She opened hastily the letterbox, grabbed the letters and hurried up to her flat. It was a hot summer afternoon in Madrid, so she longed for a long cold shower. She left the letters and the keys on the kitchen table, put her purse on a chair and was about to drink a glass of water when something caught her eye. She felt her knees tremble so she sat. Under the credit card envelope there was another one, yellow; she put aside the other letters and took that one in her hands. Her address was written in that neat, masculine calligraphy she knew so well; one of the numbers of her postal code was blurred, someone corrected it with a pen, but the number was wrong, therefore the letter arrived to one of the four corners of the country, before reaching the correct destination. She examined with dismay the stamp and the postmark, somewhere in North Africa, six months ago. She opened with trembling fingers the envelope, she was so nervous that she tore apart an angle of the sheet of paper. The letter was short:
“My dear Penelope, I’m leaving Phaecia and king Alcinous. I have had enough of travelling, I’m coming home. Call me when you read this, I want… I need to see you again.”
She read under the signature a London address, a phone number and an e-mail. She looked for her purse, took her phone and dialled the number; after a few clicks a cold computer voice informed that the number did not exist. She pressed the keys again, same answer. She opened the e-mail application and wrote a few lines to the e-mail address and left the phone on the table, watching it, praying for the incoming mail beep to sound. She breathed deeply and tried to calm herself. She had waited so long for that letter, and particularly for what was written in it, that she thought that somewhere a cruel spirit was laughing at her. For a whole year all his letters had arrived in a reasonable period of time, except that one.
She smirked watching the credit card bill lying beside the yellow envelope, and remembered how she met him.
She was in London, visiting a friend; as her friend had work to do she went alone to make some shopping. There was a library in Marylebone High Street she wanted to see, a beautiful Edwardian style shop. After an hour examining the scaffolds and walking up and down the aisles, she finally chose two books, an economic paperback and a beautiful hardback edition of “Sense and Sensibility”. But, when she handed her credit card to the clerk, it was not accepted. She cursed herself for her blind faith in technology, she always carried with her very little pocket money and it was not the first time she found herself in such embarrassing situation.
– “I can pay it for you, if you don’t mind. You will give me the money later” – said a voice behind her. She turned around, the voice belonged to a tall man, smiling at her.
– “No, no, I cannot accept it, you are so kind, but I really can’t” – she replied, blushing deeply. She gave the clerk the money for the paperback and left the shop mumbling “thanks again”. She went out of the shop and turned left, walking briskly. The afternoon was rather cold, she lifted the collar of her coat and, when she was about to cross Paddington Street, she realised that the man of the library was beside her. He smiled again and handled her something he had under his arm, it was the book.
– “Please, accept it, I insist” – he said.
– “I am sorry, I just can’t. I don’t live in London, I will never have the chance to pay it back to you, I cannot accept it”.
– “Can I offer you at least a cup of tea? Unless you have an appointment, or…”
– “No, I don’t have to go anywhere in particular” – replied, regretting her sincerity. Good-looking as that man was, he was a complete stranger. As if he was reading her mind, he held out his hand.
– “My name is John. John Thornton”. She could not avoid a small laugh and a glance of incredulity towards him. – “Yes, that’s the effect my name does to many people. At least to people frequenting libraries. I solemnly swear that it is my real name and that I have no cotton mills in the North.”
She smiled and they shook hands.
– “Penélope Reverte” – This time it was her turn to explain herself after his puzzled smile. – “I am Spanish. I’m visiting a dear friend, here in London. She is my very best friend since we were fourteen, we went to school together”. She felt quite stupid for feeling the need to make clear that the friend in question was a female, but the moment could not be more awkward than it was already, no matter how many other clumsy things she could say. It started to rain, he pointed to Coco Momo Café, just in front of them. She nodded and they crossed the street.
They spent an hour in the Café, taking tea and talking. She felt immediately at her ease with John, although she had never felt comfortable talking with attractive men. The few times she did, she always had the sensation of having to pass a test while being studied and judged by the women around. Instead, everything was smooth and easy with him; they had many interests in common and continued talking about books, movies and TV series when they went for a walk to Regent’s Park after the rain had stopped. She lost completely the notion of time until she received a phone call from her friend, saying that she was already at home and that dinner would be ready in an hour. They agreed to take the underground together, as he had also to take the Piccadilly line to go back home.
