The crack of wood splitting made me freeze on the stairway, my foot half raised, clinging to the banister. It was the sort of sound that seemed to run a hair-line fracture through my ribcage – the sort of sound that invited me to experience what the tread beneath me was experiencing. I was having an empathetic connection with a piece of wood.
Slowly, I slid my foot off the stair and stepped down to the one below. Then I crouched to examine the damage.
“Shit,” I muttered.
There was a long split scarring the tread now, right where my foot had been. The wood was polished, but so long ago that most of the original polish had chipped away. There was a dip to it as well, as though the wood had tried to bend and curve to accommodate my weight before it finally gave in.
The Airbnb place was old. Older than my country. So old that there was no toilet inside. If I wanted to pee at 2am, I had to walk down the hall with a bundle of toilet paper and a torch. But it was cheap and in the heart of Edinburgh.
I hadn’t thought it was so old that I’d be breaking the stairs walking up to the cramped and drafty loft. Now I would have to explain the damage. And say goodbye to my good ratings.
I pushed myself up, thinking that maybe I could skype my dad and he could walk me through how to fix it, when a flash of something out the corner of my eye made me pause. Crouching down again, I squinted through my glasses at the crack I’d made in the wood. The tread was raised slightly off of the riser and there was a sliver of space between it and the stair beneath. I pulled out my phone and opened the torch app, shining a light into the crack.
There was something in there.
“That’s weird,” I muttered. Talking to myself was a habit I’d gotten into after the first month. Travelling alone had its benefits, but it could get awful quiet in the dead of night.
There shouldn’t have been something inside of the stair. Most stairwells are built into a wall as, essentially, one big shell. There shouldn’t have been space for anything to be hidden behind the riser. It didn’t even occur to me to leave it – to push myself up off of the stairwell and head downstairs like I’d planned. Now that I was really looking, I realised that this stair was much lighter in colour than the others. The remnants of the pealing polish created the illusion that they were all one colour, but this stair didn’t even look like it was the same wood as the rest.
Slowly, I felt around the underside of the tread, which jutted out just a bit and allowed me to get my fingertips underneath it. There was some give to it. It felt like the tread might have pulled away easily a decade ago, but age had turned it into an arthritic joint that wouldn’t budge without persuasion. I put the phone down on the step above and used both hands to slowly, carefully pull the tread up. I wanted to see what was underneath, but I didn’t want to do more damage than I already had.
I could already kiss my 5 star guest rating goodbye.
When the tread came away, my nose immediately wrinkled at the smell. Dust. Years and years of dust and mould had built up, assaulting me the moment I freed it. Coughing, I set the broken tread down next to me and looked inside properly.
Instead of a cupboard, Harry Potter-style, or even just a small gap between the stairway and floor, hidden beneath the tread was a compartment made of the same wood as the riser. Inside was a long, metal box like the kind I sometimes saw in army-surplus stores, though I’d never really understood what they were for.
I checked for spiders and picked the box up, wiping off the dust with my skirt and checking it for an inscription. There was nothing. It was just a plain, slightly rusted, grey metal box.
The Airbnb description had read ‘original interior’. ‘Original interior’ is code for ‘never been renovated’. This box could have been in the stairs for years, hidden from prying eyes thanks to the camouflaging polish. Maybe even decades going by the layer of dust on the top.
My phone went off and I yelped, nearly losing my balance and falling arse-first down the flight. I clutched the dusty box to my chest and checked the screen. Then I answered it.
“Sup?” I asked.
“Did you hear back?” Imogen asked. Her voice was rough from decades of smoking and I could hear the ruffle of paper in the background.
“I – no, I haven’t,” I replied.
I turned on my toes and sat down on the step beneath the one I’d just demolished. The box was light, but when I shook it something shifted inside. I dearly hoped it wasn’t a dead animal – or worse – but surely that would make it stink more, right?
“Skye, tell me you sent the synopsis and didn’t get cold feet,” Imogen said.
She sounded like my mother when she spoke like that. She was technically old enough to be my mother.
“I – yes, I got cold feet,” I replied. There was no use lying to her, she’d only end up dragging it all out of me later.
“Fucking hell, Skye!”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
I shook the box again. The sound was muffled. I put Imogen on speaker and put the phone down, prying my fingernails under the lid of the box.
“You know no one ever became a famous author without at least trying to submit their work,” Imogen said.
“I know,” I said again. “But what if they hate it?”
“Then you’ll be rejected,” said Imogen. “Mercilessly. Just like Jo Rowling, and Dr Seuss, and –”
“I know The List,” I said. “You don’t need to recite The List.”
