The LetterBy: Kathryn Hughes
Prologue – Present Day
It was the small things she took pleasure in the most. The faint hum of a huge, furry bumble bee busily flitting from one flower to another, oblivious to the fact that it was completing a task on which the entire human race depended. The heady scent and glorious abundance of colour provided by the sweet peas which she grew in the vegetable patch, despite the fact that the space could be given over to their more edible cousins. Then there was the sight of her husband rubbing his aching back as he dug fertiliser into the rose bed without complaint when there were a thousand things he would prefer to be doing.
As she knelt down to pull up a few weeds, she felt her granddaughter’s hand slip into hers, so tiny, warm and trusting. It was another small thing which gave her the most pleasure of all and always brought a smile to her face and made her heart lurch.
‘What are you doing, Grandma?’ she asked.
She turned and looked into her beloved granddaughter’s face. Her cheeks were tinged pink with the afternoon sun and she had smudges of soil across her button nose. She pulled out her handkerchief and gently wiped the little girl’s face.
‘I’m just pulling up these weeds.’
She thought about this for a second.
‘Well, they don’t belong here.’
‘Oh. Where do they belong, then?’
‘They’re just weeds, love, they don’t belong anywhere.’
Her granddaughter stuck out her bottom lip and furrowed her brow. ‘That doesn’t seem very nice. Everything belongs somewhere.’
She smiled and planted a light kiss on the top of her granddaughter’s head as she glanced across towards her husband. Although his once-dark hair was now smattered with grey and his face was more heavily lined, the years had not diminished him too much and she was thankful every day that she had found him. Against the odds, their paths had crossed and now they belonged together.
She turned back to her granddaughter. ‘You’re right. Let’s put them back.’
As she dug a little hole, she marvelled at how much could be learnt from children, how much their wisdom was under-estimated or even dismissed.
She was shaken out of her reverie.
‘How did you and Grandpa meet?’
She stood up and took hold of her granddaughter’s hand. She brushed away a strand of golden hair from her little face.
‘Well, let’s see now. That is a long story...’
This time she was going to die, of that she was certain. She knew she must only have a few seconds left and she silently prayed for the end to come quickly. She could feel the warm sticky blood as it ran down the back of her neck. She had heard the sickening sound of her skull cracking as her husband slammed her head into the wall. There was something in her mouth that felt like a piece of gravel but was in fact a tooth, and she desperately tried to spit it out. His hands were so tightly gripped around her throat it was impossible for her to draw breath or make any kind of sound. Her lungs screamed out for oxygen and the pressure on the back of her eyeballs was so intense she was sure they were going to pop out. Her head began to swim and then mercifully, she began to black out.
She heard the long-forgotten ringing of the school bell and she was five years old again. The chatter of the other children was almost drowned out by the incessant ringing. She screamed at them all to stop and suddenly she realised she had a voice after all. She stared up at the bedroom ceiling for a second and then squinted at the alarm clock which had just roused her from her sleep. Cold sweat trickled down her spine and she tugged at the bedclothes, pulling them up to her chin in an effort to savour the warmth for a few seconds longer. Her heart was still pounding after the nightmare and she blew out gently through her mouth. Her warm breath hung in the frigid air of the bedroom. With an enormous effort, she heaved herself out of bed and winced as her bare feet found the icy roughness of the wooden floor. She glanced over at Rick, who thankfully was still sound asleep, snoring off the effects of the bottle of whisky he had drunk the night before. She checked his cigarettes were still on the bedside table where she had carefully positioned them. If there was one thing guaranteed to put Rick in a foul mood, it was not being able to find his fags in the morning.