Familiar Handwriting

As an item of mail, it was nothing out of the ordinary, a plain white envelope, with a handwritten address, and a postmark straddling three odd stamps on the top right corner. It wasn’t junk mail, it wasn’t a notice or a monthly account – it was just a letter. But in this day and age of instant cyber connections, no one sent letters anymore.

While the external trappings seemed insignificant, the note inside the envelope, was a complete surprise, and his hands started to tremble as he read the words. There was no address, no date, no signature. The letter comprised just a few sentences, less than half a page of writing in a neat, almost formal or old fashioned style. A style, that strangely reminded him of school days, some fifty years ago. He folded the page again along its comfortable crease and gently eased it back into the envelope, as if he thought it shouldn’t be exposed to light and life outside its protective skin. He put it face down on the bench and turned on the kettle. To him, the envelope seemed to watch his every move as he went about this morning ritual of coffee and connecting. But today he left the laptop switched off, left the radio silent, it was just the coffee that he needed.

He picked up the envelope, and coffee in hand, went out onto the deck where he sat in the early sunlight. Another hot day was on the way. The coffee was hot. His hands were hot. Momentarily he thought of discarding the letter and retreating into his comfortable, predictable world, but eventually, he hesitantly re-opened it and unfolded the page. He scanned the words quickly and although this time there wasn’t the initial shock, he still drew breath as he nervously re-read the contents.

Being adopted had never been a big deal for him, it was just a fact, a convenient and fortunate fact when he looked back over his life. His adoptive parents had cared for him, educated him, allowed him to escape the constraints of a disadvantaged rural upbringing, and been generous benefactors when they both died some years previously. He was overseas at the time and hadn’t gone to their funeral. He had never married, he had no siblings, and the whole trendy fascination with ancestry and locating a possible birth mother, had neither attracted him nor made him feel guilty. But today as the morning heat closed in, a new feeling prodded him, poked at his indifference as he read the words for the third time. Today he was confronted by a nagging, hot-morning intruder emerging from the script – it was curiosity.

While the envelope addressed him correctly by name, the letter inside contained no greeting and no farewell at its conclusion. The opening sentence where the writer suggested he or she might be his parent, was followed by several lines of bland, well wishing, crude attempts at explaining the reason for writing and then the closing challenge of hoping paths would cross someday. Could the letter be from a woman, a mother trying to re-connect, wanting to assuage the guilt of a generation? Surely the letter wasn’t from a man, a man wouldn’t bother after all these years. But why go to the trouble and not embellish the mystery with a few well directed clues and the requesting or even promising of more information? He got impatient, his mental alter ego was tugging at thoughts and emotions he usually held in check. He put the letter back in the envelope and slipped it into his pocket.

In the following month, he would return to the letter, glance at it quickly, and fondle the paper warily, before putting it out of sight once more. Reading the crumpled paper had gradually become part of his daily routine, as important as that first coffee, a significant gesture before perusing his emails, and a new habit before checking his diary. But despite his reluctant acceptance that the letter and its contents were now part of his everyday ritual, no subsequent correspondence came, there were no mysterious phone calls, and certainly no strangers appeared in his street. As time passed in those early weeks, his curiosity diminished and his imagination was beaten into submission. He quietly settled back into the comfort of the real world, but found himself haunted by that small matter of the postmark on the envelope.

In an age of technology and barcodes, where you are lucky to see any location stamped on private mail, the smudged, post office identifier and blurred date, gave the envelope some credibility, gave its contents a place of origin, but unfortunately neither could be fully deciphered. Not much to go on, and after an initial, short-lived burst of enthusiasm and fleeting thoughts about discovering more, he lost interest, and with the passing of time, any notion of becoming a family detective, was replaced with research of a different nature.

As a much respected, retired academic, initially specialising in the agriculture sector, he was now much sought after for speaking engagements and media commentary. Such occasions afforded him an ideal platform to express his views and focus on his increasing concern about climate and diminishing resources. In as much as he saw the issues as current and important, he realised he was an enigma. He now found himself living in the city, far away from any country contradictions, comfortably retired, and convincing himself daily that a cultured, urban existence, was all that he needed.

He had accepted an invitation to speak at a conference on climate and cropping, and his diary allowed three days to attend and spend some time in a regional district, that had once been familiar but infrequently remembered. Any fuzzy, feel-good recollections were from years ago, before university, before international travel, before recognition and success, before receiving the letter in the mail. But as he had confirmed his attendance, he dusted off some old notes, updated himself with recent research papers and set off to drive the 400 kilometres from the city.

An enthusiastic user of technology, he keyed the address of his destination into his navigation aid, all the time marvelling at how the world was rapidly changing and how important it was to stay in touch with the latest invention. He turned up the music and drove through the afternoon, until poor mobile reception caused the satnav directions to falter. He left the highway and entering a small town, parked outside the information bureau. It was just on closing time so he entered quickly to seek assistance. The woman at the counter was very helpful, but her advice was based on local knowledge, and unfortunately her confidence and rapid instructions left him more confused than certain. She offered to draw a diagram, but then seeing his hesitation and hiding her own inadequacies, she consulted an anonymous supervisor in the adjoining office. After a couple of minutes she re-appeared with a neatly folded piece of paper, containing a scribbled map with handwritten directions. He took the piece of paper, thanked her and left as she moved to lock the door behind him.

He slid into the driver’s seat, and casually placed the map on the dashboard. He should reach his destination in less than an hour, and the thought of a welcome drink before dinner appealed to him as he reversed out of the carpark and headed for the next town. The sun was now low on the horizon and sharp flashes of glinting light distracted him and made it difficult to see signposts and turnoffs in the lengthening shadows. He became annoyed with himself for wanting to take shortcuts, and his prior interest in driving through the backroads of his childhood, now deserted him in his anxiety to complete his journey. In the dying glare of the setting sun he realised he had missed a turn to the left. His mounting confusion played tricks with him as he turned the car back and he suddenly found himself even doubting that he knew which road he was supposed to take, and where he was actually going. He pulled up sharply in a cloud of dust, forgetting to check for other traffic, and, cursing his own shortcomings, reached out to the dashboard for the map and its scribbled directions.

As he hastily retrieved the note, his hand felt hot, the very paper seemed to come alive and burn his palm. He was aware of the noise of an approaching vehicle. He pushed back in his seat and listened. It was a faraway sound, not close, not even real. He unfolded the plain white sheet to check the map and as his eyes adjusted to the failing light, the words conveying instructions became clearer and came into focus. Suddenly with the distant sound now roaring into the present, his very soul lurched as he recognised the familiar handwriting.

Blogger’s note: Perhaps thinking you can write “a bit” is a double-edged sword. You revel in that special world of being able to put your thoughts on paper, it is stimulating and rewarding. Then reality hits and you struggle when you dare to share some of those efforts with others. As a “sometimes” writer and an avid “storyteller” for my grandchildren, I am only just starting to trawl through my creative archive and dig out some material that might keep me “on task” over the coming months of Covid Caution. I hope you enjoy these occasional pieces of fiction in amongst my usual ramblings.

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