Saturday, 12 October 2013

Snail mail

The old memories were dragged up when the postman arrived with a twenty three year old letter. They had opened a decommissioned post box last week and found some letters that should have been delivered in 1990. Yesterday, one had finally ended up on my doorstep.

I picked up the post and went back into the house just as the kettle boiled. I threw the letters onto the table and waited for the tea to brew. My thoughts drifted back to happier times.


Ralph and I had always been close. Twins are supposed to be aren’t they? We were also opposite in every way. Ralph was the adventurous one, the let’s try anything once one. I was the cautious one, often the voice of reason. But Ralph was older by four minutes and so he usually got his way.

We always played in the forests that surrounded our house. It was an old Victorian house and could have been used in a Hammer horror film, standing all alone and grey amongst the trees. Dad had been the local doctor and home doubled as the surgery, meaning he could look after us boys after mum died.

It had been our eighth birthday and Ralph had decided that we should go out into the woods for a game of armies. There was talk of war in Europe and whilst we didn’t understand, Ralph was fascinated by it. He was going to set up a hide out and I had to find it and try to capture the enemy territory. This was unusual as I was usually the one sitting around ‘guarding’ something whilst Ralph had the excitement of circling the enemy encampment and over powering me.

On this particular day I was on recognisance and I had crept up to all our usual hideouts but there had been no sign of him. The only place left to look was the other side of the brook. We had been forbidden to go over there due to the high water and fast currents after the spring thaw. I noticed there was a plank at the place we always crossed. It was pushed back on the other side so I couldn’t use it, but a Ralph sized foot print in the mud half way along convinced me this was his crossing point. Unknown to Ralph I had been practising jumping the brook a little further down where it was much narrower. I looked around, took three steps back and then ran at the brook as quickly as I could, propelling myself into the air at the last minute and landing perfectly on the other side. I couldn’t believe it, I had made the jump. I looked around almost hoping I had been seen but there was no-one around.

I knew where Ralph would be, there was an old hollowed out oak tree which we used to pretend Robin Hood had hidden in, and he would be near that. I slowly crept towards the tree and could see Ralph sitting on a branch about ten feet in the air. He was whistling and swinging his legs, assuming I would not be able to creep up on him. I backed away slightly and then circled, being very careful not to make a sound. As I got round to the rear, I found a large damp sod of earth and rolled it into a ball. I carefully approached the tree and with all my strength hurled the moss ball at Ralph. I hit. I started jumping up and down and cheering myself when suddenly the world went into slow motion. As the moss ball had hit the back of Ralph’s head he had rocked forward, he put his hands out to steady his fall but there was just thin air in front of him. He hadn’t had time to grab the branch and he fell onto the mossy ground below.

‘Ralph, Ralph,’ I called running over to his side. He groaned, well at least he wasn’t dead. I breathed a sigh of relief. I looked at his left leg, did he have two knees?

‘Who knew you could throw,’ Ralph laughed and then his laughter turned into a wince.

‘I think it’s broken. I’ll go and fetch dad, you stay here.’

‘Don’t worry I won’t be running off anywhere.’

I had rushed back for dad and jumped the brook this time without even thinking about it. We would both have been in a lot of trouble if dad hadn’t been so concerned about Ralph’s leg. It never did heal properly and even years later he still walked with a limp during cold weather.


I finished making breakfast and sat down at the dining table to eat, opening my post as I did, with the exception of one letter. What could Ralph have wanted? We lost contact in 1948 after the London Olympics, and suddenly a letter turns up that he wrote to me in 1990. I suppose we were sixty then, maybe he had wanted to make amends. But that was twenty three years ago and he was never a healthy man. I left the letter where it was and headed out to meet some old friends for lunch. The BBC did a programme about the people who competed in 1948 just before the 2012 Olympics and I had reacquainted myself with some old colleagues. A couple of them lived quite close to me so once in a while we met up. As I sat on the village hopper bus my mind went back to those days.


I had been short listed for the team and in the spring of 1948 I set off to Butlin’s in Clacton to train. I had been courting Trudy Williams since we were both fourteen and leaving her was the hardest thing I had ever had to do. The night before I left we had sat under the old oak tree saying our goodbyes in private.

‘I don’t want to leave you Trudy.’

‘Don’t worry Bobby it’s only three weeks and then you’ll be back again.’

‘But then there’s all the training I have to do when I get back, then I will be off to London for the games.’

‘Are you trying to chuck me?’ A tear glistened in her eye.

