Always, Anna

by Noel Denvir

part 1 of 2


Dearest Joe,

The picture you see on this postcard is really what it looks like. Clear blue sky and glistening white snow. It fills me with a nostalgic happiness but also a longing melancholy. Snow has that effect, don’t you think? The man at the ski rental place reminded me of you. I really mean it when I say, “Wish you were here!”

Yours always, Anna.

Jo — Joanna — turned the postcard around to look at the pretty picture of the ski resort in Bavaria where Anna must be on holiday.

This was the third such postcard she had received since moving to this flat one year ago. The card was addressed to Joe Barnes, but the sender, Anna, wrote the name with such flourish and passion that the final three letters of the surname collapsed into a dizzying squiggle.

The postman had probably just assumed that it was for flat 4, J. Barron. Or maybe he just couldn’t be bothered. Jo made a mental note to try and mention this if she ran into him. The reason she hadn’t done this before — left a note perhaps — was that it wasn’t so important. Receiving a postcard — even wrongly — was still a pleasure.

She liked it when she opened the letterbox to see a colourful card nestling among the dull bills and irritating advertisements — especially annoying were the ones with “urgent” or “congratulations” printed on them. Joanna Barron never received such sparkling messages from exotic places or loving words from an old acquaintance, but she slipped down every morning to the hallway in the hope that... Well, you know.

She put the card into the toast rack on her kitchen sideboard that served as a letter holder. Here she kept the occasional flyer or information slip. It was a bit like the recycling bin on her PC laptop. She felt she should keep some mail in a limbo state for a few weeks, always retrievable. When the rack was full she simply emptied it.

But not the postcards. Maybe she half expected Joe Barnes to turn up one day looking for his mail. It was unlikely, though, as her neighbours had informed in low tones that Mr Barnes had “done a runner” and disappeared, leaving a trail of debts behind him.

Few of these bills ever arrived at Joanna’s, probably because such things were printed in sober letters: Mr Joseph Anthony Barnes.

The few that did land in her letterbox, being letters, could be simply returned to the sender.

But not a postcard.

She thought amusedly about actually doing this:

“Please return to Anna c/o the second mountain on the left, near Munich, with a ski shop rental assistant who looks a bit like Joe Barnes.”

“Why does no one want me?” she thought. “I have a good sense of humour, a feeling for romance, the joy of sharing. Why can’t I find someone to share it with?”

Joanna had her potential candidates but either she didn’t want them (bossy, bitter, untidy, divorced) or they didn’t want her (old-maidish, overweight, and coming to the end of her prime). She boiled the kettle for tea, then picked out the three postcards and laid them on the table, message-side up.

Sipping her tea, she compared the messages. All much the same, really. The first from Paris in April, “Everything so fresh here... thinking of you.” The second from Tuscany in summer: “The air is so clear... miss you.” And of course the last from Germany in “Dezember.” No other names, no reference to her home, nothing that might indicate where Anna lived.

“Reasonably well off,” Jo supposed. “Three holidays a year to nice destinations. Same ending: ‘Always, Anna.’

“I wonder how old she is? Same as me — no — older. There’s a feeling of many years that have gone past. The style is sad and middle-aged reaching back into the past for that younger self.”

Joanna sighed. “God, what’s wrong with me? Just a couple of postcards to the previous tenant.”

She shuffled the cards together and slapped them back into the toast rack.

There probably won’t be any more. After a year, Anna will probably conclude that Joe Barnes doesn’t live here anymore and of course, never replies. The cards will dry up. It’s logical, really.

Jo looked at the clock. Ten to nine. She wrestled into her woollen overcoat, grabbed the keys to the library and the flat, and slammed the door behind her, leaving the postcards to stand stoically in the pale January sun.

* * *

“Oh look, we’ve got a postcard!” said Marge waving it triumphantly above her head. Marge was Joanna’s old-maidish, overweight, and end-of-her-prime colleague at the library.

“Who’s it from?”

“Fred!”

“Fred?”

“Fred Banks, used to work here, remember”?

Joanna remembered him... fondly. A student, a good twenty years younger than she. They’d had a brief affair.

“I think he fancied you!” whooped Marge, pointing and handing the card to her.

“That so surprising?” replied Joanna, neatly deflecting Marge’s jibe.

Fred was in the States, spending a year at a university in Santa Monica. Even the name itself conjured up images of villas, palm trees and beaches, and the picture on the card confirmed this.

