The Lost Letters of William Woolf

The Lost Letters of William Woolf

by Helen Cullen


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Lost letters have only one hope for survival…

Inside the walls of the Dead Letters Depot, letter detectives work to solve mysteries. They study missing zip codes, illegible handwriting, rain-smudged ink, lost address labels, torn packages, forgotten street names—all the many twists of fate behind missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills, unanswered prayers. Their mission is to unite lost mail with its intended recipients.

But when letters arrive addressed simply to “My Great Love,” longtime letter detective William Woolf faces his greatest mystery to date. Written by a woman to the soul mate she hasn’t met yet, the missives capture William’s heart in ways he didn’t know possible. Soon, he finds himself torn between the realities of his own marriage and his world of letters, and his quest to follow the clues becomes a life-changing journey of love, hope and courage.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf is an enchanting novel about the resilience of the human heart and the complex ideas we hold about love—and a passionate ode to the art of letter writing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781525892080
Publisher: Graydon House Books
Publication date: 06/04/2019
Edition description: Original
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 659,057
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

HELEN CULLEN wrote her debut novel, The Lost Letters of William Woolf, while completing the Guardian/UEA novel writing program. She holds an MA in Theatre Studies from University College Dublin and is currently studying further at Brunel. Prior to writing full-time, Helen worked in journalism, broadcasting and most recently as a creative events and engagement specialist. Helen is Irish and currently lives in London.

Read an Excerpt


Lost letters have only one hope for survival. If they are caught between two worlds, with an unclear destination and no address of sender, the lucky ones are redirected to the Dead Letters Depot in East London for a final chance of redemption. Inside the damp-rising walls of a converted tea factory, letter detectives spend their days solving mysteries. Missing postcodes, illegible handwriting, rain-smudged ink, lost address labels, torn packages, forgotten street names: they are all culprits in the occurrence of missed birthdays, unknown test results, bruised hearts, unaccepted invitations, silenced confessions, unpaid bills and unanswered prayers. Instead of longed-for missives, disappointment floods post boxes from Land's End to Dunnet Head. Hope fades a little more every day, when doorbells don't chime and doormats don't thud.

William Woolf had worked as a letter detective for eleven years. He was one of an army of thirty, having inherited his position from his beloved uncle, Archie. Almost every Friday throughout William's childhood, Archie, clad in a lime-green leather jacket, had driven his yellow Vespa over for tea, eager to share fish and chips doused in salt and vinegar and with a garlic dip, and tales of the treasures rescued that day. Listening to Archie opened William's mind to the myriad extraordinary stories that were unfolding every day in the lives of ordinary people. In a blue-lined copybook, he wrote his favourites and unwittingly began what would become a lifelong obsession with storytelling, domestic mysteries and the secrets strangers nurse. What surprised William most when he started working there himself was how little Archie had exaggerated. People send the strangest paraphernalia through the post: incomprehensible and indefensible, sentimental and valuable, erotic and bizarre, alive and expired. In fact, it was the dead animals that so frequently found their way to this inner sanctum of the postal system that had inspired the Dead Letters Depot's name. A photo taken in 1937, the year it had opened, showed the original postmaster, Mr Frank Oliphant, holding a pheasant and hare aloft, with three rabbits stretched on the table before him. By the time William joined in 1979, it was a much more irregular occurrence, of course, but the name still endured. He still felt Archie's presence amid the exposed red-brick walls of the depot, and some of the older detectives sometimes called William by his uncle's name. Their physical similarities were striking: muddy brown curls, chestnut beards flecked with a rusty redness, the almond-shaped hazel eyes that flickered between shades of emerald green and cocoa, the bump in the nose of all Woolf men.

In a vault of football-field proportions hidden below Shoreditch High Street, row upon row of the peculiar flotsam and jetsam of life awaited salvation: pre-war toy soldiers, vinyl records, military memorabilia, astrology charts, paintings, pounds and pennies, wigs, musical instruments, fireworks, soap, cough mixture, uniforms, fur coats, boxes of buttons, chocolates, photo albums, porcelain tea-cups and saucers, teddy bears, medical samples, seedlings, weapons, lingerie, fossils, dentures, feathers, gardening tools, books, books, books. Copious myths and legends passed from one colleague to another; stories of the once lost but now found. Each detective cultivated their own private collection of the most remarkable discoveries they had made. For William, there was a suit of armour dismantled in a tarnished silver sea-chest, an ebony-and-glass case housing two red admiral butterflies, each wing secured by a tiny pearl pin, and a miniature grandfather clock only three feet tall. 'More of a grandson clock, really,' he always joked when telling the tale.

There were still some deeply unpleasant discoveries to be made. The detectives harboured daily fears of strange stenches, soggy parcels and departed creatures; mostly, white mice, cockroaches and bugs originally destined to feed pet lizards, snakes and rats. At least, William hoped that's what they had originally been intended for, before they met another, equally unpleasant end in 'The Furnace', the final destination for contaminated goods, the unrecyclable and unsalvageable. It sat shoulder to shoulder with the gnashing, monster shredder where lost letters became dead letters and all hope was vanquished.

