by Meredith Whitford
Christina Randall’s sudden death shatters her family. As they react in their various and sometimes shocking ways Jaques, her eldest son, an actor and narrator of the book, finds that his own grief is enough without having to take her place as the person everyone confides in and trusts to fix their troubles.
To distract himself, Jaques helps an Australian historian who is researching the 1967 disappearance of one of his mother’s childhood pen-friends. As the action moves from England to South Australia and back Jaques discovers a new love and the long shadows of old secrets. He has to keep family ties intact, but not everyone is being honest. Is there more than one mystery? And who is in danger?
With humour and unforgettable characters, Meredith Whitford uses her experiences as an adopted child, a writer, a publisher and a synaesthete to weave a heartfelt, gripping novel of the many different kinds of love.
Missing Christina is available in paperback and as an e-book from online and selected physical bookstores.
Published by Endeavour Media Ltd (UK) 2017
I groaned when I realised just how much stuff there was to go through – desk, cupboards, shelves, folders, files, ledgers; decades of it.
Bills and business letters I put in a folder to give to Mum’s accountant and secretary. Personal letters I answered with a formal note. There were seven calls and three text messages on Mum’s mobile, and grimly I returned them all and said the words all over again, thinking not real not real not real.
But it was, now.
They say it takes a year and a month, or is it a year and a day, to accept someone’s death. Once all the anniversaries are over you can believe in the person’s absence. Christmas would be tough, the first without Mum, and then there would be New Year’s Eve, when we always had a party, and next year’s birthdays, but for now I had reached some level of acceptance that made it bearable.
Emails next. Those to Mum’s accounts were either messages of condolence, or business, or the usual chitchat from friends and people in her history and literature groups. Nothing needed particular attention, so I composed and sent a group email. About to delete everything and close the accounts, I thought I’d better check stored and recently sent messages in her private account. Of course I didn’t read the personal ones, to Dad or Toby or Silvia, to Uncle Quentin and other friends, and I gave her ‘draft’ folder a quick glance. There was one email, to Dr Marian Elder, subject “Belinda Tate”. I remembered that letter I’d found in her hotel room, and made a note to follow up and see that a reply was sent.
The draft email, never sent, read:
Dear Dr Elder,
I am afraid I had completely forgotten about Belinda Tate until I received your letter. It was all such a long time ago. I think I was under the impression that she had drowned.
Much as I would like to help your researches, I’m afraid I can’t. I rarely kept letters once I had answered them, and anything from the 1960s would have been destroyed long ago. It is hard to remember now, but I think I only wrote to Belinda two or three times, and I can’t recall anything we discussed in letters. Usually with my pen friends of the time we wrote about current affairs. Certainly I have no memory of anything personal.
Hmm. Oh well.
Subject: B Tate/Chris Randall
Dear Dr Elder,
My mother received your letter about Belinda Tate a week or two ago, not long before her death in an accident. She had drafted but not yet sent a reply to you, and although of course I don’t know whether she meant to write more, I am sending you that draft, hereunder.
Ping! I had mail. Dr Elder had replied. She was fast on the draw – but of course it was early evening in South Australia, and I pictured her at her desk, conscientiously checking her emails before she pulled on her swimsuit and flip-flops and headed for the beach.
Subject: B Tate/Chris Randall
Dear Jaques Randall,
Thank you for your email. It was very thoughtful of you to reply.
Please accept my sympathy on your mother’s death. My father died not long ago, so I know what a very difficult time you are going through.
Well, wasn’t that nice.
On I toiled. I made the mistake of starting to tidy Mum’s bookshelves, and realised that many of the books were too ancient and tattered to keep. No one likes destroying books, but some of these paperbacks had been read to bits, repaired, repaired again. Besides, we had copies of many of them in the library downstairs. These had been Mum’s own copies, the “C. Bryant” or “C. Randall” of ownership maturing as she aged. Some had quaint old prices on them, in shillings and pence. Amazing to think that you could once buy a Penguin for twenty pence. Hardening my heart, I fetched a roll of bin-liners and some cardboard boxes, and I started at Douglas Adams and worked on to Zola, clearing metres of shelf as I went, until Toby came to call me to lunch.
Then back to it. I’d finished the books and the business letters. Now for the row of boxfiles, thirty-odd years of correspondence.
Making the task somewhat easier than it could have been, Mum labelled each box file with either subject or date. Her habit was to start a new box each year and simply toss in anything she wanted to keep, so the contents were, or so I hoped, roughly in chronological order. Perhaps I should have started with the latest to see if there was anything that needed attention, but what I was really doing was getting rid of rubbish, so I started with the earliest. This was marked, in Mum’s large, left-handed writing, PRE-HISTORY; under that, in small letters, ‘Late 60s to about 70’. Groaning, I opened it, and discovered that apparently Mum at some stage threw in here the contents of several other boxes or files, for none of it was any order. There were letters she received, carbons of her own letters, notes, postcards, theatre programmes, invitations. In the last few years Mum mostly emailed people, or if she had to write a letter she would save it on her PC, but up until the late 80s she typed most of her letters and filed the carbons. To tackle this first file, I tipped the contents out on the floor, positioned the bin handily close by, and started.
