’s bag and got out a bottle of Cresta. She shook it up as surreptitiously as she could so that when she opened it, it fizzed out over her hands. She imagined it to be Babycham, the height of grownup sophistication. ‘It’s frothy, man,’ she quoted the advert. It was just as nice as cream soda too.
‘Careful, sweetie,’ admonished her great-aunt, pursing her lips. Elisha just nodded, licked the spillage up from her fingers and running to try the vacant easy-chairs out, sitting in one and then another, dashing round and bumping into things till she felt hot and tired out, and till the old men frowned at her and tutted to themselves. Eyes back on the clock, she saw that the hour hand had finally crept round the circle.
‘Elisha darling,’ called her mother. ‘Aunt Jessie wants to speak to you.’
Sulkily, Elisha turned back to the group. Her mother pulled her over to them, smoothing down her hair. Her brown hair was very flyaway and static, sticking out untidily from her head. She wished she had hair more like her mother’s, which was a honey-blonde colour, helped by a box of dye from the chemist in the high street. It was fun searching out the reduced ones on the shelves at the back.
Everything about her mum seemed to match – her Outdoor Girl coral lipstick, really more of a tangerine colour, from a green plastic tube, the orange, brown and white swirl patterns on her nylon minidress, her white vinyl boots and American Tan tights.
In fact, she wished that she looked more like her mum altogether – the delicate features, hazel eyes, upturned nose, generous mouth – she thought her mum was the prettiest mum in the world. She sometimes used to copy her and smear Vaseline on her dark eyelashes before going out.
But now she whined, ‘Don’t, Mummy’ and squirmed away from her grasp.
‘Come to my room, child,’ said Great-Aunt Jessie. ‘I’ve got a secret present to give you.’ She stood up, suddenly important.
Elisha was excited by both those words – ‘secret’ and ‘present’ – she loved surprise gifts and secrets even more. So she more than dutifully followed her aunt through the corridors to her small room, also painted burnt umber and beige. There was a rusty-colour bedspread and some rust and cream striped curtains. Elisha didn’t like the room much – it was too dark – but it smelt nice. It smelt of the Parma Violets Aunt Jessie always ate and gave her. They were proper grownup sweets that smelt like perfume. She wondered if her aunt had collected some more beads for her to swap with friends in the lunch hour.
‘This is a very special present, Elisha, and you must be careful with it.’
Elisha nodded gravely as her aunt produced a dark-green M&S plastic bag. It certainly didn’t look special, she thought. It was probably a boring sweater or something, something in those very bright, Battenburg-cake colours the old ladies in the day room were knitting with. But maybe it was an Easter egg – that would be ‘eggscellent’.
Aunt Jessie breathed heavily as she pushed down the bag sides to reveal a small blue cardboard box, before lifting it out on to the bed beside her, next to Elisha. This looked more intriguing and, in her impatience to see what was inside, Elisha almost pushed her aunt’s hands out of the way before stopping herself.
‘Inside this box is a magic wishing well,’ the old lady said, lifting the flaps and dipping her hands in. ‘It’s always given to the youngest girl in the family. My great-grandmother gave it to me before she died. Now I’m getting old so I’m giving it to you. Soon you will be its keeper. When you’re very old, you’ll have to give it to your youngest girl relative, even if she’s only a baby, when you get the sign.’
Elisha’s eyes were big and round as her aunt drew out the most amazing model well she’d ever seen. Well, it was the only one she’d ever seen actually but still it was perfect – wonderfully detailed and coloured, even with a little red bucket ready to go down, hung on a delicate gold-coloured chain.
She put out her hands to the well, as if touching it to see if it were real. It almost seemed to glow slightly in the dim room. There was a word for that – phosphorescent or luminous – one of those. In Elisha’s book, anything luminous was automatically magical and special.
‘If you drop a coin into it, it turns into gold and the well will grant your wish,’ said her aunt, solemn but kindly.
This unlikely claim distracted Elisha from the beauty of the well. Scornfully, she sneered, ‘Wells can’t turn stuff into gold.’ While at the same time her heart did a little jump and she hoped it was true.
Her aunt smiled and seemed very wise. ‘This one can. This is a different kind of well.’
‘Hmph,’ went Elisha, exactly as her mum did when she didn’t believe something Elisha had said.
‘Well, once you’ve tried it, maybe you’ll believe me,’ said Aunt Jessie, turning to the door just as there was a knock. She seemed like she wanted to say more but now couldn’t, just having time to whisper, ‘Remember now – it’s our secret.’
Elisha’s parents came in, a bit apologetically. ‘Time to go now, darling. Oh, what’s Aunt Jessie given you? Aren’t you a lucky girl?’