The lid came off of the box with a soft pop. Inside reeked of old paper and ink, like a bookstore, and there was a small bundle of yellowing envelopes tied up with string. I took a moment to let the smell wash over me – anyone who said they didn’t like the smell of bookstores was a filthy liar.
Some of my curls dipped over my shoulder and fell into the box, and I had to toss my head to get them out without putting my grubby fingers all over them.
“Your pussy-footing around is making me recite The List,” said Imogen, her raspy voice full of annoyance. “Woman-up and submit, Skye. Don’t make me come over there.”
“You’ll come all the way to Edinburgh?” I asked.
“If I have to,” Imogen said.
Imogen hated leaving her cosy cottage in Hertfordshire, but I would have put money on her travelling to Edinburgh to kick my ass. Hell, she would have gone all the way to Melbourne back when I still lived there. Back when I was still finishing uni and thought I was going to be a writer someday.
Now, I didn’t know what I was going to be. Just a wanderer, it seemed, travelling around the UK and living off of my savings, camping in strangers’ homes and messing up their décor.
I picked up one of the envelopes and read the address. P. Carter, it said. They were all addressed to P. Carter. My Airbnb host’s name was Julienne Smith.
“Listen Skye – are you listening? You’re going to get your bony arse to a desk. You’re going to submit your synopsis to each of the agents on your list. Then you’re going to get yourself some cake to celebrate.”
“Celebrate my impending rejection?”
“Someone has to,” Imogen replied.
I felt the familiar burning lump settle in my stomach at the thought of hitting ‘send’ on all of those emails. I told her I would do it, and then I hung up before she could ask me if I was lying again.
It wasn’t lying, I thought, as long as I had every intention of following through. And I did.
Every day I would wake up and roll out of bed, pull my laptop towards me and open my Drafts folder. But then my finger would hover over the mousepad. I’d get nervous and flustered – like that moment when you’re leaning back on a chair and it’s just about to tip, and you’re frozen waiting for the chair to decide whether it will fall or not. That feeling would settle in my gut, and before I know it I will have closed the email browser and opened a Word doc instead.
Better to keep writing, I tell myself. Keep writing, keep practicing, and then you’ll be ready.
I took the box full of letters downstairs, careful to tread lightly so that I wouldn’t put my foot through another one, before leaving it next to the sink while I washed my hands. When they were clean I pulled my hair into a ponytail and examined the top envelop again, pulling it gently out of the bundle and turning the stove light on so that I could get a better look.
The envelope was already open. Curiosity got the better of me pretty quickly, but there wasn’t much competition from any of my other emotions. I slid my hand inside and pulled out the thin letter, written on the same yellowed paper as the envelope and scrawled in cursive. I hadn’t read cursive since year 2, but I gave it a whirl anyway:
May 4, 1918
My Dearest P.,
I have at last settled down in one place for a few days. I am not allowed to tell you where precisely, only that it is in France.
We came here by way of England. There was some little journey on the English railway, which cut through a very pretty country before we reached the sea and set out on ships. There is a very noticeable lack of men in France, but plenty once you get to the front. Or so I am told. This little village has only a handful of men too old to serve and there are a number of empty houses. I am staying in a pretty brick house with a large fireplace and a loft where I occupy a few square feet of floor.
The people here are glad to see us. What little French I have helps wonderfully in communication, though I now wish I’d paid more mind to my instructors. Anyway, the country here looks peaceful enough. We are some distance from the lines, though how far I can only guess. Loose lips, you understand.
I will write as often as possible now that we have settled, but how soon my letters will reach you is decidedly uncertain. Even more so, I suspect, once we set out for the front.
With truest love,
“Oh,” I said out loud.
I double-checked the date to see if this was what I thought it was. A letter from World War 1… that was unexpected. I didn’t know what I had expected, but I didn’t think it would be that.
Thumbing through the envelopes, I tried to find the full name of the woman who’d received them, but they were all just addressed to P. Carter. She was probably dead by now. If she were alive, I thought, then surely she would have held onto these? She wouldn’t have left them hidden in a stairway for some stranger to put their foot through.
Unless she had dementia or something. That would be heartbreaking. The thought that she’d kept these letters for nearly a hundred years, only to forget that they’d even existed. And whatever happened to Her Finn? Had he died in battle? Had she kept the letters to remind her of the man who went to war and never returned?
I rolled my eyes at myself. “Cap the drama queen act, fool.”
I replaced that first letter in its envelope and laid it in the bottom of the box. My hand wavered towards the rest of the bundle. It wouldn’t be right to read them, would it? Was it an invasion of privacy, even if both the author and recipient were probably dead? I’d already read one, afterall… the damage was done. Taking the bundle of envelopes, I sat on the lumpy lounge in the corner of the apartment.
Ignoring the still-gaping wound in the stairwell and the draft emails waiting to be sent from my inbox, I began to read.
I needed to find P. Carter.
After staying up for hours reading letter after letter, battling my way through the cursive script and the faded ink, my eyes were red and itchy when I finally put my head on a pillow. When the sun rose, I rolled out of bed and pulled my laptop onto my thighs, typing ‘How to find past owners of a house’ into the search bar.
Most of the letters were really brief – just a short note from Finn, usually with a date but avoiding any details. A couple were really long and woven with the kind of lyrical poetry that reminded me of authors like Tolkien and Lewis, who served in the World Wars before they went back to university, pulling prose and poetry out of madness.
There were clearly letters missing. I didn’t know whether they were letters which had never been received, or whether P. Carter had lost them – but after reading the whole batch I couldn’t believe that P. would be careless enough to lose one of them.
They were so carefully put away and lovingly preserved that I knew, without understanding how I knew it, that I needed to return the letters to their rightful owner. Whether P. was dead, in a hospital, or had just forgotten about them over the years, I needed to find her and give them back.
If someone had written these letters for me, I would want them returned.
Finn would be harder to find, I thought. He never used his last name. Why would he? P. would have known his last name.
The WikiHow page told me to go to the courthouse to find out about past owners. I wasn’t sure whether women’s suffrage had developed enough for women to own property in Edinburgh during WWI, but I hoped that P.’s father might have been the owner. If not, then I would need to think of something else.
The page also recommended a local historian, but I didn’t want to go down that route. A local historian might try to convince me to give up the letters to a museum or something, and I didn’t want to do that. They didn’t belong in a museum. They belonged with P., whoever she was.
I got a text from Imogen while I was in the shower, but I didn’t have the heart to respond and tell her that I had spent half the night reading love letters from a (probably)dead man. Especially after reading what he’d written to P. on April 11.
My Dearest P., I would tell you that I adored your latest scribbles, but I fear adoration is not a strong enough word to convey my feeling on this matter. You have a gift though I know I am not the first to tell you so. I insist on seeing this masterpiece in printed form! Send it to a publisher post haste.
A short bus ride took me to the courthouse on Chambers St. I stared out the bus window as it trundled along on the surprisingly well-maintained streets, taking in the old brick buildings embellished with the kinds of sculpture work that you can only get in countries that existed before my country was even discovered. I loved trying to pick new details in buildings – in towns like Edinburgh, it was damn near impossible to know a façade completely. There was always something I’d missed the last time.
There was hardly anything like it in Australia.
Of course, I’ve never been able to describe it all in writing. Whenever I read a book set in some old town, I felt as though I’d been transported to that world. As though the author, whoever they were, could paint an image of whatever they were seeing in my mind.
But whenever I read my own work, I could never quite get the same image. Imogen said I had nothing to worry about but I knew I still needed to practice. I still wasn’t ready to submit to agents yet.
I wondered if P. Carter felt the same way. The letters kept returning to her writing and the fact that she hadn’t tried to get it published yet. Whenever Finn would gently berate P., I felt like he was gently berating me at the same time. I preferred Imogen’s rants to Finn’s quiet pride and devotion – which made me feel unbelievably shitty, like I’d let him down.
When I got to the courthouse, I realised that I had no idea what to ask. Or who to ask. I crept up to the reception desk, which was manned by a woman in a tight blouse with red hair piled on top of her head. She looked bored but when I cleared my throat she gave me this look of deepest loathing, as though I had interrupted her doing something incredibly important.
“I was hoping to find someone who used to live in my house?”
I didn’t mention that it was Airbnb. That’s still illegal in some places.
“Why?” the woman asked.
“Oh – I, ah, found some letters under the stairs,” I said. “I just… wanted to return them?”
The woman gave me a long look. “Yer trying to return some letters?” she asked. She didn’t seem to believe me. After a moment, she shrugged and picked up a pen, scribbling a room number onto a post-it note. “Go there, ask for Jeremy.”
Navigating the labyrinth of mahogany halls took about half an hour, and when I got to the place that the receptionist had directed me to, there was no Jeremy. He was on leave, according to Hank, a younger man with heavy black-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. He was manning the musty room solo. Filing cabinets lined the walls, and the room seemed big enough to fit my flat inside three times over.
