The pen scratches across the paper, as I try to make sense of my thoughts, put them in order.
I want her to know, to understand, not to worry, but how to tell her?
We have been in New Zealand for two months. Letters to England take about ten days (this was 1959).
Its my birthday – I’m twenty today and got a bed jacket from my husband.
‘Dragon’ Sister actually gave me peaches and ice cream today as a treat… she must be getting soft. I am the youngest here so she probably felt sorry for me. I am in an open air ward, high above Auckland and pigeons come in to sit on our beds.
I try to start the letter once more, “Dear Mum,…” but I drift off again. Pen poised over the blank page as I watch the birds squabbling on the rails above the street and feel the chill of winter. The veranda where my bed stands is open to the outside and when we eat, the pigeon’s fly in and take crumbs.
No! I can’t do it! So the small ball of paper joins the others in the bin.
We settled in Mount Albert and life seemed perfect. I was so happy! I loved Auckland, with its houses painted in bright colours, and the startling clarity of its skies.
Then the night sweats and the tiredness began, and I suspected the worst. A year of nursing experience had given me just enough knowledge to self-diagnose. Yet still I denied the obvious. It was June, my first winter in our new country. It seemed profoundly unfair.
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Against my husband’s sensible advice I wrote yet another letter to Mum. There it sat, smug in its striped envelope, waiting to travel and carry news so far away.
Three injections and eight pills later it joined the rest of the letters discarded in the bin. I just couldn’t send it, and shatter her world.
My teenage years were spent in Bristol, a large busy port, where there were lots of colourful visitors from France and Spain in all the coffee bars.
Mum must have sighed with relief when I met a local artist with soft brown eyes and a vintage car. We knew each other only six months before we married and sailed to New Zealand.
‘Dragon’ Sister informed me I was moving into a double room, to share with a Latvian called Liga. Although we were fifteen years apart in age, we became instant friends; we had midnight feasts and told each other our life stories. She had escaped from Communism in Riga. We cried when we talked of her children, laughed about men, and love, and said we would overcome this problem soon and meet for coffee one day. We both had tuberculosis.
The treatment went quickly with Liga’s good company, so I at last found the inspiration to write normal letters to Mum. I lied very well, in fact became an expert; telling her I went on shopping trips, or tried new recipes. I embellished the weekly letters with snippets of news from my husband. It was easier as the weeks went on to keep the news normal. Then I was well enough to leave hospital.
I was home again in our little flat. It was spring, and the joy I felt at being cured was like being intoxicated with an old wine. Within a month I was pregnant, and had to be rather hurriedly taken off the drugs, in case they harmed the baby.
My next letter started joyfully.
“Guess what Mum? I hope you are sitting down, because you might need to. You are going to be a grandmother!”
I was able to relate a very joyful birth, and tried to describe in every way her new grandchild. I had a perfect little girl we called Kerry. The letters between Mum and I were still important, like a lifeline.
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Four years later we returned to England; I had two and a half children by then.
One day in February, when we sat in my Mother’s kitchen with my new son Ross sleeping on my lap, I told her about my time in hospital. It felt safe to do so now. I knew how dreadfully painful the letters I had almost sent would have been. Then she would have used all her money to get to me – it would have taken four weeks by boat at that time. So I had spared her that. She understood.
I went back to England for a holiday, a few years ago, my daughter and I were laughing and drinking gin, when we talked of letters. Suddenly she reached for a box; there she had all my letters, every one since we had been apart. Now I rarely write, we Skype or email, but I do still send her cards. So the cycle continues.