‘Goodbye, sweetheart.’ Her aunt gave her a hug and kiss, clasping her to her and saying, ‘Be generous with your wishes. Try not to be selfish.’
‘Thanks, Auntie,’ said Elisha, earning a nod of approval from her mother, then pulling away and packing the well up quickly in case her aunt changed her mind.
And when they left a few minutes later, she insisted on carrying the green plastic bag herself even though it was a bit heavy.
She knew it was stupid but all the way back in the car she couldn’t help thinking of things she could wish for. Her eyes lit up at the thought of a new bike. But of course the wishing bit couldn’t really work. If it did, Aunt Jessie wouldn’t be in that horrible home. Maybe she wouldn’t even be old.
barry took, bashfulbadgersblog, blog, charles atlas, friends, hugh grant, john mcenroe, long life beer, my guy magazine, poem in a white ribbed vest, points of view, smith-corona petite, stamp approvals, teenage writing, the queen, tippex
I might rail against the self-absorption of teenagers today, their obsession with their smartphones, addiction to social media and vain predilection for selfies. But, when it comes to sheer conceitedness, it turns out they have nothing on my fifteen-year-old self.
This I discovered when I unearthed a dusty spiralbound notebook from a broken shoebox at the back of a shelf of my childhood. My looping adolescent handwriting overflowed from every page as if the margins of the pad simply could not contain it.
And, if you know what was in the last notebooks I happened upon (eviscerated in this blog), you can imagine how my heart sank.
Surely not more maudlin poems preoccupied with mortality and saturated in self-pity? Not more lacklustre investigations of hackneyed topics like ‘My Hobby’, liberally peppered with protestations about my infamous lack of spare time?
No, here, it would appear, tellingly exposing the untruthfulness of said protestations, were word-for-word copies of letters that I had mailed to a variety of unsuspecting recipients that year.
Hmm, it would seem a fairly arduous and egotistical undertaking to have carefully transcribed my letters to my penfriends into a notebook before sending them. Even with my peculiar mania for documentation, how did I judge this to be a worthwhile use of my time?
Perhaps I kept a record in order not to repeat (or contradict) myself in subsequent letters? I choose to believe this to be the case because the alternative, that I considered them somehow worth preserving for posterity, is not something I wish to admit, even from this distance.
But, curiouser still, I shortly after stumble upon laboriously typewritten versions of these same dreary epistles. This truly does beggar belief. Especially when you consider the alleged dearth of spare time belaboured in my earlier writing efforts.
Remember, this was before we all had personal computers, laptops, mobiles, tablets and the wherewithal to not only instantly commit our most inane thoughts to posterity but blast them into the ether without forethought or further ado.
It was before word processors. I didn’t even have an electric or electronic typewriter at the time, just an old children’s aqua blue manual Smith-Corona Petite. So this represented a lot of painstaking, time-consuming work. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t quite a Herculean endeavour but, believe me, my (no doubt many) spare hours could have been more profitably spent.
In the incriminating Tippex- heavy pages, I’m forever less than subtly blowing my own trumpet, while relating mundane activities and banal schoolyard exchanges with friends, but parlaying them up to sound like some kind of systematic rebellion against an unjust world. Mock exams approach and I claim to be close to a nervous breakdown. Friends get suspended for what I deem minor offences and I itch to start a revolution, not that I ever thought to mention it to anyone at the time. I never would have guessed I had such a talent for melodrama.
[Sister recalls that one of my (generally older male) penpals was in prison. I protest: ‘It was a mental home … at least I like to characterise it as some sort of secure facility.’ In fact, the address was a hospital, but possibly a psychiatric one, somewhere in Kent. I’ve kept his letters to me too – which mainly consist of rather too in-depth recitations of repairs he’s made to his car, sometimes with photos. This correspondent, evidently reading between the lines to conclude that it was unlikely that I’d have gone anywhere or be doing anything, had the temerity to turn up on my doorstep unannounced one Saturday. I was horrified, mortified that I’d opened the door with greasy hair and in my usual ill-fitting outmoded hand-me-downs. I probably cared more then about being unable to follow fashion, as dictated by the odd copy of My Guy I could persuade my parents to buy.]
It seems I wrote letters (yes, more than one) on my sixteenth birthday, which I describe as ‘not up to much’. That’d be right. Plus ça change … no one ever made any fuss about such things in our family. At least I’m able to report that my brother’s birthday the next month is a similar non-event.
I still can’t get over the hubris behind the conservation of this woefully damning and unremarkable correspondence. Yet it does offer some insight into the image that my teenage self wished to project to outsiders, I suppose, albeit a rather disheartening and sobering one. I guess I had the chance to portray myself and my daily bland as something less monotonous and ordinary to people who would probably never meet me in person.
