The Mysterious Letters – Helen Moat

Katrina heard the letterbox slamming and the envelopes fall to the floor. She let them lie there for a while, knowing it would be the usual mix of circulars and business letters; never anything personal.

She finished feeding Archie, her Springer Spaniel, then looked at the envelopes: the British Heart Foundation, a bank statement … and a letter with a small gold sticker that had her name and address on it.

Katrina frowned. How odd. She had ordered these stickers a few years ago on a whim. She always liked to put her name and address on the back of envelopes, and she thought they’d be useful. But she rarely used them these days as most of her communication was online.

Who had got hold of the stickers and used them? Katrina wondered. She certainly hadn’t sent a letter to herself. Katrina’s frown deepened as she examined the envelope. It seemed old; there was something about the texture and off-white colour. Then she noticed the stamp. On it was the profile of King George VI.

Katrina sat down.  Who had used a stamp, bought no doubt, sometime in or around the 2nd World War? Strange that the post office had delivered it – or at least hadn’t asked for the difference in price! Katrina wondered what the value of 2d was.

Katrina felt the envelope. It wasn’t heavy, but it felt thick and spongy. She fetched a knife and sliced it open. Carefully she pulled out … a piece of moss. Small clumps of black peat fell to the floor.

Katrina peered inside the envelope to see if there was a note, but there was nothing other than the vegetation. She put the envelope and the moss on a shelf. As the days continued, Katrina puzzled over the postal delivery, but had no idea what significance it had or what she could do about it.

About a week later, an identical envelope arrived through the door, again with the George VI stamp. She opened it and found … a feather. It was a fairly ordinary grey-black feather with white tips. Again, Katrina had no idea what the feather meant, and there was no note in the envelope. She assumed there must be some kind of link between the moss and the feather – but what?

She tried to identify the feather on the internet, but there were too many possibilities and her head was reeling by the end. She wondered if it was some kind of moorland bird; maybe a Golden Plover. That would fit with the moss and the dark, peaty soil. She began to think the items had come from the moors that rose up behind her house.

Still, even if she was right, it didn’t bring her any closer to knowing who had sent the items and why. She realised the old envelope and George VI must mean something, but what? Was someone having some kind of joke at her expense? She didn’t like it.

Several weeks went by and there was nothing. Katrina pushed the strange deliveries to the back of her mind. There was no point dwelling on them since there wasn’t much she could do about them anyway. Then the third envelope arrived with another GeorgeV1 stamp.

Katrina opened the envelope curiously and pulled out a piece of paper. It wasn’t what she expected. This time, there was a torn piece of shiny paper. On it was a bed. It looked like a bed in a catalogue. The piece of paper wasn’t old at all.

Katrina knew she had to solve the mystery. She fetched down the piece of moss and the feather and lined them up beside the picture of the bed. Katrina sat at her kitchen table and stared at the items. The light was fading but still she sat there in the dim room, not moving. Then suddenly she jumped up with a shout of delight.

She moved the items around. The feather was put in the first place (although she had received it second); then the picture of the bed, and finally the piece of moss (although she’d received it first).

She breathed out and said out loud: Feather – bed – moss.

Of course – why hadn’t she seen it before – not least because she often walked that way with Archie, up on to Kinder Scout, across the flagstones over Featherbed Moss.

Then Katrina remembered that she had lost her purse up there. She had gone back and combed the area several times, but there had been no sign of it. Katrina suddenly recalled: she’d kept a handful of the address stickers in one of the back compartments.

She hadn’t been up on the moors for a while now. Work had taken over and with the short winter days, she tended to walk in the valley. She sat lost in thought. Perhaps the answer to the letters was up on the moors at Featherbed Moss.

The next day was Saturday. Katrina headed up onto the moors with Archie. She felt something akin to fear. Did the sender want her up there and if so, why? More to the point why had the sender not written anything with the objects? And why on earth had he – or she – stuck old stamps on the envelopes? None of it made any sense.

As she approached Featherbed Moss, Katrina began to feel afraid. Ahead on the horizon, the sky drew dark. There was a heavy stillness. Archie began to whine. He backed away; then turned, pushing back the way they had come.

“No, Archie,” Katrina said, pulling him to heel. She noticed something glinting in the shaft of light that was bombing onto the moor between the heavy clouds. Katrina made her way through the heather towards the metallic object. Archie growled, pulling all the while on his lead.

Katrina hunkered down. Various pieces of small metal scattered the ground between gorse and peat. It looked like it might be some kind of aircraft, but it was difficult to tell now as the pieces had disintegrated so much.

Archie began to bark.

“Quiet, Archie,” Katrina ordered. She sat down on a rock, and it was then she saw the man sitting on another rock, just yards from her.

Katrina swallowed. She was sure he hadn’t been there a few seconds ago.

“Hello,” he smiled. “You came, at last. I thought you were never going to come.”