“Okay, but can you help me?” I asked. “I just want to know if there was ever any P. Carter in this address.”
I showed him my phone screen. I kept the address of my current Airbnb place in its own note, just in case I ever needed to take a cab. I had a terrible memory for addresses.
Hank looked down at the phone, reeking of nacho cheese and sweat.
“Oh, aye – I can help ye there,” he said. He gave me the kind of hopeful smile that I’d learned to associate with men who were hoping to have a favour reciprocated. “Just wait here. Ye want something to drink?”
“No thanks,” I said, taking a seat in a rickety chair next to the door while Hank disappeared into the depths of the filing jungle.
Sitting there, twiddling my thumbs, I wished that I had brought the letters with me. I wanted to read them again – to try and find the nuance to the story, and see if I could fill in the blanks.
Instead, I pulled out my phone and googled the dates that Finn was overseas, trying to figure out what battles he might have been talking about. But there was too much information and my phone screen was too tiny.
I got another text from Imogen: send the fucking synopsis.
Me: I can’t, I’m at the courthouse.
Imogen: they have dont internet in jail?
Imogen: keep sassing me you little shit c where it gets u
I smiled at the screen. Imogen might have been pushing fifty, but she texted like my niece.
Imogen: why are u in jail
Me: I’m not. I’m doing research.
Me: Some stuff I found last night. Do you know anything about WWI battle history?
Imogen: yes ww1 battle history is one of my many areas of expertise along with physics and erectile dysfunction
Me: I’ll call you later
Imogen: SEND THE FUCKING SYNOPSIS
I stuffed my phone back into my jeans. Imogen had her heart in the right place, but she’d never really understood why I couldn’t just bite the bullet and press ‘send’. Women like her – loud and exciting and full of everything I lacked – could never understand when people didn’t just go for what they wanted.
Leaning my head back against the wall, I let my mind drift. The fluorescent lights above hurt my eyes and the grey speckled walls were offensively dull, but the room did make imagining myself elsewhere easier.
I’d spent half my life imagining myself elsewhere.
My big sister, Hallie, used to call me lazy. She’d get up every morning and go for a jog before school while I would lounge around reading on my Kindle. She got a 98 in her HSC and walked into one of the best unis in Australia, while I’d lagged behind with a measly 63 and an internship at the local paper.
A soul destroying internship.
The kind of internship that job counsellors warn people about.
It wasn’t until I’d given up on journalism entirely and gone back to uni as a mature student that I realised telling stories didn’t have to feel like a blood-letting.
But the four years I spent getting my Bachelor turned out to be a waste, at least according to Hallie and my parents. There are no jobs in arts, but even if there were I wouldn’t have gotten one. You need to let people read your stuff before you can work in the industry and I’d just never felt ready.
Every time I tried to show someone my work I would freeze up. The adrenaline would pump through my veins and I’d feel like whatever I’d eaten last was trying to punch its way out of me. I nearly fainted after showing Imogen one of my stories for the first time. She’d been nothing but supportive, but the internship under time-crunched, hard editors, and the sneer on Hallie’s lips whenever she would see me tapping away at the computer still came to mind whenever I thought about sharing my stories with anyone else. I could only imagine what it would have taken for P. to send stories to Finn on the battlefield.
Hank cleared his throat, pulling me out of my own mind. He smiled at me when I looked over, showing all of his teeth.
“Yer in luck,” he said. “That house belonged to a Carter for fifteen years.”
“Great!” I said, pushing myself off of the stiff-backed chair and joining him at his desk. “Are there any P. Carters?”
“Just the one: Peter,” replied Hank. He showed me the paperwork for a house sale in 1915. “Doesn’t mention if he had a wife or any dependants, but it wouldn’t have – they didn’t really care about that sort of thing when they were selling houses back then.”
“That’s great, actually – can I take a picture?”
He let me take a picture of the paperwork. Then he gave me his number. I took it, because it was easier than coming up with a good excuse not to take it, but as soon as I left the room I deleted it off of my phone. I walked out of the courthouse and into a light drizzle that seemed to have settled in for the rest of the day.
That’s a start, I thought as I half-jogged towards the bus stop. P. Carter. Peter Carter.
There has been some very heavy fighting round this way for the last two weeks. We out here are beginning to wonder if they ever plan to relieve us. At the present time I have a splitting headache, owing to the Gas used against us. That is nothing; yesterday we went across open ground and they turned a machine gun on us. I had the presence of mind to drop down or I should not be telling you this. We have lost a lot of men these last few weeks. We have also lost about twenty horses.
I read Finn’s last letter for the hundredth time in Artisan Roast, a coffee shop on Broughten St that had a sign out the front claiming that JK Rowling had never written there. Personally I didn’t understand how that would be something to brag about, but the coffee was pretty good and the walls were covered in hessian sacks that gave the place a rustic feeling. I had my laptop open on the table in front of me while I read the letter – the last one in the bundle, and the last one as far as I could tell that Finn had ever written.
It had been over a week since I’d found the letters. I’d spent most of the week in the library, going through archives and chatting with the librarians.
I’d found Peter Carter’s obituary within a few hours of looking. He died in 1945 of a ‘complication from surgery’ according to the obituary, but I did a little more digging and found an arrest record. Peter Carter was sentenced to chemical castration in 1920, after he was convicted of homosexuality. The ‘complication’ was kidney failure from the drugs.
I cried when I read that. I don’t usually cry – I sat through all of Marley & Me without shedding a single tear. But that… that made me weep in the computer terminal. The librarian must have thought that I’d gone nuts.
But that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was reading a notice a few years before that, in 1918, about a young private named Finlay Breckinridge who died in Normandy a few months before the war ended. He left his life savings to Peter Carter, his ‘dear friend’.
I re-read Finn’s letters again and again, lingering over the passages where he encouraged Peter to submit his work to publishers. I couldn’t find any books written by Peter Carter. As far as I could tell, he never took his Finn’s advice.
The last half of Finn’s last letter was my favourite.
It seems that no matter how long we walk or what the enemy puts us through, we are never done. There is always one more mile to walk and one more bullet to dodge. My foot is getting worse. I reckon I have stood the pain well until now, but I often feel as though I am being beaten. I wish that this terrible suspense and anxiety was done with.
Tomorrow, I will be one day closer to seeing you again. Be ready for that. Until then, I remember your smile, and your sweet hair, and the way your nose wrinkles when you laugh, and those thoughts will carry me to the next set of trenches.
With truest love,
I’d called Imogen from outside of the library, tearfully trying to explain what I’d found and how much it hurt. She hadn’t even known that I was researching P. Carter and His Finn – as far as she knew, my phone had been laundered and I was unable to answer her many texts. But she’d listened to me sob. She’d made small, sympathetic noises while I explained again and again how unfair it all was.
When I took a breath, Imogen said two words: “Use it.”
That was all she’d said.
Peter Carter was cremated. He didn’t have any kids. I thought I probably could have found a next of kin if I’d dug around some, but I didn’t. I’d found Finn’s grave in Aberdeen, though. My train was leaving that afternoon.
I stared at the well-read letter in my hand. The barista came over in his ugly green apron and topped off my coffee.
“Everything alright?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied vaguely.
I looked up. He had a nice face. Kind, in a low-key way.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said. “Thanks.”
He nodded. His name-tag read ‘Hamish’, which I thought that was a great Scottish name.
When he left, I carefully folded Finn’s last letter and put it in the metal box with the rest. I had two tabs open on my laptop – my inbox and the Airbnb homepage. I hadn’t decided where I would be going next. I wasn’t ready to go home yet. My parents kept sending me emails asking if I’d found a job, telling me how well Hallie was doing at the law firm, and reminding me that there were plenty of admin roles there if I would only apply.
I closed Airbnb and stared at my inbox. My Drafts folder had twelve unsent emails – one for every one of the agents that Imogen had identified as someone I should contact. I rested my hand on the box with Finn’s letters and took a deep breath, trying to imagine that he was there with me, speaking the words of encouragement that he’d sent to P. so many decades ago. I’d never found a picture of Finn, but I imagined that he looked a little like Hamish the barista; a man with a kind face.
Cringing, I clicked ‘Send’ on the first email. My fingers trembled as I saw it disappear from my drafts folder. Before I could stop to think, I sent the rest one after the other. When my Drafts folder was empty I opened the Sent folder and took a picture of it with my phone, sending it straight to Imogen. My heart beat so loud that I thought Hamish the barista must have been able to hear it from behind the counter, and my gut churned. But it was done. There was no getting those emails back.
Imogen replied almost immediately: about fucking time
That text was followed by another: Im proud of you girly
Smiling shakily, I closed my laptop and slid it into my backpack. I pressed a kiss to my fingertips and brushed them lightly over the box with Finn’s letters. Then I paid for my coffee and left.
Author’s note: I stay in a lot of Airbnbs and sometimes I like to project beautiful romances onto the former inhabitants of the people who lived there before me.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