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A love letter to pen and paper

I can't remember when I last got a letter. I'm not talking about the scatter of bills and bank statements and junk that comes thudding on to my hall floor most mornings, everything printed or typewritten, even the signatures photocopied. I mean a real live letter from someone I know, in an envelope without a window, one that has my name and address handwritten, and a stamp that's been licked on. That kind of letter, the one you want to keep and reread, hardly exists anymore: isn't that sad?

I used to love writing letters, almost as much as I adored getting them. My first ones were to Santa – obviously – and to various aunts and grannies, thanking them for the birthday doll/book token/pound note they'd sent. I wrote them with a pen, the kind you dip into an ink bottle and it blobs all over the page. Well, mine did anyway.

My early letters were terribly formulaic – often the only difference was the name at the start – but I loved the whole ceremony of writing a message to someone and putting it into an envelope and sending it off to them, and then waiting to see if they'd answer. There was magic in that waiting.

When I was eight, we moved from Tipperary to Limerick and I wrote for several months to my best friend Elizabeth, until life pushed us apart and we were each replaced by new best friends. I wonder if she remembers writing those letters, over 40 years ago, and if she felt the same thrill as I did when one arrived.


My letter-writing dwindled in my teens – largely because everyone I would have wanted to correspond with lived nearby – but in my early 20s I got a job as an English teacher in a high school in Zimbabwe.

It was my first time leaving home properly and, since phoning was out of the question being far too expensive, I resurrected my love of letter-writing and wrote home faithfully every couple of weeks, watching the post in between for envelopes with an Irish stamp.

While I lived in Africa I shared a house with several others, one of whom looked more Irish than I did with her red hair and freckles, despite having been born and bred in Zimbabwe. Ann and I hit it off right away and when my two-year contract was up and I moved back to Ireland, I sent letters in the other direction and we kept in contact for the following 20-odd years.

Ann had a big heart and a personality to match. She never drank or took any kind of drug, but show her a party and she'd throw herself into the middle of it. She had the energy of a dozen. She swam like a seal, she danced till the rest of us dropped, she cooked as well as any Michelin chef.

Her letters were a delight – life was for living, and she'd try anything once, and often more than once. Post from Zimbabwe to Ireland was snail-slow, and I used to be dancing with impatience by the time the blue airmail envelopes would show up, but they were always worth waiting for.

And then the internet happened and somewhere during the Nineties, our letters morphed into emails and, while I still loved hearing from her, something was lost. Maybe it was the anticipation I missed, maybe instant gratification didn't suit our kind of correspondence. For whatever reason, instead of our messages becoming more frequent they drifted further apart, until we were only getting in touch every few months. We were still as friendly as ever; we just touched base less often.

And then one day, in June 2010, I got an email that wasn't from Ann. It was from her older brother. He told me she'd been flown to South Africa after having been discovered to have a brain tumour. She'd been operated on and was in recovery, and would be in touch when she could.

The news floored me. In her last email some months previously, Ann had been her usual bubbly self. How could she have got cancer since then? It was a bombshell – and doubly chilling arriving as a clutch of typewritten words on a computer screen.


She didn't recover, although she fought it with her accustomed bravery. She got a shocking pink wig when her beautiful red hair fell out. I got just a few short emails before she lost her battle, a year and a bit after the tumour had been discovered. She couldn't have managed a letter – tapping at a keyboard would have been easier than manoeuvring a pen across a page – but how I would have treasured one more hand-written message from her before she left.

My new book is about two women who write to one another. It's not the story of me and Ann, it's the story of letters and the emotions they convey and the pleasure they can bring.

I'm emailing with the best of them these days, and delighted with the convenience of it – but every now and again I pick up my pen and pull a sheet of paper towards me and drop a line to someone. Just because.

Something in Common, by Roisin Meaney, published by Hachette, price €11.99