Photo: Stocksy
Photo: Stocksy


There are some things only a letter can say

We all know it's on its way out, but it will be our loss if we lose letter-writing for ever, says Marisa Bate

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By Marisa Bate on

For the last four weeks, I’ve been waiting for a letter. 

The letter wasn’t for me. It was for my mum and inside would be a bit of paper telling her whether or not the cancer had come back.

Waiting for the postman sounds like themes of a Motown hit or an Audrey Hepburn movie. We imagine a romantic longing, a missed connection and then a happy reunion orchestrated by fate. Of course, there’s nothing romantic about waiting for news that has a 50 per cent chance of being really, really bad. 

And so I thought I’d play the waiting at its own game. I’d send my mum some straightforwardly good post. The kind that wouldn’t blind her in terror when it dropped on the mat. So, I bought a card and I scribbled some kisses at the bottom. 

Could I find a single bloody stamp? I saw all my daily reference points: Boots, M&S, Pret – all the places I go to, to make my life function (deodorant, dinner, coffee). “Do you sell stamps?” I asked a man in M&S. “What?” he said. “Stamps,” I said. He shook his head, bemused. Sending cards and writing letters was clearly not as essential to us any more as gluten-free pasta or a flat white. 

And I began to wonder why this is, email and social media aside. Because those things don’t actually stop us from writing letters and finding a stamp (supermarkets and cornershops, in case you were wondering) and a postbox. Any letter or card I have ever received has been cherished, kept, remembered. Spending so much time online, a letter now feels as heavy as rock in its permanence and meaning, compared with the words of the internet, lost like plastic bags to the wind, thanks to an unforgiving refresh button. 

I have a lot of letters. Like the ones from my first boyfriend, aged five. Sure, they don’t say very much or even make much sense, but I have them stashed away in boxes I have lugged from flat to flat. I have a letter one of my best friends sent me when she was living in a place I hadn’t even heard of until she travelled there. I have the letter my first love wrote me when we realised it wasn’t working after so many years. I keep these, hidden away like a private photo album. There are no fancy filters and no one else can see them to validate them – or me. But they are my life, spelt out in the most personal and incriminating way – somebody else’s handwriting, each reading like a short story. And, like short stories, letters stand alone. They don’t demand an answer, like our ever cascading inboxes.  

Any letter or card I have ever received has been cherished, kept, remembered

And so I eventually found the stamp, I posted the letter and I waited. Again. My mum called; I could hear the tears of gratitude in her eyes. And still we waited. 

And, as we continued to wait, I began to wonder why on earth I don't send more letters, especially as I love receiving them. I thought about all the other people I should have sent a letter to: my best friend in Canada after she had her second baby (a zillion exclamations marks in an email is just lame); I should have sent a letter to my other friend when her world fell apart. Now, the grey letters of a text feel cold and lazy, last-minute and routine. And, most of all, I wished I’d sent more letters even when someone’s world was going just fine – like a Mitford-style correspondence that tracks thoughts and events big and small. What is more powerful than receiving a letter with only a few choice lines? And not because it reads like a clue in an Agatha Christie mystery, but because someone finally settled on one single sentiment, edited and particular, unlike the vomit of thoughts and feelings the internet routinely washes up. 

And then I found myself buying a whole pack of stamps and spending £20 on Christmas cards. This year, I would send them as I’d always watched my mum do. And I decided I would write something (short) that wasn’t about me, but about them and be a line in their short story. And so I wrote while I waited. While we waited. 

But the letter never came. My mum went to the hospital and the news was delivered by a human. And it was 100 per cent good. 

Perhaps there are some things that letters can’t say. But there are so many things they can, and should, say.


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