I fell in love through the lens of her letters. I slowly gained strength from the magic in the ink.
It wasn’t always this way. When Helena dropped that first letter into my lap I almost tore it into a thousand pieces. Thankfully, the thought of attempting to tear up anything – even paper – seemed like an insurmountable feat of strength at the time and so I begrudgingly slipped it into the drawer beside my bed and continued my usual routine.
1) Stare at the ceiling for a while.
2) Roll on my side and watch the little glowing digits that monitored my vital signs.
3) Roll back onto my back and stare at the ceiling again. You get the picture.
For two-and-a-half days I used up the last traces of my willpower in order to ignore that letter. Eventually, though, the growing feeling of curiosity got the better of me and I casually drew the curtains closed around my bed and retrieved the envelope from the drawer. It was white and blank and extremely ordinary. There was nothing to signal the wonders which I later discovered lay inside. Just two words on the front, written in flowing blue script. ‘To William.’
It pains me to remember how long it took my weakened hands to break open the seal that first time. The letter quivered as I shakily slid it out of the envelope.
‘Dear William,’ she had written in that precise handwriting, ‘On Wednesday I travelled to Italy.’
At first I hated her and her privileged life. The intensity of the anger I felt burning in my belly surprised me, and I became acutely aware of how long it had been since I had felt hate, or anger, or curiosity. How long it had been since I last felt alive.
When I finally decided to read the rest of the letter, that feeling transformed into something quite different. I devoured her description of the little white houses dotted along the bay. I swam with her in the warm, translucent water and felt the peculiar silky sensation of the sea as it enveloped my body.
I read that first letter three times, and for an hour of my life I forgot that I was sick. I forgot that I spent the majority of my life in a ward at the hospital. I forgot about all the crappy things that had happened to me as I explored Rome and Venice and Naples with her. Always with her. At the bottom of the letter she had signed off with ‘Until next time, Hope.’
Hope. The irony is not lost on me that I should be pulled from the depths of despair by a girl named Hope. For eighteen months she has described to me in acute detail all of the exotic places she has travelled to. Each carefully constructed sentence flows flawlessly into the next, so that her letters become both a work of art and a thrilling read. The words on each page melt quickly away and I find myself eagerly accompanying her on each adventure. In Spain we swum together in a sea of adjectives. In Africa we rode elephants in the sweltering heat. For eighteen months I have been slowly, but surely, falling in love.
Hope is seventeen years old – a year older than me, although I try to forget this. Sometimes I fantasize about getting better and finally meeting her. We would get married somewhere exotic like Hawaii or Bali. The simple ceremony would take place on a secluded beach, and we would kick off our shoes so we could feel the roughness of the sand on the soles of our bare feet.
I can recite each of the twenty-three letters she has written to me, word for word. Certain phrases I return to regularly, turning them over in my mind and prodding them this way and that. Testing them for their truth.
‘Travel is food for the soul’, she wrote in her second letter. I disagree. I don’t believe in a soul. But I don’t bother arguing with her. I would much rather hear more about her adventures.
‘Tell me more about Paris’, I would reply eagerly. ‘Did the eyes of the Mona Lisa really look like they were following you?’
I don’t describe the hospital, and she doesn’t ask. What would I say? There are four beds in a big room. I keep my curtains shut. I know better than to make friends with people who are going to disappear.
There are two regulars in the ward with me. Roger and Ellen. Sometimes they leave for days, even weeks at a time, but inevitably return. We make eye contact at times, and Ellen has even tried to speak to me. I roll over and ignore her. What is the point? We’ll either get better (in which case we will have nothing common), or we won’t. Building friendships leads to disappointment.
Sometimes I hate the things Hope writes. The ignorant words of the well. ‘You are alive, William. Right now, you are alive. Be thankful for this.’ When I first read that sentence I felt all of my suppressed rage boiling to the surface. She doesn’t understand – can’t understand – what it’s like. Nothing is normal anymore. I don’t go to school. I don’t have any friends. My mum’s eyes glisten every time she looks at me. Even the nurses – even Helena – can’t hide the occasional flash of pity on their faces as I vomit after an especially taxing treatment. There is no point wishing, no point hoping – it just gives you a longer way to fall.
Every now and then she offers to visit me, a quick stop off between flights. I quickly dissuade her. I tell her that I’m busy that week, that I’m heading home, that I have a strenuous round of chemo to get through, that I’m tired. She doesn’t push the matter. I have no desire to meet her in person. Meeting her would certainly break the spell. The magic lies in the thrilling union of paper and ink.
