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Wellington, New Zealand, second-hand bookshop, July 2015. I had just finished rummaging through the “travel books” section, in search of travel journals. I piled up all my findings on the counter and scurried off to the Fiction section, to have one last look around.
W, like Woolf. Jacob’s Room. I carefully tilted the book forward with one finger, picked it up and turned it over. “I haven’t read that one,” I thought. I opened it, and something fell. “A postcard!”
An old, yellowish postcard, with “San Francisco” written in pink letters, under the drawing of a cable car.
“San Francisco...” I could hear the distant ding-ding! ding-ding! of a streetcar. I could smell the faint scent of a focaccia through an open door in North Beach. As a smile slowly uncovered my teeth, I turned the postcard around.
On November 20th 1969, Camilla, from California, wrote to Londoner Diana, who then lived in Paris. The postcard was not posted that day from California. It was posted 5 days later from Canada. Maybe you should read it with me.
A firework of questions exploded in my brain. Which one of the two liked Virgina Woolf? How did they meet? Why did Diana settle in Paris? Why was the Californian postcard sent from Canada? Did Camilla visit Diana, forgetting her coat there? What phone is she talking about? How on earth did the postcard end up in Wellington, New Zealand?
1969… Are they still alive? Are they still friends? I slipped the postcard in my jacket. I would find out. I would find Camilla and Diana. Cross my heart.
Later that evening, I couldn’t resist. I turned on my laptop and looked for their names and addresses. After all, I was not ill-intended. I was a travel writer and I was looking for a story. Although I didn’t find anything about Diana, I was unbelievably lucky with Camilla: the house located at her 1969 address was for sale. By following a thread involving classifieds, a real estate agent, a property deed and Google, I could obtain her current address and phone number in less than an hour — scary, but true.
That night in Wellington, we slept on the parking lot of a youth hostel. Before falling asleep in our van, I stared a long time at the street lamp that threw a dull glare on the street. It was terribly windy, and the slide door was hissing. I reached out of my sleeping bag toward my jacket, fished the postcard out and looked at it again, against the deep shadows of the car roof. What story was I about to unveil? What adventure? What would that postcard tell me?
It turned out that Camilla and Diana had met at Camilla’s Community College while Diana was an exchange student there. Camilla was a literature student and had picked “the Bloomsbury Group” as a topic for her final essay. Her great-grand-mother was born in the Bloomsbury borough in London and Camilla thought it auspicious. On March 15th 1967, Camilla couldn’t take the library anymore. She scurried off to her favorite café downtown. She didn’t want quiet. She wanted racket. She wanted faces all around while she poured over her books. She wanted to be able to close her eyes and mistake the loud rattle of a dragged chair for the loud rattle of a horse-drawn coach. She wanted the café’s doorbell to be that of a Bloomsbury’s tea parlor. She wanted to travel back to London — “back”, as in “a part of my great-grand-mother still lives in me”.
Camilla recalled that Diana had just been served tea. She recalled noticing her British accent in her “thank you” to the lady behind the counter. She recalled noticing how Diana let her tea brew for ten solid minutes in a tiny cup. She recalled daring.
Diana and Camilla regularly came back to that café after that day. Diana shared her passion for Virginia Woolf’s writing, the way it moved her, the tingling sensation of reading Mrs Dalloway's opening lines. When she spoke animatedly with her exotic, exquisitely European accent, Diana reminded Camilla of a jay (“blue-green, light, vivacious”).
A year passed and Diana, who had resolved to travel the world, left California and moved to Paris. The day before her departure, the two women met in their café, one last time. Just like on the first day, Diana ordered tea and overbrewed it.
When closing time came, they both stepped out and lingered a while in the street, not knowing what to do with a friendship created and now endangered by travel. Camilla had never crossed an ocean and at that time Europe seemed a world away. Rain came, London-style — low, heavy, tiny thuds by the thousands. Diana’s way of enjoying California was to wear summer clothes all year round. Camilla took off her coat and pushed it into Diana’s arms. Surely they would see each other again and Diana would give the coat back to her.
Finally, in November 1969, Diana sent the coat back. Camilla received it in a big, soft, slightly ripped cardboard box. Camilla and Diana had been writing each other regularly since Diana had left. For Camilla, receiving the coat by mail came as a small shock. Postcards travel and, by doing so, they take parts of us away and back. They contain the promise that, someday, they’ll send us away, or they’ll send someone back. That the coat had been sent back via USPS didn’t seem promising at all.
That day, Camilla wrote back to Diana. She chose a San Francisco postcard she had saved from her last trip there. When she arrived in front of the post office, she fished the postcard out of her coat and looked at it again. She made her decision in an instant. She would be on Diana’s doorstep by the weekend. She would send herself away. The day after, in transit in Calgary airport, she decided she’d send the postcard anyway. That way, they’d receive it together.
The dumpster truck shifted to rear gear and emitted a first loud, irritating beep. I opened my eyes. The wind has ceased.
I did call Camilla later that day. An old lady answered the phone. Maybe she was scared by my call. Surely, she was not reassured by my accented and confused explanation. She hung up. I called again and left a message, leaving my email address in case she wanted to contact me, and promising not to bother her again.
Two days later, Camilla wrote. She said Diana and her had both lived in Paris for a time and they had both rented a bedroom in the house of some Parisian lady. She came back to California and, after a short while, Diana and her just lost contact. She didn’t give me more details, and actually didn’t seem to recall any. I wrote back and proposed to send her the postcard. She never replied. She did not seem to care.
I kept the postcard. It reminds me of what it is, sometimes, to be a travel writer. What matters most? Your journalistic ability to render places and people as they were? Or the room they leave for you to make a story of them?
Today still, I prefer my version of Camilla and Diana’s story. Oh, how I dreamed! How I traveled!
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