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The Letter

Dr. John Ashley

The first time was shortly after the funeral.
I have of course kept your clothes, more precious by far
than my own. They hang side by side in my wardrobe.
The most precious is the camouflage denim top
which I loved wearing because I knew it was yours.
When you had gone, Mum told me just how much you had
loved wearing it in the garden, as it was mine.
Knowing that is poignant. It is our denim, Dad.

I checked the suits, then the army dress uniform
and coats. The suits you had worn before you retired
early at sixty, on health grounds. In the five years
remaining you had little need of them. You wore
the blue one to your granddaughter's christening, then
to your elder son's wedding, college chapel style.
There you are in the photographs, carnation on
lapel, your military bearing and brave smile.

I started with the outer pockets, I am sure,
then those inside. The grey jacket first then the blue,
the two trousers, uniform and coats. Nothing found.
Then the denim top, the most likely candidate,
but still nothing. Some time later I checked again
in case I had missed a pocket. Now, thirty years
on almost to the day I may check them again,
for something still missing, an account in arrears.

I am looking for a last letter. But no joy,
as you sometimes said. A letter for me, like you
used to send from your annual army camps at
Catterick or on Salisbury Plain, a note to
me folded in an envelope addressed to Mum.
I realise now with redeeming common sense
that I never told you how much those letters meant,
through fluent laconicism of adolescence.

How I longed for them, during summer vacations
from school, read them many times. I awaited the postman,
for a letter in your hand for Mum. Had I told
you all this you may have written to me as your
strength failed towards the end, with me in Africa,
even though I knew what you'd say with your last breath -
assurance that we meet again soon, look after
Mum‚ and bakèd beans‚ a family shibboleth.

Maybe you could not say goodbye, thereby saying
there could be no goodbye between us. We both know
this truth, death the imposter. You have not gone far,
just to lock up the church‚ as you did each night for
twenty five years as churchwarden, and which you said
that day Mum nearly died. Yet to save wear and tear
you'd shed that role long since! I divined your intent
in a flash, to kneel at the altar in prayer.

Okay Dad‚ I replied, knowing more than you knew.
And church is where you went when you died, knowing more
than I knew. Don't be afraid‚ Mum heard herself say
to you as she left the ward that night. You looked her
straight in the eye. "I'll not be afraid," you said and
within minutes you were gone. Those last few words, Dad
of certainty, already at peace with The Lord,
comprise the best letter from you I never had.

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