The Past Is a Foreign Country (but sometimes you get a visitor’s pass).
First, an email via this website: I would like to send some material to Kathy Page. This material belongs to her and is something she would like to receive… The writer turns out to be a penfriend with whom I last communicated half a lifetime ago, in 1974. I was sixteen – sixteen! He wants to send some old cassette tapes – letters that I recorded for him back then. “Blackmail?” my husband jokes, agreeing to stand by me should that be the case, and a week later, a padded envelope containing six tapes arrives. Since you are a writer, my ex-penfriend wrote in the brief email that preceded the package, I think it will be very interesting for you to meet your sixteen year old self. He had, he noted, deleted his half of the correspondence form the other sides of the tapes.
Interesting? It might be terrible: things were not easy at that point, and in later years, I think I tried to blot out and gloss over that part of my life – so successfully, in fact, that I did not really remember these letters very well, though letters in general are something I’ve thought about a great deal, and written about, too, in Alphabet. As I wrote there, to begin with a letter is simply a piece of communication – heartfelt, manipulative or somewhere in between, a sliver of marked paper that stands in for the spoken word, for contact itself. Later, though, it becomes something else, a record, even kind of evidence: there it is – not what you remember being said, but what was actually written down, or in this case, said, thirty-six years ago by the girl who gradually turned in to the current version of me.
So I was a little nervous – resistant, even – when the tapes spilled out of the envelope, some in cases, some not, C90, C60 with KATHY printed in tiny writing on one side of each. And at first, the ‘material’ was physically hard to listen to: my voice was flat, and strangely muffled – this, as I explained at one point, was because I was speaking into a pillow with the radio on so that no-one downstairs could possibly hear me. I wasn’t sure that the precaution was necessary, and would later conduct an experiment to test what could and could not be heard from downstairs, but meanwhile, I wanted to play safe…
I laughed at myself a great deal, listening to these tapes, and I was reminded (just as my own daughter begins to know what she wants and negotiate how she will move forward into adult life), how inexorable are the desires and the will of an adolescent girl. This power, I realised with a shock of recognition, is something I explored in depth in the The Story of My Face, a novel I’ve never thought of as even remotely autobiographical.
And how many times, in interviews or talks, have I said how very interested I am as a writer in quirky, off-beat or even outright dangerous relationships, how important and positive even the most fraught and difficult encounter can be?
And why was I surprised to discover that many of the topics discussed face-in-pillow, in the letter-tapes thirty-six years ago still fascinate me today? Sex, family dynamics, bodies and body-image, politics, psychology, ethics, poetry, politics, words, the nuts and bolts of communication itself – it’s all in there. Most interesting of all, however, is being reminded of the peculiar but amazing thing the two of us – both young and at odds with our families, but otherwise quite different in almost every respect – did: we listened to everything the other had to say, responded in detail as honestly as possible, were curious and open- minded, and in that way, instinctively created the lifeline we both needed. It was a rare thing, better than years of therapy, and I’m grateful both for what was, and for the tapes that arrived so unexpectedly to remind me of it.
In a story, of course, a new correspondence would ensue. But this is life – for once, I am telling the unvarnished truth.