Have you ever been reluctant to do something that you know you really should? And I don’t mean ringing the dentist. I knew that if I opened that case again, it would take over my life. And I was too busy. Anyway I wasn’t that interested, was I? Some things are best left in the past.
This story started in the year 2000 when my mother finally released her tenuous physical grip on life, the mental connection lost some years before, and finally, this stranger left my life.
The house was cleared, a collection of sacks and boxes taken up into our attic, to be dealt with when it seemed right. Over the next six or seven years once treasured objects each carrying individual memories, started new lives in the charity shops. Finally, all had gone, and life went on, as life does.
And then, it was September 2015. We were going to Majorca. Up into the attic to bring the cases down, the first one successfully pulled out from the narrow roof space. The second one stuck, I climbed in, released the obstruction and put it behind me, then got the suitcase out of the door.
Then I took the obstruction out, it also was a case, a small, light brown attache case, untouched since the house clearing when a hurried glance had revealed a collection of unimportant papers, out of date insurance, mortgage, receipts, nothing of interest. And here it was again, fifteen years later. The sun was shining through the Velux window, the attic was warm and bright, I sat on the floor and opened the case once more.
Yes, just stuff to be shredded, I started to empty the contents, already planning what I was going to use it for, it was a nice, strong case with little compartments in the lid for stamps and envelopes and the like. I pulled out a faded Manilla envelope the edges bent where it had been forced to fit.
Then in a spilt second everything changed.
Letters and diaries. Letters in torn envelopes, faded blue air mail letters, small squares of card, crammed with tiny black words. I stared at the case, I read the date stamp on an airmail at the top of the jumble of words. March 14, 1942. I could hear the seagulls scratting on the tiles, I could hear my heart, I felt cold, the shaft of sunlight had gone. I closed the lid and climbed down the wooden ladder. I found Dave and put the case in front of him, ‘Look’ I said.
‘What’s that?’ he said looking at the case.
‘Letters from me mam to me dad. During the war.’ I picked one at random, it was addressed to my father, M.E.F. Middle East Forces. He was in the 8th Army. I opened it and started to read my mother’s words.
‘Well, Ken, the news we got today was the 8th Army had taken the Mareth Line. It made me feel a lot better. I have not heard the rumours that you have heard about leave, but I think it would be a risk, you coming, while the submarine menace is on. I bet you are fed up, you deserve a leave home after all you have done. Pauline is full of the devil. I might as well talk to the wall as tell her to stop doing anything. She needs a man to take her in hand, she is so used to me smacking her she takes no notice.’
I was 18 months old. My mother’s words written with the scratchy pen of a stranger. The words of a lonely young woman at her wit’s end. I could not read any more. I put the letter back with the others and closed the case. It went back into the attic with the suitcases when we returned from Majorca but this time it was not hidden.
Then, a year later we were off to Ibiza, I brought all three case down. Curiosity had cast reluctance aside and I began the process of sorting all 88 letters into date order, they began in 1940 and with some lengthy gaps ended in 1943.
Slowly I began to discover the stranger, my mother, this woman of words from the past. I discovered a woman I had never known.
Polly Pattison February 2019