Dear Anne

per anna


Method and organisation I will shore against my ruins. A couple of hours will see me through these exercise books, a bit of flick and tick while Eric is preparing the dinner. Eric? Oh he’s quite the New Man, prepared to do his bit and a dab hand in the kitchen. Plus, he has all the benefits of being a deputy head. A deputy head’s salary for starters, then there’s the swanning around in a suit all day, or else diving back into his bolt hole of an office. A life, it seems, totally devoid of the curse of marking, so he does right to assume kitchen duties. I won’t mention, of course, how having moved in with him my own career might benefit. Nor will I mention the sotto voiced staffroom scandal. Of course there’s a bit of an age difference, of course his school persona is quite strict, but I’m going into this with my eyes open and I know what’s in it for me. It’s a masculine flat granted; all browns and straight lines but I’ve already brought in the wind chime and a sun-catcher and a few soft furnishings will be next. And deep down, when you get to really know him, he’s a bit of a pussy cat. So, I’ll just crack on with the finest outpourings of the estimable 8CC English class and then the evening will be mine, or ours. This work will set me free.

She recoiled momentarily from the direction in which her own motivational mind games had taken her. Nevertheless, procrastination must be fought against.

Dear Anne,

I hope this letter doesn’t take you too much by surprise but I’ve read about some of the things you had to live through and I know you led a very different life to the one I lead, but, because of the way I’m feeling, you were the person I wanted to write to. I know you will understand.

It was a genius of a lesson idea. Write a letter to a historical figure and then tell them about your world and how it differs from theirs. And now she was faced with a mountain of exercise books. Not the three score set? of several insults, blotted pages and scrawl of legend, but a varied mix of the earnest, sometimes sanctimonious, sometimes illegible epistles to a diverse range of figures: Martin Luther King, Churchill, Gandhi (in history they had just finished a unit on Indian Independence) and Harry Potter. She made a mental note to revise her definition of historical figure. But for now, the clock was ticking and she had deadlines to meet.

What is it about boys? Why do they act the way they do? Why are they sometimes so weird? I don’t understand them at all. I know you sometimes found it difficult with Peter and it must have been really awkward for you when you were cooped up like that. When I see boys, particularly ones I fancy, I like to feel in control, to feel as though I’m on top of my game. I hate it when my hair is a mess or when I’m looking sleepy. How on earth did you cope?

There’s a boy at school I like. He lives quite close to me too and I think he likes me. Sometimes we walk up my avenue from the bus stop and he’s really nice. We talk about everything, well nearly everything, and we tend to agree on most things: teachers, homework, films and tv. But he’s two years above me at school and sometimes he just completely ignores me, preferring to mess about with his mates. My friends say I should forget him, but he is nice, honest.

But maybe I should forget him because if my parents knew how I felt about him, they might freak out. Thirteen isn’t too young to have a boyfriend, is it?

“Annie! Annie!” Eric in his Masterchef mode: apron professionally tied around his waist, tea towel flung over his shoulder. “Dinner will be served in half an hour. How are you doing?”

“Fine, thank-you. Six more books to mark and then the evening will be ours. What’s for dinner? It smells lovely.”

“Oh a spot of French cuisine tonight. A little bit of je ne sais pas.” He bent down and kissed the back of her neck.

“Could it be your signature dish? Is it the fromage sur pain flambé?”

“You’ll see, won’t you?” He smiled and kissed her again. “Finish those books. I must go. I’m a slave to the hot stove.”

She returned to the books and then paused to look out of the window at the gathering gloom over the small garden. A pair of magpies hopped along the rickety panel fence spraying machine gun chatter and casting predatory eyes over the crudely topped leylandii hedging. Their staccato crackling was on repeat: what have we missed? What have we missed?

Your parents were strict weren’t they? I read your diary and the way you express yourself is brilliant. It’s like you had such a great understanding of your own feelings and of the world about you. A world that was completely at war: destruction, death and the horror of concentration camps. It’s been sixty six years since the end of the Second World War and I often thank God that I didn’t live in your time. But then I hear the news, think about things and I have to wonder.

It seems as though every night there are details of soldiers, not much older than Peter and the lad I fancy, dying in Afghanistan. Just the other night, there was a news item about a young girl in Libya dying in an air raid. Those were NATO bombers: American, French, Italian and British. Yes, our side, responsible for killing three year old girls. In Libya though, miles away from here. I should care. I should care a lot more. I hate myself for not caring about her.

I can’t understand it. There’s a lot of things I don’t understand and that’s why I am writing to you; you’ll know where I’m coming from. Obviously we have never met, and I think you would be stunned if you could see my world and the vast amount of technological change which has taken place over the last half century. Nearly every house in the country has at least one television with a massive amount of channels to choose from. Hardly anyone uses a typewriter any more, we have computers allowing us to produce typed text very quickly, altering any mistakes in a moment, but best of all we have little telephones which we can carry around with us. Not only can we speak to people on these phones but we can find out almost any information we need, we can play our own selection of music on them and we can take photographs and see them immediately. You would definitely be stunned.

Eric bustled back into the room. “Right! Dinner is served.” But then he halted abruptly, held by the aftermath of the spectre which had passed through the room. One sonorous note tolled on the wind chime, the table had not yet been set and six exercise books still stood in a pile waiting to be marked. Annie, hollow-eyed and expressionless, sat staring straight through him. “Annie? What is it, Annie?” She didn’t focus or respond.

Are we better off these days? I doubt it. You shouldn’t have to live feeling dirty, should you? Like every time I have to go into his office. I hate him, I hate him. He’s a deputy head. He’ll stand up in the hall and tell us how we should behave, then in his office he leaves you feeling like shit. Yesterday, he told me to take off my jumper and I did. He told me I was a mess but he could fix it. He tugged off my tie to tie it properly and stuff. Lots of stuff he shouldn’t do. Stuff that makes me feel ashamed, but stuff I have to tell someone about. So there, Anne, I’ve done it. I’ve done what I know I have to do: I’ve told you.

(Illustration by Franco Blandino)

This story, together with First Snow is part of the collection I Was Ready to Fall in Love:

Articles of and about John I. Clarke in Margutte can be found here.