High Commended in the 2012 Winchester Writers’ Conference
First Three Pages of a Novel Competition
The letters come at regular intervals. Never more than a page, always written in black ink. A tutored hand, using a real pen. These letters stand out amongst the thousands received by the paper’s problem page every year. Most of the correspondence is scribbled in ballpoint pen, increasing numbers are typed, but very few are so carefully scripted with a traditional fountain pen and proper ink.
Diana Hart studies the familiar writing, the curl of the letters and the texture of the paper. After nearly five years she feels she is beginning to know the author. The choice of heavy cream Croxley stationery rather than pale blue Basildon Bond or plain white copier paper, indicates an appreciation of style and quality. The words are chosen with care, covering almost the same number of lines each time, indicating, so she thinks, a person of regular habits who tries to control every area of their life.
Opening her file, she reads again the first letter she ever received from this anonymous correspondent and compares it to the one she has just opened.
I am writing to you because I feel there is no one else to whom I can unburden myself. I have thought of talking to my doctor, but I feel he would treat it as a side effect of my medication. I have not attended church for many years so I would not feel comfortable talking to the vicar in the village. I also have no close family members now, so there is only you.
How can I begin? I suppose I should begin at the beginning, but even I do not know when that was, how I became who I am and why I committed such a crime.
For that is why I have felt compelled to write to you. Someone must know before I die. Who knows how many years I will have to live, burdened by this knowledge. I believe I may have committed a murder long ago and I have never paid for my crime. But I shall pay when I die, that I know and I wish to die with my mind at peace. J.A.J.
The problem page receives many hoax letters amongst the genuine cries of anguish. The jokers tend to write short letters in poor handwriting, with no forwarding address, on the subject of an embarrassing condition or inappropriate sexual behaviour. They are easily identified and are usually composed by giggling schoolgirls intent on making mischief for a fellow pupil or an over zealous teacher. But even from the very first of these well written confessions, Diana has felt that these beautifully composed and scripted letters are genuine. There is no return address and the West Country postmark gives her few clues, making her long for those days of more specific originating marks. Yet the words always ring true and chill her heart each and every time she reads them.
And now another has arrived. She opens the latest letter carefully and reads it in seconds. As she had expected, the message at its heart has changed little. She reads it once more, wondering how she can ever make contact with the author.
I dreamt again last night that I had killed. I am still not sure who and I do not know where, but I know it felt to me as if this had really happened at some point in my life. I long to put these feelings behind me to feel at peace in the little time I have left and I know that you will again urge me to seek help, but I am deeply afraid of what I will discover if I do.
In my dreams I see a bridge and a steep bank leading to a river. There are screams and I am fighting and tumbling down. Then my hands are around a neck and I am squeezing with all my strength and pushing down into the water. It feels so real and yet I cannot recall this during daylight hours. Perhaps it never happened. But if it did, how can I ever die in peace? So all I can do is write to you once more and hope that this is sufficient confession to absolve me, for I am getting older and cannot have many more years of anguish ahead of me. J.A.J.
Diana absorbs the pain expressed in these few words, disturbed once more that she can not reach out directly to the writer. If this is the delusion of nightmares, she wants to relieve his torment. But if this is a true memory, she knows she owes it to grieving relatives and justice to help the writer determine the truth. She examines the envelope again, hoping it will help her find him. As always, there is no address and no indication from the postmark of precisely where it had been composed and sent. She has no choice but to draft a simple message that will appear on her page in two days time:
J.A.J. – please contact me again with an address so I can help you.
And as she types these words she wonders whether she will ever be able to help this anonymous writer. Diana pushes back her chair and stares at the screen. Some problems cannot be solved and some will haunt her forever.