A cache of letters I found in a set of secondhand Asimov tales sketches an intriguing true story

Secondhand is a label that we seem only to apply to books these days. Clothing is vintage, video games are pre-owned, CDs and vinyl are used – but books are still secondhand, hinting at the life of a volume before it fell into your hands. To me, it never feels as though I actually own a book – I might have paid for it, either full price brand new or a few pence at a charity shop, but it seems as though I’m merely giving it houseroom, until it continues on along its own journey.

Sometimes we get little clues about this other life; this existence that the book had before it came to us. Inscriptions on the flyleaf, suggesting Christmas or birthday presents, or school prizes. Names and dates, perhaps addresses, giving us pause to wonder how the book made its way from one end of the country to the other over the course of a year, a decade or longer.

And sometimes we find little treasures that hint at a story that might be more interesting and involving even than the book itself.

Just before Christmas I visited a local fair where there was a stall selling books, three for a pound. Among my haul was a boxed set of SF author Isaac Asimov’s early short stories. I’d read them all before, either in fleeting library borrowings or from versions of those very books that had passed through my hands many years previously, but I didn’t currently curate those particular volumes.

When I got them home I found, stuffed between volumes two and three, a small envelope bearing 12p-worth of stamps and a franking mark that seemed to admonish the writer for the lack of postcode. The date said 20 February, 1981, and the letter was posted on the Sussex coast, several hundred miles from the West Yorkshire town where I bought the books.

There were three-and-a-half letters in there. The three complete ones, between Piers and Kathryn, hinted at a burgeoning romance from almost 30 years ago. The first letter drops us right into the midst of what could be a courtship from 100 years earlier: “I hope you will feel even slightly disappointed when I tell you that it wasn’t me who sent you a Valentine’s card. But it doesn’t matter and I don’t mind at all being disturbed, in fact I like it.”

The next letter is dated 20 March, when Kathryn writes to Piers: “I hate to disappoint you, but I’m afraid that I cannot go to see Motörhead. You see, it’s my Father. Mum’s not too bad, but he still thinks I ought to get 12p for washing the car. I’m awfully sorry, but I hope you enjoy yourselves.”

So a picture begins to build of Piers. He reads science fiction and listens to heavy rock. I can almost picture him, trapped in the amber of these 1981 letters. I would have been 11 then, and much like Piers in music and fiction tastes.

The final letter isn’t dated so I’m not sure where in the sequence it falls, though it does seem to have a dramatic finality about it: “I am not sure whether to say yes or no to your question, until I know why, so you better get writing quickly.”

What was the question? Did Kathryn ever provide an answer? Did their quiet courtship ever amount to anything? Only one clue remains: the half-letter I mentioned earlier. This is a reply from Piers, or at least the last page of one. And it was evidently never posted. It ends halfway through a sentence that makes little sense out of context, but the postscript is telling: “Where were you the Sunday before last? I think I know.” Followed by a PPS: “Time waits for no one.”

I wonder why Piers never posted the letter, or whether he did and it was returned to him at some point. I wonder where Piers and Kathryn are now, and whether they were ever together. I read Asimov’s stories after that, and they were as good as I recall them from my first reading, which was probably around the time of Piers and Kathryn’s epistolary relationship. But somehow, after those letters, Asimov’s stories seemed too tidy, too organised. The unanswered questions left by the correspondence go to show that while literature can emulate life pretty closely, life is seldom as neatly concluded as fiction.

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