They entered in silence the lift for the platform, they were alone. Sometimes even in big chaotic cities as London appears every now and then strange islands of loneliness, materialising suddenly from nowhere. The lift moved, and they were silent, for the first moment since they met in the street. He was leaning on the metallic walls of the lift, with his arms crossed, holding his coat, observing her with a queer smile. His eyes, which were blue under the sun light, were now deep grey as the steel around them. He came close to her, saying in a low, deep voice. “So. Here we are…” Suddenly the lift stopped. A bell rung and the doors opened; a noisy group of Spanish students entered the elevator as they left and she could not help but laughing when she heard the appreciative commentary that one of the girls made about John’s ass. They did not talk either when they were waiting for the train. She felt, for the first time, uncomfortable; she was feeling that something was happening between them, she was no longer a young girl, she was even good looking according to what most people said and, that was the moment which, according to all the manuals of courtship spoken or written since Man left the caves, he had to make something, launch a signal, make an approach as a few moments ago in the lift. But he did nothing, or said nothing. He was just standing there, watching her.
When the train arrived they sat together. He took the Jane Austen’s book out of one of his coat’s pocket and put it on her lap.
– “You can’t say no anymore. Please.” – He said watching her, with a plea in his eyes. She put one hand on the book, touching his fingers for a moment, and stared back at him.
– “OK” – she replied – “but… do you want something from me?” – She continued, coquettishly.
– “Oh, yes…” – he whispered in her ear leaning towards her while he was taking something from the inside pocket of his jacket. He showed her a fountain pen, a black Parker riveted in gold; he took from a pocket of his black jeans a small white card, of a restaurant in Soho. – “Write your address”
– “My e-mail address?” – She replied, more radiantly than she wanted to.
– “No, your home address. I want to write you letters”.
She took the pen with a perplexed and a little bit disappointed expression in her face.
– “I’m an old-fashioned guy” – he said winking an eye. – “Hurry up, next stop is ours” – he said. She returned him the card and the pen when the train was braking and they joined the river of people that crowded Piccadilly Circus junction. They walked the corridors and the stairs to the blue line, commenting every now and then the posters of the West End plays. When they took the second train she felt her heart heavy. He would get down four stops afterwards, in Russell Square. They stood together, he was behind her, gripping himself to one horizontal bar while she held a vertical one besides her. He was so tall that had to low his head a little; she could feel the soft touch of his beard caressing her temple. Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Holborn… she watched the names of the stations without reading them, and she closed her eyes. The train moved brusquely and he put a hand on her side.
– “It’s been a pleasure… Penélope” – he said kissing softly her temple before leaving. She opened her eyes and recognised his short and dark chestnut hair in the crowd, moving along the platform. She followed him with her eyes as long as she could, and when she could not see him any longer she realised that she had never felt so lonely in all her life.
When she sat in the train she took out the book from her purse, skimmeing it through. She found a small piece of paper, one of the Coco Momo Café napkins; something was written in it, with elegant, capital letters: “ONE DAY…” The paper was placed in page 337, chapter 49, when Edward Farriss finally confesses his love to Elinor. “His heart was now open to Elinor, all its weaknesses, all its…” – was the line that Penélope read over the white napkin with John’s writing in it.
The sound of the mail alert of her mobile phone woke her up from her reveries. She pressed the button nervously and when she saw one of the many spam messages she received daily she almost threw away the phone in anger. She touched the recall button but the mechanical voice said, as before, “the number you have dialed does not exist”. She moved her legs nervously, she could not live with that uncertainty, dying every time her phone made a beep. It was Friday evening, she turned on her computer and half an hour later she was printing her plane tickets. She paid a fortune for them, it was mid-August, high season for Spaniards but it didn’t matter. She didn’t even book a hotel; if everything would go as she wished she would have not needed it, if not, she had a business seat with British Airways booked for the last flight of the evening.
That night, awaken in her bed, she remembered his letters. The first one arrived ten days after she returned to Spain. “Dear Penélope, I have just arrived to the land of the Lotus’ Eaters”. John started all his letters referring to the countries he was as one of the many lands that Ulysses visited on his long voyage back to Ithaca. The stamps in the letters changed every now and then: Tunis, Greece, Turkey, Iran, India… She replied to a P.O.Box in London and he received them two or three letters later than she received his. They went along for twelve months with this kind of strange de-synchronized conversation. He told her about the countries he visited, or the objects he bought there. He referred to the hours they spent together in London with tenderness or continued one of the many arguments they left open. He confessed he observed her movements in Daunt Books since she entered the shop and that he queued behind her to talk to her as soon as he could.
