Having forgotten all about the note she wrote, Geri found herself in a very different future from the one in her dreams
Geri put her tongue between her lips in concentration as she reached up with her hooked pole. She tugged open the trapdoor and brought the loft ladder clattering down behind it.
Wearing jeans and a Guns ‘N’ Roses T-shirt so faded that it was only fit for cleaning duty, she climbed up and pawed around for the light switch.
With her head and shoulders poking up into the attic, she sighed at the sight of so many boxes that had sat up there among the cobwebs since she’d moved in ten years ago.
Was she supposed to transfer them to the attic of her new flat, where they’d squat for another decade? Or was it time to consign the whole lot to the dump, along with the ashes of her marriage?
She’d already made several charity shop runs, disposing of unloved ornaments and clothes she could no longer get into.
There was only so much of a house’s contents that you could cram into a flat.
Hauling herself onto the loft’s boarded floor, Geri took a Stanley knife from her back pocket and split the tape that sealed a large cardboard box. Inside was a fluffy pink and white teddy bear from her childhood, some folded children’s clothes, a couple of LPs and some folded posters from her teenage bedroom’s walls.
Amid the haul was a shoebox covered with orange-and-silver striped paper.
Dimly she recalled sitting on her bed and carefully decorating the box on a sunny evening before she left for university. She’d stored it in her wardrobe and forgotten about it by the time she graduated.
The box had ended up in a bigger box in her mum’s loft until Geri inherited it and, without opening it, put it in her own loft.
Lifting off the lid, she stared at the detritus of a teenager’s dressing table: pens, badges, hairbrush, cheap plastic jewellery, long dead make-up, some curling photos and a well-thumbed address book.
Why had her mum kept such rubbish? she wondered, although she knew perfectly well.
It was the same reason she’d kept all the bits and pieces from her own children’s bedrooms when they’d left home, and why she’d kept similar items belonging to her mum.
There were some things that you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away, because it felt like throwing part of the person away.
She was about to put the lid back on the shoebox when she noticed a cream envelope amid the contents.
On the front, in strangely familiar handwriting it said: To Geri (Open when you’re 50)
Well, she’d passed that milestone three years ago. How had she forgotten about this silly letter from her younger self?
Now that she thought about it, she remembered writing it when she’d been – what? Eighteen? Nineteen? She couldn’t imagine now what a teenager had wanted to say to her middle-aged self.
Geri knelt on the dusty floor and split the top of the envelope with her thumb.
Some sheets of cream paper were folded inside. As she unfolded them, a face-down photo almost fell to the floor. She trapped it against the page.
In the top right hand corner of the letter, in blue ink, was her parents’ old address, written in the careful rounded handwriting that she’d once taken pride in. These days, her writing was a scribble she doubted anyone but her could read.
She only used it for shopping lists, after all.
When was the last time she’d written a letter by hand?
The one in her fingers was dated 1988. It began:
Happy Birthday! I hope you’re having a lovely day. I hope you haven’t forgotten me. I enclose a picture, just in case.
Geri turned over the photo. It was a shiny print from the days when she used to pop a roll of film and a cheque for two-pounds-and-something into a brightly coloured plastic envelope and send it away to be developed, waiting eagerly for a fat pack of pictures to drop through the letterbox a week later.
The snap had been taken at a party. It showed a girl in a multi-coloured headband, with long blonde hair draped over her shoulders. She was wearing a leather waistcoat over a white T-shirt with a yellow ‘smiley’ on the front.
A plastic glass of something fizzy was raised in a toast. Her grinning face was open, pretty, innocent, carefree and untouched by life.
Was that really me? Geri wondered.
Have you got a big party planned for tonight? the letter continued. Will you be dancing ‘till dawn to Guns ‘N’ Roses?
Some hope! Geri thought.
She’d spent her Big Birthday arguing with Mike, then crying and sulking back to back with him in bed, neither wanting to make up. The slow slide towards divorce had already begun.
I expect you’re married, her younger self had written. Are you happy? Is he ‘The One’?
“No comment,” Geri muttered.
It didn’t turn out to be Ryan Lane after all, did it?!
Geri smiled at her teenage self’s joke. She remembered like yesterday the spotty-faced Ryan earnestly pledging his life-long devotion to her on their last day at school while she secretly but fervently hoped that she would never see him again.
It was hard to believe that she’d ever agreed to go out with him, but at that age it had been flattering to be asked.
Even then, it had taken only one painfully awful date to realise that the intense, socially awkward boy was not for her.
