Penfriend

How a bond formed at 13 with an Australian penfriend led Victoria Brignell to embark on a deception

It's difficult to imagine the horror experienced by those families caught up in the recent Australian bushfires.

More than 200 people were killed in February when savage flames swept across the state of Victoria leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.

An estimated 1,800 homes were destroyed some 7,500 people displaced. Rightly or wrongly, at times of disasters we tend to think first of those people we know and I'm no exception. When I heard about the latest Australian bushfires, the question that came into my head was, "Is Silke OK?".

Silke has been my penfriend for the last 20 years. We've been writing to each other since we were 13 years old.

It was through our respective teachers that we were put in touch with each other. My English teacher at the time was friends with a teacher 'down under' and she had a pupil who wanted a British penfriend. Mrs Gough asked if I would be interested and so my relationship with Silke began.

As Silke lives on the outskirts of Melbourne, rather than in the depths of the countryside, I felt pretty certain that she would be safe.

The news reports didn't mention her area among the ones affected. But as the scale of the tragedy unfolded and it gradually transpired that Australia was suffering possibly its worst bushfires in recorded history, I couldn't help worrying about her and her family.

In the end, I sent her an e-mail and was relieved when she replied to say that she and everyone she knew seemed to be unscathed. She could smell the smoke but that was all. My own personal panic was over. Nevertheless, I'm well aware that others have not been so fortunate.

Right now there are thousands of Australians who are mourning loved ones or starting the long, arduous process of rebuilding their lives after losing their homes and businesses. This is a catastrophe which will have repercussions for a long time to come.

Silke plays a unique role in my life. For a start, she is the only proper penfriend I have. Although I now have three friends who live overseas, the other two are people who used to live in England and have now emigrated. Silke, on the other hand, is someone I've never met. We haven't even spoken on the phone. All our communicating is done in writing. In the early years this meant letters, but of course now we make full use of the wonder of e-mail.

Silke is special for another reason as well. She is the only person amongst my friends, relatives and colleagues who doesn't know I'm disabled. Although we've been writing for two decades, I've never mentioned to her that I'm paralysed from the neck down. And as we've never exchanged photographs of ourselves, she's never seen my body.

Why did I choose to hide my disability from her? Why didn't I reveal this aspect of my life when we first started writing? This is something that is very hard for me to explain. To be honest, I don't fully understand the decision myself. To make sense of it, I have to try to recreate my psychological state when I was 13 years old.

As I entered my teenage years I was very happy in many ways. I was doing well at school, I had a number of good friends and I enjoyed strong relationships with my parents. On the surface I had also come to terms with my disability. But deep down, there was a part of me which wasn't fully comfortable with being tetraplegic.

I was distinctly aware that my life experience and daily routine were different to that of my peers. Sometimes I felt as if my wheelchair, together with my total reliance on my parents and carers for the most basic tasks, formed a barrier between me and my friends. There were times when I believed that people treated me differently because of my disability. Usually it wasn't blatant, it was just a subtle change, but it still irritated me.

When I wrote my first letter to Silke, I was really keen to hear from her. And I was genuinely worried that if I described my disability, it would deter her from writing back. It sounds silly, I know, but I feared my disability might shock her and make her wary of getting to know me. As I myself wasn't entirely at ease with my impairment, I assumed that a stranger in a faraway country would have difficulty accepting it as well.

On top of that, when I was given Silke's address, I saw opening up before me an opportunity that had never presented itself before. Here was a chance for me to have a friendship with someone without it being affected by my disability. As I composed that first letter to Silke, I treated it almost like the start of a sociological experiment. Now I would find out what it was like to have a relationship that wasn't complicated by the presence of my wheelchair.

But there was a third reason why I didn't disclose my disability. I hate to admit it now but I wanted to pretend that I wasn't disabled. I could do this by giving an account of my life with the paralysis bit edited out.

Since then, whenever I've written to Silke, I've been able to create a non-disabled version of my existence. For the short space of time it takes me to write a letter, I can inhabit a make-believe able-bodied world. Any historian of the future who acquired and read my letters to Silke wouldn't be able to detect that they were written by a tetraplegic wheelchair user.

It's interesting that although my disability has a large impact on my day-to-day life, it is surprisingly easy to avoid referring to it in my letters.

I don't tell any lies to Silke about my activities. I simply recount what has happened to me without mentioning my disability. For example, in a recent letter I told her about seeing the play In a Dark Dark House at the Almeida Theatre. I said the Almeida is one of my favourite theatres because it is small and I get a good view of the stage. I explained that a friend had recommended the play to me and I gave Silke my views on the way it was written and structured. And I described my delight at meeting the actor David Morrissey in the foyer afterwards.

What I didn't tell her is that I went there with my carer as well as a friend, that the reason I was able to see the stage so well was because the wheelchair space was in the front row, and that I went home by taxi because my local tube station doesn't have wheelchair access.

So that's my explanation for why I didn't tell Silke about my disability originally in 1989. Obviously, my state of mind now is different from what it was when I was 13.

For many years I've been at ease with my disability and I've never chosen to hide it on any other occasion.

Ten years ago, when I was sending off my CV to local newspapers in the hope of a job, I informed them about my disability in the covering letter, even though I knew there was a risk that it might reduce my chances of being called for an interview.

And these days whenever there is a form to fill in, I don't hesitate to tick the disability box in the "equal opportunities" section. So why have I continued to keep my disability secret from Silke?

The fact is that I'm still worried about what she might say if I tell her. Now that I know Silke well I'm confident she won't be fazed in the slightest by my disability.

What concerns me is how she will react when she finds out that I've been hiding this important part of my life from her for the last 20 years.

Although I haven't told her any lies, I still feel that I have acted dishonestly by not being open with her.

She might be angry that I haven't been willing to share this information with her, when she has been prepared to share intimate details about herself with me. She might question my character and my reliability as a friend. And she might feel she can't trust me, at least for a while.

However, as the years have passed, I've become more and more embarrassed and ashamed at the concealment. It's reached the point where my guilt at not telling "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" outweighs my anxiety surrounding how she might respond. Sometime in the coming days I'm determined to come clean and confess all to Silke.

Of course, my nervousness might be pointless. Silke is a caring, thoughtful and tolerant person and hopefully she will understand why I've behaved in the way I've done.

What's more, it's also perfectly possible that she may know about my disability already. If she has happened to google my name at any time in the last couple of years she would have found these columns and my cover would have been blown.

It's also crossed my mind that, back in 1989, even before our correspondence began, my English teacher might have given some biographical details about me to Silke's teacher, who might then have passed them on to Silke.

How ironical it would be if it turned out that Silke had been aware of my disability all along.