But, suddenly, the letters did not arrive anymore. The last one was dated February 20th, exactly a year after they met. After that, silence. She had already made the usual google researches when their correspondence was still on, curious to learn more things about him. But the results were always the same, references to the literary character he shared name with, the actor who played the role in BBC’s adaptation, and, many pages later, men who were definitely too old or too young to be him.
Some hours later, she was in a London black cab, too nervous to distinguish what was she seeing. The city was a blurred colourful movement, until she finally recognised the neo-classical architecture of the British Museum; a few minutes later, the cab stopped in Bedford Square. She paid the fare, cash, she did not go outdoors anymore if not with a good quantity of bank notes in her wallet, not as when she met John.
She stood in front of his door for a few minutes, gathering what remained of her courage and her faith. Observing the old Georgian house, with the main entrance gallantly framed by an arc of brown and white stones, and the downstairs one for the service, she realised how different their worlds were. She was the daughter of a bus driver, her mother worked all her life as a secretary in a small company; she calculated that with the money necessary to clean the windows and polish the brass of that house, her parents would have paid the monthly rent for the small flat in Chamartín where she grew up.
She climbed the stairs, read the name in the plate, “John Thornton”, and rung. She heard the sound of steps approaching, the door opened and she saw his eyes again.
Bedford Square – London
Her smile froze in her face. Indeed the eyes she had in front of her were John’s, as she remembered them. Of a very peculiar shade of blue, like the ice of a mountain lake melting under the rays of the spring sun, but she had in front of her an elderly lady, elegant, rather tall, with her beautiful and white hair combed in a chignon.
– “You must be Penélope” – said the woman with a warm, velvet voice. – “Please come in. I’m Helen, John’s mother”.
She opened the door and let her in. She indicated a drawing room in the left side, illuminated by one of the big window glasses which faced the gardens.
– “Please take a seat. I will prepare you some tea. Earl Grey without sugar nor cream, right?” – She looked back at Helen and muttered – “Yes, thank you.”
The drawing room was not excessively large, but it was very comfortable and elegantly furnished. There were two armchairs near the window with a small table between them; a book was open, with a pair of glasses on it. Probably Helen was sitting there reading when she arrived. There was a big chimney piece in one side of the room, with two silver framed pictures on it. In one of them John, smiling, was kissing his mother. He looked exactly like he was when they met. In the other one a slender John, paler and with longer hair fixed his eyes to the camera, with a serious grave pose, as in a Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait. There were other objects in the chimney piece, she smiled, recognising them; the small bronze dolphin statue John bought in Greece, a tiny Turkish teapot that cost him almost nothing after a five minutes bargaining in a bazaar on the shore of the Black Sea. In the opposite wall, an African tribal mask, a Japanese engraving… As her eyes examined the objects a strange feeling grew within her. Everything was so neatly disposed, so perfectly displayed. The books in the library were perfectly rowed and dusted. She compared that symmetry with the chaotic mess of her own library in Madrid. She moved a little to see the entrance of the house from where she was, she saw a single female mac hanging from the coat stand, surely Helen’s. There was no warmth in that house, everything looked like… a mausoleum.
She sat, defeated, in the opposite armchair, telling herself that it could not be true. But surely it was… that’s why the letters stopped arriving.
Helen entered the room at that moment, carrying a tray with a teapot, a couple of cups and a small dish with some tea cookies in it.
Penélope opened her mouth, unable to speak until she heard her own, hoarse voice saying: “Is he…?”
– “Dead” – finished Helen putting the tray on the table. – “Yes, he is.”
– “When?” – replied Penélope, two big tears rolling down her cheeks.
Helen took her time to reply, she poured the tea and lean back in her chair. She started talking, watching outside the window.
“It was the end of March. He had returned to London just two days before. I came here to say hello; he was there, unpacking those objects from several cardboxes, he was very nervous. He had already talked me about you in his letters when he was away, so I understood what he meant when he said:
– ‘Mom, she has not called, I have no news about her, I hoped to receive a phone call after I sent her the letter telling her I was coming back home, but she didn’t, no e-mails, nothing. Something has happened’
– ‘You and your extravagances, John. Why didn’t you give her your phone number from the beginning?
