I knew that the writing case was in the back of a cupboard in my London flat, but I don’t think I’ve opened it in ten years. It belonged to my mother when she went to boarding school in the 1950s, and it is embossed with her maiden name initials – which handily became her married ones too.
When I was little, I remember the case lived in a dusty lumber room up on the top floor with the hot water tank, and I was always fascinated by it. When I was a lot older, my mother emptied it out, and allowed me to take it to boarding school as my writing case. That was in the pre-mobile, pre-email days when the only contact with the outside world was a single payphone for a house of sixty people, and which always had a long, long queue of people sitting slumped against the corridor wall waiting for their turn.
So we wrote letters, and received them. And notes. Many, many notes.
Because, of course, pre-email & smartphone, you had to leave notes for people to let them know what you were doing. At Uppingham, the boarding school I went to for sixth form*, there were ancient wooden pigeonholes, organised by boarding house, where notes could be left, and entire romances were conducted on folded scaps of paper torn from exercise books.
On my GAP year between school & university our friends and family wrote to me on thin blue airline forms, and sent them via Poste Restante around the world. At every destination, from Kathmandu to Sydney, KL to Ubud, Caro & I made a beeline to the post office – whether a tiny shack or the major central buildings in capital cities, to ask if there were any letters waiting for us.
And at university that reliance on postal correspondence continued. Imagine: in my first year we didn’t even have a phone in our official apartment block, let alone mobiles. So letters were important and, in the holidays, when we were separated from boyfriends, we sent long letters to each other.
And I kept them all, along with my letters from school.
But I only kept my love letters in the writing case. They chart the entire breadth of each relationship, and I am pretty sure that at least three packets contain letters saying goodbye forever.
And, being an incurable romantic, who read too many novels, I tied them all up with ribbons, along with all the notes we exchanged. They’re a reminder that I loved and was loved.
I can’t bring myself to read them, but neither can I throw them away.
* (that’s junior & senior year for my American readers.)