Just receiving news from there was proxy paradise. It was flattering to think that someone having the time of their life could actually take the time to write a card to the old folks back home in drizzly Dunford.

The card was a masterpiece of compact writing. The left side contained the main text written in neat block letters which then continued up the side around the top — upside down. In this he’d managed to inform everyone of his weekly routine, weekend activities, the names of six friends and his address, ending with the words “Special big hug to Joanna.”

“Aren’t you the lucky one!” Marge grinned wildly.

Marge was happy with what she had in life. She knew that Joanna wasn’t. Joanna made another mental note to write back to Fred — on a postcard with a picture of drizzly Dunford.

The next card from Anna came sooner than expected: just two weeks later. It was a Bavarian mountain scene, only this time, it had been posted in London.

Dearest Joe, Had to cut holiday short. Bob broke his leg skiing — hit a tree! After a short stay in a “Krankenhaus” (Sick house!) we were given a flight back. Will post this at the airport before the taxi home. All rather annoying. Will write later. Always, Anna.

Joanna sipped at her 8.30 tea and thought about this interesting development. Not a holiday greeting, but information. Bob? Who’s he? Husband ? Son? Boyfriend?

“Annoyed”? Not “concerned” or “heartbroken”? Taxi from London airport. So “home” can’t be too far away.

Being a librarian, she knew how to hunt down things on the Internet, but a case of a broken leg on a skiing holiday might be beyond even the powers of Wikipedia or Google.

This time she decided to clear her pin board. She removed everything: yellowing receipts, crumpled visiting cards, various scribbled notes, and finally a photo of herself, Marge and Fred standing before a wall of books... No, she’d put that back. She then set up the evidence gathered so far, and stood back to admire her work. Four cards in a neat chronological row.

“Well, what do you think, Watson?” she said, folding her arms and affecting a posh accent.

“I think we’ll need more information, Holmes; bide our time,” came the huskier but equally posh accent.

“My thoughts entirely, Watson”

“Just time for another cup of tea!” interrupted Joanna.

The picture on the postcard was almost comical in its dullness; a badly tinted photo of flowerbeds arranged around a black statue of a man in a tailed coat with his arms raised above his head. In the background was a row of small shops in front of which was a Ford transit van dating from about thirty years ago. The caption at the bottom read “Sebastian Cawley Memorial Park, Dunford.”

Mr Cawley had been a Member of Parliament and social reformer in the 1930s. He was Dunford’s most — and only — famous son.

The question for Joanna wasn’t if she should buy it, but whether one would be enough. There were only four left on the rack. Probably the only four left in existence — priceless, really.

“You can have all four for a pound, love,” smiled the old woman behind the counter.

Joanna had actually thought writing the card while sitting in the memorial park, between the dead flowers, on the vandalised bench, in front of the graffiti-spattered statue. But it was simply too cold.

The cafe in the background, still there after all these years, offered a cosier and more creative atmosphere. Sitting at the steamed-up window with an excellent cup of tea and some soft cream biscuits seemed the perfect place to write a ridiculous postcard. She began:

Dear Fred, The rain is glorious and the sunsets here offer an infinite variety of stunning greys. Yesterday, we explored the labyrinths of the ancient library, and tomorrow promises some breath-taking views of the eastern by-pass on our Tesco’s supply tour.

And I miss you. Special big hug, Jo.

It took her a good ten minutes to decide on that last sentence. She missed him very much. Joanna had kept her distance from this much younger man and had even commanded him not to write to her.

Sending the postcard to “all” at the library was his way of abiding by her wishes, but still getting his message through.

His address was very long, full of campus sections, block designations and then the final zip code. She wrote the words USA in extra large capitals underlined in red as if to make it absolutely clear that it was only the Santa Monica in America that was meant.

She felt good asking at the post office for a stamp to send a postcard to the United States. The official raised his eyebrows and had a quick look at a chart beside him. “That’ll be one pound, twenty, please.”

Not bad really, when you think of the handling that would be needed to deliver this modest greeting over such a distance. The bags, sorting rooms, vans and planes, then the final clunk as the card found its final resting place in the box labelled “Student Mail” in Santa Monica.

“Do you want to post it over the counter here?” he asked

“No, thanks, I’ll pop it in the box outside.”

She liked this moment: a last look at the words, the address and the unusual stamp, and then, let go. It was on its way.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Noel Denvir

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