– ‘I didn’t want to pressure her. I was absolutely sure she was the woman for me the first moment I saw her but I knew I would be away for long, I didn’t want her to feel obliged to me. You know I was going to some very dangerous places, I didn’t want her to be my widow before even kissing her’
– ‘John, she will call, I’m sure. Where did you send your last letter from?’
– ‘Oh my God, John, it will be a miracle if she would ever receive it!’
– ‘Indeed. You’re right!’
He left what he had in his hand on the floor and left the room. I heard him going upstairs, moving hurriedly in his room. After less than five minutes he was back again, with a small backpack, his black leather jacket on and a helmet in his hand.
– ‘Where are you going?’
– ‘Heathrow. There will be some plane leaving today for Madrid, I guess.’
– ‘John, are you sure of what you are doing?’
– ‘I’d cross an ocean for her, mum. Kiss me luck. I will call you when I arrive.’
We kissed and he left. I heard him turning on his motorbike then he went. He was like that, he made everything by instinct and everything usually turned well. I used to call him ‘my lucky charm’. My phone rang two hours later, it was the police. He lost control of the bike when he entered the highway to the airport, it slipped but at the same moment he fell a big truck arrived. He died instantly. The police told me that he didn’t even have time to realise what had happened.”
Helen stopped talking as she took the cup of tea between her hands. Penélope looked at her, unable to utter a word. A thousand ideas crossed her mind but one single notion bumped into her head; her tea remained in the table, untouched.
– “You knew about me, about us… Why didn’t you try to contact me?” – She asked, with a quivering voice.
– “I guess it was some kind of revenge, dear Penélope. He was constantly in danger, for so many years. He worked for the Government, but, as you can see” – Helen said moving her hand as indicating the house – “he didn’t need tax-payers money to live, but he was like that. He wasn’t completely honest with you; he had indeed cotton mills, but not in Europe, in India. Among other things, companies, corporations. He left his…- she hesitated here for a moment – late father’s assistant to take care of everything. He joined the army when he finished college, then the last five years he worked for MI5. The day you met him he was about to leave, for another year of service abroad, the last one. Then it would be over. I had spent fifteen years dreading a phone call and when it arrived it was due to a stupid motorbike accident. Because of you.”
Helen’s voice broke while she spoke, staring at Penélope. But, contrary to what she would have expected hearing her discourse, there was no hatred in her look, but a kind of resignation. Indeed after a few moments she continued to talk, with the same caressing tone she was using before Penélope asked her why.
– “Therefore, the only thing I was able to do those first two months was to try to hate you. I gave instructions to the mobile phone company to cancel John’s number, I did the same with the P.O.Box in case you should write again, and I moved here. I have a small apartment in the basement, and have devoted my days to prepare the house for this moment. Because I knew that you would come, someday. I realised, alone, in this house, where we all were happy once, that maybe there was a reason for all the pain I was suffering. Maybe God, if He exists, designed everything before hand for a reason we don’t know yet. But, I am sure of one thing, my dear. Should John be still with us, you would have been very happy together. You can go upstairs if you want to see John’s room.”
Penélope got up from the armchair and approached Helen, kissing her gently in the cheek. She went upstairs. When she entered the big bedroom she felt strangely in peace. There was a big mahogany closet; she opened two doors and caressed the sleeves of the jackets and the shirts. She recognised the coat he was wearing when they met; she took it down and wore it. She closed her eyes, remembering that afternoon, tucking herself in the big and warm fabric. She sat on the bed and saw in the bedside table her letters, meticulously piled, with his fountain pen in top of them. She took the pen and grasped it; when she was hanging his coat back in the closet she heard voices and the noise of steps in the stairs. As she closed the doors she saw something reflected in the mirror inside the shutter that made her scream. John. Not the one she knew but the other slender and more fragile copy of him portrayed in a silver framed picture on the chimney piece.
– “Thomas!” – She could hear Helen coming up the stairs – “What are you doing? Do you want the poor girl to have a heart attack?”
Penélope stared at the man, he was indeed the exact copy of John, although different. Whereas John had the body and the look of an athlete, he had the aspect of an accountant; his hair was longer but perfectly cut, he was shaved, thinner, as tall as John but less bulky. He wore eye glasses, those lenses that changed colour under the sunlight. They were fading now, revealing the eyes, of a very peculiar shade of blue, like ice melting in a mountain lake.
