On the day that he was released from prison, Jim Catling went back to the wood and sat down on a fallen tree trunk. He sat there for three hours. As he looked at the bluebells which spread, purple not blue, frills not bells, and then looked at his watch, he decided that three hours would be just right: one for each month of his sentence.
The sensation of dampness from the bark, blotting through the seat of his trousers, proved comfortably refreshing. He shifted his position slightly, away from the woody projection that dug into his left buttock, and inhaled the pungent scent of leaves.
Here, he could rest. He had been very surprised when Susan actually invited him to live in her house again when he came out of jail. And he felt reluctant to accept – but what else could he do? He had no friends. In three hours, it would be dark. He would stay here, enfolded by the kindly trees, until nightfall. Then he would follow the footpath towards town and go to Susan and David Pope’s.
Idly, Jim scanned the foliage at his feet, half expecting to see the corner of an envelope stealing up through the layers of soil. But that was nonsense, of course: the rotten vegetation of many months covered the evidence now – if any evidence had been allowed to remain. The Royal Mail, he supposed, might have collected together as many of the discarded items as could be found, and delivered those which had not been obliterated by water and earth. He liked to think of the envelopes and their contents silently disintegrating in sullen ThamesValley rain. Bills, cheques, tickets, letters from solicitors, from job applicants, from lovers. Mulched in mud. Blind murder.
Then the other picture unfolded inside his mind as he sat there on the log. It was a picture he’d frequently relished as he lay on the bunk of his prison cell and stared at the kidney-shaped stain on the ceiling. Sometimes he’d burst out laughing as he contemplated it. His cell mate thought he was crazy anyway, so it made no difference. But it was funny, you had to admit: the image of all those policemen (or maybe it was postmen, who knows? Or local volunteers – a weekend job for the children – two pence a letter). And there they were, doubled over, their bottoms sticking out, or crawling on hands and knees, prodding with sticks or clawing the dirty earth with bare fingers. Searching under the damp leaves, between the dry twigs, behind the trunks of trees for the white voices that had spoken into a void.
Why had he done it? This was the question asked by the softly-spoken gentleman who visited him in prison prior to his release. It was the question Susan asked of him when she issued that unexpected invitation. Why did he do it, and then why did he make up that ridiculous, hurtful story? she demanded. To neither question did he have an answer. This despite the many hours he had contemplated them as he lay on his bunk and gazed at the stain on the ceiling. Could it be, the prison visitor had gently suggested, could it be that Jim was actually jealous of all this communication? How many letters had he received during the three months of his sentence? The visitor warmed to his theme, his soft voice becoming a hiss.
“In fact, Jim (I may call you ‘Jim’, I trust), I suspect that the reason you are not in the habit of receiving letters is that you never write any yourself.”
The man hesitated, evidently uncertain whether he was about to go too far, but also impressed, it appeared, by his striking new idea.
“Jim, you do know how to write, don’t you?”
He leaned forward, clenched fists on his knees. “I mean, you can obviously read – in fact, you must be able to read very well… decipher all sorts of terrible handwriting… otherwise you wouldn’t have got a job as a postman in the first place.”
Jim had been amused by this idea. Now, sitting on his log, he laughed out loud at the memory.
The truth was, he knew only too well how to write. He had spent hours, had he not? in his dingy bedroom at number 24 Ladysmith Road, writing, writing. In his head Jim could still hear the bumping of the wobbly table as he leaned his elbow on it, bent forward over his writing pad. He could still feel the chill that gradually numbed him as he sat, writing, writing, in that damp little room. That, he mused, once more easing his position on the log, is why I feel at home just here.
He had wondered from time to time during his imprisonment what had happened to that final writing pad. On its front cover, inside a burgundy coloured box, ‘Basildon Bond’ signed itself in lettering that made Jim think of words like ‘Elizabethan’ and ‘folio’ and ‘vellum’. Beneath this, in a much smaller and more conventional font, came ‘White’, and the advice that the pad contained 50 leaves. On the front of this one, Jim recalled, he’d written the number 9, and drawn a circle round it. He’d numbered each of them, in the top right-hand corner. Even when they were all used up, he’d kept the cover, with the blotting paper inside it, and the lined page to help you keep to the straight and narrow. Perhaps pad number 9, which (as far as he could remember) had a few pristine pages remaining, was still stowed in the drawer of the little table. After all, the drawer stuck when you tried to open it, and that might have discouraged people from prying. But Jim was fairly certain that if Susan had paddled those clumsy big hands of hers inside that drawer, she’d have taken one look at Basildon Bond 9 and tossed it into the bin. And the fat folder underneath it, too. She had never approved of his writing; he was confident she’d never bother to read it.
