Burnt out Letterbox – a short story

This story based on early 1970s musings about a newspaper report of a number of acts of vandalism in the United Kingdom involving the burning of the contents of letter boxes. In those days, mail was the prime form of distance communication. It took precedent over telephone and predated instant modern internet and e-mail communication. This being so this story speculates on the kind of devastation such vandalism might incur.

After the five-thirty pm collection few people used the letterbox next to the Civic Cambers on George Street, Edinburgh. They included a couple of tardy secretaries with large bundles of mail, a solitary man who drove up in a car to post his letter and a cleaner on her way to work. It was a standard box, the same as those scattered in their repetitive millions all over the United Kingdom. The surrounding monochrome grey granite buildings silhouetted its scarlet body. The absence of traffic and movement in the wide regal thoroughfare further accentuated its impact, so that its lonely splash of red radiated down wind-swept pavements. It exerted an uncanny attraction towards itself. Robert felt this attraction as he paused to look mechanically up and down the street for traffic before crossing on his way home from a pub in Rose Street. The friendly warm color beckoned and its familiar shape reassured. He idly changed direction and walked towards it.

The wind, a cold October “Norther”, now blew directly onto his beer-flushed face tingling his ruddy complexion. The gusty wind played on the regular Georgian facades of the street’s gaunt buildings and plucked a mournful tune from their harmoniously proportioned porticos and pediments. The lonely-whistled cries echoed across the street as the buildings asked each other why George Street, on this March night of 1971, should be so deserted when it had been designed to be Edinburgh’s main street. Their calls reminded each other of the irony of the Georgian New Town with its wide parallel streets, imposing squares, and series of residential crescents and circles whose purpose had all been eclipsed by the emergence of Prince’s Street as a main tourist attraction and shopping thoroughfare. Robert listened to the lonely cries, but to him the lamenting loneliness was not the buildings’ solitude but cries of a man’s loneliness. They were his cries of anguish due to the inactivity of unemployment in the young and healthy, his cries of frustration to be living at home in a tiny crowded two up two down, and his feeling of emptiness and uselessness when each day is the same and slips quickly and uneventfully away.

When he reached the letterbox he stopped and stood nonchalantly beside it hoping to draw comfort from its red side. But, when he touched it, it was cold, cold as steel. Feeling cheated he kicked it. He would have done so again except the impact telescoped thorough his thin shoe and hurt his foot. Then he took out his cigarettes and matches and, crouching beside the rounded body for shelter, lit himself one. As he inhaled a first soothing drag of smoke he noticed the letterboxes’ mouth. It was a wide-open gaping mouth asking to be fed. He thrust the lighted match into its jaws. Nothing happened, the street remained just as empty, the air just as cold, and the grey stone buildings just as somber, he felt just as bored and aimless. He lit another match and pushed it into the red mouth, then another and another until a small drift of smoke began to emerge, like a dragon’s breath, from the scarlet body. The wind whisked the thin wisps away in its embrace so quickly that they also seemed futile and insignificant.

He crossed the street and walked down the other side past the City Hall, to one of the many cross streets. He paused for a moment and looked back to inspect the result of his efforts. A small curl of smoke could be seen drifting out of its red lips. “Yes,” he thought “that is so in keeping with its color. I wonder why they don’t make them blue or green or yellow, then, I wouldn’t have to give them smoky breath.” His conscience appeased, he took in the whole street, half hoping to see another letterbox, but both pavements were empty, his box was the only one. He threw his cigarette butt into the gutter and thrust his hands in his pockets turning over the few coins which he had left. He walked up to Princes Street.

The still brightly lit Princes Street presented an equally cold sidewalk with a biting wind blowing across the Loch, or central valley, which runs adjacent to the street. The tourist season was over but a few people walked its well-used pavements, their bodies shrunken into their coats. Robert passed them by, his hands thrust even deeper into his pockets, his shoulders slouched, as he tried to coax a little extra warmth out of his old coat. Occasionally, he paused to look into the shop windows. As always, he stopped to gaze into an electrical shop opposite Waverley Station. He liked to watch the television figures moving across multiple screens, reproduced, soundless, like pictures in a kaleidoscope.

