Beijing, 16 January 2013
My previous posting on a message in a bottle has reminded me of a story that happened to me a year or so ago. It all started when out of the blue I received an email from a woman who was quite unknown to me. After telling me that she had got my email address off the Internet, she cited me an address in Edinburgh and one in Canada, and asked me if I had ever lived there. It so happened that the Edinburgh address was where my wife and I had lived in our last two years as students at University, while the Canadian address was that of my parents.
I didn’t know what to make of this email. How had this complete stranger found my old addresses? I looked her up on the Internet and discovered that she was British, so some sort of connection with my past was possible. But she was obviously at least ten years younger than me, possibly more, so it wasn’t someone I had known in the past whose name had changed, nor was it someone with whom I could have had a common acquaintance of my generation. So who was she? Was this some kind of scam? Was some murky story in my past coming back to haunt me? But what murky story could that possibly be? I’m not a very murky person.
After a few weeks of mulling it over – I was on holidays at the time – I decided that I couldn’t resist the temptation to know more. So I wrote back to her, warily admitting that I had indeed lived at those addresses and so I was probably the person she was looking for. I then politely asked her what this was all about.
She got back to me quickly, thanking me effusively for replying. She then explained the background. One day, she and her boyfriend were browsing around in a used books store in Royal Tunbridge Wells in the south of England. For those of you, like me, who have never been to this pretty little town, I append here a picture.
In the store, she told me, she had stumbled across a small book in the front of which a piece of paper had been slipped with my name and the addresses in Edinburgh and Canada written on it – as well as the fateful phrase “please forward if possible”. My correspondent was electrified by that last phrase. She felt that fate had sent her a message-in-a-bottle and she decided there and then that she was going to track me down and hand over the book.
So the hand-over took place through my daughter in London. No doubt my correspondent was highly pleased with herself. But I was left with an even deeper mystery. Who had wanted to give me this book? And why?
The book is quite special. It is entitled “The Secret of Happiness” and subtitled “Fiat Voluntas Tua”, or Thy Will be Done. It is a rigorously Catholic self-help book, written originally in French by a certain Canon Raymond de Saint-Laurent, and published in English by Aubanel Publishers, Dublin, “Printers to His Holiness the Pope”, in 1951.
According to the book’s back cover, the reverend Canon was the author of many such books with titles like “A Cure for Shyness: Causes, Consequences and Remedies”, Self-Control: Ways of Curing Yourself from Being Emotive, Expansive and Impulsive”, and “Optimism: How to Acquire Mental Poise”.
Who had thought I would be interested in this book, or that it would help me? I’ve never needed help to be happy.
The book itself gives no clues other than the inserted note. There are no names written in it, no dedications, no marginalia. In fact, the book looks unread. Not surprising really. I flipped through a couple of pages, it’s enough to send the most hardened insomniac into a deep Rip van Winkle-like sleep.
Casting around for possible suspects, I first thought of my mother. She had from time to time during my boyhood sent me pious books to read, but mostly on the lives of worthy saints, presumably as exemplars for me of a better life. I also vaguely recall that in my puberty she once gave me a book on Sex, written by a Jesuit priest. All I remember from it is an affirmation that after heavy petting it was quite normal for girls to have backaches … But I quickly eliminated my mother. The writing on the note wasn’t hers, she hadn’t lived in the UK since the book was published, and why would she put her own address in Canada?
I then thought of an Aunt, sister of my father, who lived to the south of London and in the general direction of Royal Tunbridge Wells. She was a very religious person, High Church of England – only my father had converted – so she might have owned this book. And she did always send us books for Christmas. Perhaps when she died and the contents of her house were dispersed this book somehow ended up in a used books store in Royal Tunbridge Wells. But this scenario didn’t seen likely. The type of books she sent us was detective stories and the like; I really couldn’t see her wanting to send me this book. Nevertheless, in order to pursue all lines of enquiry, I sent a scan of the note to one of her children to see if he thought it was her handwriting. He replied in the negative.
Given the religious nature of the book, I then thought of my godparents. I eliminated my godmother immediately. She was French, a dentist in Haute Savoie. I had met her a few times, and she had never struck me as the type of Catholic who reads books like this. And why would the book have ended up in Royal Tunbridge Wells? My godfather made for a better candidate. He was English and lived in the south of England somewhere, so it’s imaginable that books dispersed after he died ended up in Royal Tunbridge Wells. From the diary my father kept at school and university, which I had recuperated from a dusty shelf after he died, I discovered that my godfather had been very instrumental in encouraging my father to convert to Catholicism when at University, so I knew he was a strong Catholic. But we were never close; I had only met him once. Could it be that as a last act of his godfathering he thought of sending me this book? There is no way of finding out. He’s dead and I don’t know any of his children, to whom I could have sent the note to check the handwriting.
And so the leads have all gone cold, and I am left with the unsolved mystery. I stand on the metaphorical beach holding in my hands the message that arrived to me in a bottle. I will spend the rest of my life scanning the horizon, wondering where the message came from and why it was sent to me.
And saddest of all, although I love reading books I will never read this one, because it is a type of book that I would never, ever, read!
Royal Tunbridge Wells: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8078/8367015396_c8c90646e0_z.jpg
book cover: my picture
Man staring out to sea: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8078/8367015396_c8c90646e0_z.jpg