“Still scribbling?” she would sneer as she banged his tea onto the table. He liked to have a mug upstairs in his lair, where he recovered from the tea-time company of his sister and the laconic David.
“What you doing it for, Jimmie?” she would ask, peering over his shoulder as she dusted round him. “Now then, there’s no need to put your hand over it. I’m not going to look. I can assure you,” turning from the scrawled page and getting in his way by trying to dust the glass of the picture above the desk, “I’ve got better things to do with my time.”
He was attached to that picture. His mother, he supposed, must have chosen it and hung it there when, once upon a time, this was the room his sisters shared when they were young. It showed a little boy, smartly dressed in blue jacket and trousers, straw blue-ribboned boater on his head, walking along with a small, neat brown and white dog at his heels. It was a country scene: you could tell that, because the boy and his dog were going past a gate enticingly slotted into a leafy hedge, and the sky had that clean fresh look that Jim never saw in the sky above central Reading. Yes, he would like to look at that picture again. That was one reason for having accepted his sister’s invitation to share again what had become her and David’s home “until he had sorted himself out.”
The other reason, of course, was Basildon Bond – or rather, the buff manila folder underneath. It might, conceivably, still be in the drawer.
“There now. I expect you’ll be pleased to get back to a bit of home cooking. Pity it’s gone dry – but you’ve only got yourself to blame for that one.”
The dense scent of over-cooked steak and kidney pie crawled up his nostrils and made him gag at the thought of rotting tissue.
“Sorry, Susan. Like I said, it just… got a bit late.”
“You got a bit late, more like.”
“Very late, more like.”
David Pope spoke so rarely, his words – when they did come – had the charge of an oracle. But the way he glanced up now from his newspaper, allowing his eyes to rest on the returned prodigal brother-in-law for a few seconds, then narrowing them and, it seemed, allowing the flicker of a smile to shimmer across his thin grey lips, hinted at a possible ally. David, perhaps, could understand why he’d made that mad claim to the magistrate – the lie which had converted 140 hours’ community service to a jail sentence. David, who was himself undergoing his own particular life sentence, would realise that Jim, in telling the Bench his remaining family was dead, was merely letting wistful thinking take over. But there again – when he said he was all alone in the world, he was stating the truth, wasn’t he?
The Reading Chronicle rustled back in front of David’s face; his wife fired water into the sink. The steam above Jim’s plate having subsided a little, he jabbed in his fork, imagining as he chewed on the nasty pungent-leathery stuff, that he really had come out of Simmonds Wood to find both his sisters dead.
He would always be alone. He knew that now. Those sprinklings of white paper in the wood – they were his version of confetti. For he would never marry. He’d been released from jail into solitary confinement. For life.
He took a swig of tea to help the steak and kidney down his gullet. It was just the same, this kitchen. The washed-out blue tablecloth with the pattern of tiny mauve flowers; the photograph on the dresser, half-hidden by the tea caddy, of David holding up his prize-winning trout; the round clock on the wall (R.H. Lyons & Son, Bristol) – still two minutes fast; the dog lovers’ calendar, this month featuring a silly little pup peering out of a basket. Some sort of terrier in need of a haircut, the large black eyes poking through the overgrown facial tangle in what was evidently considered a winsome expression. A Yorkshire Terrier, maybe. Something like that. Picking bits of meat from between his teeth, Jim tried to remember which dog had been featuring when he last looked at that calendar. A cold time of year. He had a feeling it had been something black. A Labrador, perhaps, or a Rottweiler.
He felt his shoulder knocked, then roughly brushed. As though sensing, through her telepathic bristles, that her brother had finished eating, Susan had turned from the sink and seized his plate. The whoosh of the taps was suddenly stilled. Jim heard the glug glug as his plate sank into the washing-up bowl; then there was the ticking of the clock, reminding him that time had never stopped, even though he’d been unable to hear it.