You see, there is a vast difference between knowing that someone is sick and seeing someone who is sick. She will be imagining a Hollywood version of a teen fighting cancer. Have you ever googled ‘teenager with cancer’? They are smiling. Every single one of them. Their bald heads look beautiful and powerful. They have strength, they refuse to give up, even at the end. They give inspirational talks. They are on the covers of magazines. This is what Hope expects to see. The sanitised version. The socially appropriate attitude when you are sick. The desire to get well.
She doesn’t smell the harsh antiseptic odour which pervades the ward. Hear the pathetic muffled sounds of a girl crying in the middle of the night. She doesn’t see the pain which is an ever lingering presence behind those smiles. She doesn’t feel the bottomless pit which threatens to engulf us all. No, there is no possible way that she will ever be meeting me. Not like this.
Nevertheless, with each letter that arrives I can imperceptibly feel myself healing. Growing stronger. First, my mind, and then – slowly – my body as well. I long for her responses, and wait impatiently as the days stretch into weeks. Sometimes I am gripped with a sense of overwhelming panic that she isn’t going to reply. That I have received her last letter. That she has finally given up on me.
In these moments of terror I re-read all of her old letters. I see her fiery red hair flow out behind her as we swim together. She turns to me and her emerald eyes sparkle happily with unsuppressed delight.
And then, in the month of June, my nightmare became reality. For days… weeks… four weeks… six weeks… no letters arrived. Each time that Helena checked on me I would feel a surge of anticipation, but no more letters came. I was strong enough by now to spend most of my time in the small garden outside the ward. There was a secluded spot amongst the lilies where I would sit and daydream for hours. The loneliness I felt was amplified by the departure of the regulars in my ward around the same time. There was a party for Roger, so I know he was heading home. Ellen left more quietly, and I found myself hoping that she had simply been moved to a different ward, but I wasn’t so confident.
In the third letter-less week, a new patient joined the ward. Josie. She would lie in bed for hours, listlessly. She looked so forlorn that I even broke my rule and tried to introduce myself, but she ignored me. I felt like I was staring into a mirror from eighteen months ago.
It was a Friday when the letter finally arrived. I ripped it open without hesitation, wondering why she had taken so long to respond.
The first thing I noticed was the unusual length of the letter. Usually she would write four or five pages. This one wasn’t even half a page long.
I began to read.
‘Dear William’, it started as usual, ‘On Monday, I am travelling to India.’ Something was different, although it took me a moment to pinpoint what it was. And then I realised. This was the first time that she had informed me of her travel plans before she had left. Usually she would write about her experiences when she was already in some far-off country.
‘I will be gone for a long time. Before I leave – It is time to meet.’
No, no, no. A thousand times no. But there was no return address on the envelope this time, no way of denying the inevitable.
I was stronger now, though. The nurses even said I might head home soon. If there was a time to meet me, now was as good as any. I glanced through my inadequate pile of clothes as Helena re-entered the ward.
‘Hello William, there is someone here to see you.’
I felt myself go cold, wondering how she could possibly be here already. I had only just received the letter and, I thought irrationally, I hadn’t had time to change yet. Ignoring my protests, Helena wheeled in a hospital bed which she proceeded to sidle up close to mine. The end was elevated slightly, so the occupant was half sitting up.
The girl on the bed looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place it at first. Her face and arms were covered with tubes. With some shock and slight irritation, I realised it was Ellen, the girl who used to be across the room from me. Ellen, the one who disappeared abruptly. But I didn’t want to speak with Ellen, I was waiting for Hope.
I was about to say this, when Helena left abruptly, and I was left awkwardly sitting next to a girl I hardly knew. At least it didn’t matter that I hadn’t changed, I thought. I looked more closely at her. She was thinner than I had ever seen her. I realised with some distress that she was clearly on the brink of death. I had the impulse to get away. Get far away. But I stayed sitting still on the hospital bed. Eventually she opened her eyes.
‘Hi William.’ Her voice was wispy and distant. Her eyes held mine for a couple of seconds, before closing tiredly. I could tell that she had been pumped full of drugs to ease the pain.
‘Hi Ellen.’ When I said her name she forced her eyelids open again. She tried to smile, but failed, instead giving me a lopsided grimace. ‘I just wanted to say goodbye.’
