words Francesca Turauskis photo Liz Seabrook
I was a mile high and chasing the sun across the Pacific when I finally pulled them from my hand-luggage: the ‘DO NOT OPEN UNTIL YOU ARE ON THE PLANE!!!!’ envelopes from the friends I was flying away from.
In the space after school, there are always different possibilities. But for me there was only one. Though introduced to me by a fantasy film, visiting New Zealand was the real plan I’d obsessed over for a number of years. My passion sustained me as I turned assembling fast food sandwiches into an art in order to save for the trip. Five months later, I threw in the apron and boarded the flight.
The letters were parting tokens from my social group: two old friends, like touchstones, from primary school, and a handful of classmates from my GCSE years. Some I considered my best friends, others were on the periphery, friends of friends. The type of girls who gave me earrings for Secret Santa when I didn’t have my ears pierced. I’d accepted their presence as penance for spending time with the ones I liked. Such is school.
There were five letters in total. I found the one from my favourite friend first, the one who swapped books with me, who stuck up for me. The weight of her letter was more than the others, the ink feathering on the thin paper. The plane was dark, and the empty space next to me would allow me secret tears if I needed them. Inside the plain envelope, the paper was punched and lined, pulled from a work-book. It looked like an English essay rather than a letter of friendship. Like an afterthought. Her writing started as expected: I read the disbelief at such a journey, the promise of exciting times, and I allowed myself a little pride. She looked forward to hearing all about it, and I felt more than a hint of superiority that whatever stories she had to swap would not compare. She was confirming that I was doing something amazing, something other people would do, if only they were as brave as me.
But as I continued to read, it became more personal. Words and phrases began to snag. There had been an ongoing skit that I was the weird one, the one that didn’t quite fit. I was Phoebe from ‘Friends’. Strange Spice. I didn’t mind. But the way my best friend had written this down, alongside phrases about being far away, it made me realise that perhaps this weirdness had been tolerated rather than accepted. “I know you are the ‘weird one’, but you have always been very loyal and nice…”
The other letters were formed of the same mould – various repetitions of bravery, safe travels. There was kindness in the act of writing them, but they were generic repertoires of appropriate words. By the time I finished reading, I felt like some strange stray they had adopted. I was 18 years old, on my own, and very far away from everything I knew.
Rather than cry, I felt relieved. I could unfurl now, like the koru, a symbol of a new beginning.
Travel takes you far away from friends, and for me, returning home didn’t bring me back to them. We met up for a while, but eight years later, even Facebook can’t nudge us to wish each other happy birthday. I kept the letters as souvenirs of the sentiments, but whether they are a reminder of a loss or an escape, I can never quite decide.
Find more life-changing messages in our Letters issue.