DEAR PEN FRIEND, WITH LOVE

The mail is suffering, once hand written epistles filled those red boxes. The excitement of receiving a letter from a friend, pastel coloured and sometimes perfumed. The satisfying plop from letter box to welcome mat, or the sight of sloping script on an envelope, amid the usual bills, in the mail box.
I think that’s why it cost me nearly three dollars to send a single Christmas card to the old country; predictably arriving late. The post office has to make up the slack somewhere, from our slackness of the handwritten form. It’s all bills and advertising now.
The first letter I received was from my older and much adored cousin. A school project for her (will you be my penfriend?); pure newly discovered joy for me. I hadn’t even heard of the words ‘pen friend’. I was eight.
There followed a girl I’d met in the caravan park pool on holiday. She shared the same name as my cousin. We wrote to each other for years and finally met again. She was two years older and the epitome of cool. I was skinny, still wearing little girl dresses. She stopped writing.
My lovely bestie who moved to another side of Suffolk. Our lives hadn’t really begun so we wrote of television shows we’d seen. She wrote with authority and I lied. My parents didn’t let me stay up to watch much telly.
It was my family’s turn to move. From Suffolk to Cambridgeshire to Bedfordshire. I wrote to old classmates, most dropped off but one didn’t. A much loved friend who creatively wrote entire plays in her letters, using different pens for each voice. Those letters groaned under the strain of inadequate envelopes. I hovered by the letter box waiting for a thud on the porch floor. We’re still in touch and she’s as creative as ever. You know who you are.
As a teen I tried writing to pen pals from foreign lands. Marco from Italy, who was too intense for me. Bridgette from south west France who’s English was so much better than my French. Finally, Tim from America who sent a photo. A small black and white booth shot, fair Californian hair, big teeth and pulling a goofy face. He phoned me one night. Imagine. From America to me, in my parents house in a small Bedfordshire town. He asked if I would send a photo. I did. Never heard from him again. I try not to take it personally.
When I moved to Australia with the husband I wrote to nearly twenty people. Close friends, family, former work colleagues, my brother’s ex-girlfriend. I wrote of glorious skies and ferry trips past the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge at sunset. Warm weather and sunshine. Homesickness, finding my way in a strange land. I still cannot get over the kangaroo. One often jumps out at me on my drive home at dusk. They are native to nowhere else; they have a strange beauty which never fails to astound me.
Slowly these letters dropped away. People were busy and quite frankly, who wrote letters anymore? Except for one.
We still write long, long letters full of the births of our children, our changing lives. The differences between us; she likes action movies and I prefer something slower. The things we have in common; finding our way as our children grow, trying to let go and keep them safe at the same time. Grief, new loves, illnesses, funny stories, meaningless chat, how ridiculous life can be. Twenty, twenty-five pages long. I like to think we keep the Royal Mail going.
These letters are my closest link with my past. A window into both our futures. The letters have shaped my life and I am forever grateful for them. I sometimes think of us as Edwardian ladies, minus the bonnets and the Empire line dresses, in a time when letter writing was taken seriously.
I can no longer find large, coloured paper on which to write. Only A4 lined pads without covers make themselves available on the newsagent’s shelves. But recently I bought myself pretty, glittery pens in gold, purple, pink and blue. If people only realised the difference between a glib facebook comment, a quick couple of lines of an email and the rewarding pleasure of communicating by pen. From the heart, going into details about the funny thing that happened to you that morning, the stuff your children say; if we did I’m sure my Christmas card stamps would not cost as much. We’d all be at it.

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