In this bewitching psychological thriller-romance by John Fowles, Nicholas Urfe has left his girlfriend, Alison Kelly, behind in London while he takes up a teaching post in Greece. For a while, Nicholas and the grieving Alison maintain their relationship by letter…
There had been a letter from Alison waiting for me when I arrived at the school. It was very brief. She must have written it at work the day I left London.
I love you, you can’t understand what that means because you’ve never loved anyone yourself. It’s what I’ve been trying to make you see this last week. All I want to say is that one day, when you do fall in love, remember today. Remember I kissed you and walked out of the room. Remember I walked all the way down the street and never once looked back. I knew you were watching. Remember I did all this and I love you. If you forget everything else about me, please remember this. I walked down that street and I never looked back and I love you. I love you. I love you so much that I shall hate you forever for today.
Another letter came from her the next day. It contained nothing but my check torn in two and a scribble on the back of one half: No thanks. And two days later there was a third letter, full of enthusiasm for some film she had been to see, almost a chatty letter. But at the end she wrote: Forget the first letter I sent you. I was so upset. It’s all over now. I won’t be old-fashioned again.
Of course, I wrote back, if not every day, two or three times a week; long letters full of self-excuse and self-justification until one day she wrote Please don’t go on so about you and me. Tell me about things, about the island, the school. I know what you are. So be what you are. When you write about things I can think I’m with you, seeing them with you. And don’t be offended. Forgiving’s forgetting.
Imperceptibly information took the place of emotion in our letters. She wrote to me about her work, a girl she had become friendly with, about minor domestic things, films, books. I wrote about the school and the island, as she asked. One day there was a photo of her in her uniform. She’d had her hair cut short and it was tucked back under her fore-and-aft cap. She was smiling, but the uniform and the smile combined gave her an insincere, professional look; she had become, the photo sharply warned me, a stranger, someone not the someone I liked to remember; the private, the uniquely my, Alison. And then the letters became once-weekly. The physical ache I had felt for her during the first weeks seemed to disappear; there were still times when I knew I wanted her very much, and would have given anything to have her in bed beside me. But they were moments of sexual frustration, not regretted love. One day I thought: if I wasn’t on this island I should be dropping this girl. The writing of the letters had become as often as not more of a chore than a pleasure, and I didn’t hurry back to my room after dinner to write them — I scribbled them off hurriedly in class and got a boy to run down to the gate at the last minute to give them to the school postman.
At half-term I went with Demetriades to Athens. He took me to his favourite restaurant in a suburb. When we came out of it, it was raining, and the shadowing wet leaves on the lower branches of a eucalyptus, caught under a light in the entrance, made me remember our bedroom in Russell Square. But Alison and London were gone, dead, exorcized; I had cut them away from my life. I decided I would write a letter to Alison that night, to say that I didn’t want to hear from her again. Perhaps, that I had proved beyond doubt that I was not worth waiting for; perhaps that she bored me; perhaps that I was lonelier than ever — and wanted to stay that way. As it was, I sent her a postcard telling her nothing.
December came, and we were still writing letters. I knew she was hiding things from me. Her life, as she described it, was too simple and manless to be true. When the final letter came, I was not surprised. What I hadn’t expected was how bitter I should feel, and how betrayed. It was less a sexual jealousy of the man than an envy of Alison; moments of tenderness and togetherness, moments when the otherness of the other disappeared flooded back through my mind for days afterwards, like sequences from some cheap romantic film that I certainly didn’t want to remember, but did; and there was the read and reread letter; and that such things could be ended so, by two hundred stale, worn words.