It was the year of punk that I met Louis Philippe. Well, we never actually met in person; he was my foreign pen pal; he lived in Portugal and we wrote to each other ever week.
I loved the letters. He cheered me up.
I am sitting on the beach today with my father. He owns a fishing boat and my sister and I help him on weekends. I am enjoying school and hope to get into the hotel business when I am older. I liked your photograph; you have a nice smile and lovely curly hair. Please write back.
Your dearest friend,
I thought Portugal was as far away as the moon back then. Living in the East End of Glasgow and lying in bed listening to God Save The Queen Sex Pistols style. Reading his wonderful letters made me feel somehow detached from the poverty and dirty bed sheets that smelt like bad eggs.
I never really told Louis about my true home life.
My mum is drunk but not too much as she couldn’t really afford to get totally pissed as she needed money to pay the fine after she got caught stealing the electricity.
Today I only had one slice of blue mouldy bread and a sausage that was clearly off as it tasted sour and my budgie died of hunger yesterday. I couldn’t afford bird seed and, though I tried to give it breadcrumbs, it refused to eat them. I feel so guilty that pigeons outside my window can still live and flap about yet I couldn’t even keep a wee bird alive. I buried it outside in the back garden and cried with shame. Then a cat tried to dig it up and I cried again.
No, I couldn’t write that, so I wrote…
Life in Glasgow is good. The weather is roasting hot and tar on the pavement outside melted and stuck to my sandals. I got quite burnt around the shoulders and my face hurts a wee bit. Hope you are happy in Portugal. Tell me your news.
Louis sent me a picture of himself. He was really handsome and looked all broody and dark haired. I wished I had a boy like that in Glasgow who was interested in me but, even at sixteen years old, I knew it was hopeless to assume any man would like me. I was flat chested, very plain looking and possessed hair so curly that the knots had to be cut out. I ended up looking like a clipped Shetland pony.
I continued my correspondence with Louis for months after that hot summer of ‘77 and, later that year, I started work. I bought boxes of bird seed with my wages and just kept putting the boxes under my mattress. I wasn’t sure why I kept buying them but they did mount up.
At night I dreamt about the wee blue bird that lay stiff on the cage floor. In my dreams, I would pile box upon box of seed into the cage. The seeds rattling through the thin metal bars would finally cover the bird and bury it.
Years fled past in a flurry of jobs and boyfriends. Louis and I kept in touch and Louis got married and I finally found a man who liked me just enough to put a ring on my finger.
I was 43 years old when I found Louis again.
It was in the strangest of circumstances. I was sitting in a hotel lobby in New York. I had been there on a working holiday. As a stand-up comic and radio broadcaster, I was working the comedy clubs in Manhattan and reporting back to the UK on Radio 5.
On the final morning of my trip, I was waiting for my taxi to take me to the airport at 6.00am. There was a man opposite me in the coffee bar who was also surrounded by luggage. We smiled at each other as we both reached for the sugar sachets. The café was empty except for us and the waitress.
We got chatting.
“I am from Portugal,” the tall, dark haired man said; he had flecks of grey at the temples and a nice face.
I was really tired and slightly bored; I wasn’t really up for chatting and swapping lives with some tourist.
I smiled and tried to think of anything I knew about Portugal: “I had a pen pal many years ago in Portugal,” I said as I sipped my coffee and watched the main door for the cab driver to arriveThe man smiled: “Well it’s a really big place, so I don’t think I will know her.”
I laughed and warmed to his sense of humour.
“Actually, it was a boy. He was called Louis Philippe. I can’t believe I even remember his name.” I shut my eyes and thought of the dark haired boy with big shy smile. My mind wandered back to the summer of 1977 when I used to rip open the blue air mail envelopes and I even pictured my wee blue budgie.
The man looked at me with curiosity, and then he laughed out loud and started wagging his finger at me: “That’s a joke – a good joke! How do you know my name?”
I stared at him: “I am sorry. I don’t know what you mean.”
He pulled out his passport and flicked through the pages and then thrust it at me: “My name is Louis Philippe.”
I sat bolt upright in my chair and looked at his passport and stared at his face. There was no way this could be the same person. my mind raced and tried to make sense of what was happening.
“Did you have a pen pal in Glasgow, Scotland when you were 16?”
The man sat there staring at me, his hands shook slightly and he sat up close and looked at me.
“You are Janey?”
“Yes, I am!”
I laughed out loud.
Just then, my taxi driver arrived.
We hugged and laughed, still both shocked at the amazing coincidence of the meeting.
“You always wrote nice letters and you were very cute, Janey. I spent years wondering what happened to your life. Are you happy Janey?” He spoke quickly as I grabbed my luggage.
“Yes, I am Louis. Are you happy?”
“Things have happened Janey, but I am good in my life and am going home to Portugal today to see my son.”
We stared at each other and, somehow, it just seemed right not to say any more.
And I walked off into the snowy streets of New York._