David had lit a cigarette. The smoke curled up from behind the Reading Chronicle and sneaked through the room. The smell took Jim back to Sonia’s domain, her citadel of envelopes and packages and his place of pilgrimage, where he came and left with his burdens. Not that Sonia herself was a smoker. Well, as far as he knew, she wasn’t – certainly not at work. He couldn’t imagine her with a fag between her lips. Angels don’t smoke. But the other scum did. Hacking a path up the hills and down the valleys of the great landscape of post that spread round the office, they puffed on their cigarettes, enfolding their manager in wreaths of heady smoke. They were posting her up to the gods, thought Jim to himself the first time he saw her there. That’s where she belongs.
A sorting office. Yes, Sonia sorted it out all right. The temperature, for example. On that first visit of his, the heat had closed on him, and he’d felt suddenly faint. The central heating must have been on full blast. It was wet outside. But he remembered it as that warm, sticky kind of wet – like blood.
As he steadied himself against a wall of shelving, Sonia had turned, as though registering his presence for the first time, and launched a jiffy bag towards his sack.
That was the first word he ever said to her. Almost the only word, in fact. Missed. Oh, how he’d missed her over the past months. Missed her face, her voice, the way she would half-turn to him when he entered, so that her breasts pointed at him through her blouse. And, remembering, he felt the giddiness rise once more. Seeing her there, that first time, he’d known immediately that he no longer needed to write those postcards to friends who didn’t exist. He could write letters now, for he had someone to write to. That was the thought that had swept through him in the instant he shifted his eyes to the fallen packet. Dropped at his feet – a person of flesh and blood.
Sitting now over his cold tea, the rustle of the newspaper and the stacking of cutlery and dinner plates drifting to him, half-heard, he let his mind wander back, yet again, to that first encounter. He’d bent over to pick up the jiffy bag, which had landed by his left foot. Re-living it now, he decided that, for Sonia, it must have been as if this newcomer had gone down on one knee in order to propose to her. He’d got up quickly, breathing too fast and wondering whether he really was about to faint.
She is still looking at him – more closely now.
“Are you OK there?”
Such perceptiveness, such concern, such pure lovingkindness.
“Yes, fine.” He settles his back once more against the shelving. A lever arch file prods the side of his neck. “It’s just.. just a bit hot in here.”
“Stifling, isn’t it? Why they need to put the central heating on in September I can’t bloody imagine. Beats me.” She puts a hand to her forehead as if testing her own temperature and pushes away a stray blonde lock. It is a large, strong-looking hand – but beautiful, thinks Jim, and shapely. A hand made to caress. He’d like to catch a glimpse of the other one, check out the ring situation.
The hand reaches over now and silences the radio, then picks up a telephone. “Bob? That you? Listen, can you get something done about the heating in here? What? No, of course it’s working. That’s the trouble. It’s too effing hot in here. Nobody can work properly. It’s like the black hole of Calcutta.”
She stops to listen to Bob’s response, her tongue pressing on her lower lip. “Well I don’t care what they say. You just tell them I almost had a delivery worker fainting on top of me just now.”
“That’s it. I’m sure you can sort it, my love. Many thanks.”
Sort it. She can sort anything.
So he smiles at her, placing the package in the bag and, in a single, smooth movement, raising the whole load and drawing it up so that the lower half of his face is hidden from view.
She smiles back at him. All she can see now, he supposes, are his eyes. Light brown. The colour of parcel wrap. Or parcel tape. He’s looking straight at her. Her eyes are like the sea.
“Great, then. That one’s ready to go.” And she turns back to her pile of letters. The fluorescent light bulb hums away, like an embarrassed onlooker. God it’s hot in here.
She must be waiting for the sounds of his departure.
But he doesn’t go. Perhaps she’s already forgotten about him, because a minute later he hears her murmur to a colleague,
“I tell you, the postcodes people invent get crazier by the day.”
Then, with a sigh of disgust, she reaches over and jabs a finger at the radio. A woman’s song is ogling her victim. I want to hear you say my name.
