She doesn’t have long, less than five minutes. If Margaret wants to survive she needs to move quickly. She is trying to get me out of the drawer I’m locked in. The drawer is in a cherrywood desk she inherited two years ago. It is kept in the spare room in her Vauxhall flat. The fire that started in the flat next door is spreading. Smoke is filling the shared landing and starting to seep into the hallway in her own flat. Margaret can even feel heat from the neighbouring wall on the side of her face. She really needs to be quicker than this if she is going to get out alive.
I was first locked in this drawer for safekeeping. It didn’t feel like a coffin at the time. But now the neighbouring flat is on fire, this desk could well be the death trap I burn in. I hope not. The desk is an antique inherited from her aunt Eleanor. It was in such strong contrast with the other, modern furnishings in her flat she decided to keep it. Margaret wanted to test a theory: a shade of blue looks more intensely blue – more itself – when juxtaposed with a little splash of yellow. Was the same true of furniture? She enjoyed the taste of combining the antique desk with the modern fittings in her study. So she kept the desk when it was willed to her, rather than selling it straight away on eBay. She kept it, even though one of the drawers was jammed shut. When she tried the drawer on the opposite side, it slid open easily; she tended to keep important papers in A4 binders filed on metal shelves – so why let one strangely locked drawer stop her?
I am currently languishing in that other, locked drawer. I was written by Margaret’s great-aunt Daphne, on thick cartridge paper in navy blue ink, using a cheap fountain pen from WHSmith. At the time, I was addressed to her other great-aunt, Phyllis. I’ve been taken out of my envelope and read so few times, you shouldn’t be surprised by how fresh my cartridge paper has remained, despite my actual real age. You would assume white cartridge paper ages quickly into a faded yellow. But if you took me out of my envelope to read, I would still be a bright, almost gleaming, creamy white. The language may have aged, but language hasn’t been kept locked in a drawer for years, out of the light. And words tend to slip in meaning, I’ve noticed. Their foundations are not built on solid ground. All very mysterious.
I was written in her great-aunt Daphne’s fluid, cursive handwriting. Of course the actual words she wrote are different to what you see now. Receiving a letter like me from Daphne was always a pleasure for your eyes to soak in off the page. Every word written is legible, in a fluid but controlled hand. Like seeing a clear, beautiful singing voice. Daphne’s handwriting itself spoke of clarity and control, independent of the meaning of the words themselves. It makes sense, if the majority of communication between people is subconscious: when you talk with someone, tone of voice, body posture, passing facial expressions are all picked up by the other person’s subconscious antennae. Everything is passed subconscious to subconscious, like whale song floating in the ocean. The communication flows between people independent of the words spoken and heard. Even in a letter like me, there is subconscious movement; there are surface and subsurface currents flowing. She wrote something entirely different to what I am presenting to you now. It is also the same with Daphne’s handwriting. Something in the distinct difference between her lowercase letter h and lowercase n; something in the tidy, identical tails in her lowercase y and lowercase g spoke of a well-ordered, controlled mind.
When Margaret noticed similarities in her handwriting to her mother’s, she tried to rebel against it. She tried to introduce flattened letters into her handwriting, languid rolling slurred scribbles. She didn’t know that it actually made her handwriting very similar to her great-aunt Daphne.
In correcting her own handwriting into something less rigid, Margaret was trying to forge a new character trait into herself. Her genes pulled her handwriting in a rigid direction, she consciously pulled it in the other, trying to forge a new shape into her very genes. If a person’s character is their fate, perhaps changing her handwriting was a way of moulding the character forced on her by accident of birth. Trying to take some small modicum of control over her very destiny.
The hallway outside is quickly filling with smoke. Margaret needs to get me out of this drawer soon, if she is going to escape. This is something she can sense herself. The heat emanating from the neighbouring wall is getting too hot against the side of her face to ignore. Smoke is getting into her flat through the undercut of her front door. She can even taste the smoke, a biting dryness in her throat, tinged with a hint of oncoming death.
