Fortnightly Fiction | Letters From the Past

If it hadn’t been for the rain, Amanda might never have read the letters. The deluge was nothing a cagoule and wellies couldn’t cope with but she didn’t have either to hand, she hadn’t planned to be there long. In fact having already missed the funeral she’d been inclined to stay in Paris and let her cousin get on with the boxing up and clearing out but she decided she was being unfair. A few weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday seemed like a good time to start acting like a grown up.

She hadn’t been to her mum’s house in nearly ten years, not since Colin died. She was half apprehensive at the thought of Iris walking through the front door any moment, half sad that she wouldn’t be. Amanda wondered if she’d been reunited with Colin now or if it didn’t work like that when someone had been married more than once. It had been a long time since Amanda had been near a church, and she didn’t remember Sunday School having much to say on the matter. If there had been any mention of it, it would no doubt have applied to widows only, divorced women like Iris being unmentionable in polite company back then. Maybe her mum and Colin were back together in heaven, Amanda wasn’t going to let it worry her too much. Presumably there was only a problem if her dad was dead as well, and as to that she had no idea.

Amanda’s cousin Henry hadn’t touched anything that looked like it might have sentimental value. Iris had left all the useful things like her will and the insurance paperwork in a drawer in the sideboard so he’d stuck to the obvious and hoped Amanda would turn up. By the time she did, there was only a handful of old furniture and ornaments, a dinner service, and a built-in cupboard in the back bedroom full of biscuit tins and splaying shoe-boxes that Henry hadn’t wanted to tackle. Amanda didn’t much feel like going through them either, but after thirty-six hours alone in the house she’d paced from room to room remembering conversations and Christmas dinners about as much as she wanted to, and if she wasn’t going to do anything practical she might as well have stayed in France after all.

She opened the cupboard and pulled a box from the middle shelf, all brisk efficiency. She had an idea she’d whip the lid off each one, make a quick assessment and ditch the contents if they didn’t look valuable. She’d even brought a roll of bin-liners upstairs with her. There was no point going through every dog-eared photograph and hoarded thirty-year-old receipt, and since Amanda had neither siblings nor children, she had only herself to answer to. Except when she did take that first lid off, the box was full of a jumble of black and white snaps and the one on top was Amanda in her pram. She didn’t remember seeing it before and the thought crossed her mind that this might be where her mum had kept the pictures of Amanda’s dad. Not Colin, genial, loving Colin who had done his best to fill the vacancy for thirty-seven years but Stewart, the mysterious, unseen, unremembered man Iris had been married to until Amanda was fourteen months old.

Amanda was ten when she found out Colin wasn’t really her father. Once she thought about it later, her earliest memories did seem to be mainly of her mum, but she didn’t remember Colin arriving in their lives and she’d clearly been kept away from the wedding. It had been some discussion of their anniversary while they thought Amanda wasn’t listening that had triggered the revelation. She’d corrected what she thought was her mum’s faulty arithmetic and seen a look pass between them.
“It’s only fair to tell her,” Colin had said.
“Tell me what?”
Amanda remembered worrying that she’d got the sum wrong herself, that Colin wanted her mum to tell her that numbers didn’t work the way she thought they did, just when Amanda had felt like she was getting to grips with them.
“Your dad and I…”
Her mum had stood there, bunching up the tea-towel in her hands and looking at the sink until Colin had finished her train of thought for her.
“Your mum was married before, love,” he’d said quietly.
“Before?”
Colin had nodded and smiled.
“Chap called Stewart, isn’t that right?”
He’d turned to Iris with an encouraging look but she muttered at the sink:
“I’ll not have that name mentioned in this house.”
“But if you weren’t married when… If mum was married to…”
Amanda remembered shouting things at Colin then running upstairs.
“She’ll come round,” she’d heard him say to her mum.

Nothing ever phased Colin, not even a little girl he’d brought up as his own for six years insisting he wasn’t her dad any more.
“What’s changed since this morning?” her mum had demanded later that night. “He was your dad when he tied your hair ribbons before breakfast, he’s still your dad.”
Sitting on the floor of the empty spare room now, Amanda marvelled at Colin’s powers of forgiveness. Although Amanda hadn’t managed it, Colin had carried on as though nothing had happened. He would never talk about her real dad, though Amanda guessed he must know bits and pieces at least. She’d ached for more information. She felt like an unanswered question.
“You’ve got a dad,” her mum would say whenever Amanda mentioned the original.

Iris always claimed there were no pictures, no letters, nothing – except herself, Amanda always pointed out – to show Stewart had ever existed. Amanda had thought she’d been lying but now, with the shoe-box of photos from that era scattered around her on the threadbare carpet, it seemed like she wasn’t. Nearly four years of marriage, including the first year and a bit of Amanda’s life, and not a single photograph of him. Oh, there were a couple that had been cut so that a disembodied hand on a pram, or a pair of legs under Amanda’s tiny form might have belonged to Stewart, but there were no negatives she could check. The same box contained the earliest photos of Amanda and Colin, and she found herself smiling back at the beaming monochrome face of her stepfather in her hand, lifting her toddler self to see over a wall. It must have been taken on a day-trip before he’d even married her mum, and not for the first time she thought how sad it was that Colin had never had any children of his own, who could have adored him the way he deserved. Amanda had loved him, much more than she’d loved her wonderfully funny and inventive uncle, Henry’s dad, but she’d never quite forgiven him for being an impostor.

The rain was still lashing against the single-glazing so Amanda stood up, wincing at the cracking sound from each knee, and pulled a biscuit tin from the cupboard. She wasn’t sure what to do with the photos; her earlier resolve had crumbled now that she’d actually looked at the contents of the box. There were a few scenic shots of beaches or fields she could throw, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to consign a few dozen photos of herself as a child to the bin. What was she going to do, take them home and show them to her friends? She could worry about that later, once she knew how much there was to deal with. Henry might want some of the ones with him or his parents in them. She thought this next tin might be easier to deal with.

