103. This Machine Prints Tickets to Anywhere

pile of envelopes

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Every family has secrets that slip through the cracks of time. Even those who get on with each other. I know I’m one of the lucky ones who genuinely is friends with their own parents and siblings.

It’s a thing we’ve always done. We make a time capsule or write a letter and put it under the floorboards for our future selves to find. Nothing fancy. Only the ordinary, everyday stuff that we would have thrown away anyway. Like a newspaper, ripped out magazine pages, a shopping list, a photograph of a room in the house at the time, or last year’s diary, all squashed inside a Christmas chocolates tin, so rats can’t get to it. I know that if I found any of those things from people who’d lived in my house years before I did, I’d be thrilled.

My parents are having underfloor heating put in and a new Oak floor. So I’m going out with them to look for a rug and then for lunch. I’m the adjudicator in case they bicker over colours or style. I’ve got a ‘modern view’ on home furnishings apparently. It also gives me a chance to take them to that new place that does the amazing salads. I just love their warm shredded duck, blood orange and chicory salad or that one with the crumbled feta, toasted pumpkin seeds and cavolo nero crisps.

After our mains, whilst I’m sipping the rest of my pinot noir and wondering whether it would be cheeky to ask if we could have only two desserts but three spoons, when mum suddenly does that index finger in the air thing, because she’s remembered something important. She rummages around into her bag and pulls out a clear, plastic freezer bag full of letters. She holds out the package to me and says,

“The workmen found these under the floor. I think they’re yours, love. They weren’t in the tin though. Don’t worry, we haven’t read them.”

I’m intrigued and take the package. It has the fragility of old sellotape. Inside are at least half a dozen opened fat letters, tied with string. The top one has a 22p franked stamp on it and is addressed to the boyfriend I had in sixth form, in neat, purple fountain pen ink. It’s not often these days that I see my own handwriting.

“Oh wow. Thanks mum. God, these are a blast from the past. I haven’t read that name for years. When did you last have your floor done?”

“1990, I think, love.” She says. “You were doing your A levels.”

“That’s when me and Richard broke up. Wow. So they’ve been under the floor all that time?” I say. “I’m not going to read them just yet though. There must have been a reason why I put them there, but I can’t even remember doing it. Anyway, funny you should give me these now because I’ve got this for you. Is it too late to put this in the tin?”

I hand her a sealed letter with my name and January 2019, written on it.

“No, the floor is only half-down. I’ll be glad when it’s all finished.” She says.

“Did you find anything else? What about your letters?” I ask.

“There was a receipt for Asda in your mum’s letter. Guess how much it was for a week’s shopping for five people, back in 1990?” Says Dad.

“Um, thirty-five quid?” I say.

“Not far off, love. Forty-six, and we must have been having a party or something because there was loads of beer on the receipt.” He says. “Anyway, you’ll never guess what else we found?”

Before I could answer, he says “Human teeth!”

I instantly clutch my stomach with one hand and smack my mouth with the other. My eyes are fixed on my Dad, who has a huge grin on his face. I’m confused. I don’t know how to respond to this. I look at Mum but she’s smiling too.

“Oh it’s nothing like that,” he chuckles. “Your brother told us what happened yesterday. He said that one day when Frankie was round, he went into your mum’s dressing table and found the box of the baby teeth from when you were all kids. He fell over and some of the teeth got lost through the gaps in the floorboards. Frankie said he didn’t know what to do so pushed the rest of the teeth though the gaps, then threw away the little box. He told his mum and dad because he was worried and children aren’t allowed to have secrets in their house, but your brother never mentioned it to us until yesterday. Apparently, Frankie was frightened that he was going to get told off and he was only about seven at the time, so couldn’t have known that adults might think there could be a more sinister explanation. Poor kid.”

“What a way to find out that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.” I say.

“I think he was more scared because he’d been going through his grandma’s private things. The logic of kids eh?”

“What did the workmen say?” I ask.

“They weren’t fazed at all. They said they see all sorts under people’s floors. Teeth are a common thing, but, passports, money, teenager’s drug stashes, porn, the lot. They even found a well once on a remote property. They said the owners were lucky. If they’d have fallen in, they might not have ever been found in time.”

Our waitress appears and says, “Can I tempt you with any desserts or coffee?”

We order a slice of treacle tart with vanilla ice cream, an Eton mess and three spoons. A peppermint tea for me, earl grey for mum and a cappuccino for Dad.

My brother rings me later to admit that he was the one who put the letters under the floor, because I’d been so upset when I’d split up with my boyfriend. He said that Richard came round once to return my stuff (a cardigan, records, books, the letters) but I was out. When he saw the plastic bag of letters, he got really angry because he thought it was mean or spiteful to give back love letters, so he literally hid them from me because he didn’t want me to feel worse. Bless him. I want to hug him. He’s carried this guilt all those years. My little brother worshipped Richard, maybe more so than I did. He had an instant cool, big brother who wanted to be around him, played computer games, took him to the cinema and the football and didn’t treat him like a child. How do you explain to a kid why someone they looked up to has gone and won’t ever be back, when you don’t understand it yourself?

