The pen feels awkward. It’s as if my hand has forgotten what to do with it, like in early September, years ago, when my childish paw peeped out of a new, un-inked school uniform jumper sleeve to start off a year’s spelling or sums. How do you work this yoke again?
Today, I’m not labouriously filling in answers on a Busy At Maths workbook, ‘suppracting’ or ‘doing farctions’. I’m writing a letter – to end a direct debit arrangement – one of the few situations where an email will not suffice. You have to write a letter as part of the struggle to escape the clutches of a service provider. A service provider with whom things have been “difficult recently” and you’re at the stage where “maybe it’s better if we see other people”.
There is nothing resembling notepaper in the house so an A4 page is dragged from the printer tray. It’s too big. As I put pen to it, I get the feeling I’ve too much space – like I’m sitting in an empty open-plan office.
Now how does this go again? Dear so-and-so… but then I realise I’ve forgotten to put the return address in the top right hand corner. I crumple up the page and hurl it, with a flourish, into the bin. As an action this is far more satisfying than leaving an email to languish in your drafts folder. In a few months time, someone in a Chinese recycling centre will grab that piece of paper and briefly wonder what I was going to say.
Everything about a letter seems alien now, even the salutation. After years of writing Hey/Hello/Hi/How’sItGoing/What’s the craic/Alright fella/Listen You Tool on emails, “Dear” feels it came from another era. Like I’m sitting at a bureau waiting for Papa, Philippa and Aubrey to return from the Vicarage with a jar of kindly Mrs Tomkins’ homemade jam.
I could try “To whom it concerns” but that brings to mind Gay Byrne’s brother announcing the start of the Late Late show.
I vaguely remember writing a formal letter in Leaving Cert French but like most of that course, its possible applications in real life were limited. The letter itself was a quixotic mix of the banal and the flowery. You could be complaining about the state of the toilets on a campsite in Britanny but you still had to sign off so formally it was as if you were entreating Louis XVI to spare the life of a misguided idealistic nephew who had become embroiled in a peasant rebellion. “Please be assured, sir, the expression of my most deepest sentiments” didn’t seem appropriate here.
I get to the end of my letter to the bank with a far more restrained “Yours faithfully” (though I would be unfaithful to them in a heartbeat) and realise I’ve forgotten an important detail. No matter – the P.S. was made for just such an eventuality. Oddly enough people still put PS in emails, presumably for nostalgic purposes. After all, if you remember something while writing an email you can use your computer to put text in further up the page. It’s not as if you’ve licked the top of the email and folded it over.
There is no room in an email for the ultimate postscript though – the one a mother would, on occasion, write on the outside of the envelope, sometimes in Irish or another secret code. Something that was visible to everyone but only relevant to the recipient – a bit like Facebook.
And with the decline of the pen, what about penfriends? I don’t like to brag, but when I was a young fella.. well… let’s just say I… pushed the envelope. Yeah, had a couple of German penfriends on the go at the same time. Telling them all the same thing – that my hobbies were playing football, going to the cinema and reading. They lapped it up. I’m sure they suspected there were others but they chose to ignore it. We all knew the game.
Many of my penfriends were one-write stands but a few progressed to deep and meaningful conversations. Anita Caputo of Uhingen – who had hobbies such as jazz-dance classes and all types of music including Ace Of Base – and I exchanged letters for nearly a year and each one from her was excitedly ripped open when it arrived. One even contained a photograph.
“She seems very ..mature” said my mother when she saw the snap. I could tell she disapproved because she pronounced the word mature with such italics, if written down, the m would have looked like a 3. “I know” I said, a little too eagerly, nearly dropping my pen.
I often wonder what happened to Anita. The only Anita Caputo I could find through Google is a forty-something Canadian motivational speaker so it’s unlikely to be the same one, unless my mother was right about her maturity.
I wonder also what I wrote in those letters. There’s no Sent Folder to check, nothing to Google. My words are lost forever. Thankfully. If they’re anything like my teenage diaries, I imagine they make for pretty grim self-pitying reading.
As I post the seriously-can-you-please-stop-the-direct-debit instruction, and hear the reassuring hethunk! as the letter joins the others in the mailbox, I know I won’t get a response immediately. But that’s okay, I can wait. These things take time.