“I placed the post on your desk, Mr. Shelby,” Frances said as Tommy shed his coat and hat by the door. She knew he’d head directly to his study and would want to see the mail straight away. He’d been on edge, as usual, but had recently received letters and phone calls at strange hours of the day from people she'd never heard of, and that had even Frances worried.
Tommy lit a cigarette as he lazily entered his office and took up the mail stacked neatly on his desk. Without paying attention to the return address, he ripped open the first letter.
He recognized the handwriting immediately and sunk into his chair, his eyes struggling to focus and running too quickly over the words.
In the end, he’d had to reread the letter more than once to catch all of the content. But he’d decided to reread it many more times because of what it meant.
Alfie was alive.
The letter included exactly what Tommy would have expected, had he known Alfie were alive: Some light ribbing about the fact that Tommy couldn't finish the job and question after question about his fucking dog.
It also excluded exactly what Tommy would have expected, had he known Alfie were alive: Any mention, whatsoever, about how he’d survived being shot in the face and left for dead on the beach, and any indication as to whether or not he’d forgiven Tommy for doing what he had to do.
For two weeks, Tommy carried Alfie’s letter in his breast pocket--the fact that it was pressed against his heart wasn’t something Tommy would acknowledge for years to come.
Instead, for those two weeks, Tommy pulled out the letter when he needed a reminder that there was, in fact, hope.
Hope was fleeting. He’d been without it for so long. Had been focused on all that he’d lost, all that he could lose, and all that he’d never have. Tommy had no use for hope. At least that’s what he’d told himself since returning from the war. Everything was extra.
But then hope arrived. In a letter.
And that changed everything.
Now, when Cyril greeted him each evening on his return home, Tommy saw the dog's former owner. He’d worked so hard to forget Alfie since that day on the beach--had tried, and failed, to put him out of his mind as a figment of his imagination, larger than life, and having never existed at all.
But Cyril was a constant reminder that he had been there. That it had been real.
And that it was real still.
Three weeks after receiving Alfie’s letter, Tommy finally sat down to write a response.
What he thought would be difficult, proved to be damn near impossible. While the pen worked almost of its own accord, nothing that came out felt quite right.
Tommy had never been a man of many words. Not for a lack of trying, but because he usually found that words never worked to adequately explain what he was feeling. And because of that, he’d kept it all inside, placing it into neat boxes in an attempt to keep the irreconcilable parts from bumping into one another.
He sat back in his chair and read his own words again. Not completely happy with the result, he folded it neatly and placed it on the corner of his desk.
Tommy would repeat this process three more times over the coming months, each time entering his office with an assurance it would come out correctly, but each time also folding the resulting letter and neatly placing it on top of the others.
The words just never materialized. The sentiment just never worked.
What he wanted to say and what he needed to say were two different things.
He wanted to tell Alfie he was glad he was alive. He wanted to tell him he valued his opinion and missed being able to ask for it. He wanted to tell him he was angry Alfie had forced his hand, but that he’d forgiven him for throwing him over.
But he needed to tell him so much more.
He needed to confess that losing Alfie was like losing Grace all over again. He needed to tell Alfie that he awoke from his dreams wishing he’d just once see his ghost the way he saw hers. He needed to tell Alfie he needed him. That he needed things to change. That he needed to know they could change.
But no matter how hard he tried, those things never seemed to make their way to the paper. Instead the ink wrote of droll stories, happenings since Alfie had been gone, business strategies, and confessions of what worried him.
When the day finally came, writing the letter would no longer suffice. He was out of options. He was out of patience. And he was nearly out of time.
He placed the four letters in a single envelope, carefully sealing the flap with wax, and made his way to the only place that had any chance of granting him peace again.
Tommy went to Margate.
The house was exactly what Tommy had expected. Grand but unimposing. Gothic but not sad. Almost palatial, but somehow exactly suited for the backdrop of the sea behind it.
