It was November. The sky was dark when I turned into Laundress Passage. Father had
finished for the day, switched off the shop lights and closed the shutters; so I would not come
home to darkness he had left on the light over the stairs to the flat. Through the glass
in the door it cast a rectangle of paleness onto the wet pavement, and it was while I was
standing in that rectangle, about to turn the key, that I first saw the letter. Another white
rectangle, lying just at my feet. I couldn’t miss it.
I took the letter, went inside and put the shop key in its usual place behind Bailey’s
Geometry. Poor Bailey. No one has wanted his fat gray book for thirty years.
Sometimes I wonder what he makes of his role as guardian of the bookshop keys. I don’t
suppose it’s the destiny he had in mind for the masterwork that he spent two decades writing.
A letter. For me. That was something of an event. The crisp-cornered envelope, puffed up
with its thickly folded contents, was addressed in a hand that must have given the postman
a certain amount of trouble. The style of the writing was old-fashioned, with its decorative
capitals and curly flourishes, and my first impression was that it had been written by a child.
The letters seemed untrained. Their uneven strokes either faded into nothing or were heavily
marked on the paper. There was no sense of flow in the letters that spelled out my name.
Each had been undertaken separately – M A R G A R E T L E A – as a new and daunting
enterprise. But I knew no children. That is when I thought – it is the hand of an invalid.
It gave me a queer feeling. Yesterday or the day before, while I had been going about
my business, some unknown person had gone to the trouble of marking my name onto this
envelope. Who was it who had had his mind’s eye on me while I hadn’t suspected a thing?
Still in my coat and hat, I sank onto the stair to read the letter. I never read anything
without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age
of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced
by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead
of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted
to the ground and passed out for a moment. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now.
I opened the letter and pulled out a sheaf of half a dozen pages, all written in the same