Dare I hope for Kyle…? (Swoon, swoon)
Geri recalled the dashing, raven-haired sixth former on whom she’d had an unbearable crush, even though he’d never even looked her way.
No, I never saw him again, either.
But had she found ‘The One’ her teenage self had always believed was out there?
She’d thought so, when she met Mike, not long into their first jobs. But love had drifted into domestic practicality, followed by complacency and eventually mutual irritation until here they were, apart.
Geri knew the girl in the photo would be bitterly disappointed. She read on.
You probably have grown-up children by now. Grandkids, even?
Right on the first count. Geri smiled fondly.
William and Nicole were the best things to have come out of her marriage.
She was proud of both of them and felt only the faintest pang of loneliness now that they’d flown the nest, leaving no reason for her and Mike to stay together.
So far, there was no sign of grandchildren, or even a son- or daughter-in-law. She guessed people married later these days. Not that she was in a rush to wear the grandmother tag.
So what’s life like at the Big 5-0? I hope you haven’t changed too much, she read, and wondered if she had.
I hope you still wear jeans (yes, even at 50!) and still like Guns N’ Roses.
“I’m still wearing the T-shirt,” Geri replied, proudly.
It was a long time since she’d spun one of their albums, though, let alone pumped it up until the neighbours banged on the wall. Maybe she’d give them a treat the night before she moved out. She continued to read.
I hope you still watch sunsets until the last glimmer of pink disappears, and lie in the grass on sunny afternoons, with your headphones on, watching the clouds rolling overhead. I hope you still write songs and poems, and draw sometimes.
The letter fluttered in Geri’s hand as she realised that she hadn’t done any of those things for longer than she could remember.
I hope you’ve stayed in touch with Cait and Suze and that you still meet up every year and talk and drink and laugh into the night the way we’ve promised to.
Guilt stabbed Geri like a knife.
The brown-haired Cait and the red-headed Suze had been her closest friends in high school. Inseparable throughout their teens, they had indeed sworn to stay friends forever.
Then they’d gone to universities in opposite corners of the country and other friends and interests had filled their days.
They’d managed the first two of their planned annual reunions.
After that, boyfriends, jobs, marriages and children had all got in the way.
It was years – decades! – since they’d even exchanged cards. Geri wondered whether things had turned out better for them than it had for her.
Maybe she should look them up on Facebook.
But did she want to tell them what a mess she’d made of her life?
She read on.
And what about all the things you were going to do, and places you wanted to go? How was India and the Taj Mahal? And hiking in the mountains of Peru?
Have you done the road trip across America on Route 66 in a red Corvette with the top down and ‘The One’ in the seat beside you, and Sweet Child of Mine blasting from the speakers?
Geri bit her lip. She’d travelled a little, of course, although not much further than the Med.
India and Peru were things she should have done when she was single. Hiking in the mountains wouldn’t have worked with a young family.
As for Route 66, she and Mike had hung onto the dream for years.
It was always something they were going to do when the kids left home. That wasn’t going to happen now, though.
But was it something she’d really want to do anyway? People changed as they got older, didn’t they? Or was that just something they said, to excuse themselves for losing their spark?
Geri read the last page.
Most of all, I hope you’re still brave and free and kind, that you stand up for what you believe in and never back down.
The letter concluded:
Well, I’d better sign off. I’m off to uni tomorrow – my whole life stretching ahead of me. Will I do all those things I hope to? Will all my dreams come true?
I guess some of that will be down to you. That’s why I’m writing this letter: to remind you of all the things that I – or you, or is it we? – want to do and be.
Please don’t let me down.
I love you.
Your Younger You.
A drop of water hit the paper and Geri realised she was crying.
She pulled out a tissue and blew her nose, then stared at the girl in the photo, glass raised to a future that didn’t happen.
There was so much optimism in that innocent face. That girl deserved to see her dreams come true.
But Geri had let her down. She’d let all her potential fizzle out into a failed marriage and an empty life.
Ashamed to look herself in the eye, she slipped the picture back into the envelope. She refolded the letter to put that away, too. Then she noticed more writing, on the back.
PS. You’re only 50. There’s still time.
Fifty-three, Geri corrected. Then she realised her younger and wiser self was right.
There was still time – she’d make sure there was.
She’d believed that her divorce was the end, but maybe it was a new start – a chance to make her younger self proud
of her life after all.
She’d go to India, and hike in Peru, and hurtle down Route 66. She’d find Cait and Suze. Maybe they’d come with her.
Perhaps she’d still meet The One!
Standing up with a fresh resolve, Geri pushed the letter into her back pocket. Making her way back to the ladder, she wished that she could send a thank you note to her joyful younger self.
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