He must have received the letter on Tuesday – perhaps Wednesday, but most likely Tuesday. He wouldn’t have gone down to collect the post immediately; he would have seen the postman arrive from the upstairs study window, registered an arrival of correspondence, but continued at his desk, the same desk he has been sitting at the last seventeen years.
Even though the last three years were retirement years, he hadn’t quit that desk. From it he has continued to busy himself, although no one is really sure what he now has to do. But, whatever it is, it would keep him from going downstairs to collect the post.
Surrounding him at that desk that he was most probably still sitting at, despite knowing the post had arrived, would be his computer and keyboard, a calculator near where his right hand would be laid upon the mouse; his accountancy books, perhaps unopened now, but still at easy reach on a low shelf in front of the desk; his reading glasses under the monitor by a flask of tea that he would have made first thing in the morning to keep himself refreshed throughout the day. There would be a white board on the wall in front of him above the low shelf, with the days ahead mapped out in blue and red shorthand, or perhaps his own private code; his father’s medals in a frame on the wall just to the left; and to the right, on the windowsill, a few framed photographs next to a set of binoculars and a worn book of British birds.
He would be at that desk until the end of the working day. He might break for lunch, but often not. He would make sure he had had a good breakfast before an 8am start, and he would have no need to refresh his flask as over the years he has perfected a regulation of tea intake, an exact calculation which would ensure his last drop was taken at the point required to get through till six. So, it is possible he could have picked the post up at 1pm, or perhaps picked it up off the doormat at 6pm before Sal returned from work. Or it might have only arrived yesterday. In which case, it is just fourteen hours since he received it. But it could be fourteen hours and a day.
I did consider sending an email, or a long WhatsApp message; I would then at least know whether he had read it or not – a read receipt or a double blue tick. And I could expect a quicker response, too. But I chose to write a letter and therefore I should expect a letter in return.
I’ve been working from home since the pandemic. I usually like it: the focus one can have, the lack of the three-hour commute, no need for small talk simply for wanting a cup of tea. But today I feel distracted and disappointed in myself for not getting more done. Thursdays are usually good free days for this; beginning of the week meetings out of the way, I can get my head down and feel a sense of achievement before the end of the week. But today feels empty of progress, filled with the louder-than-usual regular rhythm of the washing machine, and a compulsive checking and scrolling of my phone.
He’s not been on WhatsApp since Monday night. And the last message he sent was on Sunday, sharing his usual – pictures of birds he photographs at weekends in the back garden or out on the dales or moors with Sal. The last picture was of a Redwing, he told me. Spotted at Flamborough Head. Over from Scandinavia. Endangered. Recognised by its red underwing coverts. I scrolled through the text chat, a one-way transmission of information.
This interest in birds I don’t remember growing up. Perhaps it was there. I remember the white board, the accountancy books, the flask of tea. A different room but the set up much the same. But our weekends weren’t spent twitching, and his neither. His weekend days were spent much the same as the weekdays, with a slightly later start on a Sunday. Now, bird watching fills his weekends; and holidays, that we never had, are spent in Orkney, the Isles of Scilly, the Farne Islands, places we never went. I suppose, if I asked, he would say he worked to get us through school; to give us the education he never had the opportunity of having. And you can’t really argue with that.
On picking up the letter, he would most likely not open it immediately. He would place it on the sideboard by the sink and start with the official looking letters, allowing himself to be distracted by the bills, the subscriptions he maintains to accountancy magazines he no longer needs. Postcards at home were always read at the end of a day. Perhaps it would stay sitting there until Sal reminds him of it and perhaps he would murmur something about looking at it later, his head in an article about something no one else is interested in. He might pretend that he never received it. Or, perhaps it really will never get there. Life would continue as before.
And, he might argue, what is wrong with that? Something changed seventeen years ago, and it won’t change back. Move on. Don’t look back.
But things don’t just change out of nowhere. The washing machine starts its cycle because I pressed go, its cycle ends at the programmed time; I can pause it; it stops if the money runs out on the metre or if there is a power cut or if something breaks. Something breaks because it is faulty, if it wasn’t made well, if it is old or well-worn. Things happen, and there are reasons for it. I work; my work might end because my performance isn’t good enough; or if I search for and find something better. Change happens for logical, understandable reasons. The world is ending, because humans are ending it through once blind, but now open-eyed decisions. There’s logic.
But it isn’t good enough to not understand why things have changed. It is not ok to give answers that make no sense. I have asked and asked myself, but whatever answer I come to, whatever angle I look at things, whatever way I interpret what has and hasn’t been said, I don’t understand. The past I know cannot create the present that exists. It doesn’t make sense. And, it is not just about the birdwatching; it’s that I can’t imagine the him then ever getting into something like that. It is at odds with who he was then. It is at odds with the who I thought he wanted me to be.
Truth be told. I don’t really know if he does still sit at that desk from 8am until 6pm. I don’t really know if it is what I should be doing either. But what else is there?
It is nearing six now, and my email outbox, the flags against emails received, and the nearly blank document on my computer screen signal an uneventful day. And he still hasn’t been online.
Google tells me that Redwings are apparently difficult to identify. They look similar to others in the Thrush species, but are generally smaller, and the red feathers are often hidden under their wings, unless spotted in flight. A better way to identify them is to look for the markings on their face. The picture he had posted was of a Redwing on frosty ground, only a dash of colour visible beneath the wing but a distinct white brow and mirroring jowl.
Scrolling back, a picture of him and Sal on a cliff, camera facing out to sea, and only the tops of their faces visible, clearly smiling from the deep-set delineations at their eyes’ edges. The message reads: Brisk day, but clear skies and strong sun cheering us on. Wish you were here.
Scrolling back, he had posted a picture of a Redwing before. This one was in flight, its wings at the apex, strong and controlled, its red feathers gleaming and proud. Its purpose and destination distinct and sure.
Wait. He is typing…
Received your letter. Shall we meet?
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