Every day, the detectives opened letter after letter, parcel after parcel, searching for clues. The satisfaction of solving a mystery never faded. The joy of knowing that something so anticipated could find its way after a lengthy diversion remained exquisite. It was the thousands of unsolvable conundrums that wearied bones and wasted skin on paper cuts. Sometimes, there just wasn't enough evidence to trace, no clue to worry over until the blessed eureka moment. Over the years, William had learned not to fret over the truly lost, to let them go and to invest his time instead in those which presented greater hope of a solution. Every week, hundreds of new puzzles arrived, so the mountain of mail in the depot seemed self-replenishing. A pessimist could find much to confirm a bleak worldview in this museum of missed messages. Only a quarter of the post that passed through the depot ever found its way home, but just one very special victory could sustain a detective for weeks in their endeavours.

William had recently reunited a battered Milk Tray chocolate box brimful of wedding photos from 1944 with the bride, Delilah Broccoli. The son of her maid of honour had found them when executing his mother's estate and tried to post the box back to the last known address, but the street, never mind the individual house, no longer existed. When items discovered lost in the post held considerable monetary or sentimental value, or had been missing in action for an exceptionally long time, the letter detectives would courier them to their rightful home rather than send them off into the cavernous postal system once again. A still-breathing tortoise, a crystal chandelier and a silver pendant hanging from a garland of emeralds were among some of the undeliverables William had elevated to his personal care. In some very exceptional cases, the letter detectives went one step further and delivered items in person, out of fear that something so precious may become lost once again. On this most recent occasion, William had successfully traced Delilah to the nursing home in East Anglia where she now lived and decided this should be one of those exceptions.

When William entered Delilah's bedroom, she looked confused as she tried to place him. 'We haven't met before, Mrs Broccoli,' he reassured her. 'I work for the post office, and wanted to deliver a parcel to you that went astray.'

He moved a pink plastic cup of water from the table-top tray that lay on her lap and placed the world-weary chocolate box before her. It was the same shade of purple as her dressing gown; velvet with a white lace collar. Delilah's eyes flitted from William's to the box and back again. She tried to speak, but the words caught in a raspy net in her throat. Her silver curls were flattened on the right side of her head from where they were crushed against the pillow. He moved closer and laid his hand gently on her arm.

'It's all right, nothing to be frightened of. Here, let me help you.'

He prised the lid from the chocolate box and placed the crinkled photographs before her one by one. Delilah traced a finger beneath the row of sepia and a look of recognition spread across her face. She picked up one with a trembling hand and held it close to her nose. William watched as a shy smile illuminated her expression and her eyes grew misty.

'I'll leave you in peace now, Mrs Broccoli,' he said.

She reached out and grabbed his sleeve with her papery grip and held on tight for a second. Nothing more was said. It was days like those that kept his faith alive.

Lately, William had retreated more and more into the soft silence of the post delivery room, away from the chatter and bustle of the shared office space where the letter detectives worked. He had never been very good at rising above his moods and found it increasingly hard to shake off the melancholia he brought from home in order to join in the collegiate banter. In the solitude of the delivery room, he rummaged deep into postbags, a shirtsleeve rolled up to his pointy elbow, to extract what he hoped would be something special. Each time, he closed his eyes and forced his breath to grow slow and deep. His ribcage expanded like the bellows of old, his lungs paused at their fullest expansion, before he slowly exhaled, with a gentle whoosh. He hunched over the slate-grey canvas bag, with his left hand supporting the small of his back, and wriggled the fingers of his right hand inside. His thirty-seven years didn't command this posture; it was more an affectation that had evolved as part of his hunting regime. With great concentration, he would linger over the folds of the envelopes, squeeze parcels tentatively between forefinger and thumb, until, instinctively, he would clasp one, tugging it gently free and drawing it to the surface. He imagined he was like the mechanical arm of a teddy-bear machine, retrieving a soft toy. These rescue missions were different from the piles of post left indiscriminately on his desk every morning at six by the night-owl team who accepted the midnight deliveries. The letters that he found this way he believed were destined for him. Over ten years of flirting with coincidence, defying the odds and witnessing serendipity had left him superstitious and more inclined to believe in a divine intervention he would have mocked in his days before the depot. He now was convinced that some letters found him because only he, with his particular personal collection of experiences and insights, could crack their code. Other letters depended upon different detectives, of that he was sure, but some were searching specifically for him.

Last Tuesday, Marjorie, the longest-standing member of his team, had crept up behind him as he indulged in this ritual. He turned and saw her standing there, in her coral-pink mohair polo-neck, gold chains dangling under the collar, her hand on her hip. The twinkle of a tease glinted in her eyes. The shock caused him to drop the letter he had retrieved and he felt a blush spread from under his collar and burn through his beard. With no explanation of his furtive activity to offer, he just nudged his black, square-rimmed spectacles further on to the bridge of his nose, mumbled a noise somewhere between a hello, a throat clear and a cough and brushed past. Her satisfied laugh followed him to the cloakroom, where he rested his forehead against the cool dampness of the mirror and willed his cherry cheeks to fade. His bowel twisted and churned. Why had her seeing his routine bothered him so much? How deeply embarrassed he felt that his secret-self behaviour had been witnessed; actions he performed for himself that had never been intended for an audience. His mortification slowly gave way to irritation. Why had she been creeping about, anyway? No decent person wears shoes that whisper.

