One morning about a week before Christmas a curious letter landed on my desk. It was from China and the envelope itself had a battered look, opened and reopened, as if it had physically travelled that immense distance. It had my name on it, carefully printed in capital letters together with the address of the school – all the rest was in the Chinese script. I opened it and found a postcard and a thin sheet of paper:
Dear Mr. Thomas Milner, I hope your health is well and you are at peace with yourself. I would like to know all about your school and study there if I can afford it, and if I can achieve a visa to visit. Please send all informations(sic). I hope your mother and father are well and the rest of your family is well. Best regards, Lin Lee.
On the back of the card, a rather badly produced cityscape of Beijing, was written: A Merry Christmas for Mr. Thomas Milner and family from Lin Lee. So I went next door to the office and asked them to send back the usual information and add her name to the list of Christmas cards for me to sign. I didn’t think much more about it until, at the beginning of February, there arrived another postcard from her, thanking me for the Christmas card. For a few years thereafter the pattern was repeated – a card before Christmas followed by another in early spring. Once she sent me a pack of six postcards of China. These were always accompanied by brief, careful, polite printed messages. I developed a feeling for this forlorn reaching-out from the far side of the world to a complete stranger, presumably arbitrarily selected. I wanted to confide in her, the way people do with strangers in bars. I wanted to tell her of my life, of my school days, of my son’s homework note-book, of my notions and ideas, of my magnolia tree in the little garden in the front of our new house, its buds opening in the spring, its flowers still growing silently in the darkness of the night.
But I didn’t. Sloth undid me and one year the postcards stopped coming.