At first glance it seemed to be. Postcards and letters, Colin’s writing. The most recent was a postcard from Skegness the year before he died. Amanda glanced at the message and guessed he was on a bowls club outing. Sweet that he’d kept up the tradition, she remembered him writing home whenever he was away for so much as a single night. A quick shuffle through the box revealed the same familiar handwriting on increasingly dog-eared envelopes all the way to the bottom, and Amanda had no wish to pry. They were technically love letters even if they were probably full of chat about the weather and how his new cardigan was suiting him, knowing Colin. She was putting the lid back on, ready to put the whole tin in the bin-bag that was still defiantly empty, when her brain caught up with her eyes. That last postmark had looked like 1963. She hesitated, thinking she’d misread it and it must have said 1965 instead. But even that didn’t make sense, Stewart hadn’t left until 1966.

On the floor, as near to cross-legged as her protesting knees would allow, Amanda emptied the tin and picked up the earliest envelope. The postmark still looked like 1963 so she reached inside for the sheets of cheap paper, wondering if Stewart had similar handwriting to Colin, and if this was to be her first moment of insight into her father. Dear Iris, Colin had written – she’d checked the signature but really there was no mistaking that looping script – I hope you’ll forgive this intrusion, and I know we said Filey would be it, but I can’t stop thinking about you. This being Colin, the letter was correctly headed with a return address and date. He’d first written to Amanda’s mum in August 1963, a year after she’d married Stewart.

All qualms at prying into the gentle love life of her late mother and stepfather vanished, and Amanda scrabbled for the next envelope. She skim-read her way to the end of 1964 through a succession of tender appeals to Iris’s good sense, the promise of a better life if only she’d leave her good for nothing husband. Amanda wondered if her mum had replied to these letters in writing or only sneaked around meeting Colin in secret. Perhaps in another box she’d find the other half of this love story, her mum’s reasons for staying with Stewart. Of course, once 1965 rolled around Amanda herself would have been the biggest reason for staying put. A young woman leaving her husband in their old-fashioned village would have been frowned upon, but for a young mother it would have been unthinkable. Besides, running off for a bit of fun with Colin was one thing, but taking Stewart’s daughter away from him would be quite another.

A thought flashed across Amanda’s mind and chill nausea rose in its wake. Everyone had always said how much she looked like Colin, but she’d known a girl at college who was adopted aged six and it hadn’t stopped everyone saying how much she looked like her mum, people saw what they wanted to see. There were letters in the pile in front of her from the months leading up to her birth. Her mouth was dry but she knew if she went downstairs to get a drink she’d sweep everything into a black bag without looking at it when she came back up. It was now or never. She spread the next few envelopes in front of her in date order, concentrating on the particular way Colin had of writing Iris. She didn’t want to know. She had to know. Maybe there was nothing in the letters that would tell her one way or another.

February 1965. Darling Iris, I don’t mind telling you I cried when I read your letter, I actually wept. So her mum had been writing back. Did Colin keep all her letters in a tin as well? Did he bring them with him when he married her and they moved to their new house? Colin had been living in lodgings before that, Amanda remembered him telling her about his fierce landlady. It had made her laugh as a child, now she wondered if the landlady had heard rumours and taken against him for screwing a married woman. Amanda wondered if Colin had cried because he knew Iris was having her husband’s baby. She realised she was crossing her fingers, but she wasn’t sure against what. To think I’ve been worrying about losing you, all this putting me off from one week to the next, and you were worrying about losing me! You shall never lose me, love, and especially not now. Don’t fret about your disappearing waist, or be afraid to let me see you as you are. I shall know what (who!) is causing it, and I shall be happier than I’ve ever been. Amanda leaned forward and took a few deep breaths, then read Colin’s take on the weeks before she was born.

When Colin died Amanda had been inconsolable for days. Sixty-four seemed simultaneously too young and frighteningly old. Stewart was a couple of years older than her mum and Colin, and it made her realise she might not have much time left to track him down. All her adult life she’d been putting everything off, not wanting to settle down or have children of her own until she’d sorted her own origins out, but never sure where to begin. Or whether she actually wanted to meet this man who’d abandoned her mother and her to poverty and the local gossips. Soon enough after the funeral for her determination not to have waned, but not so soon that she could be accused of being insensitive, Amanda had asked her mum for the last time to give her some clues that might help her find her father. Iris had thrown her out of the house, if she’d been strong enough she’d probably have picked Amanda up and sent her sprawling on the pavement but as it was she kept shoving her down the hallway and out through the front door, shouting words like ungrateful, cold, selfish. Amanda had shouted a few unpleasant words of her own and that had been the last time they were in touch. She hadn’t cried when Henry rang and said her mum was dead and buried.

She cried now. She lay on the floor and sobbed until she felt woozy and sick. Her ribs ached and her head pounded, and she longed for her mum to walk in so she could shake her by the shoulders, never mind how damned frail she’d got, and ask her why, damn her uptight hide, why had she never told her daughter the bloody truth. Eventually she stood slowly, back creaking, pins and needles in one foot. The rain had eased to silent drizzle. She picked up the letter in which Colin confessed to his tears of joy, and rooted around in the photos for the one of him holding her up to see over the wall. He’d never told her either, of course, but he would have been sworn to secrecy and she knew he’d never go against her mum in something that mattered. All that wasted energy trying to find the wrong man, all that pent-up love that should have been showered on lovely, invisible Colin. She wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand and went to the bedroom door. She could stay in a hotel tonight and phone Henry in the morning to say he could get rid of everything that was left. Amanda had got what she wanted.

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