sunday reading

Sunday Reading: Byootiful Holly

Words: Poppy O'Neill
Illustration: Kate Rowland

Shirley rang. V.nice tea - Holly bit better. Fire done - see you later. A note scribbled on the back of an envelope in 1991. Twenty-five years later I find myself carefully scanning and saving it, safe in the digital world from fire, theft and spilled cups of tea.

My grandmother, Sassy, came across these scraps of paper during a grand spring clean. It's a hoarding instinct I share with her, that causes bank statements to sit for decades, just in case. Pieces of official paperwork and personal ephemera that may possibly, maybe one day, be wanted. It was in this big clear out of seemingly useless paper that the preciousness and vulnerability of these jotted sentences became apparent. Holly was Sassy's beloved Jack Russell, who passed away not long after the notes were written. 

I time-travel by means of this informal letter-writing; messages left by those who dropped in on Holly while Sassy was out. All hopeful, all testament to a cheerful dog, wagging her tail and scrounging from the table. She might be downcast by the evening, but when the note was written she was happy. The granddaughters have grown up, but when the felt-tip touched that paper, they were little girls. Holly might have died many years ago, but when the words were jotted spontaneously down, she was there, she existed. I revisit these letters and a past us, kept as a gift to our future selves. 

I look at the other items Sassy kept. Appointment diaries, facts of the day, people to meet and events to attend. The details that seem small at the time become the concrete, provable key to the cherished essence of a memory. There is a list in her bundle: Things I Want To Remember, and it runs over two sides and up the margins, recalling the quality of Holly's movements – kangarooing through high grass – her habits – biting car tyres – small things that make it seem incredible, once they are gone, that pets never speak a word to us, and yet their personalities are absolutely individual.  

The letters I wrote Sassy at five years old show a child trying desperately to comfort an adult. Holly saves the day, Holly lives with the Flower Fairies, Byootiful Holly. I remember her solid barrel of a body, her warm wiry hair and her pink bacon-rasher tongue. I remember it dawning on me some months after her death that she was truly gone forever. 

These little scraps of evidence are trivial, but they become important precisely because they are kept. The timbre of our voices is in these notes. Relics to conjure a moment, a feeling, a smell. And when they are read alone, while that feeling of a loved one in the room is slippery and comes always with melancholy, we hold on to it and in a small, personal way they are there.

Sunday Reading: Letters in Long White Clouds

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.

Sunday Reading: Blood Sisters

Listening to the sound of a friendship changing gear.
words Letty Mchugh, photo Antoine Henault

Photo: Antoine Henault

Photo: Antoine Henault

“Nobody really knows the difference between pyjamas and clothes, out of context,” I hear the 2011-me tell my friend, Becca. “It’s just a conspiracy to make us buy more.” 

Listening to this, I see myself strutting the streets of Bath in jeans, clogs and a pink, brushed-cotton pyjama top, printed with cows in nightcaps. At the time I met the gaze of quizzical passers-by, smugly thinking, “Yes, this is the world’s most kick-ass shirt and you should be jealous.” With hindsight, I don’t think anyone was jealous. I’m sure everyone was thinking, “Why on earth is that girl wearing pyjamas?”

In May 2011, Becca and I both had deadlines looming for our creative writing degrees. As we weren’t getting any work done separately, Becca came round to mine so we could not get any work done together. I had just written essays on various conceptual artists for the art side of my course and was convinced that anything I did could be considered art, if documented in the right way. Four or five hours into what became the 26-hour spectacular ‘bed-in for deadlines’, I began recording everything we were saying. Nearly five years later, this is the first time I’ve listened to the tapes. 

What strikes me is how little work we actually do; we type for ten-minute stretches before talking for two hours. I convince Becca to join Twitter so she can tweet Noel Fielding her dream about ground beef. Becca outlines her idea that you should only leave a marriage if you can find a person your spouse would be truly happy with to replace you. We take an hourly selfie holding up signs telling our 34 followers how long we’ve been in my bed. We discover and spend an age listening, enraptured, to the artificial rain. If procrastination were a super power, we would have been the world’s best superheroes. 

The other thing that hits me is how I can hear our friendship evolving over the course of the tapes. I’d known Becca for over a year before ‘bed-in for deadlines’; we liked each other, hung out a lot. But in these recordings we change from pals into something more like comrades—blood brothers; blood sisters, I guess, though I can’t pinpoint the moment. Is it where I read Becca’s flash fiction that is still hands-down one of my favourite pieces of writing? Or where Becca forgives me for getting pus from the sore on my foot on the printout of that same piece of writing? It’s probably the latter.

I might start using that as a friendship test. “Hey,” I’ll say to new people I meet, “Theoretically, if I had a wound on my foot from an ill-advised pair of shoes, and I let goo from that wound trickle all over your writing portfolio would you: A, Be grossed out? Or B, Graciously offer to tell anyone who asks that the goo is from your ice lolly?” If they answer B, I’ll know that in five years’ time they’ll still be the kind of friend you can rely on to always text you back.

Find more stories of female friendship in our Sisters Issue