It’s not that the facts have been changed exactly but the complexion I put on them seeks to subtly colour and amplify their significance. And this sort of shading also affords a glimpse into my slightly weird psyche.
Thank goodness that I don’t seem to have persevered in copying these exceedingly dull letters out for that long because they are literally excruciatingly embarrassing to read through.
Full of thinly disguised criticism of others, my friends, family, etc. (for not being more like me i.e. liking the same music, TV shows, tennis players, etc.), they also feature the usual (familiar from my preteen efforts) justifications about why I’m not really doing anything (but writing in my diary and to my long-suffering penfriends and copying everything out for no good reason).
Similarly, I’ve just discovered a diary (always a heart-stopping moment) from about the same era, detailing such momentous events as trips with friends to play tennis on grass courts in Danson Park, to shops (sadly without the benefit of ready cash) at Eltham, to McDonalds and to see my grandmother in Lewisham Hospital.
It also carries the dubious honour of containing some more transcriptions of the toe-curlingly trying-too-hard-to-be-cool-when-I-was-anything-but awful letters, including one to some poor chap whom I regret to inform that I can’t take on as a penfriend.
He must have been thanking his lucky stars that day, unless he slit his wrists while reading the first part of the letter, before realising he was going to be spared future correspondence.
I break the news to him gently:
‘Well, I hope you won’t be too disappointed but I’m afraid I can’t write to you as I have already got so many penfriends that I had to pass the last one on to my sister. It wouldn’t be fair to take you on too as you’d probably never get any letters. … I’m really sorry that this was a waste of time.’
Then I think I no doubt angsted at length over leaving someone utterly heartbroken. Now, in retrospect, I imagine him ceremoniously burning the letter before doing a little dance of delighted relief around the ashes.
The diary is also replete with top tens – of men I fancy, characters in TV shows, songs I like, songs I’ve recorded amateurishly on tape (you know the ones, with the first couple of words missing and the DJ’s voice breaking in at the end), radio chart positions, boys at school … if I was interested in it, it seems I graded it into a list. And then if I heard a new song or saw a fresh prospect, I would immediately pen a new list to include them, sometimes dated just a day after the superseded one. Not sure how I found the time.
I detail entire tennis matches and plots to films that I’ve seen on TV, gushing praise for players and stars. I also went through a phase of copying out large chunks of library books I liked, with buying them out of the question due to the fact that our parents didn’t believe in pocket money.
It’s a sad indictment of my teenage years. My whole existence was the same crashing non-event bursting at the seams with insignificance. And, if anything, the writing is worse than in my first years at grammar school, more self-conscious and less honest, perhaps partly, at least in the case of the letters, because it was written for others to read.
It seems no one was immune from my clamorous communications. I also wrote letters to French and German schoolgirl penfriends, Points of View at the BBC, the Radio Times, tennis magazines, pirate radio stations and companies who made TV adverts that I liked the music of. I know this because one was kind enough to send me a recording of the music in question, which I still have to this day and still love. (It was an advert for Long Life beer of all things.)
Perhaps my primary school was to blame for kick-starting my correspondence habit, as, purely on the strength of having reasonably legible joined-up writing, I’d been deputised to write a letter to HM The Queen for her birthday one year; and duly received a response from one of her ladies-in-waiting. I still have this, mounted, no expense spared, on the inside of an old exercise book.
Receiving post in those days was something incredibly desirable – as children we just never got any, bar the odd birthday card from our Gran; and so were inspired to write off for stamp approvals galore, needlework guides (no interest in needlework just coveted the plastic doobries and stuff that came with), AirCanada brochures (still haven’t managed to get there but it looked breathtakingly beautiful) and pretty much everything whose small print insisted the applicant be over eighteen but didn’t require any proof of the fact or any money upfront. (I’m pretty sure my little brother also answered one of those ubiquitous Charles Atlas adverts that promised to turn weaklings into muscle-bound he-men.)
When this illicit post landed with a thump on the doormat, you’d have to get to it before your parents could see what you’d been sending off for. Not easy as at that time you also had a second delivery to watch out for each day.
In the end you’d have to confess as the demands for you to purchase the next instalment of the craftwork periodical or whatever began to mount up.
Still, as this was about the only misdemeanour I committed as a teenager, I reckon my parents got off fairly lightly. And they probably thought giving me a few pence now and then for stamps was a good investment, as it meant that I would be relatively safely occupied for hours on end composing self-aggrandising drivel to dispatch to all and sundry.
No shoplifting or underage drinking, no casual sex or adolescent ennui, just a few inadvertently solicited unwanted items of mail and some penfriends driven to distraction – that about sums up my whole sadly unmisspent youth.
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