Dear Sylvia… Love Sylvia

Creative Fiction inspired by Shropshire. Written by Lucy Lilley. Proofed by Sarah Hardy. Photo by Pablo Bernardo

When inspiration dies, dressed in its finest, cremated in a box, hymns are sung. You mourn, regardless of the lack of vocal cords, and down she goes to the hymn;

All things bright and beautiful / All creatures great and small / All things wise and wonderful / The Lord God made them all.

Bring her plastic flowers and pop a note with it saying, “I’m sorry you´re gone, thanks for the biscuits, I miss you terribly.” 

Pack up her belongings, ponder a life, seemingly quiet and modest and attempt to read her poetry. I could if it weren’t for the hieroglyphics; a secret tongue that died with her too!

Retrace her footsteps over the grassy meadows to her favourite tree. The old oak whispers to me, “Don’t threat child, inspiration is not dead, it lives in me.” So, I rub my fingers between the crevices of its ancient bark as I stand carefully on the sodden ash spilt from the last cremated thought. 

I wipe off the tree’s residual proclamation, and return to my Aunt’s house, grab a box, and begin in earnest to retrieve something of her lifeness. Let’s start with the bedroom, open the curtains, open the window. I can see the tree in the distance, dominating the landscape. Most of her belongings are destined for the charity shops but here I ponder an odd collection of curious items. Some rusty keys, more folders with illegible poetic scribbles and a dusty stamp collection. 

Settling down onto the dusty Persian carpet, with a cup of Tetley beside me, I start with the stamp collection. Nothing spectacular about it, standard brown leather cover, protected by a linen tea towel with a faded print of Shropshire on it. Flicking through the empty pages, at the point of exasperation for not finding any stamps at all, until the last page, treasure struck, old British postage stamps, little neat rows of them in blue and green, 9 in total, stamped by Shropshire & Montgomeryshire railway, roughly 14 days apart in the year 1916.

Where are the letters? Whom are they from? I begin examining the assortment of keys. They all vary in size, some older and in worse condition than others, most of them I recognise. That one’s for the pantry door (to keep out greedy young relatives), that one’s for the garage (you were never allowed in there, so not to disturb Uncle, whilst tinkering with his motor), oh that’s the garden shed one, best not go there, used to be the outdoor toilet, not worth exploring. “But what about this little fella?” I ponder. Pretty and ornate enough to make a sweet pendant, I think to myself, as I jam him into every possible keyhole I can find. I finally give up, slump back on the carpet in the bedroom, lean back on the bed imagining what chain would suit it best, silver or gold? When thud, something dislodges underneath. I shine a light from my phone and it’s returned with a glint. I stretch out under the bed, not doing my dust allergies any good… gotcha! Pull her out.

How beautiful you are, missy. A mahogany box. Let’s see if the key fits. Twist, click, wait for it, drum roll, could be money, jewels, love letters… what! 9 blank postcards addressed to Sylvia Green, hang on… from Sylvia! Am I hallucinating? She had been sending herself blank picture postcards of the tree, no less! She must have been 18 years old at the time of the Great War. 

The poems shed some light. A tree visit, another tree visit dated the same as the postcards, I´m waiting for you. The only sentence I can make out. I return to the tree with the first of the postcards, dated 5th of November. Dear Sylvia, love Sylvia. I fill it with a brief resume of the day, walk across the hill and post it.  

Jeff pops by, offers to help remove the unwanted belongings, and mentions the tree needs culling. 

It’s dying of a disease, along with the story of her house. I break down, return to the oak with another postcard. 

Dear Sylvia, the tree is dying. Love Sylvia.

I watch as he chops the tree down, drowning out the sounds of its removal with my headphones, listening to Bach. She’s gone.

Returning a few weeks later, I muster the courage to visit where once the tree stood. I lay some plastic flowers at the foot of the tree stump, and notice a small shoot growing beside. Jeff says it’s an ash growing. He continues to tell me that before the oak, there was a mahogany tree. It lived for years until my great grandmother passed during a hard winter. During the Battle of the Somme, my great aunt, Sylvia would sit under the oak tree, which overlooked the main road, waiting for news of her lover’s return. When news finally came in late November, of his valiant death in war, broken hearted, she began writing.

I sit on the grass, beside the ash tree and begin filling in another of her postcards. 

Dear Sylvia, you´re returning. Love Sylvia. I post it.

Time passes….

The phone rings, Jeff calls “You have post, shall I forward it onto you?” 

“Sure,” I replied. 

The same postcard I sent previously, sits on my lap. The oak tree in the picture is scratched out and I stare in amazement, as I read:

Dear Evangeline, You´re returning. Inspire! Love Sylvia. 

I never hear from her again, but I continue to write by the infant ash each few weeks with my own set of blank postcards. I sketch the tree, observing it’s growth, too young still to be able to speak, I write to myself:

Dear Evie, Inspiration is not dead, it lives on in me. Love Evie. 

When my postcards arrive, each filling my loss with a new discovery or adventure, I set them carefully in an oak box (custom made from the discarded trunk), lock them away with a little ornate key that hangs on a gold chain around my neck, and tuck it under my bed until I reopen it and I´m inspired to write again.

*The numbers are a code. Using the sequence of the alphabet, decode all the highlighted numbers. What does it say?

Special thanks to Sarah Hardy for proofing my story and to my husband Pablo for letting me use his photography.

Copyright. © 2021 Lucy Jane Lilley

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