The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright
"Wow… I laughed out loud, I cried, I stayed up well into the night reading just a little bit more. I just loved this book so much… I really really loved this book… An absolute joy to read."Goodreads Reviewer
For the past twenty-nine years, Kay Bright ’s days have had a familiar rhythm: she works in her husband’s stationery shop hoping to finally sell the legendary gold pen, cooks for her family, tries to remember to practice yoga, and every other month she writes to her best friend, Ursula.
Kay could set her calendar by their letters: her heart lifts when the blue airmail envelope, addressed in Ursula’s slanting handwriting, falls gently onto the mat. But now Ursula has stopped writing and everything is a little bit worse. Ursula is the only one who knows Kay’s deepest secret, something that happened decades ago that could tear Kay’s life apart today. She has always been the person Kay relies on.
Worried, Kay gets out her shoebox of Ursula’s letters and as she reads, her unease starts to grow. And then at ten o’clock in the morning, Kay walks out of her yellow front door with just a rucksack, leaving her wedding ring on the table...
This emotional and heart-warming novel is for anyone who knows it’s never too late to look for happiness. Fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, A Man Called Ove and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will fall in love with this feel-good and moving story that shows you that the best friendships truly last forever.
"Absolutely beautiful! I finished it late last night – I knew I couldn’t stop once I started – with happy tears running down my face! Just beautiful and thought-provoking! A wonderful, heart-warming, life-affirming tale from this fantastic author. Everyone should be reading this… Outstanding. Five stars do not do this book justice… Thank you Beth Miller for this exquisite treasure of a book!" Bestselling author Renita D’Silva
"A story that drew me in from the first pages. With tissues clutched in my hand and tears running down my face, I read this book in one sitting. A story that will stay with me." NetGalley Reviewer
"I was teary-eyed… A book to truly fall in love with! I couldn’t seem to read this book fast enough. I stayed up way, way too late to finish it. There were parts that actually had me laughing out loud. I haven’t read such a warm-your-heart type of book in a very very long time. I totally recommend it." Goodreads Reviewer
"A poignant read and an emotional one. Beautiful doesn’t do it justice. If you read just one book about life make it this one. 10 stars if I could." Goodreads Reviewer
"Such a touching, heartfelt book; tears a few times. Couldn’t put this one down and finished it in one day… Great, great book!" Goodreads Reviewer
"Oh, what an absolute gem of a book… At several points I definitely had something in my eye, and towards the end, well… All I can say is that it takes a lot for a book to simultaneously make me laugh and need to clear a lump in my throat. This one did it in spades. Highly recommended." Goodreads Reviewer
"A very heart-warming, emotional read. Get your tissues ready as you might need them; I certainly did." Goodreads Reviewer
"I stayed up way too late reading this book. My 2 a.m. novel. I laughed out loud and I cried while reading… I cannot wait for more novels from Beth Miller." Goodreads Reviewer
Release date: January 9, 2020
Print pages: 328
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Listen to a sample
The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright
The shop labels were still on the rucksack. I cut them off with my nail scissors, then threw in some clothes: comfortable jeans, black top, blue sweatshirt, a fistful of pants, a sensible bra and a not-sensible bra. I tipped in several pairs of shoes, my sponge bag, a fancy lipstick I’d never worn because it was expensive, the book I was reading, my passport, and the Swiss army knife my father gave me on my fifteenth birthday.
Then, as if I was playing someone on a sappy TV drama, I twisted off my wedding ring. That makes it sound easier than it was. That thing was a nightmare to get off. I did remove it occasionally. When I made bread, for instance, because I hated the feeling of sticky dough caught under it. But I probably hadn’t taken it off for a year. I don’t make bread very often. When it finally came off there were red ridges on my finger. I slipped the ring into my jeans pocket, put the rucksack on my back – God, it was heavy – and went downstairs.
Richard was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a thick book about the Second World War.
‘It’s going to be great,’ he told anyone who’d listen, eighteen months ago, when he finally recruited someone to run his fourth shop. ‘I’m going to read all the books I didn’t have time for before.’ As far as I could see, he’d been reading this same what-if-the-Nazis-hadn’t-lost potboiler ever since.