So Jim gave up and left, to empty the contents of the sack into his postal bag. He watched that jiffy bag slide out, recognising its foreign stamp and airmail sticker. He hoped he wasn’t going to end up delivering it to some nonentity. It had brought them together. It was her missile, her spear. It was sacred.
Later, he managed to find out her name. As far as he knew, she never learned his.
My dearest Sonia…
No, that sounded lamentably old-fashioned. How could he, in that very first letter, have started in such a way? It made him cringe to read it. Like something out of a BBC costume drama – that’s how it struck him now. He needed something less… formal. What he needed, in fact, was passion.
Sonia my darling…
Better. Much better.
Sonia my love…
Now how about that? The monosyllable had, it seemed to him, the necessary intensity.
Sonia my love,
I am writing to you to express my fervent admiration and undying devotion. From the moment I set eyes on you, I knew you were the most perfect embodiment…
No, no. Leave bodies out of it. She was too pure for that. With his black Uni-ball, he struck out and re-wrote, adjusting quickly once more to the slight backward slope of his script.
…the most perfect incarnation of womanhood. Perhaps you have noticed my eyes lingering on your loveliness. Oh, do not take it amiss, sweetest Sonia, that I cannot remove my ardent gaze from contemplating the most beautiful creature who ever lived.
No, he could do better than that.
…the most beautiful being ever to grace this earth.
You require not the baseness of an animal passion. To you, a noble courtship is due. With this in mind, I have composed a sonnet in your honour. I hope my beautiful Sonia will grant me permission to go down (metaphorically) on my knees and dedicate this to her.
Goodness, how he’d worked on that sonnet. Re-reading it now, he was certain it needed no amendment. He’d studied with close attention the sonnets of Shakespeare. He’d counted the syllables and worked out the rhyming pattern. He’d noticed the use of clever comparisons. Her name lent itself to this, of course. She was dazzling as the sun, and she sounded like the sun also. This had been the first of many sonnets. The Sonia Sequence. From her forehead to the way she moved, he worshipped her. Even as he dreamed wildly of the portions in between, he’d worked hard to keep his verse clean and decorous.
To what shall I compare thy beauteous eyes?
They are as blue and liquid as the sea.
The light from them reminds me of sunrise
When daytime brings new life to our valley.
When those sweet shafts are turned to look my way,
My heart beats faster than a running deer.
It is the brightest moment of my day
When I come to you and your breath is near.
And how shall I describe your pure white hands?
They are the powers that decree my fate.
I am your servant, doing your commands;
Your finger points – to make me fly or wait.
My hand, meanwhile, writes down your loveliness,
My verse a tribute. You deserve no less.
He was counting them now. Twenty-nine sonnets he’d written to Sonia. And three hundred and twelve letters. The day he set eyes on her, he’d come home, put the dozens of postcards to imaginary friends in a large brown envelope and tossed them into the bottle bank outside Somerfield. For they had been made redundant.
Sometimes his letters were little more than a diary of his day – but always written to Sonia. More often, they were outpourings of loneliness and love. While the sonnets came under the strict regularity of metre and form, the letters remained uncensored. And he read them straight through now, amending the occasional word, but never blushing. Sonnets were for Sundays, because that was the one day he never saw her. Letters were for the rest of the week
Yes, letters were Jim’s way of life. From his working day in the sorting office and the delivery van, to his evenings at the wobbly table in Ladysmith Road, Jim ran his thumb along the sealed edge, daring himself to open the envelopes of other people, pressing his secret passion into his own.
But today, the day he got out of prison, as he sat on that damp log in the bluebell wood, Jim had decided to break the seal. So, coming up to his room after tea, he had worked away at the stubborn drawer, gradually easing it open. He’d found Basildon Bond 9 still there and, underneath it, the buff-coloured folder bulging with writing pad husks and those hundreds of letters. Each one was safely inside its envelope. Basildon, he’d decided, could stay there – for the time being. He wouldn’t be needing it any more. But he’d pulled out the folder, feeling a stab in his chest as he did so, opened it, let the sealed envelopes tumble out.
He never found out her surname, let alone her address. He didn’t want to. Sonia simply needed to exist as the single name of his muse. So each envelope bore just the one word, which he’d taken care every time to write exactly in the middle. It was an easy word to write neatly. Apart from its opening capital, every letter was of uniform height. He’d always used black ink. Sonia. That was all. Undeliverable.