He walked on beside the station looking down on its massive pitched roofs, filling the entire valley incline with their organized lines. Then he turned to go down the Waverley steps. As usual, an exceptionally strong blast of icy air met him as he hurried down. The first shock almost knocked him over, and then, as he pushed downwards, it turned itself into a twisting upwards movement which gustily lifted his light coat and blew through his clothing to his skin. He cursed himself under his breath as he could easily have taken the other station entry for he knew that this wind was not exceptional. But he liked the place as it reminded him of Christine. He had met her at a party which he had gate crashed. They had danced all evening in an ecstatic whirl and then spent several weeks together enjoying a brief interlude of joy. Robert had not known real love or passion until those few idyllic days. Then, all too quickly, she was gone to take up a position in Glasgow. They had said a final goodbye on these same steps. He had wanted to keep in touch. She had insisted otherwise, partly because of her new position in Glasgow and partly as her family was a rather upstage affluent one who would sneer at Robert’s poverty. Now, it seemed, his only hope of ever seeing her again would be to win the Pools. Ah, if only he could do that, then he would marry her.

He entered the station and made his way to the station cafeteria which he knew to be warm, and open at this late hour. It was a typical British Railways place with a tall Victorian ceiling decorated with dirty plaster molding some twenty feet above its bare tables and polypropylene chairs. At one time it must have been a beautifully proportioned room but now a flimsy partition divided it into kitchen and cafeteria, making nonsense of the rich cornice and symmetrical windows. Tonight the warm room caused condensation to pour down the dirty windows and form dark pools on the window sills, while unsophisticated lights glared through the hazy air giving the occupants a bubonic plague-like green pallor.

He entered, and glanced around the room to assess the clientele: a few isolated travelers, their eyes sunken deep into grey sockets under the bright light, their clothes creased; and a couple tramps slowly eating large hunks of bread-and-butter which they washed down with thick tea. He went over to the counter and bought a cup of tea and some scones. He carried it away on a flimsy plastic plate and chose a corner table. He ate methodically without enjoyment; he thought that the scones tasted like play-dough. Just as he finished someone sat beside him.

The newcomer looked peculiarly out of place and, although now drunk, appeared to be unaccustomed to drinking. He had reached a lachrymose state of melancholy and grief quite unbefitting to his high position in his firm. Indeed, if he sober, could have seen himself now he would have been utterly disgusted. His well-cut blue suit hung from him in a crumpled mess and his expensive tie, tied in a tight knot was lost somewhere on his chest. He staggered so that by the time that he reached the table most of his tea had spilt adding sticky wet stains to his suit. Once seated, he guiltily produced a flask of whiskey from an inner pocket and poured enough into his cup to fill it to the brim. At that moment his glazed blue eyes caught Robert’s brown ones, so leaning over, he offered Robert a “wee dram” for himself. Robert willingly accepted.

Angus Macgregor badly needed a confident and introduced himself. He quickly launched into the saga of his misery, “I posted it to her today,” he said, “I wrote a letter to her telling her ‘never to come home again’. My daughter, my own flesh and blood, my own first baby, I wrote that she is ‘never to come home again.’” His voice trailed away in his misery and he took another drink of laced tea to renew his strength. “She is such a bonnie lassie, always so good. How could she have done this? My wee lassie, my wee Christine” He paused again to contemplate Christine. He had so wished her be perfect, indeed she had been so perfect, until this. Perhaps he ought never to have let her leave Edinburgh to live in Glasgow.

“Err, yes, you said ‘Christine’,” prompted Robert, his hands swirling his tea cup, his interest stirred by the name of his beloved.

“Ah, my Christine, my Christine‘s pregnant,” he gasped. The dreadful news almost choked him. The words hit Robert like a pistol shot, could this man’s Christine be his Christine? And, if so would this child be his child? He felt a sudden surge of pride, but checked himself. He couldn’t support himself, how could he possibly support anyone else?