God knows why she didn’t throw a lot of this stuff out years ago. Perhaps it had all held fragrant memories. Postcards from Majorca saying ‘having a wonderful time’ and signed ‘M and Z’ might have been resonant to Mum, but now they were all bin-fodder. I found notes: “Having a party for L on Sat nite, do come, fancy dress, love Nxxx’.There were loose photos, unidentified, hilarious now for their fashions. Then I picked up a letter typed on old-fashioned foolscap paper, very yellowed now and fraying along the folds, and as I unfolded it the name at the bottom leapt out at me.
At first I quite seriously thought I was hallucinating. This was, or seemed to be, a letter from a girl who forty years ago disappeared, was perhaps murdered.
It was dated 16 October 1966 and it began “Dear Chris”. No one ever called Mum “Chris.”
I found your name in the [here the fraying along the fold had rendered several words illegible]… en-friends. I too enjoy writing to people in other countries, and it would be very nice if you’d like to exchange letters with me. I am nearly 18. As you see from the address I live in Adelaide, which is the capital of South Australia. I envy you living in England, because it is rather dull here and we feel so out of touch with things that are happening. News and fashions and films all take so long to get here. I would love to be able to go to London and see all the places and people I’ve read about. Is London really as ‘swinging’ as they say?
I am at a secretarial college, which is very dull, but I wasn’t allowed to stay on at school and go to university. Next year I will get a job and save up to leave home. My interests are mostly reading and history and music. I like pop music. I like the Beatles better than the Rolling Stones, and I used to be keen on Cliff Richard but he seems so old-fashioned now. I can’t buy records because I don’t have a record player but we get all the latest songs on the radio. I wasn’t allowed to see the Beatles when they were here in 1964, nor [another passage, almost three lines, was unreadable here, along another fold.]
I do hope you will want to write to me. I look forward to getting letters from you.
The name was typed and underlined, and above she signed her name. Small, rather characterless writing, apparently using a fountain pen.
I pressed on with the rest of the stuff in that folder, and near the bottom I found another Tate letter. This one was an aerogramme The date and salutation and first few lines were missing, a whole corner torn off.
…er’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Isn’t it mighty??? I can’t decide which is my favourite track, I love them all. John is my favourite, George second favourite…
Another bit was missing here, where the letter was folded.
…It does get quite hot here in summer, yes, often up to a hundred degrees.
You asked about the Vietnam War. We have conscription here for men over 20; not all of them are sent to Vietnam, I suppose, but quite a lot are. My cousin has been, for instance. People here are starting to turn against the war and question the government; there are marches and demonstrations…
Here another piece was missing, as if, folded, the letter had been torn at one end, and only part of the signature remained.
Something I share – shared – with Mum is that we are both synaesthetes. Synaethesia is quite rare, apparently, and a lot of syns don’t even know it’s unusual; unless it comes up in conversation they don’t realise. Synaesthesia is a state, or condition – I like to think it’s a gift – where you ‘see’ numbers and letters, word and names and sometimes musical notes, as coloured. It’s not something you make up; it just is. To Mum, the letter A was yellow, and she would have thought both ‘Christina’ and ‘Bryant’ yellow names. My colours are different; they vary from person to person. Synaesthesia is often inherited, and Toby’s a syn but Silvia isn’t. Nor is Dad. They don’t know what we’re talking about, sometimes I think they don’t really believe in it. Synaesthesia often goes with eidetic memory. When syns remember say, last Christmas day, they (I) see it like watching a colour film, every detail. Non-syns remember differently, or so they say, not they can usually describe how they remember, poor bastards. Mum and Toby and I share this sort of memory, and we have, had, excellent aural memories too. We can hear a song once and repeat it, we can repeat verbatim conversations we’ve heard. We can remember colours and details of people’s clothes, of houses, places we’ve visited. We dream in colour too. There’s often a form of photophobia and an inability to hear properly and concentrate if there’s a lot of background noise. Shopping malls and airports are hell to us.
There are studies being done on synaesthesia. Mum and Toby and I took part in one, sending in answers to surveys on colours etc. Some names have distinct colours for us – Jaques is red and yellow to me as it was to Mum, although to me there’s blue and green in it too. ‘Randall’ is green and yellow and silver. ‘Shakespeare’ is one of the names that to me has no overall colour but is a rainbow of all its constituent letters. ‘London’, say, is silver to me, was dark green to Mum.
‘Belinda’ is to me a red name, a dark name. The red of blood, the darkness of murder and mystery. I wonder what it was to Mum.