– “I’m Thomas, Thomas Thornton” – he said, holding out his hand.
Helen entered the room that very moment.
– “I’m so sorry, Penélope. I was about to explain you that John left everything in the hands of his brother, his twin brother. But I didn’t know that Thomas was coming today, and I had not the courage to tell you.” – said the woman, with an apologetic glance in her eyes.
Penélope realised that she had not said more than a few words since she entered that house.
– “I guess the best thing we can do now is going downstairs and finish our tea. Maybe, if Thomas could join us…” – he smiled at her. She felt a sudden pang of pain, somewhere inside her. When Thomas smiled, all the differences she noticed when comparing him to her memories of John disappeared.
They talked for several hours in the drawing room. Helen told stories of the times when “her boys” were little kids and Penélope talked about Spain and her childhood; they had lunch together and Thomas offered himself to drive Penélope back to the airport. When she said goodbye to Helen they embraced.
– “I am sorry, Penélope. Please, forgive me. I’ve made everything worst. I sincerely hope to see you again, my dear”.
Twenty minutes later, Thomas was driving, in silence; he had not said a word since they left Bedford Square.
– “What time is the boarding of your flight?”
– “Oh, quite late, ten p.m.”
– “It’s still five, there’s a beautiful weather, the sun shines. Let’s go for a walk to the riverside, what do you think? I bet you did not see a sun like this the last time you were in London” – he suddenly changed expression and knocked the steering wheel with his right hand – “Tom, you’re a bigmouth!” – he told himself in a loud voice – “I’m sorry, I had not realised that the last time you were here…”
– “Don’t worry, it’s fine” – replied Penélope – “Indeed the weather was terrible, I just saw the sun when I was with your brother in Regent’s Park”.
Both remained silent for a while. In the meantime they had arrived to Victoria Embankment and he parked his Smart. When he turned the engine off Penélope said.
– “Is it true what they say about twin brothers?” – he looked back at her. She could not read his eyes hidden behind a dark pair of sunglasses that gave him a hawkish aspect. – “You have cared about my feelings but it was me who should had asked you how you feel”.
He took his sunglasses off and smiled shyly. This time he held his tongue in time, when he was about to say that he was starting to understand what John saw in her.
He said instead “we will have time to talk about that, but now, let’s get out of this sardines’ can!”- They got out of the car, and walked Waterloo Bridge to the other side of the river, strolling slowly under the shadows of the trees near the National Theatre. They stopped, and faced the Thames, leaning their arms on the rail.
– “I feel like there’s something missing in me since he’s gone” – he said suddenly. – “I spend sometimes the whole day in the office, as the Company is the place which reminds me less of John. I guess my secretary hates me cordially” – he ended, smiling.
– “You should smile more, Tom. We all should”. – replied Penélope, holding his hand.
She landed at Barajas very late that night, or rather, early in the morning. She switched her mobile phone on, and after a couple of minutes, it started to beep and buzz. She thought that after almost twenty-four hours without data coverage she should have at least a dozen spams in her inbox. When she finally checked her mail she was in the taxi and the radio started to play her favourite song of Chambao, the new 2013 re-mix of “Ahí estás tú”. There were just three spams and seven e-mails from Tom. She had given him her card when he left her in the airport. Six of them consisted just in a smiling emoticon, the seventh one said: “I hope you had a safe flight back. Excuse me for spamming your inbox, but someone told me today that I had to smile more 😉 ”. She smiled when closing her phone and started to sing the song of the radio.
De esa pregunta que te haces sin responder / Dentro de tí está la respuesta para saber / Tú eres el que decide el camino a escoger / Hay muchas cosas buenas y malas, elige bien / Que tu futuro se forma a base de decisiones / Y queremos alegrarte con nuestras canciones
Ahí estás tú
(Inside you there is the answer to your unanswered question / You are the one to choose your path / There are many things around you, good and bad, choose well / Because your future is made on decisions / And we want to cheer you up with our songs
There you are)
The End… or the Beginning?
Many thanks to my friend Sissi for editing the text, to Veronica for being the beta-tester and Alana for her warm comments. Pictures from my trip to London. Short story inspired by the city of London and by a beautiful man with a beautiful calligraphy, who still reads paper letters.
Dedicated to the one who supports (and bears) me.