My first thoughts when I saw this set of photos was a vague obsession with the fact that letters are made from paper, which comes from trees, and leaves come from trees. So, the image of the letter pages lying in between the dead leaves stuck with me as the central metaphor of what I wanted to write about and there I stuck for quite some time. Perhaps it comes from some perverse, secret desire to write bad poetry about the Autumn, or perhaps it reflected that writing about situation is not the same as writing a story. Then the festive season kicked in and threw everything off course. My original plan to post the story on Christmas day faded, and I set off to spend New Year in rural Wales armed with my notebook and a determination to wring out a story even if I hated it.
That plan went about as well as one might have expected; writing comes from a love of words, not a hatred of them. I left Wales and went to London. Standing outside a friend’s office with a suitcase and bag of wellies, gin and whisky, waiting for them to finish a meeting and give me their flat keys before the small hurricane blew me away, I discovered that I was just round the corner from Dr Johnson’s house. Being a literary pilgrim seemed much preferable to being cold so I trundled across and spent a couple of hours wandering around the rather charming wee dwelling in which the famous dictionary was collated and composed. the thing which struck me most was the 4-6 amanuenses that Dr Johnson employed to help him out. I sent the rest of the day thinking about a book based on one of them (they were mainly Scottish in origin, which added an extra level to my interest), before telling myself to snap out of it and focus on the things I as supposed to be writing rather than coming up with new, unrelated ones.
As soon as I came back to the Dirty Laundry photos the story jumped into my head. A sort of homage to Terry Pratchett’s Mort, a placatory gesture to my desire to write about Dr Johnson’s amanuenses, and a story I genuinely enjoyed writing, even if it didn’t focus around the relationship between letters and leaves. I drafted it in my notebook the following morning, then typed and posted it the morning after that: very quick turnaround, but I was really happy with it, I think because I found the idea amusing.
He has travelled far but never quite succeeded in breaking contact with the people waiting at home. The letters come sporadically; sometimes days apart, sometimes weeks. The forwarding addresses multiplied, scratched over the envelopes by the helpful, crabbed fingers of his various purblind landladies.
Today’s selection box from the poste restante contains nothing if not a certain repetitive ennui: When, Michael? When will you give up this foolishness?
Kicking through the dry leaves that are restless on the tarmac, his feet throb along with the voices in his head: Let us rest.
His eyes water, stung by the wind.
If they could see me now, would they weep? He catches his thoughts back, and sneers inwardly at his own sentimental melancholia. No, he reminds himself. Or, rather, not for long.
One day Michael will have to go home. He knows that to do so will literally extinguish the memories of everything and everyone he has ever loved. He is holding out as long as possible, despite the demands of his job, the criticism from his stepfather-boss, and the burning imperative of need-to-belong.
There’s a postcard from his youngest sister, the one who has not yet succumbed to the infection in her lungs: I met Snow White and five of dwarves. When the fireworks broke over the castle I prayed that you would dream about them, wherever you are. Did you?
When Michael left, her hair was thin and silver-blonde. It plastered to her scalp during the night as the coughing worked her into a sweat.
There’s a letter from his great-aunt, who raised them all after their mother passed over into the Kingdom of Shadows. She sends him quotations from what she refers to as improving literature. It is her expectation that reading these will inspire him to find his way in life. The quotations are peppered with updates on the progress of the free-range egg business and the latest treatments for infestations of feather mites.
Michael leans against a lamppost and reads them all three times over. The postcard he reads a fourth time. A fifth. He takes the box of matches from the upper pocket of his black, wind resistant work jacket; he has promised his stepfather that he will stop this nonsense.
In the high, inner-city wind tunnels the edges of his aunt’s letter do no more than flare and ash. He lights another match, and another, but the flame won’t hold.
Something at the back of Michael’s eyes clicks and the paper begins to blacken where it touches his skin. In his pupils a red spark dances, his cheekbones become more pronounced. The wind swirls manically, and had there been anyone else on the street they might have thought that the hem of his jacket lengthened into a cloak of black smoke and that they could hear a horse snickering.
The castle on the front of the postcard begins to waver at its foundations as the heat melts the cheap plastic coating. Michael thinks of a strand of pale hair stuck across his sister’s yellowed forehead. The smouldering bundle of letters falls to the ground and scatters amongst the leaves. The wind drops off. Michael’s eyes are dark and blank again.
Michael’s mother is waiting for him in her new husband’s workshop. She sharpens the scythes with her tongue, and balances the books of souls taken. Michael inherited his pale skin, sloping shoulder and long fingers from her. In his mind’s eye he sees himself as her, waiting irritably under the gilt wall-mounted clock and making excuses to his stepfather as he drums the bones of his fingers on that heavy oak desk.
There is nothing to do now but stalk back to oblivion. The letters lie still on the pavement, accompanied by a faint sulphurous taint in the air.