Last year, for their launch issue, The Letters Page called for pieces of writing on the theme 'pen pals'. I've had my fair share of those. But I also had one secret one, well - a fairly secret one, so I chose to write something to her and send it to The Letters Page. I couldn't remember her name, but she's from the 80s and she was a teenager. The piece wasn't selected for publication, but I decided if that happened I'd share it here. It's taken me a while, along with some re-working of the letter, to decide whether I should do that because it's a bit personal and not just about me. But I'm the only weirdo in it so there's no slander or treason going on. So here it is. A letter about a weird year and a weird-o.
Dear 1980s teen
Hello. You don’t know me, but I wrote to you, and you wrote back, sometime in 1989. You were fifteen and you thought I was too. You also thought I was a boy called Stephen. But no. I was me, Teresa, and I was eight years old.
The boy you thought I was, Stephen, did exist. He was my mum’s boyfriend’s son and your real pen pal from a few years before. I’d found the letters you’d written to him in his bedroom, where I slept, and snooped, some weekends when we stayed at his dad’s and Stephen went to his mum’s. Being surrounded by the possessions of a teenage boy made me do so some weird things. Pretending to be Stephen and writing to you was just a part of it. Of all the things I did, when I was caught this one was actually the easiest to explain. Your letter had arrived, addressed to Stephen, at our address. Stephen had no idea why. He hadn’t written to you in years.
Mum asked if I knew anything. ‘Yeah,’ I confessed casually, ‘it was me. I just thought it’d be funny’. I was only eight but I knew humour was subjective. Well, that it could get you out of something. Made it harmless.
I don’t think she totally bought it. But ‘I thought it’d be funny’ was preferable to an alternative explanation, one that might go more like this: ‘I’m just doing some weird stuff at the moment, Mum. I’ve also stolen quite a few of Stephen’s possessions. For example I have a knife of his in my school bag and there are some playing cards with photos of women with their boobs out in my drawer at school.’
A classmate found those cards. Went into my drawer to get something, saw them there, took them straight to the teacher (with a sense of panic edged with triumph, I imagine). My excuse was instant and believable: ‘I found them on the school playing field’. The teacher looked me over while she considered it. I was terrified inside. But I wasn’t usually troublesome, at least not that anyone knew of, so she believed me and reasoned they must have been dropped by some of the older boys. It wasn’t mentioned again.
My auntie found the knife. Went into my rucksack to get something, saw it, took it straight to my mother. With a sense of panic and triumph, I imagine. My excuse was not believable, but familiar: ‘I found it on the grass outside’. Not enough.
There were two extra dimensions to this particular situation. One, that of course – a knife is an alarming object for any parent to find their eight year old in possession of. And two – a big clue about where it came from: Stephen’s name carved into the handle. Interrogation required. When did you find it? Why didn’t you tell anyone? Did you know it was Stephen’s? You must have. Where did you get it from, really? And what was it doing in your schoolbag?
I can’t recall if I showed the knife to anyone at school. I didn’t brandish it about, that’s for sure. I just had it there in the front pocket of my rucksack. No one needed to know – just like the cards. I was the victim of noseyness both times. I’m being light-hearted now, because really the finding of the knife was a dark moment, this being-caught moment, the drama in the room, the questions, the panic. I knew my mum knew I was lying. That was a horrible bit. But it was like the truth was stuck inside me, too terrible to tell, the culmination of all the deceiving I’d been doing - I’d stolen more stuff, just nothing else as shocking. I remember being sent into the living room while they talked about it in the kitchen. Fun House was on TV, and for years after I associated that program with a feeling of fear and shame. I was a thief and everyone knew it, only I wouldn’t say it.
The dark feeling leaked out into the months after. Mum and Stephen’s dad broke up. I’m not sure if I was the reason but I might have contributed to it.
Eventually I did confess. It took months though, months coloured by intense worry, until one day mum was hanging the washing out and I went to help. Somewhere between handing her the pegs I told her the truth about the knife. I’m not sure exactly what she said, but I remember it was nothing like what I expected, and ended with, ‘And you’ve been carrying this feeling around with you for all this time?’ She hugged me. We were to forget about it.
I didn’t, not really. It hung around my head for years. We didn’t speak about it ever again, not even as adults. I’ve looked back, like I am now, to try to see a reason, or maybe just a theme to my behaviour. Secrets? Danger? Did I want to be Stephen? I don’t have an answer, or need one. Mostly I’d like to go back to see myself and say it’s ok. Confess earlier. People do worse things than this. You might do worse things than this. Be free. Actually – always be free. This is the most important thing I could ever say to you.
Oh but this letter here is to you, 1980s teen, not me. I’ll round up. What I remember about your reply to ‘Stephen’, the one that got delivered to my house, is that you hadn’t noticed a change in his handwriting, interests or ambition. (I think I said he loved school, reading and wanted to be a teacher. Hm. Not so.)
You also used a lot of exclamation marks. You were excited about the rekindled correspondence. I wonder what you thought when the letters stopped again. Did I contribute or shape your view of men – do you think they’re inconsistent, flaky, changeable? Or did my version of Stephen (no penknives or nudey playing cards owned) became the bar to which you measured all potential suitors/pen pals?
I wonder if you still have the letter I sent. My Mum confiscated yours after telling me to stop pretending to be Stephen. I imagine her now, throwing it away, wondering if I really did think I was being funny, and what was going on in my head. And she didn’t even know what was in my school bag yet.
So I’m sorry, 1980s teen, for fooling you. Sorry you got caught up in my weird year.
Teresa, aged 8 and 33.