Katrina noticed he was wearing some kind of uniform. It looked like army issue from the war years, not that she was very knowledgeable about such things.

“Who are you?” Katrina demanded.

“Sorry. Jolly rude of me. My name’s Allen. Allen Chadwick.” He stood up and started to walk towards her, extending his hand. Then abruptly halted and backed towards the rock again, placing his hand firmly in his pocket.

Katrina noticed his pale face. He was handsome nonetheless: dark hair, dark eyes, somewhat wild. She wondered if he was mentally deranged. She felt the fear again. She guessed he was a similar age to herself, about 22.

“Look,” he said. “Your purse. I kept it for you.”

He walked over and held it out. Katrina noted the strange texture of his skin, almost translucent. She took the purse gratefully.

“I missed you when you didn’t come any more,” he said softly. “It’s lonely up here. I waited for you every day…”

“What do you mean, it’s lonely up here,” Katrina said abruptly. “You don’t live here, do you? It’s desolate moorland!”

“I’d better explain,” he said quietly.

“Freddy and I were instructed to fly from Ringway to Great Orme in Wales to provide gunnery and searchlight practise.”

“Hold on. When was this?” Katrina interrupted him.

“19th August, 1941.”

Katrina let the date sink in.

“Anyhow,” he continued. “The Gyro compass was faulty … or set wrong, one of the two. Freddy was the pilot and I was his wireless operator. We knew there was something wrong. The cloud was thick and low that night, so we thought we’d better get lower, you know, below the cloud line. Try to get our bearings. But we were heading in the opposite direction to where we thought we were going. Instead of flying over the Cheshire Plains, we were flying over the Dark Peak. We dropped down thinking the land was far below us, and dived straight into the high land, crashing on the moor here.”

He stopped speaking for a few moments, lost in the memory.

“It was horrendous,” Allen continued. We were both trapped inside the Lysander – our plane. Couldn’t move. I was badly injured. So was Freddy – but we were still alive.  We thought, someone would soon come and find us. A whole day went by. No-one. Not a soul. We were really weak and in a lot of pain by that stage. We tried to free ourselves from the wreck, but it was hopeless. Somehow we got through the night, believing someone would reach us the next day.”

Katrina pulled her coat closer to her as the cold wind whistled across the bleak moorland. She tried to imagine how it would have been on the moor here:  trapped, seriously injured, exposed to the elements.

“Only no one came the next day either – and we realised, no one ever would because it was army training land. We hoped and prayed they’d send out a search party as soon as they realised we were missing and they’d locate us, which they did – on the third day. We were in a right mess by then; barely hanging on. They took us to a hospital in Sheffield. Freddy was in better shape than me, but I knew I was dying. You just know. I think the toxic fumes from the plane had got me. I could barely breathe. The pain in my chest was unbearable. In the end, I just had to go … ”

“But you didn’t let go,” Katrina said softly. You’re still here. You need to rest …”

“I know. You’re right.” He was crying now. “But I’m only 22. I’ve got so much life. So much energy. I’m not ready to go.”

“But you’re not 22,” Katrina said gently. “You must be … well over ninety.”

“Do I look 90?” And they both started laughing through the tears.

They sat in silence for a while. The cloud dropped low and thick, just as it must have done on that fateful August night.

Katrina looked at Allen. She wished she had been born in his time. Then she realised, she didn’t. He wouldn’t have been around for long.

Katrina spoke. “You need to rest. You should let go. This is no life – or should I say death…”

“All right,” he said. “I’ll go. I was planning to anyway. I just wanted to see you one more time. Then you didn’t come. I had the envelopes in my pocket – and the stamps. How stupid of me to use stamps from 1941! I wasn’t thinking. I guess the King has long since departed us. And I had no pencil – nothing to write with. My ghostly self, of course, couldn’t leave the site of the crash. Then I found the feather. I couldn’t think how to send a bed! Then a walker dropped a magazine out of their knapsack and I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I found the beds in it. So I sent the picture and I hoped you’d work it all out – and somehow you would come and find me. And you did.”

“But how did you deliver the envelopes?” she asked puzzled.

“Oh, I left them on the flagstone path, hoping some walkers would pick them up and post them for me. And they did! Every time! Unbelievable, I know.” He paused; then continued. “Will you do something for me before I go?”

“What then?”

“Will you hold me?”

She walked over and placed her arms around him. He had no substance. It was if he was melting under her embrace. She looked at him as he faded away, just catching his smile in time. He looked at peace.

This story is dedicated to all the young men and women who died serving their country in the two World Wars.

Note: P/O Fredrick W. Hoddinott, pilot, survived. LAC Allen M. Chadwick, wireless operator, died in hospital on the 24th August 1941, five days after the crash. He is buried at Bebington in the Wirral. RIP.


Helen Moat Travel Writer



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