‘Kettle’s still hot,’ he said, not looking up.
I automatically went over to the counter then realised I didn’t want tea. I didn’t want anything in that room at all.
‘I’ve got to go,’ I said, and I guess my voice was different from normal because he did look at me then, and raised his eyebrows at my rucksack.
‘To the shop?’ he asked. We both automatically glanced at the clock; it was eleven, the time I’d usually head out on Mondays and Wednesdays. Those were my leisurely days, when Anthony opened up at Quiller Queen and I didn’t have to be in first thing. But I didn’t usually take a massive backpack with me. I wondered if Rich remembered that he’d given it to me as an anniversary present four years ago; a symbol that now both children were grown and independent, we’d finally do some of the travelling I’d been begging him to do forever.
‘Are you going somewhere after work?’ he said. ‘I’m so sorry, I’ve forgotten what you’re doing today.’
‘I’m the one who should be saying sorry, Richard,’ I said.
‘Why?’ he said, completely in the dark.
‘Because…’ I said, then stopped. He looked at me expectantly. I wanted to tell him, ‘I’m leaving,’ but it sounded so dramatic, so silly. Instead, I said, ‘I’m, er, I’m going away.’
Richard’s face lightened. ‘Oh, to Rose’s?’
‘Maybe. I’m not sure.’
‘What do you mean? Where else would you go?’
‘Well, Sydney, first. Then Venice, perhaps. Or Prague. Then who knows? Lisbon, or Russia.’
‘Um…’ I could see he thought I was joking but couldn’t work out why it was funny. It did sound like a joke, because I’d never been further afield than Winchester without him. Jovially, he said, ‘Shall I make you a packed lunch?’
‘Richard, I’m sorry.’ I took the wedding ring out of my pocket, and held it out to him. ‘I’m really sorry.’
He stared at my hand, then his eyes rose slowly upwards until they met mine.
‘Kay, what’s going on?’
‘I’m going away.’ I still couldn’t say, I’m leaving you.
‘But what does that mean?’
I shook my head. ‘I’m… I’m going away from you.’
‘Oh, Christ. Oh no.’ He pushed his book aside. ‘Have I done something?’
He stretched out his hand to me, but instead of taking it, I dropped the ring into it. He turned it over in his palm, as if he’d never seen it before.
‘Is this really happening?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said. It’s such a little word, and it usually means something positive. But not always.
Richard looked from the ring to me, and then he just crumpled. His shoulders sagged, and the hollows under his eyes looked darker against his shocked white face.
‘Please don’t, Kay.’
I knew I should go straight away, but I also wanted to explain. Even though I knew he would never understand.
‘It’s just, there are so many things I want to do.’ Lame, Kay, lame.
‘Please sit down, Kayla. Take off your bag. Only for a minute.’
He hadn’t used that nickname in years. But I shook my head. If I sat down, I would lose momentum, find reasons to postpone, go tomorrow, or next week, or never.
‘All right,’ he said, ‘then I’ll stand.’
We faced each other across the table. He was still easy on the eye, his salt-and-pepper hair lending him gravitas. His blue eyes, the exact same colour as Stella’s, were clear and bright, though uncharacteristically watery right now. Sure, he’d changed since I first knew him as a spindly twenty-something, but who amongst us hadn’t? For a man in his late fifties he was in pretty good shape. Broad-shouldered, six inches taller than me. Age shall not wither him, I thought pointlessly.
‘So,’ he said quietly, ‘there are things you want to do.’
‘And they aren’t things you can do while being married to me? Or even with me?’
I told myself not to get cross. I did that one-nostril-at-a-time breathing they were always going on about in yoga classes. It meant blocking my right nostril with my forefinger, but I’m pretty sure it just looked like I was thinking extra deeply.
I said, ‘Well, they’re not things I can do with you, that’s for sure.’
‘Oh, I see. I get it.’ His voice got louder. ‘It’s someone else, isn’t it? You’ve met someone else.’
I closed the left nostril with my thumb. Breathe in two, three, four. ‘No, I haven’t.’
‘I’m such an idiot. You’ve been so distant lately, I assumed it was something to do with the menopause.’
