God does not reply to letters. I learnt that at the age of seven, waiting for my father to come home. The nights were dark and long and cold, and I wrote by the light of a candle in my tiny back bedroom as I listened to the swell of the sea below. It was a particularly bad winter for storms, and the occasional flash of lightning illuminated the page, revealing my untidy scrawl.
When dawn broke the sky was cloudless, and the lightning-torn sky had apparently mended in the morn. Sunlight danced on the window pane, and I listened for the sound of a whistle, or the familiar soft thud of footsteps. I heard nothing, and decided I had not written clearly enough.
That morning I wrote in the sunlight, on the porch step, outlining my letters until my fingers went numb. At school my teacher told me my handwriting had improved, watching me with a tearful smile that I couldn’t understand. My letters were not worth praise; my father’s new boots still stood in the hallway unworn.
Mother and I had bought them for Christmas Day, making a stop at the bootmakers on the way to the newsagents. She had kept a jar full of coins in the kitchen cupboard since May, smiling secretly at me whenever Father came in from the quay. Strong leather. Sturdy laces. No holes. She used to sing the words as she swept the house. Now she was silent in the day, and I heard her weeping at night.
On the sixth day I took a shoelace for luck, easing it out of the squeaking leather when Mother wasn’t looking. I walked half the journey to school, and then ran down the alleyway towards the sea. I was taking no chances with my third letter. I had placed my carefully printed message in an old milk bottle, my stolen shoelace securing the lid at the top. Standing precariously at the edge of the quay, I hurtled the parcel into the swirling ocean below. At least then, if God didn’t read it, it would find my Father.
He was sleeping at the bottom of the sea, they said. He had left early on Boxing Day, promising to bring back such a catch that we would never see the like again. At midday the weather turned, the storm clouds rolled in and thunder cracked across the sky. Mother and I sat by the hearth, waiting for a light in the lane that never came. As the tempest died in the early hours of the morning, she simply said, in a tuneless tone; “he wore his old boots.”
I have kept the unworn shoes all these years in the house I could not leave. My first two letters were lost to good intentions, but it matters little, as I still remember every word. Sometimes I sing them up on the quay, the melody mingling with the breeze. Each week since that Christmas I have strolled beside the sea, finding in its endless rolling waves a comfort which my Mother never could. It was on such a day, when the sky was crisp and clear, and winter was setting in, that I espied an old milk bottle along the shore line. Clearing away the sand, I saw my own childhood handwriting, still as spidery and slanted in the letters I write today. Amongst the biting wind, I laughed a little on that abandoned beach. For there, tied to the shoelace I had carefully knotted round the top myself, was a smaller, darker ribbon that my Father had once used to thread his old weathered boots.
I took the token, and tossed it back into the sea.
God may not reply to letters, but perhaps he sends them on. I learnt that at seventy-one.