Part 1: Write a letter to a stranger asking them a number of questions.
19 March 1948
I have been given your name by a friend of a friend who, I am led to believe, you were able to help some years ago. Mr Collingwood told me you had proven effective in keeping certain events from the newspapers, obviously he refrained from describing the nature of the service you performed.
Can you help me find someone who has not returned from the war?
I last heard from them in 1943 when they told me they would be unable to write for some time. Five years have gone by and I have received no word.
I need you to discover if they are still alive. If they are well and whole. I cannot rid my mind of the image of them in a hospital bed, overseas and alone. What can have kept them from returning?
The War Office has not replied to any of my letters. They have been sent back unopened. I enclose them in this package. Can you please research the details the of their service contained in the letters?
I need to know if they have been demobbed. I may be satisfied to discover they are living quietly somewhere, that they have a new life. Can you follow a trail so cold?
You will see there is a list of names and pre-war addresses. Can you talk to those seven people, the best friends of the missing and piece together their history?
Can you trace one missing person across a continent recovering from the chaos of five years of total war? Could you tell the truth from the lies that people will speak to hide their own guilt? Are you that strong?
Not knowing is worse than news of death. Will you help me lay this ghost down?
I think the black envelope set the scene.
I was thinking Victorian black edged mourning cards and what could I write as a series of questions in a letter.
Then I remembered a story my father had told about World War Two. He had been in Italy with the Polish Free Army, as part of the British Liaison Unit, and there had been an ex-journalist amongst them very skilful at bartering with the Italians. He could always trade soap for wine, rations for fresh food. This guy drove around the countryside on an Indian motorbike. He drank a lot and talked about his sister.
In the late 1940s the Sunday papers would carry pages of people wanting to contact old army pals or families wanting to locate men who had simply not come home. My father said he saw this man’s name once in a column in The News of The World and he had always wondered what happened to him.
This formed the basis for my letter, though to begin with it was more like a detective story.
I was thinking what would lead a human to undertake such a journey? Surely not $50 a day plus expenses? Do we have to have a connection to the lost? Or does the quest meet something in the quester’s own psyche, are they atoning for a past event?
Part 2: Open the letter and reply to it honestly.