He nodded to the housekeeper who let him in immediately. But he took his time going to the sitting room. He walked the halls instead, admiring the immense collection of decor. Oil paintings, busts, ornate dishes, floral arrangements--things lined almost every inch of wall and every surface along the way. For most, this would seem comical--a collection of stuff that couldn’t possibly mean a thing. But he knew that wasn’t the case in this house. Every single item had been, no doubt, meticulously examined, mulled over, and selected for a very specific reason.
He entered the sitting room, a song playing casually on the gramophone. It wasn’t a song he’d heard before, but that didn’t surprise him given the person who’d selected it.
The doors opened right up to the beach. The curtains whipped languidly in the breeze.
Tommy stepped out onto the balcony to take in the view. The sun was setting, streaking the sky in orange and purple. He remembered the last time he’d visited that beach. The turmoil he’d faced. The sinking feeling he’d experienced in the pit of his stomach. The moment he’d pulled the trigger.
He remembered almost walking away for good. The tug he’d felt to go back for the fucking dog.
Tommy took up a pair of binoculars that sat by the door. Looking through them, he spotted a ship on the horizon and chuckled to himself thinking of Alfie watching ships as a hobby.
“You out there, Tommy?” A familiar voice rang out from behind him.
And for the first time since the last time he was at Margate, Tommy felt the weight lifted.
Alfie followed Tommy through the house and back to grand entrance to see him off. He was far enough behind him, that he hadn’t noticed when Tommy laid the envelope on the small table near the door. It wasn’t until Tommy had sped off, on his way back toward the chaos of his life and business, that Alfie saw it.
He took up the envelope and read all four letters, right there in the foyer, without even sitting down.
What Tommy had worked so hard to convey and ultimately decided he hadn’t, Alfie noticed straight away.
In one letter, Tommy told him about Charlie--about how much he’d grown, about his admiration for horses, about his mean streak. He told the story of the day Charlie was thrown from a horse in the stables and how Tommy had panicked and rushed him to hospital to learn he’d only had minor injuries. How the nurses didn’t care who he was and chided him for whisking the poor boy into a frenzy over a few bumps and bruises. And about how Tommy had been so relieved that he didn’t care he’d overreacted.
In another letter, Tommy wrote about the war. He shared, for the first time to anyone, his experiences in the tunnels, the horror of the collapse, and the way he still found himself struggling to breath in small, enclosed spaces. He told Alfie something he’d never shared with another person (not even the doctor Ada insisted he see)--the fact that he never took a lift in a tall building, choosing always to find the stairs instead from fear he might find himself trapped and in a panic. He didn’t care if it meant he’d climb ten floors and be late for a meeting. He’d rather be out of breath than risk falling apart in front of a stranger.
One letter was all about business, but the tone of it wasn’t wholly professional. Tommy lamented the loss of Alfie as a partner, spoke of his distillery, and even asked advice on perfecting that fucking gin recipe he was still battling. Without sharing details, as it wasn’t Tommy’s style to divulge his plans, he spoke of his position in Parliament and his work for the labour party. And while he didn’t come right out and admit it, it was clear he was struggling to reconcile his beliefs with his work.
The last letter, the shortest of the four, dealt very simply with the most complex subject--his dreams. Tommy’s dreams had shifted from nightmares of the war to something much darker. He asked Alfie what he thought they might represent but failed to share his own analysis--something Alfie was sure he’d overthought and had his own, very strong and probably incorrect, opinions about.
The last letter ended rather abruptly. After detailing dreams in which Grace visited, trying to convince Tommy it was time for him to pull the trigger and drift away from it all, he simply closed with: “But if you had visited me, Mr. Solomons, I know the message would have been different. You didn’t visit. And now I know why.”
Alfie paused over those last lines, fighting back the tears that threatened to form.
In truth, he was relieved when he woke up on that beach. He’d not admit it to Tommy until some time later.
Now he had another chance.
They both had another chance.
Alfie grabbed the keys from the side table and rushed out of the door as quickly as his aching bones would allow, ignoring the housekeeper yelling after him to get his coat lest he catch his death in the cold.
He simply looked back at her over the car as he opened the door and shouted,
“I’m off to Birmingham, love. You're best off not waiting up.”