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The Writing Bureau

The Writing Bureau

By mudswimmer

Ellis sat in front of his computer staring at a satellite map of Polynesia. He was looking for a small deserted island, about a day’s sail from civilisation. It had to have an entrance from the ocean to a lagoon and some palm trees for shelter. Access to some fresh water would be important, though it would narrow down the range of possibilities considerably. Before him, like a string of pearls floating on a blue ocean, lay a galaxy of small atolls basking in the sun. For no particular reason, he zoomed down onto one small atoll; it was almost a perfect circle with a narrow pass from the ocean into the lagoon and an area of vegetation. According to a description of the region, it had a supply of fresh water and there were no known occupants apart from visiting fishermen. Overlooking the pass into the lagoon, Ellis could see what appeared to be several large blocks of coral and beamed with pleasure. This was it. The atoll was perfect for what he had in mind. All he needed was its latitude and longitude. He was not remotely interested in its name.

‘Ellis! Are you going to be up there all day? Your dinner is ready.’ From the kitchen, his mother’s voice rudely interrupted his thoughts.

Ellis’s mother was a patient woman. Her husband had left home years ago and all she had left was her son. A brilliant but idle dreamer who had never held down a steady job or found a partner to share his life. It was difficult to imagine that anyone would want to share his casual and aimless existence, but someone might show up one day.
In the meantime, she encouraged him to go out daily in search of employment, and he seemed to go willingly enough.

After everything was cleared away, Ellis took the half empty teapot back up to his room. With a paintbrush he lightly brushed some cold tea over a sheet of writing paper, and placed it on some tissues to dry. He then took an A to Z down from the shelf and opened it at the index of place names. Flicking through the pages, he closed his eyes and stabbed at the lists with a pencil. The pencil point landed neatly on the name of a small village near Dover called Guston. This time, he was only interested in a name. Unlike the atoll, the village itself was of no special concern to him. The name Guston would be most suitable.

While the paper was drying, he composed the following letter.

The Mill House
18 September 1951

Dear Bill

Long time no see, but I’ve heard that you haven’t been so well. Didn’t we have some good times, and good finds, down in the South Seas all those years ago? Then the war came along and we never went back. We should have gone, though, because we know what’s waiting there. We could have lived like millionaires. Too late now and the young ones would never believe us. Do you still remember the little atoll with its beautiful blue lagoon? Here’s a copy of a map I made at the time. I think we buried the stuff a few yards north of the blocks of coral overlooking the pass.

Say hello to any of the old gang you meet and keep smiling.



Later, when the stained writing paper was dry, he copied the letter in pencil and added a small map showing the blocks of coral and the pass into the lagoon. Next to the atoll were the figures 16 44 S and 144 16 W. He studied the finished letter and was pleased with the result.

The next day, Ellis placed the folded letter in his top pocket and set off in search of somewhere to leave it. Leaving weird or cryptic notes around the town amused him and helped to occupy the time as he searched for vacancies. He posted up ridiculous diets where the the school run brigade parked their cars and waddled with their kids to school. Another favourite, left folded near cash points, was ‘Help Me! I’m held a prisoner in a room above this bank’. Then there was ‘I have just bumped into your car and the people watching think I’m leaving my name and address.’ This was usually reserved for badly parked vehicles. His ideas were endless and the treasure island was the latest nonsense.

Ellis toyed with leaving the note in an old library book, but the library was closed. Then, while passing a charity shop, the kind where people donate unwanted goods, which are then sold to raise money for a good cause, he saw an old writing bureau in the window. Inside the shop, he inspected the bureau, and noticed that one of the struts holding the desk flap was loose. When no one appeared to be watching, he lowered the desk flap carefully, and slipped the letter under one of the small drawers. As he raised the flap again, a young woman appeared at his side.

‘It’s a pity about the loose strut,’ she said, ‘But we don’t have anyone who can put these things right.’

Ellis replied that it would be a fairly easy job. It just needed a blob of plastic wood in the screw holes. When it was dry, new screws in the strut would hold the flap securely again. In fact, he offered to call back later with some materials and fix it. The young woman, who was called Polly, was delighted.

Well, one thing led to another, and although there was no paid work at the charity shop, he enjoyed calling in to replace watch batteries, test old radios and check cameras. Sometimes, it seemed as if the charity shop was just used as a dump for unwanted rubbish, but there was usually something that he could rescue. Polly, a volunteer assistant, usually came in a couple of days each week, and Ellis made sure that he made his visits on one or other of those days, or both. After a few weeks, the manageress of the shop asked him if he could drive a small van. One of the van drivers at the main warehouse was retiring and the charity needed someone to replace him. The wages were not very high, but it was a full-time job collecting and delivering items around the handful of small shops owned by the charity. Ellis jumped at the opportunity and was offered the post. Mother was pleased.

So Ellis finally had a steady job and things were working out very nicely between him and Polly. The days of drifting aimlessly around the town and leaving silly notes to fool people were in the past. Polly was applying for the post of assistant manager, and there was a chance that Ellis might take over the work of the warehouse manager who was thinking of leaving. Then, one morning, he received a call at the warehouse to collect some unwanted furniture from a manor house in a village just a short drive from his home town. Among the items waiting to be collected from the house was an old writing bureau. As he lifted it into the van, he discovered that it was the same one that he had seen in the charity shop some months earlier; the one with the loose desk flap. Back at the warehouse, he lowered the flap and lifted out a small drawer in the upper shelf. There, underneath the drawer, was nothing but a thick layer of dust; the letter had gone. Ellis smiled to himself and continued unloading and storing the furniture ready for transfer to the different shops. For some reason, the warehouse manager selected the bureau for transfer to the shop where he had worked briefly with Polly.

When he called at the shop to deliver the writing bureau, he asked Polly if she remembered it.

‘Was that the one with the loose flap?’ she asked.

‘The same one,’ replied Ellis, ‘The one that got me my job.’

‘And brought us together,’ said Polly, as she helped him place it in the window.

‘Well, I think you should put the price up,’ said Ellis, ‘It’s hardly been used since it was here last. It’s got more dust inside but the desk flap still works.’

‘Why don’t we buy it?’ suggested Polly, ‘I get a discount for working here.’

The manageress let her have it for a song, as a wedding present, and Ellis delivered it to their appartment.

Some days later, while they were having a drink in a bar, Polly asked him where the writing bureau had come from. Ellis replied that it came from a large house in Bayfield village just a few miles away.

‘Well, isn’t that a coincidence?’ exclaimed Polly and pushed a copy of the local newspaper in front of him. The headlines reported a heated argument in a meeting of the local council.

‘What am I meant to be looking at?’ asked Ellis, rather puzzled.

‘Look further down the page at the photo of a family standing with spades outside a large house. It must be the house you visited at Bayfield to collect the furniture. ’

Ellis glanced at the photo and then stared at the news item beneath it.

Chance discovery of an old letter leads local family on an adventure.

‘It’s an opportunity to go and do something different with the rest of our lives.’

Next week the owner of Bayfield Manor and his family are bound for the South Pacific.
There, in the sands of a deserted atoll, they hope to find untold wealth!


Tony Crowley (c)2011

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20 May, 2011
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