Delicious guilt of finding notes not meant for you

After an intimate letter was recently discovered in an old book, LIZ HOGGARD admits to the…Delicious guilt of finding notes not meant for you

  • Liz Hoggard found a lover’s note in a book she picked up from a box in the street 
  • Handwritten notes spark imagination and conjures up a narrative of pain or joy 
  • UK-based writer claims it’s human nature to be fascinated by others’ stories  

When I got home, I opened the book I had found on the street and a home-made card fluttered to the floor.

‘Welcome to cohabitation,’ it read. ‘Don’t be scared. We can still have fun with the same key.’

I felt a flush of shame. I’d clearly stumbled across an intimate love note, a card that signalled two people moving in together, with all their hopes and dreams.

And yet I could tell the writer of the card understood their lover’s slight ambivalence about moving in.

The front of the note had two conversations running across it. One in pink capitals was triumphant (‘Ooh I’ve got that key, too’), the other in light pencil reassured that all would be well, and that their new life of domesticity wouldn’t kill their passion. ‘Welcome to . . . on-tap sex if you’re seductive enough!’ it promised.

Liz Hoggard (pictured) admits the lover’s note she found in a book she picked up from a box in a south London street, gave her a flush of shame

I could almost feel the writer willing this to be true.

For a moment I felt tearful. The card had a deep groove inside it, probably from a picture hook. Perhaps it had been pinned on the wall of the new home, heralding the start of a happy, joined-up life together.

The couple had obviously debated endlessly about the pros and cons of cohabiting, and decided to risk it anyway. The card was a love token to ward off negative energy.

But at some point the card had been taken off the wall, placed in the book and later dumped outside the house, along with the personal effects of the departing lover.

I’d come across it in the street, in a box of books and DVDs labelled: ‘Please take’.

Gleefully, I’d scooped up an Anne Tyler novel, a cookery book and a biography of Madonna, marvelling that people wanted to give away such pristine copies.

But back in my flat, I’d opened the biography, found the card, and suddenly a whole story played out in my head. This was a grand love affair collapsing.

I had no idea of the ages or genders of the couple. Or who had left whom. But now I realised that leaving the box in the street was an act of fury.

I put the card back in the book and left it unread on my shelf. For years I tried not to think about the pain I’d uncovered. Or my culpability in reading that note.

That is until late last month, when a news story broke about a man finding a woman’s poignant note to her cheating husband in a charity shop novel. In it, Sarah berates partner Chris for leaving her to bring up their children while he enjoyed affairs away from home.

Dean Cuthbert, 43, found a handwritten message (pictured) inside a second-hand copy of The Best A Man Can Get by John O’Farrell

Dean Cuthbert, 43, who bought the book from an Age UK shop in York, posted a picture of the note on social media. He captioned the image: ‘The gist of the story is of a bloke living a double life of sorts. Imagine my surprise when I found this. Someone has been in Sarah’s bad books.’

The handwritten message had been slotted inside a second-hand copy of The Best A Man Can Get by John O’Farrell — a novel about a husband’s double life.

Sarah’s note is one long cry of pain. She writes: ‘Chris, is this what you thought you could do with me? Lead a double life with your so-called “recreational relationships”, leaving me completely unaware, bringing up our children and thinking you were just a workaholic and that’s why you were away from home so much. What a b*****d you have been to me.’

The story clearly resonated. Messages were posted online in support of Sarah. One person wrote: ‘This is like the start of a film. I’m Team Sarah all the way; hope she’s OK now!’ Another said: ‘Go Sarah! I hope she went, and stayed away.’

Maybe they divorced. Or maybe Chris saw the error of his ways and they reconciled — though I rather hope not.

Reading about the story, I felt the same sense of shock and shame — and excitement — as I had on the day I found the discarded card.

Liz said it’s human nature to be fascinated by others’ stories, to try to follow the detective trail left by just a few enticing clues (stock image)

It’s human nature to be fascinated by others’ stories, to try to follow the detective trail left by just a few enticing clues. Jojo Moyes’s 2008 novel The Last Letter From Your Lover, about a journalist who finds a letter in the newspaper archives from 1960, written by a man asking his lover to leave her husband, is now a new film starring Felicity Jones.

All it takes is for someone to find a handwritten note or a sepia photo in a pile of old papers, and the cogs of the imagination start whirring, conjuring up a narrative of pain or joy. And I suspect we’ll be seeing more of it in the future.

Following the pandemic, everyone is streamlining their possessions. With some second-hand shops unwilling to take our books, and councils charging a small fortune to remove household waste, it may seem easier to use your garden as a shopfront.

But do check those books before you leave them for others. A couple I know split up after one partner left their passport in a novel, which she gave away. It was never seen again. There are only so many ruined holidays any of us can bear right now.

Chances are I’ll never discover the fate of my South London couple. But something else has taken the place of my shame. Hope. They’d embarked on a thrilling new chapter, and felt their love was invincible. That is surely worth celebrating.

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