Meanwhile Angus rambled on enumerating his sorrows. “She is going to have a child of her own. There’s no father.” Here Robert smiled at the mere thought of his possible paternity. “Earlier I couldn’t bear the thought of the humiliation. I argued with my wife. But what does it matter what people say? I don’t care about them. I care about my Christine she is far more important. But all I did was send fifty quid and wrote that she is never to come home again, never to come home again.” His moist eyes searched Robert’s face for help. “What should I do?”

“Telephone,” suggested Robert.

“I can’t. She hasn’t got a phone. Besides, I know that when she gets that letter she will never come home she so proud, so proud, just like her father. Once she has received that letter and read those words to never come home again nothing would make her come.”

Robert’s powers of sympathy were somewhat limited at the best of times and now, as Angus repeated his story, he let his mind race to the extraordinary possibility that this Christine might be his Christine and her child, his child. He wanted to be alone, but stayed, feigning concentration hoping to get another tot of whiskey and more information as a reward. As he sat there he mentally reviewed what he had put in his Pools coupon earlier in the day. It had taken time to work it out weighing up probabilities and matching his knowledge of the different teams against an intangible element of chance. He had felt satisfied when he given it to his mother to post. Now, he felt that meeting this drunken man was a good omen. Surely he was destined, not only win the Pools, but also to rush to Christine’s aid. He counted the days on his fingers, today was Wednesday, he would know on Saturday, and then it should only be a day before he found Christine. He had to win; it all depended on his wining. Surely, he had won.

They finished the whiskey, each immersed in his own world and then Robert left for his long cold walk home. First he called in at the Gents, then, comfortably at home with his body; he walked through the station to the Bridge exit thereby avoiding the cold Waverley steps, up across Princes Street, down past Woolworths past the General Post Office. He paused to look up at its Renaissance façade. He felt good as he thought of the morning collection, wondering what would be left on George Street for the bureaucratic system to sort out. He felt good that at least someone would feel the effect of his actions. He walked on towards home with a puffed up feeling of his own importance as a father, Pool winner and destroyer of letterboxes.

Christine lay in bed luxuriating in the pleasing thought that on Saturday she could lie there as long as she wished. She lay on her back letting her hand drift gently over her stomach which already seemed to be a little swollen. She wondered, as she cupped her palms over it, whether the baby was already large enough to be recognizably human. She mused, regretfully, over the father, Robert, whom she had only known that short idyllic time in Edinburgh. She knew that his circumstances were bad and so she had never tried to contact with him. After all, what could he do? Alone, or perhaps with her family, if only they would write, she thought that she could cope. Indeed, she almost looked forward to the challenge of coping. Robert, she remembered, seemed to be depressive and moody so, she concluded, he would never be able to face the strain of a baby. He would always be trying to win a million pounds on the Pools, or gamble thousands on the hounds. She bore him no resentment. She didn’t even want to see him again. It seemed as though the baby were completely hers and that by not being there he had surrendered his paternity.

Her drifting thoughts passed on to what to do today. While she was musing she heard the familiar thud of a letter falling on the hard floor at the front door. Perhaps, the letter from home had arrived. She feared the worst. She knew her father to be a proud man and would consider her illegitimate pregnancy a dishonor and disgrace. She fully expected him to allow his concern about his partner’s reactions to override his, and her mother’s parental love. Now, her earlier feelings of independence vanished and her heart beat overtime as she hurried to the hall with a remote feeling of nausea.

A strange letter lay on the floor; it was wrapped in an official envelope on which a clerk had written in a painstakingly-legible hand with neat forward-sloping letters:

The G.P.O. apologizes for the state

of this letter. It was burnt by vandals

in a letterbox in Edinburgh on the

evening of Wednesday March 10th 1971

Her hands trembled. She carried the strange envelope back to her bedroom. She smelt its aroma of ashes and tore it open. Inside she found such a mutilated mess that she was surprised that the post office had been able to piece together sufficient information to be able get it to her. The entire left hand side was obliterated either burnt or charred out of recognition. The words on the right hand side, written in her father’s unmistakable-tidy hand, danced on the page in a jumbled incoherent succession of disconnected phrases. She went over to the window and held the damaged page to the light to read as follows:

were horrified to
r some time have been
ere unable to write to
your situation as
, praying a good deal
hat as you have been
For some time now
o do so.
olutely out of the
t add another wrong to
, we do not wish
Our daughter would
are to have her
ttle something
come home again.

She tried to patch in the missing parts, but was unable to make out any meaning, except for the last words come home again. Suddenly, she knew just how much she had wished to go home, just how much she needed her parents’ love and support. Her previously swelling pride crumbled away in a rush of love. She hurriedly began to pack for going home. The words rang in her head like the lyric of a popular song, come home again, come home again.

Robert loved Saturdays, the day that he checked his Pools entry. Each time he was convinced that this time he had won. Today, the facts bore out his optimism. He attentively listened to the results and glued himself to the television commentary of the game in Glasgow. He spent the whole afternoon in their tiny front room glued to the screen, and although it was a dark room at the best of times, he had the curtains drawn to make the image seem brighter. He practically chain smoked increasing the stagnant stuffiness of the room. As time went on his excitement increased. All his predictions were correct, except this game in Glasgow which had all appearance of being a draw. He could kick himself in anger, hadn’t he thought that it might be a draw? His eyes followed the ball with the camera. Half time, no score, full time no score, penalty time, a goal, a goal.

“They’ve won; they’ve won” He yelled to his mother “A goal, a goal. I’m rich, I’m rich” He could hardly breathe in his excitement.

He neatly checked the results again. There was no doubt about it he had won. He rushed out of the house to the nearest post office to send a telegram. He had rehearsed this moment so often in his dreams that he hardly needed to read the winner’s instructions on the back of his entry copy. A win! A win!

Back home he dragged his mother in from her kitchen to tell her the good news. “I’ve won, ‘should be about one hundred and fifty grand,” he shouted. “Oh, Mum, I’ll buy gifts for all. I’ll get married; I’ll have a bairn of my own.” He hugged his mother. “How long do you think that it’ll take them to contact me? Today? It must be today!” Already he could see them arrive in a slick Daimler to talk to him. He wondered whether they brought the Champagne with them, or whether they saved that for the publicity of the handing over ceremony. Yes and the publicity would be an ideal way for him to find Christine who would, by now, be miserable having received her father’s letter.

The reply to his telegram didn’t arrive until late. He rushed to the door, tripping over the carpet in his excitement. The telegram was brief and to the point:

T—-‘S POOLS AKNOWLEDGES MR.R. MCNAB’S
TELEGRAM STOP REGRET HAVE NO RECORD
OF RECEIPT OF ENTRY AS MENTIONED STOP

He couldn’t believe his eyes, it just wasn’t possible. His mother couldn’t have forgotten to post it, not this week. “Mum,” he yelled “You did post the entry as usual didn’t you?”

“Oh course I did,” she affirmed soothingly as she stepped into the hall to watch him. “I posted on Wednesday night, as usual, when I went to my cleaning job. You know the George Street box.”

5 thoughts on “Burnt out Letterbox – a short story

    • I think that many a tale with an end twist is going to end up having a moral – it fits so well into the genre. Thank you for your read.

  1. Jane dear,

    I love this story. Didn’t think I could enjoy this genre but I did and immensely. Thank you so very much 🙂

    The descriptions were so visual and took me back to the England I knew and used to visit in the early 1980’s. Such lovely memories and friends. You are so expressive and I say this with all love – I envy your talent.

    Your style reminded me of a bygone era of storytelling – something that I miss in today’s “hook ‘em in the first paragraph format”.

    The story itself took me to peaks and troughs, an emotional roller coaster that left me variously hoping and anxious for Robert, Christine and her father. And poor Robert’s mother. What a cruel hand fate dealt them all.

    Sad and tragic but wonderful storytelling. Sounds like a contradiction – but I trust you know my intent.

    Thank you my dear for enriching my Sunday.

    With luv and hugz 🙂
    Eric
    Singapore

    • Thank you Eric.
      You, in turn, enrich my Sunday with your loving kind words. Thank you for taking the time to read beyond your usual genre. I am new to this blogging business which makes this exchange of ideas and comments uniquely gratifying and I find your comments encouraging. Thank you, thank you
      Jane,
      Austin, Texas

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