One day, I took a boat ride in Ireland – without knowing it, I drifted into the life of a grieving man

When you appear in a play, you get all sorts of letters. This one broke my heart.

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When you appear in a play, the world knows where you live at night. Some of the people at the stage door are pleasant, some are strange, and some are from Barking. The ones who send letters on lined paper are a worry and the ones who want you to sign Doctor Who cards showing Tom Baker and Lalla Ward but not you are obsessive.

Stamped, addressed envelopes are obligatory. These days, they say, “Could you send six signed photos for me and my friends?” This means: “I’ll have one and put the rest on eBay.” The racist ones don’t know that you can tell by the envelope that their letters are from nasty bigots and you’ll bin ’em. I’ll say no more, nod, nod, wink, wink.

Sometimes, a letter breaks your heart. When that happens, you can rest assured that there will be no address enclosed. One such letter has haunted me since it arrived unheralded at the stage door of the Haymarket Theatre. I can’t find it because my filing system was created by the three-headed dog at the gates of hell, but I remember the gist of it very well.

The writer had been driving with his wife somewhere in the Middle East, where they had a boat mooring. His wife, slightly to his irritation, had been laughing out loud at the audio version of one of my books as they drove along. At one point, I described a blissful journey by dinghy from Lough Hyne in County Cork round to Baltimore, where my friends and I disembarked at Bushe’s Bar for a smoked salmon sandwich and a pint of Murphy’s.

“One of these days,” his wife said, “we ought to do that.”

Back home, he wrote, his wife was taken ill and had a terrible diagnosis. A year later, she died. In memory of her, he decided to pick up the boat and do that trip in to Baltimore, stop off at Bushe’s and have the sandwich and pint they had daydreamed about.

He made the trip alone, moored the boat in the harbour and slowly walked to the little harbour pub, where people were gathered outside in noisy groups. He ordered his beer and sat in the sun, waiting for the sandwich. Suddenly, he wrote, “In my head, clear as a bell, I heard the sound of my wife’s laughter. She was giggling in my head. It was as if she was beside me. The next minute, I heard a voice from a table just behind me. It was followed by laughter from a group of people of all ages.” The voice was familiar. It was, he wrote, “the recognisable voice” of Maureen Lipman. “I turned around and there you were, sitting at the adjacent table with your chums.”

He just wanted me to know that it was something of a crucial moment for him in his grieving process. I wish that I could write back to him and tell him how much his letter meant to me and how moved I was, and still am, by the coincidence . . . if that word even comes near to covering what it really was. 

This article appears in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq