Tuesday 25 October 2022

Penpals by David Hawkins, lungo, a long pulled espresso

'You mean that everything that you have ever written to me is untrue?'


            'Not everything.'


            'Like what? What’s true?

'Well,' Sue took a deep breath, her eyes gliding from one corner to the other, 'I’ve got a cat called Tiddles.'


            'Really? That’s it,' said Martha. 'Penpals for fifty-six years, goodness knows how many letters back and forth - hundreds, maybe over a thousand - and the only grain of truth in anything you have ever told me is that you have a cat called Tiddles! I’m speechless.'


            Clearly, she wasn’t speechless, in fact she had a lot to say, all sorts of angry words spinning through her mind chaotically. Years of shared secrets, since those first letters at the age of eight, when they got in touch through a childhood magazine. She had three or four penpals then - Lucy in Ireland, Fiona in Scotland, Sandra in Cornwall and Sue in Wales. Sue was the only one that stuck. They had continued writing in their teens, where the letters had gotten more personal, no more the childhood letters about ponies and seashells, but more important missives about potential boyfriends, unrequited emotions and broken hearts.


            'I poured my heart out to you,' was what she finally settled on saying.


            'Yes, I know.' Sue looked into her teacup.  At the bottom were leaves of loose tea that had escaped the strainer. Proper tea in a proper tea room, waitresses in black dresses with white aprons. A first ever meeting between them, face-to-face. After fifty-six years. 'I’m sorry.'




            'I thought we would never meet so it wouldn’t matter.'


            'Wouldn’t matter!' Now Martha was speechless. All those stories that Sue had told her, boyfriends, break-ups, ill parents, dying parents, sibling rivalry, pregnancies and miscarriages, births and parenting. Surely not all lies? It couldn’t be, could it?


            'So you haven’t got a husband called Graham?'


            Sue shook her head, big tears in her eyes like about-to-burst bubbles.


            'And you don’t have a daughter called Naomi and a son named Steven?'


            The tears fell, blotchy and blurry. 'No, never married. I’m a spinster. Such an ugly word to describe a woman.'


            Too right, thought Martha, an ugly word for an ugly woman with an ugly soul. But she didn’t say it out loud, much as she wanted to.


            'You lied, right from the beginning?'


            'No, not right from the beginning. The childhood letters were true, well mostly. Apart from the holidays. Oh, and my sister didn’t get knocked down and killed by a train.'


            'You lied about that? About your sister being killed? That is so disgusting. Did your sister ever know what you wrote in your made up world about her? Did she ever find out?'


            'No.' Sue’s voice was tiny as a sparrow. 'I don’t actually have a sister.'


            'What? So it’s all made up? Even having a sister? You amaze me. No, you don’t, you sicken me.'


            'Yes, I’m a terrible person.'


            A black-and-white dressed waitress came across to them with a stern face. 'I am sorry ladies, but my manager says that you need to keep your voices down,' at this point she looked at Martha who was definitely the louder of the two, 'or he will ask you to leave. You are agitating the other customers.'


            'Yes, sorry, sorry, yes.' Martha and Sue said between them. They waited until the waitress had waddled away before continuing. The intrusion had made Martha realise just how loud her outpourings had been, and did actually calm her down.  She spoke more quietly.  'What made you lie for all these years?'


            Sue was quiet for a while, looking down at her hands which she cradled in her lap under the table, where only she could see. 'I think mostly I was jealous of you. You did such interesting signs all the time, saw so many interesting things, had interesting friends and went to interesting places.' She stopped abruptly;  perhaps realising how she was using the same word over and over again, 'And by comparison my life seemed so……' she stretched for a word but fell back down, 'uninteresting.'


            'You must have done interesting things too,' Martha said, thinking on how she had never thought of the life that she had written in return was all that special really - childhood, courting, marriage, parenthood, grand-parenthood. Nothing seemed that special really. Seeing Sue shrinking into a ball more and more before her eyes, she decided to change tack. 'Why did you agree to meet with me then, after five decades? You must have known the truth would come out.'


            'I did try to put you off.'

'You certainly did!' And for the first time, Martha felt a smile on her own face, thinking of her letters asking to come and visit. Since her husband, Tony, had died - she had written -  and left her his pension, and with the state pension kicking in, she felt the freedom that the money had brought her. 'I don’t want to sit at home in an empty house, now the children had their own families, their own lives, so many miles away.' She had written, and then emphasised in a follow up letter after Sue’s first refusal and weak excuse. Martha’s house was empty. She didn’t want any regrets. She wanted to spread her wings. It had seemed such a good idea to visit Sue Harriman, her penpal since childhood, who she had written countless hundred letters to, to finally speak to the confidant that she had written her secrets to all these years. Four refusals, excuses, medical appointments, a chest infection. It hadn’t been until she wrote saying that she had already purchased the train tickets to Swansea that Sue had finally written and agreed to meet. That had been a lie, actually: she hadn’t purchased the tickets at that point, it had been a tactic to force Sue’s hand. It had worked a treat.


            And now she was here.


            'Start from the beginning, shall we?'


            'Yes, but not here. Shall we go back to my place?' Sue asked, a pleading look in her eyes.


            Sue’s flat wasn’t far: down the road and round the corner. It was a one bedroom flat above a florist, entered by a set of concrete steps down a poorly-lit side alley. As Sue opened the door, a stripy cat paddled up to them and rubbed her flank against the legs of both the women.


            'This must be Tiddles? The one truth.' Martha knew she was being harsh-tongued, but what could anyone expect? This was clearly not the house that Sue said she lived in - a semi-detached, with a garage and voluptuous gardens. Whose house had that been? There were certainly no children here, no husband in evidence. The knitting on the coffee table, the single, used cup and saucer on the side, showed a single person leading a solitary life. The cushions on one armchair were flattened with use; the other chair’s cushions were buoyant and fluffed.


            'You live alone?' When Sue nodded, she interrogated further, 'Always lived alone? No husband? Children? No Sammy who was good at Maths and worked in a bank, or Louise who went to Durham University?'


            Sue shook her head.


            'These people don’t exist?'


            'They do exist!' Sue interrupted sharply. She was up on her toes, like a swan about to attack, before slumping down again. 'They are a family I know. That I clean for.'


            'You’re a cleaner?  I thought you worked for the Government. I thought you said you were a senior manager for the D.V.L.A. That was a lie too?'  Things started to fit together in Martha’s mind. 'The photographs that you attached to your letters - of the boy and the girl growing up, and of the man. Who are they?'


            'They are the Benson family. I have cleaned for them for years, three times a week. That’s all I am, a cleaner. I never worked for any Government office.  They had two children, Sammy and Louise. It wasn’t lies really. Everything I wrote about them was true.'

            'Well, not really. You were constantly on about them being yours.'


            'That bit wasn’t true, obviously, but the facts of them were.'


            'How did you get the photographs.  Some of them were holiday photos, in Greece and Spain and Florida and places.'

            Sue looked likely to cry again. 'I stole them. Mostly when I cleaned, the house was empty. It was Mr Benson who worked for the D.V.L.A.  So I took them. Sometimes I made copies and put them back.'


            Martha thought of how sometimes the photographs were of poor quality. That would explain it, photographs of photographs. She had put it down to Sue having a low-quality camera. 'Did you have no family of your own? Nothing of this was true.' She knew the answer, simply by looking round this dusky flat, that stank of loneliness.   The pictures on the wall were of landscapes. There were no family portraits, no children in caps and gowns, or dressed in school uniform.


            'I’ll put the kettle on,' Sue said, turning her back and walking away.


            It all had started off with the lie about her parents. She didn’t have two loving parents, Bert and Edie, but a mother who had died giving birth to her and a father who resented her all his life for taking the love of his life away.  She had brought herself up mostly, with the help of an Aunty Florrie, she came and did the child-care until she was eight. After a big argument where Florrie had screamed at her father - whose real name, apparently, was Joseph - to man up and start taking responsibility for his daughter, and to stop moping around, Aunty Florrie never came back and Sue had to take charge of the house.


            'You said your mother died of a stroke when you were thirteen. That was made up?'


            'Not entirely. You see, my father,' - she said the word bitterly as if it were an honorary title bestowed but undeserved - 'had a few  fancy women after Aunty Florrie left. One was called Maggie and she was the one that died of a stroke.'


            'On your kitchen floor?'


            'Yes, that bit was true.'


            'It just wasn’t your mother?'


            'No. But I liked her. She was kind to me. Unlike the other two: Ellen and Alice.  They really were not kind to me. Alice used to hit me and my father would watch and laugh.'


            It was funny how, now the truth (if it was indeed the truth) was out there, it had seemed more interesting than the actual subjects she had written about - playing on the beach, school friends, secret boyfriends and kissing behind the bike sheds. In fact, Martha was starting to feel a little bit sorry for her. 'Why didn’t you write about these things? I could have helped.'


            'You wrote your first letter to me, introducing yourself. You had a happy family, brothers and sisters. Your words were full of smiles. Laughter. I had to write back something positive, so I could be like you, otherwise you might not reply. I didn’t want you to think I was needy. I was frightened that you wouldn't write back.'


            'Of course I would have written back!' But even as she said it, Martha knew that she probably wouldn’t have, her childhood self not wanting to associate with anything macabre.


            'Then you started having boyfriends, so I wrote about boyfriends.'


            'Was any of that true?'

            'Well, the ones I had feelings for that didn’t love me back, they were true. There was a Luke that I wrote about, and a Peter.  I had a big crush on Peter!' Sue almost smiled then, triggered by the memory of him. 'But not the ones that I supposedly dated. You seemed to be so successful at the whole dating game.'


