Friday, March 4, 2011

The letter on the street


from an imaginary Lucerne diary.

I found a letter in the street today. It was crumpled and slightly damp from the recent rain, but the handwriting was still clear enough that it caught my eye from where it lay next to one of the rubbish bins attached to a lamp-post. I walked up to it, and pretended to be waiting along with a couple of other people for the pedestrian signal at the corner to change. I hurriedly crouched down and scooped up the letter, and then I crossed the road when the sign of the walking man was illuminated, just one in a group of anonymous pedestrians on a wet March morning.

When I got to the opposite pavement, I took my find into the doorway of an insurance office and began to read. My guess that it looked like it was written in English turned out to be right. The words, written with pale blue ink in neat handwriting, said:

“Dear Jane,

“I don’t know when you will read this, but if it does somehow get to you then you will already probably know what’s happened.

“I’m looking out of the window at mountains covered with big clouds. It’s all grey and foggy, which seems an appropriate setting for what I am about to do.

“You may not care to hear this, but I just want you to know that even though you ruined my life, I still love and I always will.

“Please tell         “

After that, the letters quickly dissolved into rain-smeared streaks.

“Shit,” I said aloud. This was one of the more unusual things I’d seen on the streets of Lucerne, and now I would never know the full story. Then I started to wonder where it had come from. I looked back across the street, and saw that the building on the corner was indeed a hotel, one of those small places that used to be listed in guide books as two-star pensiones.

I hesitated for a while. Should I throw the letter away, and forget that I’d ever found it? Cross the road and go into the hotel? But if I did, what would I be looking for?

Curiosity got the better of me. I went back across the road and up the steps leading into the hotel’s  reception area. It was just a narrow corridor, carpeted, lined with small tables set with little china vases containing flowers. The hotel office was a sort of concierge’s cubby hole, with a registration book and a brass bell sitting on a narrow wooden counter. No-one was around. I quickly looked down the list of names. None of them looked English. I glanced at the door that led out of the concierge’s box into the interior of the hotel, then lifted the top page of the registration book. Liebowitz, An Chung, Kasniewski … Chamberlain. Patrick Chamberlain. I knew that any one of those names could belong to a person born in England, but still.

The door opened, and a young woman entered the tiny booth. She had a wide face and long blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. She wore the white t-shirt and black jeans that you see in bars, restaurants, and hotels the world over. The t-shirt fit very tightly over a notably large pair of breasts. She came forward and asked in English:

“Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for my friend Patrick Chamberlain.” I paused. “The English guy? He said he was staying here.”

I watched her face for any change in her expression, but it remained neutral.

“Yes. Mr. Chamberlain.”

“Is he still here?”

“He is gone.”

My eyes widened.

“You mean, he’s left, or …?”

“He is gone,” she said again, in the same flat tone.

Thoughts of death came into my mind. But then she breathed in deeply, and her ample breasts expanded distractingly beneath the white fabric of her t-shirt. I realized I was looking at them, and when I looked back at her face, her slightly annoyed expression showed that she realized it, too.

“Is he coming back?” I asked.

“No. He checked out yesterday. Do you want to book a room?”

“What? No. No thanks.”

I wanted to ask her if by “checked out” she meant “left the hotel” or “went out through the final door marked ‘Exit’.” But I had already questioned her beyond the point where it looked suspicious, so I left.

I immediately went back to my hotel, about a twenty minute walk back across the old town. I placed the letter on top of the leather-bound writing case provided by the hotel. I smoothed some of the creases out with the side of my hand, and placed a heavy Lutheran bible—also provided by the hotel—on top of the letter.


I picked up a tumbler, filled it with red wine from the bottle I had brought back the previous night, and drained it in one go.

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