The Letter Library

A Different Life


Earlier in the year I opened the letter library and made you all an offer. If you have a copy of Words in Deep Blue and you'd like a letter for your book, just ask me. I'll write it. 

I'm sorry. 

I expected the requests to be more generic. Something along the lines of 'I'd like a letter. Write me anything'. Then I imagined myself sending off three replies at the end of every work day. Little notes, I guess. Sent into the world about whatever it was I'd been doing during the day. 

The emails I'm receiving aren't like that. They're about death and lost love and questions about the point of things. So my reply letters take me a long time to write. 

If you've asked for one, know that I'm thinking about it. You might get your reply tomorrow, or it might arrive in three years. The lovely thing about the wait is  – maybe you've written about heartbreak, and maybe it feels like you'll still be broken twenty years from now. But in six months, a year, five years from now, you'll be sitting in a park, mid morning, soft sun on your skin. And you'll get this letter reminding you that in a time you can't quite remember, you were unhappy. But here, in this moment, you're not. 

Anyway. I'm writing, I'm working my way through the replies. 

For now, though, to make sure I get through everyone who has asked, I feel as though I need to stop taking requests. I'll open them up again as soon as I can. 

And here below, is the latest letter. I've been generously given permission to publish it here. 


Dear –

Firstly – apologies for my late reply. I have to admit, all my letters are late, but my letter to you is later than most. I’ve started it many times, but every time I stop. Because I want to say something that will help, and in the face of such loss, I can’t think what that might be.

But then I remembered a moment in the days when my dad was dying. He was in hospital, still breathing but not conscious. I sat outside the hospital on warm green grass under this cloudless blue sky and cried hysterically. I remember calling one of my best friends. I could hear children in the background. I’d phoned during a birthday party, I think. Or maybe a christening. I remember telling her that I was ruining the day, and trying to hang up. She wouldn’t let me off the phone.

She was determined to hold me in that call, even though she felt awful for having nothing to say. I didn’t need her to say anything. All I needed was someone breathing on the other end of the phone. Someone else alive, in what I could hear from the noise on her end, was a completely different life.

Her mother passed away some time later. And we had a similar phone call with our roles reversed. I had nothing but a need to keep her in that conversation, to let her know that she wasn’t alone.

Even though I don’t have anything to write that I think will help, this letter is my way of being on the other end of the phone. I think that’s what Henry was to Rachel, in Words in Deep Blue.

Since reading your email, I’ve been thinking about the enormity of losing someone, but also what you’re going through, which is the very real, very small details of never seeing them again. Sometimes when I’m driving, or when I’m on the property I’ve bought with my new husband, a thought appears before I can quash it. What would life be like if I lost him?

At the age of 45, he’s the first man I’ve met that I have loved like this. The first man I can have in the house at the same time as I’m writing. The first man I’ve made long term plans with – to keep bees and make honey, to have chickens. We sit at the kitchen table on shaky wooden chairs and list the trees we will plant – ash and apple, fig and pear. An olive grove. We’ve planted aubergine and tomato, chilli and courgette. We don’t have children – we won’t – so these are the things we can leave behind.      

I imagine that if I lost him, I wouldn’t plan like this again. I would mourn and miss, and when that unbearable first ache of that was over, and the long bearable ache had set in, I would keep his bees and jar the honey. Water the olive grove. I would collect the seeds and replant them, as he’s explained how to do. Past and present life would blur.

It’s happened with my father. (Although it’s taken me years.) I’ve inherited his lawn mower (difficult like him). And as I force the monster over the garden I can hear him over the motor, yelling at me to watch my feet. He’s with me in the garden, in the nasturtiums I’m planting. He’s in the books I read.

I’ve never told anyone, not even my editors, but one of the titles I was throwing around for Words in Deep Blue was Librarians for the Dead. And then I quite rightly thought – well that’s a bit bloody depressing and I deleted it.