            Martha laughed, 'Well, I suppose I did have some fun times!' Noting a sadness in Sue’s face, she quickly dropped the hilarity.'


            'And then you got married, had children…' Sue’s voice dropped off, an aircraft suddenly falling away off the radar.


            Martha explored Sue’s face. There was story there. A sadness. She waited, hoping silence would draw it out.


            'There was a man.'


            'Go on.'


            'He was rough. He attacked me. I became pregnant. I had an abortion.  It wasn’t a proper abortion. You couldn’t then.  It was some woman with needles and a bottle of whiskey.  It was a mess. After that I couldn’t have children. Didn’t really want a man. The whole experience put me off….' Sh searched for the word, came up with two. 'Closeness. Intimacy.'


            Martha had an epiphany. 'This was when I was writing to you about my Tony and how happy I was? And the preparations for the wedding?'


            'Yes, I sort of retreated into this imaginary world. I had been lying to you already so I thought I would just keep going. It was an outlet for me. It was my light in a dark existence. After all, I never thought we would ever meet. I never thought you would ever find out. That it would matter.'


            'And so you stole another family and invented it as your own. To match the family I wrote about.'


            'Yes.  Do you really mind? Does it really matter that much?'


            Martha thought for a moment. 'Yes, in fact it really does.' She stood up from the armchair she was sitting in, placed the teacup on the saucer, put her coat back on.  'I think I will go now.'


            'Your train isn’t for another four hours.'


            'Look, I really can’t stay here. I feel like you’ve trapped me in your web of lies and I feel….slimy. I have to get out.'


            Sue was on her feet too, a slight, short woman, under-fed, not-quite-cared-for. 'Please. Stay.'


            'No. Really I can’t.'


            With that, she picked up her handbag and walked to the door, almost kicking the cat. It question-marked its tail as it scampered out of the way of this strange woman’s angry hooves.


            Out on the street, past the scent of the florist and onto the less pleasant smells of High Street take-aways and smoked-out cigarettes, Martha felt free.  All those lies, year upon year upon year of falsehoods, an entire life of fiction. She could scarcely believe it. A woman never married, pretending to step into the norms expected of a woman - courtship, marriage, family.  All of these things made up to try and make her life sound exciting.  She knew that once she was over the surprise of it, that she might reflect on the poor, misguided woman. If this new story was indeed fact, then she would possibly feel sorry for her, eventually. At the moment, though, all she felt was betrayal.


            Back on the train, having had hours to calm down using a can of gin and tonic and a cream slice to aid her, and with the fields and bushes fading into darkness out of the window, she began to see her own face reflected in the glass.  Fifty-four years of opening envelopes excitedly,  gullibly reading each word, each sentence, each paragraph, and believing it all to be true.  It was a sad truth that these letters were little points of hope in  a sad existence that she did not want to admit to.  A lifetime of lies. Letter after letter. 


            Martha was tired after her long day, and she settled back into her seat, perching her handbag on her lap. The man across from her had his eyes closed already and was trying to set himself down into sleep. She might do the same. She took one last glance at her own face. A warmth embraced her.  She had finally gotten the truth out of her pen pal.


            She must have nodded off and was woken up by the clatter of her handbag on the floor.


            'Oops,' she said at the same time as the man opposite said it.  Sleepiness still hung around his eyes.


            'Sorry. Did I wake you?' Martha said.


            'Don’t worry. I didn’t want to go to sleep now anyway. I won’t sleep tonight if I do.'


            Helping her up pick up the spillage from her bag, he bent down: a tube of lipstick, a vanity mirror, a photograph.


            'Ooh, is this your dog?'


            'Yes,' Martha smiled.


            'I’ve got a Border Terrier as well. What’s his name? It is a he, isn’t it?'


            'Yes, Arthur.'


            'Mine’s a great lad. We call him Dougie. Bought him for the wife. She loves dogs. More than she loves me, I think sometimes,' and he smiled at Martha.


            'Oh, Arthur is mine. I know what you mean, though. He is lovely company. Without him, I’d come home to an empty house. There’s just me and him you see. I never married. My life has just been dogs, and always Border Terriers.'


            'Oh, yes. A lovely breed, so loyal, such great fun, too. Full of energy.'


            Stuffing her belongings back in her handbag haphazardly, she rested back on her seat. Not once had Sue asked her whether everything she'd written had been true! Thank goodness, really, because like Sue, not a single word she had written about her life had been true either!  Sue, though, had never found out, so who was better at this lying game? Certainly not Sue Harriman, that was for sure.  She closed her eyes, feeling the warm thrill of victory.

About the author

David Hawkins is a Primary School teacher by pay and a fiction writer by passion. His first writing success was back in a previous millennium when he was runner up in a writing competition in Marxism Today and more recently, in magazines such as People’s Friend and Scribble.

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