‘I haven’t started the menopause, Richard.’
‘Who is he, then? Do I know him? Christ!’ He banged his hand on the table. ‘It’s that guy, isn’t it, that guy you were in love with, the one you left for me? David. The one who wouldn’t…’
Our secret shimmered there for a moment, heady with a tiny puff of oxygen after years of starvation.
‘Don’t, please, Richard. I haven’t seen David since then. I swear. I am not having an affair with him, or with anyone.’
Richard stared at me. Then he said, ‘Do you want to know why Edward…’ and stopped.
‘Why Edward what?’
‘Go on, what you were going to say?’
He shook his head, and returned to his previous thread. ‘You must be having an affair, because otherwise this doesn’t make any sense.’ His voice cracked on the last word.
Gently, I said, ‘It makes sense to me. There are things I want to do before I’m too old, and they aren’t things you want to do.’
‘I have tried you.’ I couldn’t even remember all the things that I hadn’t done, because he’d not wanted to. ‘I’ve tried for years to do things with you.’
Out loud, it sounded pathetic. I could hear my mother-in-law’s voice – so he’s a workaholic, well, there are worse things in this world! I knew I had to walk out of that door, get into my car, but I felt incredibly tired at the thought of it.
Richard knew me so well, he could see that I was faltering. He began to smile.
‘Kayla, sweetheart. Listen.’ How well I knew that smile, the confident expression of someone used to always getting their own way. ‘How’s this for an idea? You go off for a while. A few weeks, a couple of months even, and see how you feel. No need to do anything drastic, we don’t need to worry the kids or Mum. Why don’t you go and find yourself, or whatever it is that you want to do, and I’ll be here, waiting for you. Mmm? Kayla? Why don’t you take off that heavy bag? We’ll sit down and talk.’
I knew what he was saying was perfectly reasonable and sensible. In fact, it only had one flaw, which was that if I did that, if I took a Richard-sanctioned sabbatical, I wouldn’t be able to walk into the future without a safety net. And I needed to do that the way a thirsty person needs water. I’d had a safety net my whole life; first with my parents, then for almost thirty years with Richard. Safe, knowable, no surprises. I wanted to try whatever life I had left without that net. Close my eyes and take a leap of faith.
How easy it would be to shrug off this bag – it seriously weighed a ton – and slide down into a chair. Talk, let him solve my problems, let him tell me how things would be.
But no. Not this time.
‘I’m fine standing, thank you,’ I said, and took a step back, one step closer to the door.
‘Look.’ He held out his arms. ‘Maybe I’ve been a bit unadventurous. I’m sorry. We’ve been so busy with the kids…’
‘Who are both grown up now.’
‘Stella’s only just left!’
‘She’s been gone six months,’ I said.
‘And with the shops.’
‘But you’re supposed to be taking more of a backseat now, Richard.’
‘Yes, but you’re not. You like running the shop.’
‘It was your dream, Richard, not mine. You did brilliantly. Built up one shop into a chain, four shops now, making enough money that you’ve officially stepped down. I thought we might finally do some things together, but you’ve kept on working.’ As I said it, I knew it didn’t matter what he replied, because actually, us doing things together was only one part of it.
‘Well, thank you for being honest.’ I could hear the old certainty creeping back into his voice. ‘It’s a wake-up call. Have your break, then let’s go travelling. Let’s do things. I’ll book somewhere lovely for supper tonight.’
‘It shouldn’t take me saying that I’m leaving to get you to want to do things with me, Richard.’ There, I’d said it. I’m leaving. ‘And anyway, it’s more than that.’ I took a breath. ‘I don’t want to be married anymore.’
‘Ohhh, fuck.’ He sat down, abruptly, as if I’d punched him in the gut, and stared at me, like he didn’t know who I was. An eternity passed in silence, him sitting, me standing, looking at each other. Then he said, ‘What about the shop?’
It was a sign of how shocked he was, that it had taken him so long to get to the most important thing of all: the staffing rota.
‘Anthony can manage on his own today,’ I said. ‘But he has Tuesdays off, so you’ll need to get cover tomorrow.’
