This is the final letter in our current series, Vol. 5, and although its optimistic take on the Great Unlocking is already at risk of feeling nostalgic we still wanted to leave you with just that sense of wary hope. These have been exhaustingly strange times, dear readers, and that strangeness has often been reflected in the letters we’ve shared with you. This is all a long way from being over. But the summer is here, the vaccines continue to do their ingenious work, and long-neglected acquaintances are being renewed. We hope you are able to see your much-missed people soon, and we hope you continue to be cautious and take care. Our next publications will start coming your way in early 2022; we’ve started accepting real handwritten letters again (our address is at the bottom of this email), and we’re very much looking forward to your handwriting, coffee stains, and stories. Our best wishes to you in the months ahead.
Duncan Wallace is a PhD student at Cambridge, where he researches the history of British immigration control. He was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Melbourne. He has lived in several cities in Australia and the UK, and worked for a short time as a lawyer.
(Photos are courtesy of the author)
To the man sitting opposite me in the beer garden:
I see that you, too, are enjoying the sounds of conversation. All the tables around us are occupied, and people are chatting about their friends, their annoying colleagues, their vaguest of plans for future holidays. It is divine. I want only to listen to them. Every time I open my mouth to say something to my friend, I feel as though I am ruining the moment. But you have come alone. For you the chorus is uninterrupted; perhaps this is what makes you concede a small smile.
Perhaps you are here just to enjoy the sun. It is a gift of an afternoon in a cold autumn. The warmth, we all know, is fragile: under the shade of a stubborn cloud, even I, in my down puffer jacket, would wish to leave.
You have dressed smartly. You wear a navy beret over your close-cropped white hair, braces over your white shirt, the healthy belly that fills it.
Like me, you have ordered the house lager, but you drink it so slowly, I fancy it will soon turn warm and flat, and become the house ale. The beer is an occasional accompaniment to your newspaper reading, but now you fold the broadsheet over your crossed legs, in the manner of a blanket.
Were you desperate for a table here, or in any of these rammed liberated pubs? You do not look as though you were worried about finding one. My friend and I live in a house nearby (in which we passed months watching French comedies and pretending to have sudden fluency in the language), and we walked harried circles around Mill Road in search of somewhere that would let us in. We were about to give up when we found this place.
It seemed a miracle there was a spare table, no prohibitive queue. But here is why: they do not serve food. No food, except for pita bread, hummus and oysters.
I could not pass up the opportunity; neither could you. I myself am not especially a fan; but if oysters signal anything, they signal a special occasion. My friend has never eaten them before, and I relay the instruction my dad once gave to me: press the flesh against the top of your mouth, let the taste of the sea linger before swallowing it away. I believe – though I do not watch too closely, for this, finally, seems to cross a line – that you are doing the same.
I am onto my second lager now. Already I feel tipsy. I suppose this was bound to happen. Perhaps this is why – still – you are only halfway through your first. You really are in no rush.
Forgive me for watching you. In my defence, I have been watching others as well. And isn’t this what we all wanted to do, when at last we were released? To see each other again?
You do not see me. You are angled slightly away, though I suppose you could turn your head if you wanted to.
I realise now why I have been so interested in you: you are not looking at anyone. Since putting down your paper, you have had eyes only for the sky.
My best wishes to you, sir, in the months ahead.
The Letters Page team are back in the office, and ready to read your real letters again. We publish stories, essays, poems, memoir, reportage, criticism, recipes, travelogue, and any hybrid forms, so long as they come to us in the form of a letter. We are looking for writers of all nationalities and ages, both established and emerging.
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The Letters Page, School of English, University of Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK.
See our submissions page for more information.
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