When I was 19, I was deeply in love with a brown-eyed girl who did the world’s best impression of a duck.
I don’t mean that she waddled or had webbed feet or begged people to chuck bread in her bath. She didn’t.
But she could smile in a way that made her upper lip look ever so slightly like a bill, gaze at you with warm, gentle eyes and say ‘quack’.
Maybe you had to be there. And maybe you had to be in love with the girl. But I had never seen anything so endearing.
Sadly, there was a fly in the ointment. Not only was the girl the best duck impersonator on the planet, she was also extremely clever.
A lot cleverer than me. And that’s why she got a place at Oxford University and I – not bright enough to follow her – went up to St Andrews instead.
Play tiddlywinks – it gets you cheap lifts
I loved St Andrews, but there was no escaping the fact that it is well over 400 miles away from Oxford. And while I once got a cheap lift down to see her by agreeing to represent St Andrews in an inter-university tiddlywinks match, I couldn’t really drop by every weekend.
So we wrote each other letters instead.
Of course, the girl was much better at writing love letters than I was. That wasn’t difficult – I remember writing her a twelve-pager at the age of 17, divided portentously into ‘Part The First’ and ‘Part The Second’. I doubt she ever stopped laughing long enough to read it to the end.
But while I continued to make a bad fist of my letters two years later, the ones she wrote to me at St Andrews turned me into a minor celebrity – if only in the eyes of the day porter at my hall of residence.
I discovered this fact one night when I staggered back to the hall in the early hours of the morning, slightly drunk, and discovered I’d been locked out.
I rang the bell and the porter appeared. Unusually he was covering the night shift.
“What’s your name?” he asked, opening the door.
“Ben Locker,” I said, glad there wasn’t an ‘s’ in my name to slur on.
“Oh, so you’re The Beautiful Mr Ben Locker,” he said, a smile cracking open his face like a hinged watermelon. “I always look forward to your letters.”
Now, before you run away with the idea that this blameless hall porter used to read my love letters, stop. He didn’t.
He just used to read the envelopes.
I would blush to type them all out
And I don’t blame him. The girl I loved wasn’t the sort of girl to settle for a simple name and address on the front of her envelope.
Instead, she used each one to send me up – affectionately (I hope) – as some sort of fantastical hero. Three times a week or more I’d get the prized envelope addressed to “The Wondrous Mr Ben Locker”, “The Enchanting Mr Ben Locker”, “The Handsome Mr Ben Locker”. (There were many better ones, but I would blush to type them out here).
And the result was a chain of smiling people from the porter’s lodge at her college, right through every mail handler and postman and porter who handled the letter from Oxford to Scotland. And I bet they all wanted to open those letters.
All because of what she’d written on the envelope.
So next time you want someone to open a letter, whether it’s a billet doux or a sales letter to win orders for a new line in office stationery, think about what you put on the envelope.
If it’s plain “Mr Jones” then you’ve lost the opportunity to make a hero of your recipient.
And a hero always opens his letters.