A lifetime of soggy letters is strewn all over floor, curled corners, seeping ink, kisses and best wishes from the past. I can see my late grandfather’s long sloping writing on paper he cut to size so as not to waste, the tightly knitted biro scrawl of my best friend on hundreds of thin blue airmail envelopes from Kenya, and the fat teenaged script with hearts dotting the i’s that was fashionable in 1981 among 11 year-olds, the one we all used to write to each other in the holidays. We put stickers on coloured envelopes, glossy lips, hearts and flowers.
Thirty year’s worth of correspondence got soaked when my radiators burst in the cold Italian winter this year, and now, absurdly, I am using electric heaters to dry them out. Just a glance at familiar handwriting on an envelope makes my heart lurch at the memory of some dead relationship, of the waiting for that person to write. And we didn’t just write a few lines. We wrote pages and pages and pages.
When my best friend moved to Kenya and I moved to Russia in 1992 we couldn’t phone each other and we certainly couldn’t email. So, we wrote. I remember saving up stories and anecdotes, funny things people said and did, amazing things I’d seen, so that when I sat down to write I could have gone on forever. It was a conversation, a story, a life told by hand. We related whole conversations, adding our private thoughts.
Last week I was driving through France with my children when we saw a camel in a field, chewing the cud under a willow tree. Stunned, we pulled over to investigate and found two llamas and a cage full of lions. A circus was in town. My daughter took a photo and texted it to her friend with a caption: ‘Camel in field in France.’ Texts all have the same handwriting. It’s just a fact with no narrative. If she’d had to write a letter to her friend she would have included the drive, how annoying her brother was being, how she felt when she saw the camel in the grass by the chateau, what she planned to have for dinner. She might even have drawn a little picture – my dad always did.
A war correspondent, dad sent me letters and post-cards from all over the world at least once a week from when I was born in 1970 to the day before he died in El Salvador in 1989. He did drawings, told jokes, let me taste Tripoli, Beirut, Cairo, Jerusalem, made me feel that I, in rainy suburban London, was part of a blazing, screaming world.
There are pigeon post notes from university, cards wishing me luck for exams, condolences, get well cards, post-cards from everyone everywhere. I have letters from behind the Iron Curtain, opened and resealed by the KGB, crass, badly-written love letters from a boy I met in Moscow. There are love letters from other boys too, neatly written, apologetic, explanatory, descriptive, sometimes pleading for forgiveness (usually for an extra-curricular shag). There are even a few, I confess, from boys I don’t remember. One that begins; ‘I was walking past your college the other day and got your address from the porter’s lodge. I hope you don’t mind.’ How could I?
The emotion we expressed in writing, in a million different ways, was simply that we missed each other. ‘I wish you were here,’ told so eloquently, amusingly, with words so drenched in longing that we almost felt we were there. And we could touch the very paper that person had touched. There was an intimacy that you don’t get from a glaring screen.
I found, underneath a heap of wet inky writing, a telegram that read; ‘I LOVE YOU STOP COME STOP.’ And I have no idea whether I went or not. I hope I went. Nothing that romantic every happens via text. Admittedly, this is partly because I am married and 42, but also because technology killed romance. There is no need to miss anyone – we can Skype! We can text, email, Facebook and Tweet. We are in touch all the time with thousands of strangers. Actually facemailing someone has become rarer and rarer. Letter writing is extinct.
Someone receiving a flirty email might blush at the sight of the name on the screen, but this is nothing compared to the sight of actual handwriting on a cream envelope. I promise you.