A few months ago my German penfriend came to stay. It was our fifth meeting in eighteen years of writing to one another. I met her from the station and after the ineluctable period of stiff formality, we were able to ease ourselves into that place where cultures and personalities are fused and exchanged: soon we were discussing our favourite music and books, quoting lines from each other's letters, complaining about our parents and laughing that in eighteen years time we'll still be discussing our favourite music and books, quoting lines from each other's letters and complaining about our parents.
As we revisited territory mapped out in our adolescence, I mused how similar we both were. And then my erstwhile doppelganger said, "Heather, I was clearing out the flat the other day and I've thrown away your letters." My rejoinder was typically self-effacing, "Well Janna, you'll regret that when I'm rich and famous. No letters to flog when I'm dead!" (I could not cultivate a casual cynicism in all my letters and then two decades on show that I cared); but I could not stop the twinge of dismay that my entire oeuvre of teenage angst and adult Weltschmerz had been cast to the wind just for the sake of keeping alles in Ordnung.
Later, when Janna had left, with mutual promises to keep writing, I took the handle-less plastic bag which contains all her letters and tried to explain to myself why the destruction of my letters should cause such contorted emotion. On a rational level it didn't make sense. For a start in the last ten years the nature of our letter-writing has changed. Letters are no longer a torrent, written in the white heat of impotent fury (on my part, at least), but instead are measured missives that are constructed twice a year; their passage broken only by an electronic Hallmark greeting card, (Janna, you know I hate them!), or an email. I don't print out the emails and am quite happy to despatch them into the ether, yet when I look at the bag with its flower-shaped punctures - made by various relocations - I know that I could never get rid of its contents.
The bag is like a lucky dip barrel with many of its "prizes" alluding to an opinion or an event that was articulated in a previous letter from me. I had thought that I would have no desire to read my letters - I can think of very few occasions when they have been anything other than solipsistic and narcissistic - but re-reading Janna's letters makes me want to do just that. It is a strange sensation holding a received letter and hurtling back to the physical and psychological space in which one's original letter was written. Re-reading a letter from June 1986 I can smell my bedroom, see the late evening sun cast a shadow down the road, feel that sense of frustration with my teenage self.
Letters have many different purposes but ours function as a kind of journal. From very early on in our relationship we tacitly eschewed the prosaic "news" letter - I think because we realized that the only people we both knew were ourselves - and flagrantly denied the romantic concept of belletrism. (For me, writing in English or German, this was a physical impossibility). And although our letters do oscillate between inert description and creative introspection, there is a sense that essentially they are the vessels in which to pour our real feelings. Things that couldn't or wouldn't be said to friends or family are said here, emotions that have hitherto been unarticulated are expressed and petty irritations are vented. But unlike a journal, our letters are not completely candid. A journal will not judge you - although posterity might - but using your interlocutor as your psychological crutch can invite an unwanted response. The tone and content of the letters are thus determined by the mechanics of the ego. Until recently I would describe the most affecting moments of my life in the same way as I would describe the most mundane: each with the same degree of irony. I wanted to express these feelings but did not want to be judged for them.
In this way letters chart our psychological growth and exist as tangible evidence of that development. After I had selected Janna's letters randomly I read the whole lot chronologically and saw nascent character traits harden and fasten. In her earlier letters views are more earnest and forcefully expressed; gradually thoughts are consciously and unconsciously mediated through the acquisition of wisdom and education and there is a greater feeling of perspective.
As we have got older the piercing need to write has dulled; that acquisition of education and wisdom has simultaneously given us less time - through the physical undertaking of a job - and the psychological means to deal with our emotions in other ways. When we were younger our letters were our lives spilt on every page: each one reacting passionately to the good and bad luck that was thrown our way. Events were recounted so immediately they did not have time to glean their retrospective spin: the boy Janna had professed undying love for had not yet gone off with somebody else; the singer we both admired had not yet become a parody of himself and my parents' silly bickering had not yet heralded the end of their marriage. Now our letters are selected snapshots filtered through the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Their narratives have beginnings and ends and attempt more to satisfy the reader rather than the writer. It's as if the past has created a shorthand for the present: we will change in the future but our fundamental selves are now immutable and our letters acknowledge this and point to our mortality.
A couple of years ago I would have said that I was fairly nonchalant about the idea of mortality, but events such as motherhood tend to engender an acute awareness of the passing of time. The erasure of my letters has also made me conscious of a little-known fact about the human condition: of how important it is to leave a trace of our own existence. Re-reading Janna's letters to me, and seeing fragments of my soul clasped within their pages, the reason for my sadness at the loss of my letters is crystallised: the larger picture of my personal journey, like most of my life, has disappeared forever.