We do become houses for memories, though. Curators. I feel as though I’ve collected all the things that my father loved, and I’ve organised them inside myself. There are rooms in me that are galleries for him. There are libraries that house the books he read, and the histories that he loved. I have a room, too, for the places he where he wanted to travel, the films he would have loved, ones that came out after his death. In this room are all the things I want to show him, to tell him about. I go there sometimes, as strange as that sounds, and the two of us explore.

If I died, I hope my husband would remarry. I can’t stand the thought of him being alone. I can’t stand the idea that he would plant the garden we planned and not make new lists with someone. But I hope he’d have those rooms for me. I hope he’d visit some days, his new love outside the door, so that it was just the two of us and the things we loved. Photographs of France, our lunches of fresh bread and chocolate, our dinners of cheese.

I’d want him to leave that room, though. Because as much as we’re keepers of memory we must be makers of it, too. In fact, I know that if I died, and I could, in some way see the people I’d left behind, the point of everything would be that they loved, were happy, made lists. Because those left behind are the voices on the other end, who, for now, get to live a different life.

I hope things, one day, get much easier for you. Or, if it’s the most we can hope for when we lose the person we love the most, I hope that there are whole moments, whole days, when you are happy.


Cath x


The Storm

Dear –

 Thank you for your letter. I’m thinking about this a lot at the moment because I’m working again. Writing is hard work, of course. I’ve never done any job harder. I’m not at peace when I’m writing. I wrestle with plot. I can’t sleep. I’m impatient. Everything I do is about the words, the story, the characters. But while I’m writing, while the actual process of writing is happening, letter, word, sentence, a space opens in me, and with that space comes calm.

 But writing doesn’t pay the rent for me, at least, it doesn’t pay the rent all the time. It certainly doesn’t buy a house, pay the bills, repair the car, feed the dog and the cat. You know how it is. The trade-offs we make. After ten years of writing a pay cheque seems like alchemy. I work a number of hours. I’m paid for the hours I work.

 The alchemy works for a while.

 But it’s not about money for me. Or, it is periodically, when I’m broke, but that doesn’t last long. Because when I’m not writing, that open space in me shrinks. I feel barely big enough inside to fit a heart. I get annoyed at small things, at bad weather, at sky. It’s a hunger. For time and space. For quiet. You must know it, a feeling of desperation?

 And so, I carve off minutes, days. Steal time to write. Get up at three because that means there’s an extra day between Thursday and Friday, an extra day where I can write without interruption. But then in that time I’ve stolen, every word sounds terrible. They fall on the page without rhythm.

 The only answer I have is the one I’ve worked out for myself. I must get to know words again, fall back in love. Search out their hooks and curves. Hinterland, brittle, fire and dusk. Marble, lick, lime and sex. Taste, kiss, imagine. I think about the bruised lines of horizon. The peaceful bliss of tuck. About cradle’s gentle heartbeat.

 And there is no one in this space but me, when I am getting to know words again. No voice to tell me I’m doing it wrong. I’m sure I am, but that isn’t the point. I’m writing. That is the point. It’s the best time, when nothing is at stake. Stolen half hours, turning the moon, searching the surface for unnoticed things.

  I read, too, of course. I read and wonder how the writer made me feel. I read and break apart a sentence. Put it back together as it was originally, or mix up the order. Read and feel the weight and texture of a description. What gestures? What movements?

 On breaks from writing, I forget to be in the world. I don’t hear the rain, I don’t notice clouds, or the colours of stones. I find my way back to the details – of people, conversations, art, skies, fights. I look for the smallest things I can see.

 There’s no easy way to get back to your writing self. But that writing self is you, so you must try. Be kind to yourself when the words aren’t falling. It’s as though all the things we see and hear and think rise up when we sleep, hanging inside us like a grim sky. It will break, that sky. One day you will see that the words are falling. And you will spend days, lost, in that storm.    

 Cath x