What would I have felt at the time if I’d found out? I know it wouldn’t have been ok, but those memories waiting patiently under the floor have definitely mellowed over the years. I can imagine the cover-up being a massive dealbreaker at the time, but now is not then. My brother knows that I don’t blame him, and that he was only trying to protect me. We never noticed that he was hurting too. He’s punished himself so much since then. Our lives could have turned out quite differently if I’d gone to University hating my own sibling. He’s still got to tell mum and dad what he did, but that’s a face-to-face conversation. I try to convince him that it’s not a big deal and there’s nothing to forgive, but I’m not sure he believes me.

Like father, like son. Things don’t stay buried forever.

A few days later, I decide to read the letters I sent to my then-boyfriend all those years ago. I put on ‘Reading, Writing and Arithmetic’ by The Sundays to transport me back to my Doc Marten, hennaed hair days, and wallow in chronological snobbery. When I was 18 and in love with the Brontës and Christina Rossetti. I want to luxuriate in that time before everything changed at University. I realise I’ve never even Googled Richard, probably because he enjoys the anonymity of a common name, so it would take a while, but I’d also like to remember my first-love how he was then.

I savour the first letter. It’s more cringeworthy and foolish than painful. Proper sixth form poetry where I am trying to emulate a style I admire, but don’t have a fraction of the talent. I can’t even remember myself feeling like this at all. It’s as if someone else wrote it. I might save them for my daughter to read, so she can get to know me a bit when I was her age.

Then I notice there’s one letter in the pile that’s unopened. It’s addressed to me, in Richard’s handwriting.

75. Serendipity

“Love, luck and money they go to my head like wildfire.”

‘Can’t Be Sure’ by The Sundays

No matter what, it always comes out sooner or later. I know that they know. I can just tell. Their whole demeanor changes. They are just dying to ask me. They think it sounds incredulous; that there must have been a connection for this snowball effect, or some other meaning that I’ve not mentioned.

I think I prefer the people who are upfront and just say it, rather than those who pretend they are too cool to care, but you know are prepared to wait as long as it takes for details. Only once have I believed someone who said they honestly had no idea who I was, and that it made no difference.

There’s a definite shift between those who knew me before they found out, and those who got to know me after, or, more often, because. My friends used to call them ‘starfuckers’ and you can sense their desperation to be close to dining out on any association with fame, in the hope that the luck rubs off onto them, or somehow I’ll make it happen again. Few people believe that I had nothing to do with these events and that they are the very definition of coincidence.

Most people who share it, have an opinion that I care not for, and I’ve heard many times already. They are usually disappointed to find out that not only do these events not define me but that I’m genuinely pleased for everyone involved. I hold no ill will, there are no regrets and that there has never been anything to forgive. Of course the money helped, but it wasn’t as much as people say it was.

Next question please. Of course, who wouldn’t? I have had more than a few sleepless nights wondering about the endless, many, what ifs, plus lots of counselling.

So, yes. The song of my name is about me. My boyfriend and I split up, and in the weeks that followed, he wrote the song that made him a household name. Whether you believe the lyrics is up to you. The plot of the film of the song is obviously fiction, to me and those who know me. It clearly says so at the beginning, but that doesn’t stop people from thinking it’s based on my actual life. Think about it. If we hadn’t have split up, he may not have written the song etc.

Incredibly, my very next boyfriend did win the lottery a month after we went our separate ways. It was a very easy break. We talked, agreed it wasn’t working out, that we preferred each other as friends, so shook hands to seal the deal. No, I’m not bitter. We’re good friends. Better friends now than when we were going out. He bought me this lovely house. I’m godparent to his son. Money changes people. I think it must be like being beautiful. They can never really be sure why someone loves them, so they stay close to home with people who really know them.

Boyfriend number three did marry the actress who played ‘me’ in the film. Really! You couldn’t make it up. That one did sting a bit for a while, but I’m long over it now. You’ve seen photos of them on the red carpet. They’re made for each other. If it hadn’t have been for me, then they would never have met and all that.

Yes, I have seen the film, but only once, and I’m glad I waited until a long time after it came out. The press had mostly lost interest in me by then. Every so often a pap pops up, looking for a scoop on a bitter ex, but there’s never anything to report. Anyway, second ex keeps a lawyer on a retainer for me in those situations, so nothing ever gets printed. I’m grateful for that, as the British press can be quite brutal.

No, I haven’t really had a boyfriend since then. There’s been a couple of too-obvious chancers who thought I had some sort of magic touch. One that I quite liked, but I think he backed off when he found out, and another guy was convinced I was a witch. So it’s just me and the dog, this beautiful cottage, my garden, kiln and workshop. Every few months I am flown somewhere in the world by private plane to parties, have lovely holidays and always have a story to tell. My life is more than I dreamed it would be and is everything I ever wanted. I sometimes have to pinch myself to believe it is real. I wouldn’t wish it any other way.