‘No never,’ I was shocked she could even think such a thing. ‘I wondered if you would wear this whilst I am gone.’ I pulled a small jewellery box from my pocket.

‘Of course I will,’ the smile on her face was the biggest one I had ever seen as she took the ring and placed it on her right hand. ‘Don’t worry. If you still feel the same after the games I’ll move it to my left hand.’

I held her so close, she was always so sensible and knew exactly what to do for the best.


The following day Dad, Trudy and Ralph all came to wave me off and I began the biggest adventure of my life. I trained hard at the camp and came back guaranteed a place on the long jump team and first reserve for the javelin and discus. When I returned home all I could think about was the Games. Trudy came round most nights and sat with Ralph and Dad whilst I trained. They always loved to listen to the tales of the training camp and the people I had met.

The Games came and Dad had bought a television. At the opening ceremony I was nearly sick waiting to leave the tunnel and seeing the state I was in Mary Jones, one of the female athletes, had grabbed my hand. I looked at my hand in hers and then at her and she smiled. I had never seen a smile like it. We walked round the stadium hand in hand waving at the crowds.

During the heats my last jump had been crucial. A difference of one centimetre stood between me making the final and not. I gathered all my strength and seeing Mary watching, gave it everything I had. I made it and Mary rushed over and kissed me. As the games progressed Mary and I had become closer and closer. Unfortunately neither of us won anything but at the closing ceremony we again walked round hand in hand waving to the crowd.

On the journey home I had time to think. The more I thought about things and about both women, I realised I had been carried along by the moment and that Trudy was the girl for me. I resolved to telephone Mary later that night and thanked God that I had not done anything stupid.

As I got off the bus I expected a welcome home committee but no one was there to meet me. I walked the rest of the way home and opened the door to absolute silence. After a few seconds I realised there was no surprise party.

‘Dad, Ralph, Trudy. Anybody home,’ I called. I heard Dad’s office door open, it had always squeaked, and he appeared at the top of the stairs. The look on his face told me almost everything I needed to know.

 ‘I think Trudy left you a letter in your room, best if you read that first.’

I ran up to my room and there on the desk was a letter with the ring placed on top of it. She had seen the coverage and seen how happy I looked with Mary. She didn’t blame me and Ralph had been a tower of strength. He had been offered a place at Cambridge to study medicine and so she had gone with him. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I sat and read the letter over and over again.

At first I had blamed myself and then I blamed Trudy but in the end I knew it was Ralph who had poisoned her mind and taken her from me.

Over the years they had tried to get in touch and I had always ignored their letters. I never did marry and instead devoted myself to my sport, eventually becoming national coach.


I returned from my day trip and seeing the letter still sitting there on the kitchen table I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to read it. It was from Ralph, all previous attempts at reconciliation had come from Trudy.

Dear Bobby,

I know we hurt you when we left, but please remember we were only children. I hope you realised I have done everything I could to protect Trudy over the years and have, I hope, made her happy. I am writing to you now as she has asked me to have one last try. She is dying you see and I want to make her happy one last time. To see you and to finally lay old ghosts to rest would mean the world to her. You don’t have to forgive me or even try to like me but for Trudy’s sake please visit. She is in St Leonard’s Hospice in York and we don’t have long left.


I read the letter again, shocked that she could be gone and that it had happened twenty three years ago. She couldn’t be dead. I sat and cried all night. I couldn’t believe that a childhood argument had kept us apart and now it was too late.

The next morning I decided that I could at least pay my respects so I rang the hospice to see if they had any record of her death and if they knew where she had been buried. Luck finally fell my way when I spoke to a nurse who had been with the hospice for thirty years. She was due to retire the next day, and all the things she had to tell me would have been lost. She remembered Ralph and Trudy well, how they were the most loving couple she had ever met and how they always talked about Bobby Roberts the great long jump expert and national coach. She told me she thought that Trudy had been buried at St Peter’s Churchyard in Conisbrough.

 Conisbrough was only a bus ride away so the next day I bought a small bunch of yellow carnations, Trudy’s favourites, and set off. The bus stop was at the bottom of the hill and I slowly walked up towards the graveyard. As I got to the gates I stopped and propped myself against the wall for a rest and to catch my breath. I looked around and saw an old man struggling to get up from a grave about fifty yards away. Whilst he slowly rose I saw he had placed a bunch of yellow carnations on the grave. He bowed his head as if in silent prayer and turning away from where I was standing, he slowly limped away.

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