Your letter arrived this morning. We were in the dayroom for morning activities. Everyone was asleep.
Sister Lucy, who is the youngest nun volunteering in the hospice, asked if anyone would like to help with her new jigsaw. Nobody answered. ‘Scrabble?’ she said.
‘How about Mousetrap?’ said Sister Lucy. ‘That’s a lovely game.’
I was in a chair by the window. Outside, the winter evergreens flapped and shivered. One lone seagull balanced in the sky.
‘Hangman?’ said Sister Lucy. ‘Anyone?’
A patient nodded, and Sister Lucy fetched paper. By the time she’d got sorted, pens and a glass of water and so on, he was dozing again.
Life is different for me at the hospice. The colours, the smells, the way a day passes. But I close my eyes and I pretend that the heat of the radiator is the sun on my hands and the smell of lunch is salt in the air. I hear the patients cough, and it is only the wind in my garden by the sea. I can imagine all sorts of things, Harold, if I put my mind to it.
Sister Catherine strode in with the morning delivery. ‘Post!’ she sang. Full volume. ‘Look what I have here!’
‘Oh, oh, oh,’ went everyone, sitting up.
Sister Catherine passed several brown envelopes, forwarded, to a Scotsman known as Mr Henderson. There was a card for the new young woman. (She arrived yesterday. I don’t know her name.) There is a big man they call the Pearly King, and he had another parcel though I have been here a week and I haven’t yet seen him open one. The blind lady, Barbara, received a note from her neighbour — Sister Catherine read it out — spring is coming, it said. The loud woman called Finty opened a letter informing her that if she scratched off the foil window, she would discover that she’d won an exciting prize.
‘And, Queenie, something for you.’ Sister Catherine crossed the room, holding out an envelope. ‘Don’t look so frightened.’
I knew your writing. One glance and my pulse was flapping. Great, I thought. I don’t hear from the man in twenty years, and then he sends a letter and gives me a heart attack.
I stared at the postmark. Kingsbridge. Straight away I could picture the muddy blue of the estuary, the little boats moored to the quay. I heard the slapping of water against the plastic buoys and the clack of rigging against the masts. I didn’t dare open the envelope. I just kept looking and looking and remembering.
Sister Lucy rushed to my aid. She tucked her childlike finger under the flap and wiggled it along the fold to tear the envelope open. ‘Shall I read it out for you, Queenie?’ I tried to say no, but the no came out as a funny noise she mistook for a yes. She unfolded the page, and her face seeped with pink. Then she began to read. ‘It’s from someone called Harold Fry.’
She went as slowly as she could, but there were a few words only. ‘I am very sorry. Best wishes. Oh, but there’s a PS too,’ said Sister Lucy. ‘He says, Wait for me.’ She gave an optimistic shrug. ‘Well, that’s nice. Wait for him? I suppose he’s going to make a visit.’
Sister Lucy folded the letter carefully and tucked it back inside the envelope. Then she placed my post in my lap, as if that were the end of it. A warm tear slipped down the side of my nose. I hadn’t heard your name spoken for twenty years. I had held the words only inside my head.
‘Aw,’ said Sister Lucy. ‘Don’t be upset, Queenie. It’s all right.’ She pulled a tissue from the family-size box on the coffee table and carefully wiped the corner of my closed-up eye, my stretched mouth, even the thing that is on the side of my face. She held my hand, and all I could think of was my hand in yours, long ago, in a stationery cupboard.
‘Maybe Harold Fry will come tomorrow,’ said Sister Lucy.
At the coffee table, Finty still scratched away at the foil window on her letter. ‘Come on, you little bugger,’ she grunted.
‘Did you say “Harold Fry”?’ Sister Catherine jumped to her feet and clapped her hands as if she was trapping an insect. It was the loudest thing that had happened all morning, and everyone murmured ‘Oh, oh, oh’ again. ‘How could I have forgotten? He rang yesterday. Yes. He rang from a phone box.’ She spoke in small broken sentences, the way you do when you’re trying to make sense of something that essentially doesn’t. ‘The line was bad and he kept laughing. I couldn’t understand a word. Now I think about it, he was saying the same thing. About waiting. He said to tell you he was walking.’ She slipped a yellow Post-it note from her pocket and quickly unfolded it.
‘Walking?’ said Sister Lucy, suggesting this was not something she’d tried before.
‘I assumed he wanted directions from the bus station. I told him to turn left and keep going.’
A few of the volunteers laughed, and I nodded as if they were right, they were right to laugh, because it was too much, you see, to show the consternation inside me. My body felt both weak and hot.
Sister Catherine studied her yellow note. ‘He said to tell you that as long as he walks, you must wait. He also said he’s setting off from Kingsbridge.’ She turned to the other nuns and volunteers. ‘Kingsbridge? Does anyone know where that is?’
Sister Lucy said maybe she did but she was pretty sure she didn’t. Someone told us he’d had an old aunt who lived there once. And one of the volunteers said, ‘Oh, I know Kingsbridge. It’s in South Devon.’
‘South Devon?’ Sister Catherine paled. ‘Do you think he meant he’s walking to Northumberland from all the way down there?’ She was not laughing any more, and neither was anyone else. They were only looking at me and looking at your letter and seeming rather anxious and lost. Sister Catherine folded her Post-it note and disappeared it into the side pocket of her robe.
‘Bull’s-eye!’ shouted Finty. ‘I’ve won a luxury cruise! It’s a fourteen-night adventure, all expenses paid, on the Princess Emerald!’
‘You have not read the small print,’ grumbled Mr Henderson. And then, louder: ‘The woman has not read the small print.’
I closed my eyes. A little later I felt the sisters hook their arms beneath me and lift my body into the wheelchair. It was like the way my father carried me when I was a girl and I had fallen asleep in front of the range. ‘Stille, stille,’ my mother would say. I held tight on to your envelope, along with my notebook. I saw the dancing of crimson light beyond my eyelids as we passed from the dayroom to the corridor and then past the windows. I kept my eyes shut all the way, even as I was lowered on to the bed, even as the curtains were drawn with a whoosh against the pole, even as I heard the click of the door, afraid that if I opened my eyes the wash of tears would never stop.
Harold Fry is coming, I thought. I have waited twenty years, and now he is coming.