‘Oh.’ I wished there was something more I could say, but the truth was I hardly knew the girl. I felt embarrassed that she wanted to say goodbye to me when I couldn’t tell you the first thing about her.
‘Goodbye, Ellen.’ On a whim, hardly knowing why I did it, I reached out and held her hand. It was pale and cold, and so thin. My skin crawled and I had the impulse to wrench my hand away again, but I persisted. She didn’t open her eyes again. After a few minutes Helena returned and wheeled her away. With sudden certainty, I knew it would be the last time I saw her.
I recommenced my vigil. ‘On Monday, I am travelling to India,’ she had said. But Monday came and went, and although I made sure I wore my best clothes, Hope didn’t come. I sought solace in re-reading her old letters. ‘Death is just another adventure.’ Another statement I disagreed with. I had dreamed about death more than once. It was cold and hollow and black. Some adventure. Nevertheless, for Ellen’s sake, I found myself wishing that Hope was right.
On Wednesday, Helena finally informed me that I had another visitor. My heart soared. Hope hadn’t gone to India on Monday after all, she was here to see me before I left. And there she was, walking into my room – her fiery red hair cascading to her waist as I had imagined so many times before.
But something was wrong. As Helena left, I found myself staring dumbly at the woman who was standing beside my bed. And woman she was, not a seventeen year old girl – the lines on her face showed that she must have been at least 40, if not 50. The silence dragged out, but I couldn’t seem to figure out what I was supposed to say. I felt like I was missing a key part of the puzzle. Eventually she cleared her throat and spoke in a quiet voice. I had a sense that she had been crying.
‘Hi William, you don’t know me. I’m Ellen’s mum.’
This was the last thing I expected to hear. Hope’s mum, I would have accepted, but Ellen’s?
The woman placed a large cardboard box on the table next to my bed and I studied her face. I could see the resemblance now that I was looking for it. The edges of her mouth had the same upturned corners.
‘She wanted me to give you these.’
Still in a state of numbness, I peered into the box. There was a large journal or album of some sort, some books, and a couple of photos. The top photo showed a girl, maybe fourteen or fifteen at the beach. She was smiling at something beyond the camera, but her red hair and emerald green eyes left no mistake. It was her. It was Hope. And somehow, in some as yet unexplained twist, it was also Ellen. I tried to sort this out in my brain, when I realised that the woman beside me had started speaking again, in a painfully quiet way.
‘Sorry?’ I interjected.
The woman started regretfully repeating herself, and one part of the puzzle fell into place with an inaudible click.
‘I’m so sorry, William. I was just telling you about Ellen. That on Monday- on Monday-’
It had started to make sense. The letters. Ellen. Hope.
I met her emerald eyes as I interrupted her. ‘It’s okay, I already know.’ I explained. ‘On Monday she travelled to India.’
The woman seemed confused, at first. And then a slight smile tugged at her lips.
‘Yes,’ she replied softly, ‘I suppose she did.’
As she left I found that my face was wet with tears, although I hadn’t noticed I was crying. And what was I crying for? For Ellen? For myself and my ignorance?
I recovered the folder from the box, hoping for some clarity. On the inside cover, in a black pen was written, ‘Keep Hope alive.’ Inside, there were pockets filled with scores, no, hundreds of letters. For a moment I thought Hope – Ellen, I corrected myself – must have been writing to several different people. Dragging them out of their wells of despair with descriptions of far-away lands. But no, the handwriting was different, and some were dated three, four, five years ago. Dear Ellen, said one, On Thursday I travelled to Africa.
And then it all fell into place, and I realised why I was crying. I was crying for the hope I had lost eighteen months ago and then inexplicably found in a series of letters. I was crying for a girl named Hope who didn’t exist and existed in every single one of these letters at the same time.
After a while my gaze drifted to the dispirited girl across the ward from me. I thought of the words in the front of the folder. Keep Hope alive. I knew what I had to do.
I spent hours on that first letter, carefully selecting each word to paint a vivid description in her mind. My goal was to ignite that thing that I knew could never be totally lost, but which could be buried so deeply that you didn’t know how to reach it without the help of others. I drew from the experiences written about in the other letters. Had they ever been to these places? I wondered. Or were these all second-hand tales from the sick and dying?
Eventually, I was finished, and I slipped the letter to Helena the next time she checked up on me. Her smile was radiant.
‘Dear Josie’, the letter began. ‘On Monday I travelled to India…’
Word Count: 2919
Written by Alanah Andrews