For six years, classical singer Patricia Hammond was unwittingly sending handwritten cards to a total stranger. What happened next transformed both their lives…
Postcards are magical. No number of digitally shared images can replace the physical fact of a friend thinking of you: these tiny cards are worth so much more than the stamp and the picture. Yet a survey of holidaymakers conducted by Gatwick Airport in 2017 showed that only 28 per cent said they sent postcards while on holiday, compared with 70 per cent in 1997. And two years ago the UK’s oldest postcard firm, J Salmon, which had printed them in Kent since 1880, closed its doors.
I’m addicted to sending postcards; not just for holidays. I even send them from the eastbound platform at Bath Spa station, where the obliging Victorians embedded a postbox in the wall. I can be scribbling out the address as the London train pulls in – sometimes addressing it to London.
It started when I moved to Europe from Canada 17 years ago. I wanted to keep in touch but didn’t want to go into the details of auditions that often came to nothing, or plans of projects that frequently didn’t happen. So I sent postcards. To my parents, my brother, my friends, my exes, and even the parents of exes.
Leading the disordered and peripatetic life of a singer (I mostly play concerts and festivals) meant that I didn’t always have addresses to hand, and sometimes had recourse to online people-finders. I did this in the case of my ex-boyfriend Jim’s mum, May Florence MacDonell, a lovely lady who played ragtime piano. Jim, a jazz pianist, and I had split amicably and his mum and I had interests in common. I often saw postcards I thought would appeal to her old-fashioned aesthetic. So for six years I sent postcards to MacDonell, M F on West 43rd in Vancouver, British Columbia.
I was in the depths of rehearsals at Wexford Opera in Ireland when my mobile rang. It was early evening and I was just about to go and find a hot whiskey.
‘Is this Patricia?’
‘Yes, it is…’
‘Oh hallelujah, I’ve found you! My name is Margaret Fiona MacDonnell and I’ve been receiving your postcards!’
Her voice was enthusiastic but whispery. ‘For years I’ve been trying to piece together clues… you just signed with the letter P so I didn’t have much to go on… you seem to sing everywhere. I loved the card from Switzerland with the bell-ringers. Every time a singer on the radio had a first name starting with P I wondered if it was you! And when you asked if Jim was still composing, I phoned the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and asked if they ever played any compositions by a James.’
She went on to explain her thrill when, on a postcard from Berlin, I did sign with my first name. Another piece in her six-year puzzle. And then it was the card from Wexford that did it. She made enquiries about opera in Wexford and learned that of all the casts from the three operas that year, there was only one singer called Patricia. Her hairdresser found my number on the internet.
‘And at the same time, I found the lady you were writing to at last. I phoned May today and was so pleased to tell her that you have been thinking of her all these years. But she very kindly allowed me to keep the cards. They are precious to me. And I know I have no right at all to ask this, but would you keep sending me postcards?’
I told everyone at the opera my little story. A few of my colleagues determined that they would start to send postcards again. And next time I visited Vancouver I took a trip to West 43rd.
Fiona (as she was known, rather than Margaret) was in her late 80s and had a heart condition that made it impossible for her to walk further than a few paces, even with a Zimmer frame, without becoming seriously short of breath. She had ordered in scones, cream, jam and tea specially, remembering a card I had sent from Bettys Tea Rooms in Harrogate. Her flat housed mementos from India, China, West and East Africa, Chile… Her parents had been in the services, and as a girl she had travelled a lot. I wanted to hear her stories, but I found that it was my stories that made her eyes light up. ‘Tell me about the rock pools of Sark! Did you climb down to them? Were they cold? What took you to the Channel Islands? And what was the opera in Salzburg? I think often of the brass quartet riding the tandem at night – it is the most extraordinary image!’
Just at that time I was finding that the financial precarity of singing for a living was beginning to depress me: the nastiness of the singers competing for operatic roles, the constant fear of illness – at Wexford a cold made me voiceless for the final performance – perpetually living out of boxes, the idea of owning a home an utter impossibility. Seeing Fiona’s pure distilled delight showed me that I was forgetting what was good about my job. Sitting in her pink and green silk housecoat, which was almost like an Edwardian tea gown, she held the stack of my postcards reverently, almost stroking them as I drank her tea. I wondered whether I should start to think of life as postcards; as a series of fabulous, rich snapshots rather than a cumulative failure.
When Fiona said goodbye to me she gave me a silver compact mirror. It was elegant and tasteful and so much better than my grubby, cracked Benefit Big Beautiful Eyes palette, smudged all over with brown dust and grey handbag fluff. I thanked her for it, and for the tea, and went on to send her a further two years of postcards until I had an email from her hairdresser to tell me that she had died.
When I use her mirror, I think of Fiona, and of what I am doing at that moment. I think of where I am – whether about to sing baroque music at a National Trust stately home in York, travelling between Shepherd’s Bush and White City on the Central Line on my way to an audition at Marylebone Lane, or waiting in the organ loft of a cathedral to sing a gorgeous bride up the aisle – and how fabulous it is and how lucky I am to have these moments, these postcards.