‘Jesus.’ Rich covered his eyes with his hand. Me saying he’d need cover was clearly the thing that convinced him I was serious. In the twenty-five years that I’d run his flagship shop for him, I’d almost never requested it. I took two more steps towards the door.
‘What will you do for money?’
‘I’ll be all right. I’m sorry,’ I said for the hundredth time.
He looked up. ‘Don’t go, then. If you’re sorry.’
Me standing there was only prolonging the agony for both of us. I gripped the straps on my bag, and said, ‘I’ll see you.’ Then I turned, and walked out into the hall.
‘Christ! Kay!’ I heard his chair scraping back and falling onto the wooden floor as he ran after me.
I opened our yellow front door and he sprinted towards me, as if he was going to push it shut, so I quickly stepped outside onto the path.
‘Don’t go,’ he said. ‘Please.’
I’d like to say that I coolly walked away, without saying anything more. But for some reason, I turned and said, ‘Goodbye. Thank you very much for the marriage.’ Thanks for having me. I had a lovely tea. Christ!
He looked as surprised as I felt, so maybe it was a fortuitous, if embarrassing, leave-taking, because it didn’t give him anywhere to go. I suppose he could have said, ‘You’re welcome,’ but he didn’t. He stood and watched as I put the rucksack into the car boot, climbed into the driver’s seat and pulled away from our house. I could feel his eyes burning into me even after I’d driven into the next street.
I wish I could have kept my confidence going for a little longer, but my hands started shaking so much I could barely hold the wheel steady. A few streets further on I pulled over, almost outside Stella’s old primary school. Too far for Richard to come running after me, not that he was likely to.
I stabbed uselessly at my phone. I couldn’t remember my password, and my fingers were too sweaty for the thumbprint recognition to work. Finally the password came back to me – Edward’s birthdate – and after a couple of tries, I broke into my phone. But once in, I wasn’t sure what to do. I typed ‘hotels’ into Safari, but didn’t know where I wanted to be. This was London – there were more Premier Inns than you could shake a stick at. Should I get one nearby, so Richard and I could meet to talk? Or somewhere further afield, so that we couldn’t? What was the correct running-away procedure? I googled ‘how to leave your husband’, though it seemed a little late for that. Anyway, the advice was mostly financial, and scarily assumed that I might need a woman’s refuge. I could hear my breaths loud in my ears, little strangled gasps. I tried to slow my breathing down, do the alternating nostril thing, but I couldn’t seem to get control over it.
I needed someone to tell me what to do next. I rang Rose, the obvious person, but it went to voicemail, and I remembered she was away for a long weekend in Lille, not back till tomorrow. She was no doubt swanning round whatever the fancy sights of Lille were. I had no idea. I wasn’t even a hundred per cent sure where Lille was. France, probably. Or Belgium? I also didn’t know who she was with. Her kids? One of her Winchester friends?
My finger hovered over Stella’s number, but would she appreciate me asking if I could nip up to Essex to see her, stay for a few days? Just us girls, have fun, do some shopping, oh by the way I’ve left your father… maybe not.
I was such a damn idiot not to plan this. I should have waited till Rose was around, or at the very least booked a hotel. But then, if I’d waited, planned it, would I have had the guts to do it? It was only this morning that the thought had pushed me out of the door, even though it was a thought that had been knocking around for a long while. A thought I’d always banished to the back of my head before it became too deafening. A thought of walking out on my life, closing the yellow front door behind me. I’d never breathed a word of this thought to anyone, barely even acknowledged it myself, and had assumed it would eventually go away. Something was different this morning, though, and the thought of leaving had turned itself, with little warning, into action.
It was so weird that Richard had mentioned David. We never spoke of him, and I myself hadn’t thought about him for years. Not much, anyway. But a few weeks ago, looking for Bear’s letters, I’d come across some of my old photos, and there was David in arty black and white, as beautiful as I remembered him.
I scrolled through my contacts, trying to breathe like a normal person, and thank God, saw Imogen’s name. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of her already. I pressed her number with such force, the phone asked if I wanted to delete it.
‘Oh, Kay, chérie, how lovely to hear from you.’