Margaret has less time than she thinks, even with the taste of smoke at the back of her throat. It’s the smoke that does the killing. If you’re trapped in a house fire, the smoke suffocates you long before the flames melt the skin off your face. And I am written on paper. Clearly not ideal in this situation. But where a letter really takes place isn’t always held on paper, even good quality cartridge paper. The paper is really just a wick. The true candle flame is elsewhere, in words held aloft in the brain’s soggy matter.
Margaret only found out that I existed when her mother visited last Easter and recognised the drawer in her study.
‘You’ve got Phyllis’ desk,’ she said.
‘When did you get that?’
‘She left it to me,’ Margaret said. ‘I thought you knew.’
‘I didn’t know,’ her mother said. ‘Did you find the letter?’
‘There’s supposed to be a letter in there. Nobody was ever allowed to read it. It was a secret – but everybody in the family knew about it,’ Margaret’s mother said.
‘I never found anything.’
‘It must be in there.’
‘But I couldn’t open both drawers,’ Margaret said.
They went over to the desk, to try to open the drawers. They could get one open, but found they couldn’t open the one I’m locked in.
‘It must be in that one,’ her mother said. ‘I was told something about that letter. Something slightly unusual. Weird.’
Margaret resolved to come back later, with the correct tools to open the drawer. It was too slight a curiosity to warrant paying for a locksmith. When her mother left late on Easter Sunday, Margaret’s thoughts turned away from the desk. Her resolve to find out what was inside it loosened its grip. A few days later her resolve had evaporated further, a mist clearing. By July last year, the locked drawer in her study had faded into a vague family myth, coagulating around the fact that the drawer was locked. Margaret would look at the drawer with a sense of an incomplete chore, before turning away. When she was in the study that September, searching for a utility bill she needed to photocopy, she even paused to look at the drawer. She stared at it, wondering what could possibly be inside, and then turned back to her shelves of filing.
So I have remained in this drawer for years, untouched. Margaret had plenty of time to try and open the drawer and read me. But she is only trying seriously now, when there is a fire lapping at the walls, and it is at great risk to her life. I don’t enjoy being rude and judgemental. I really don’t. But people do this all the time. Leaving things to the last minute, better still the last few seconds, seems to be a habit in her family. Her great-aunt Daphne even mentions it in me. All those years, all those aimless Sunday afternoons that she had the time to Google how to get the drawer open without damaging it. And now here she is hacking away at it with a hammer and a Phillips screwdriver, trying to use it as a kind of chisel. Although she can sense it, she doesn’t know that she actually has eight minutes left at most. But she is still getting a little frantic with banging the hammer on the screwdriver.
Only three people read me, before I was ever locked in this drawer. All three were in Margaret’s family, and all three disappeared off the face of the earth on the same day as reading me. One of them committed suicide, after only reading the first line. The other accidently drove their car into an oncoming truck, again after only reading my first sentence.
In those circumstances, what has been written on me has gathered a mythical aspect in the older generations of her family. Some of that was still redolent in her aunt’s Eleanor’s manner, when she first told Margaret about the letter. But what can a letter possibly say? It is tempting to believe the content is a brew strong enough to dissolve another person’s mind, or at least their sanity. Something that pushes so much light into a mind it fills it like a balloon, expanding it gradually outward until it bursts. But I can honestly say there is nothing as sinister as that. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Why her family reacted in that way has always saddened and baffled me. But I hope you’ll be able to judge for yourself, if Margaret manages to get the drawer open and read my first sentence. I don’t think you will be shocked or baffled, even though her family members chose to commit suicide after reading my first few lines.
I can still remember the look on her aunt Eleanor’s face as she read me. The stillness of her concentrating face reflected silence, passing over it as a rolling shadow of a shifting cloud. Yes, I can still remember her face as she read – just as I shall remember yours. But faces come and go. People think their face is a unique proposition, something irreplaceable and unique to what they are in the world. But everybody has some variation of a face. Everybody has a face to carry, a half-forgotten story of a face, an answer to a question that was never asked. A face is not a possession, not the moment a soul breaks out into open flesh. A face is meat, chewed by thought: forgotten as you read. Her face, while she read me, was just a forgotten dam of skin. It carefully held back its own branch of the river flowing out from the bright source of time, but meant nothing more.