William risked a long look in the mirror. His curls looked tangled and his beard needed trimming. Something about his eyes made him nervous. They seemed, well, less brown. Like faded chocolate. It was probably just the fluorescent light bulbs. Eyes don't fade, do they? Was he vanishing? A man diluted? He shrugged his navy-blue pullover into position and braved the sorting office. Stifled giggles followed him as he took his seat at the end of the old boardroom table. He liked to sit with his back to the wall with the window overlooking the street to the right, mysteries lined up in rows to his left. His seat was the furthest away from the furnace trolleys, too. He hated the cremations. Failure in every spoonful of ash.

The faint strains of an old jazz number floated up from the street. It swirled out from one of the heaving hot spots that left William so cold. He could almost place the song, but it danced just beyond his consciousness as he tried to ignore the taunt. Was it 'Old Devil Moon'? He drifted away from the cardboard box of blue fountain pens he had opened, soon to be returned to a warehouse in Leeds as per the enclosed invoice, and tuned into the melody. He closed his eyes and followed his wife, Clare, down the spiral staircase to the jazz club of their first date, the Blue Rooms, on Montgomery Row in Notting Hill. He remembered how his hand had been slippery on the rail, his corduroy blazer too restrictive, his throat dry and knees shaky as he watched her stamp down the stone steps in her white fur boots. Her blonde hair was tied up messily in a yellow silk scarf that looked to be tickling the back of her neck. His fingers itched to do the same. He ached to pull that silky knot loose and watch her hair tumble about her shoulders.

All during the evening, he couldn't quite believe that he was there with Clare in a romantic capacity. Was she just filling in time with him while awaiting a more deserving suitor to woo her? Could she possibly also harbour hopes of something more than friendship?

They had met in very platonic circumstances, when William attempted to organize a book club on their university campus to tackle some of the great literary tomes. Week one: War and Peace. No one came. Week two: The Divine Comedy. Once again, he was a lonely soul in the Daffodil Room of the library which he had so enthusiastically reserved; he had even asked the librarian to bring in some extra chairs. Ulysses was to be his third and final attempt, and he waited with dwindling hope for some like-minded folk to help him fill that echoing room. When the door creaked open, he was flustered by the vision that floated towards him. Clare, bundled up in a crimson duffel coat and white denim dungarees, looked more modern-day fairy tale than first-year student. Blonde tendrils escaped from an untidy bun held in place on top of her head with green chopsticks. Her left shoulder sagged under the strain of a canary-yellow canvas bag crammed full of books. When she dropped it on the mahogany desk, the contents spilled across the polished surface: The Female Eunuch,Mother Courage and Her Children, Persuasion, sunflower seeds, colouring pencils, a battered and bruised burgundy leather address book and a sepia postcard of James Joyce completely covered in tiny cursive handwriting. For ever after, William would always feel a certain gratitude to Joyce, not just for writing the books he loved so much but for bringing this woman into his life. Her words tumbled out in accompaniment to her belongings as she scanned the empty room.

'Are you William? Am I in the right place? Where is everyone else?'

'Eh, yes, I am, and I've been asking myself that for a few weeks now, but it's just me, I'm afraid. And you - you are?'

'Clare. Clare Carpenter.' She pulled a ratty, striped mitten off her hand and reached out to shake his. 'Do two people make a group?'

'A very exclusive one, perhaps. Or, at the very least, a conversation. That is, if you'd still like to stay?'

Clare slid into the seat opposite him, the legs of her chair screeching violently on the marble floor. His nose twitched at a faint smell of cinnamon.

'Why not?' she answered. 'At least we won't have to compete to get a word in.'

William steeled his nerve to hold her gaze.

'Gosh, your eyes are two different colours. Like David Bowie. How bizarre!' He hesitated for a moment. 'How lovely.'

Clare looked away as she gathered together the contents of her bag. 'It's not as uncommon as you might think. Let's begin, shall we?'

Discussion of Ulysses evolved to talk of books in general and favourites in particular. Over the following weeks, Clare introduced William to Iris Murdoch, Edna O'Brien and Jane Austen; he shared his passion for Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett. Dissecting the worldview of the characters allowed them to delve into subjects that otherwise would have been too emotive for a casual acquaintance.

'Would Virginia Woolf have surrendered her writing for a peaceful mind? I don't know if I would smooth out all my edges at the expense of what she found in those corners.'

'The reason women love Mr Darcy so much is that he changed for the love of a good woman. How many lives have been wasted in the hope of that very outcome to a futile situation?'

'What Jack Kerouac gives me is a licence to be discriminatory about how I spend my time, who I spend it with, not surrendering to small talk and sycophants who need us to reflect and reinforce each other so that we can all feel we're okay. It sounds harsh, but it's true: I'd rather be alone than pretend.'


Excerpted from "The Lost Letters of William Woolf"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Helen Cullen.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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