‘Imo, dear,’ I said, as always, though I didn’t usually punctuate each word with little gasp-gasp-gasps. ‘I don’t suppose lovely Bryn Glas is free?’
‘Yes, do go up,’ she said. ‘Give it an airing.’
Thank God. ‘I’m not sure how long I’m staying…’
‘Long as you like, Kay. Have you got that horrid cold that’s going round? Ignore any estate-agent bumpf that comes through the door. Some of my irritating relatives are trying to convince me to sell up, but I’m ignoring them. Over my dead body.’
I thanked her and hung up, praying that she would continue in rude health for many years. I programmed the satnav, noting with detached interest that my hands were slightly less shaky, and the gasping was a bit quieter, and set the car in a westerly direction. I was going where I should have gone in the first place.
I remembered David, three decades earlier, saying, ‘Whenever there’s the possibility of travelling, one should always go west.’ He immediately undermined the solemnity of the pronouncement by breaking into the chorus of ‘Go West’ by Village People, but the sentiment was right. I needed to go west.
Well, this is getting to be a habit: the third time I’ve written to you without one of your letters to reply to. Three missing letters in thirty-five years doesn’t sound a lot, except they’ve all been in the last six months. Before that, I could have set my watch by our letters. One month, you write. The next month, I write. That’s how it’s always been, hasn’t it? I hope everything’s OK. I’m hoping it’s just a weird snafu with the postal service. But I’m feeling worried about you.
I’m writing from Bryn Glas cottage. I got here yesterday. I know I’ve mentioned the cottage in letters before. As I’ve got none of your news to reply to, I’ll tell you about the cottage, as it’s such a special place to me. A refuge, particularly this time.
I came here most recently with Rose, last year, for my fiftieth. But I’ve been coming on and off for more than twenty years, ever since Alice looked at my frazzled face – the kids were little then, and hard work – and told Richard, ‘Your wife needs to get away. I know the perfect place.’ I think I might have written to you about it back then.
That first visit, courtesy of Alice, was a wonderful break from my busy, chaotic life. I left behind in her care two noisy children, a largely absent husband, and an albatross of a job. When I retrieved the key from the outside safe-box – the first time I had seen one of those – and unlocked the heavy, old wooden door, it was like stepping into a fairy circle that we used to conjure up at school with chalk. Do you remember us doing that, Bear? A magical place that conferred special powers to anyone who stepped inside. The cottage felt like that to me, and still does. I am more myself here, more content.
It belongs to Imogen, a friend of Alice’s from her cooking-for-minor-royalty days. Bryn Glas – meaning ‘green hill’ – has been in Imogen’s family forever. Perhaps 150 or 200 years ago her ancestors even lived here. Imogen isn’t royal, before you start to picture a grand mansion known as a cottage ironically. She was one of the upper-crust women Alice knew who worked as ladies-in-waiting (‘In waiting for rich husbands,’ Alice liked to quip).
When I first came here it was used as a rural bolthole for Imogen’s friends and acquaintances, but as the years went on it was used by a dwindling number of people, and now I think, perhaps only me. Imogen never stays at the cottage herself, she hates to leave London, but she still pays for it to be cleaned every fortnight, and for a gardener once a month. After my first visit, I didn’t need to go via Alice, but could call Imogen directly.
‘Imo, dear,’ I’d say, copying the way she and Alice speak to each other, though I’ve never met her in person. ‘I don’t suppose lovely Bryn Glas is free?’
I say that every time, even though it’s always available. She calls me ‘chérie’. ‘Of course, chérie, go and give the old place a bit of love,’ she says. She used to charge a peppercorn rent for it, but even that’s faded over the years. The cheques I send her are rarely cashed. She seems happy simply if someone is using it.
When the kids were little they loved it here as much as I did. I’d drive the three of us, captain of the ship, listening to the radio on low while they slept in the back, four or five hours through the early morning, only waking when I pulled up outside the cottage and turned off the car engine.
In my memory the sun is always shining, illuminating floating columns of fairy dust, and casting a glow on Edward’s golden hair. He almost tumbles out of the car in his eagerness to get to the wooden swing-seat at the front of the cottage. Stella gazes at me with huge blue eyes. ‘My favourite place,’ she says.