Phyllis’ daughter, Eleanor, knew all about me throughout her childhood. But she never once dared to read me. She knew what room I was kept in, where I was hidden in that room. Once she even took the shoebox out from under the bed, placing it on her lap. She rested her hands on the rectangular cardboard lid. She began to lift, but felt the weight of all those disappeared others in her family, like severed heads inside the box. She closed the lid back down, hoping that someone else in her family would come to read what I had to say, without the weight of family myth and expectation weighing on them. She vowed to keep an eye on where the letter was kept, and bided her time.
Margaret has stopped trying to push the tip of the Phillips screwdriver into the gap at the top of the drawer. She has stood upright, turning her face to her right. She can see, out of the corner of her eye, smoke tipping into the room through the undercut of the door. She has just turned around fully to look at it, and can see it is more than a trickle. The smoke is rushing in under the door, as though it is being blown in by a fan. She is confused by it. This is a modern flat, recently built. Surely modern buildings have good fire safety. It doesn’t seem fair, how quickly the smoke is flowing in. It seems that someone, somewhere has lied to her. She turns her attention away from the smoke flowing in, back to trying to force the drawer open.
I’m not still in this drawer by accident. I was allowed to languish here for so long because of Margaret’s attitude to handwritten letters. Her generation doesn’t see any romance in me as an object. Why write a letter nowadays, when you can send text messages, emails, voicemails, emojis, pokes or WhatsApp notifications? Why write on paper, when you can video and send a live digital moment? I’m not bitter, but you should know that the photo you just sent is only a floating corpse of dead light, decomposing on the waterlogged matter of crumbling brain cells mid-collapse. Despite spreading part of your past wide out onto the back of pixel, washing it deep into plastic, despite cultivating your past onto the underside of silicon like fungi, you are still being very skilfully deleted. Death is still on its way. Just saying.
I can tell that people enjoy funnelling a thought down their phones’ rectangle. But isn’t that screen just eating your thoughts alive? Why carry that mouth in your pocket, just to keep yourself distracted from your own solitude?
I’m not angry. It’s a fact that people prefer to send texts rather than write a postcard. It’s not worth getting angry about. Life goes on. The world has changed, and yet I’m still in here, locked in this drawer, the voice of Daphne’s mind still intact on the paper all these years later. No page can quite hold time still, but I’m still here. Despite the passing time. I’m here while text messages come and go, as permanent as a snowflake. This is not jealousy talking. I’m just saying a different kind of voice is preserved in a letter. A special kind of voice. Okay, maybe I’m a little jealous.
Margaret was told by Eleanor that I was important, but she didn’t see any romance in me. A letter used to be a wonderful object to discover. The unopened letter a vessel of potential. The very handwriting itself redolent of the voice of the mind of the author, chipped from the very soul. All of Daphne’s letters, including me, have her very distinct use of punctuation. Her semicolons are like a faded, collapsing bridge between her half-formed thoughts. In many ways, she uses punctuation the way a painter might use a palette knife on an abstract painting. A full stop was, to Daphne, a finite sculptural moment. Every recorded syllable of time that had ever passed came to a single arrow point of ending at her full stops. Colons were different: a springboard into a future thought. Daphne used colons to lean into the future, into tomorrow. If you look closely, a colon implies the answer to a question is coming. Colons are open-ended where a full stop is finite. Full stops are death in miniature, really. Colons lean forward with life, push forward into infinity, into rebirth and the march of family and family and family.
Margaret has just put the screwdriver aside. She has decided to try to smash the drawer open with a hammer. She aims the head at the lock and swings hard. She hasn’t quite hit the lock head-on. She has only dented part of the face of the drawer.
She has just hit the drawer with the hammer again.
She’s done it. She’s just opened the drawer. She is riffling inside while she coughs. She knows what she is looking for. Smoke is everywhere, she is choking. She can’t see her eyes are watering. She finds me with her hands, picks me up out of the drawer and pulls me out my envelope knowing that she is already running out of time as she starts reading my first sentence hoping that these words of love will not be the last thing she ever reads:
Anthony Holness lives in London. His poetry has been published online and in Popshot Magazine.