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It was orange and plump and I found it yesterday in a cardboard box in my garage.  I picked it up and turned it over; it was neither heavy nor light.  Written on the front in red texta was ‘1996 (2/3)’.

As I removed the envelope’s contents I realised that 1996 was the year before the internet and email snuck its way into my life.  Back then it was an end-of-year tradition to bundle up the letters, postcards and invitations family and friends had sent me and put them in an orange envelope and file the envelope away in a cardboard box – not unlike when at work we’re required to keep key documents for an important project, in case one day someone wants to find out how it happened.

I wanted to know how 1996 happened, so I leafed through the collection, this the second of three envelopes – it must have been a bumper year.  Thoughtfully composed letters from friends: how courageous we were, how wanting, and revealing.  In the midst of our twenties we expressed so much love for each other, sometimes testing to see how far we could go, desiring to cross lines, to define ourselves.

But there are two pieces that stick in my throat.

One is a handmade card in a handmade envelope.  In this undated piece a friend with whom I have lost contact apologises for his behaviour at a dinner party: he is sorry for not wanting a meal I’d prepared because he’d recently and privately become a vegetarian, he is sorry for leaving my house between dinner and the movie on video, sorry for going under what appear to be cloudy circumstances – he asks me to forgive him for these ‘terrible things’.

The second and similarly undated piece is a black-and-white newsagent card, on the front an image of a blue-heeler dog chained to a kennel, a windmill in the background, desert on the horizon.  Inside the card it reads, ‘Dear Nigel, just a quick note to say THANK YOU, I had such a wonderful time’.  But the correspondent is nameless and I don’t recognise the handwriting.

There is no way of knowing if the two events are connected, except in the sense that in a world where letters are becoming increasingly rare, where we’ve forgotten about the physicality and intimacy of handwritten correspondence, something is lost, if not altogether broken.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 October 2010.)

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The past