I get out, stretch my cramped-up back, let the sunshine warm me, feel the stillness of the mountains surrounding us. I open the heavy doors and breathe in the cottage scent, and for a moment, with the children playing nearby, I attain perfect peace.
Only for a moment, mind you. After that there would be unpacking and bed-making, while the kids ran around, and doubtless later there would be arguments over whose turn it was on the swing-seat. And for me it would be the hard work of managing yet another family holiday solo, because even if Richard did manage to join us for a couple of days, he wouldn’t be involved in any of the planning or organising. The first few times I felt a little lonely being here without him, but to be honest, if he did come, something of the peace of the place would be lost.
As the children got older, they got less keen on ‘the cottage in the middle of nowhere’. When they didn’t want to come, I came here with Rose. The cottage was always available, has always been there for me, solid, its flint walls warm to my touch. And now here I am again.
So, I looked at your last letter, from October. I’ve read it through six times looking for clues as to why you might have stopped writing. But I can’t find anything. Your job is fine, and Charlie is fine, you’d been to see him play the bassoon in a concert, the clever boy.
I’ve been reminiscing about the past. ‘Oh no!’ I hear you cry. ‘That’s a mistake!’ But since Mum, I’ve been thinking a lot about when we were younger, and wondering if the decisions I made then were the right ones. I’ve even been thinking a little about He Whose Name I Shall Never Utter Again. Now that’s a blast from the past, right? You’re the only person in the world who might guess how painful it is to think back on it. But for the first time in years I’ve been reflecting on the anguish I went through then, the impossible decisions, the pact with Richard. Our Catholic upbringing has a lot to answer for, amirite?
Still to this day, only you, me, Richard and HWNISNUA know the truth. But is that the right thing? Should I tell other people, important people, before it’s too late?
I’m still thinking about it.
However, there are things I am doing before it’s too late. You’ll be amazed when I tell you. I’ve done something drastic, something massive, and I feel jittery and strange and, frankly, a little close to hysterics. I can’t believe I’m not pouring it all out to you, my most loyal confidante. But it feels weird to do that without knowing for sure that you’re still at the other end of this letter. It’ll have to wait till you write me back. Or when I come and see you – I know I’ve been saying I’m coming over for years, but this time, I really am. I’ve already got my visa.
Till next time.
I was surprised to hear my phone ringing, because I’d thought it was completely flat. Gabby and I had been working hard all day at the market, and though the lunchtime rush was over, Gabby was hopeful of a few more punters. I fished the phone out of my pocket, and nearly dropped it when I saw it was Dad. He never phoned.
‘Hello, Dad? Is everything OK?’
There was a silence. I was about to speak when I realised I could hear something – a very weird noise. Was Dad crying?
‘Dad! What’s wrong?’ No answer. ‘Listen, my battery’s almost run out—’
‘Stella?’ he said. He was crying. ‘I really need to—’
My phone cut out, and I stared at it in disbelief. It was doing that maddening thing where the little circle in the middle goes round and round, before it turns itself off.
‘Shit, shit, shit.’ I felt cold all over. ‘Gabby, please can I use your phone?’
‘Well, not really,’ Gabby said, stirring one of the pots of food on the stall. ‘I’m using it.’ She gestured to her phone, which was plugged into the card reader.
‘There’s no one here.’
‘But what if someone comes and wants to pay with a card, while you’re using my phone?’
I stared at her. Our banner – ‘Yummi Scrummi Authentic Sri Lankan Street Food’ – flapped in the breeze above her head.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, not sounding it. ‘If you can wait half an hour we’ll pack up and you can borrow it then.’
I took off my apron. ‘I’ll find a phone box.’
‘So nineties,’ Gabby said. She turned her attention to a woman who was walking past the stall. ‘Hello, madam, can I interest you in some delicious fresh…’
‘No thank you,’ the woman said, walking faster.
I hurried off down the precinct, past the other stalls: Jamaican food, Indian food, noodles, Japanese. Phone box, phone box. Did the town actually have one? Did anywhere? I couldn’t think when I’d last seen one. I certainly hadn’t used one since I was a child. I walked quickly thro. . .
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