He knew the moment had come to open them, to put the letters in chronological order. Now he was looking at them for the last time, correcting where necessary (for they had to be perfect). And then he would deliver them. They would go to the right place, at last.
Sunlight bounced off the black pavements; Jim found himself blinking against the energy of the day. But the streets were quiet. Those who half an hour ago had scurried indoors to escape the downpour had not yet noticed, apparently, that the rain had stopped and the sun shone bright. He’d never known such a day. It brought back the picture that hung above his writing table, the picture where the sky was clean and infinite.
Walking past the Black Horse, Jim quickened his pace, his fingers tightening round the Somerfield bag he carried. That had been the only place where he’d seen her outside work. It still agitated him to think about it – partly, of course, because the unfamiliarity had been such a challenge: to see her in a pub, of all places, had left him baffled, and powerless to respond. Worse, of course, had been the other thing. He didn’t like to think of that now. It had been almost the last time he’d seen her before that moment in Simmonds Wood when he’d scattered the contents of his mail bag. Yes, of course the two events were connected. And though he tried to pull back from remembering, as he strode on through the empty streets, his trainers splashing in the puddles until he began to feel the wetness inside his socks, he found he could not stop himself.
He doesn’t often go to the pub – but the voices at home reverberating through walls and off the television screen have driven him to the Black Horse for a bit of peace. In the end, that’s not what he gets. At first it’s easy – a bit of an adventure. He finds a seat at a small table in the corner, underneath a ceiling lamp that doesn’t appear to be working. He carefully removes the Stella Artois ashtray, placing it on the carpet. A few sips into his pint, he closes his eyes, taking in the steady murmur of voices, predictable as the tide.
Then a woman laughs. Immediately, Jim opens his eyes, jabbed awake by something familiar in that sound. And so he catches sight of Sonia, who’s just entered, sitting up at the bar now, talking to the barman, enjoying a joke – so it seems. She’s wearing tight jeans and a blue jumper with a cowl neck. From where he’s sitting, Jim can see that it’s in some sort of soft material, the kind that asks you to stroke it. She must have chosen that blue to match her eyes. She swivels slightly on the bar stool, half-facing him in the way she always does at the sorting office. The jumper is quite loose-fitting, so the breasts don’t seem to point out at him in their usual way. He’s never seen her out of her work clothes. Out of her clothes. Jim takes a large gulp. It’s so hot in here; he finds he’s reeling from a familiar wave of dizziness. She hasn’t spotted him – of that he is certain, as he holds the cool glass up to rest against his forehead, pulling himself back into the shadows. No-one ever notices him.
As Jim puts the glass down again, he registers the man striding out of the gents. He watches as he swings up onto the stool next to Sonia’s. She reaches out a soft blue arm to encircle him.
Jim was inside the wood now, pushing his way carelessly through the bluebells, which seemed to squeak, damp against damp, as they brushed against the bottoms of his trousers. He found the log again, but this time he didn’t sit. Contemplating it for a minute, he tried to work out his bearings. That’s it: from where he stood, the pool was somewhere to the left.
Further into the wood he went, hacking at leaves with his Somerfield carrier bag, ducking his way under the low-hanging branches.
Two minutes later, he came out into a small clearing. The recent rains had raised the level of the pool, which seemed to flaunt its fullness, suddenly encountered there where the trees dropped away and sunlight skimmed on the water.
Jim dropped to his knees. Opening the bag, he drew out Basildon Bond 9 and, with a deft flick of his wrist, hurled it like a Frisbee into the pool. For a few seconds it floated, a piece of flat light wood extract, before the waters moved over it. Then quickly, before he could think about it too much, Jim picked up the buff manila folder, holding it together so that the hundreds of envelopes didn’t burst out. He rose, shuffling into the muddy edge. He didn’t need to throw it far. Just a short way out was enough. As it hit the water, it made surprisingly little noise. Jim noticed a few white fugitives tumble from the mouth of the folder as it sank. The whole thing vanished instantly. He had half-expected bubbles to rise to the surface, as if from some living thing. But it was not alive, after all. It never had been. Jim Catling stood there in the shallows wondering which way to walk, wondering what it was to be alive.