Pen Pals, Pay Pals – Return To Sender 1977
As a family we arrived back in England in 1977 after ten years or so in Australia and just over two years in Malaysia. I hadn’t wanted to come back, in fact none of us had … well that’s not entirely true! My mother was the main reason we had all come back, and back then it simply wasn’t possible to divorce your parents – sadly! Otherwise l think my sister and l would have taken that path. Probably dad too! We had been away from England for just over 12 years. My sister was born in Sydney so she was in many respects a right true blue Ozzie, and she had no, like me cognitive memory of England.
It had taken me forever to get friends when l lived in Australia, after years of being the Pommy, the outsider, the weird one, never mind the bullying, but in 1975 l had finally come to be ‘accepted’ and yet here we were two bloody years later in another sodding country.
You see, l can say that because before l turned the age of 14, l had lived in countless countries and had to endure something like 26 different houses to live in and perhaps 10 different schools. Making friends was hard when you had parents like mine – an ambitious father and a neurotic mother!
In 1977, when we disembarked off the ship at Southampton in February, we had nowhere to live of our own, so we stayed for the first four months or so in North Wales where dad had family, notably his brother who lived there with his wife and her mother in Trefriw.
My memories of North Wales in the main are the annoyingly sing song Welsh language which l was forced to learn and never did, hills which were bloody everywhere, falling into rivers for a laugh, tickling trout, working in the Woollen Mill gift shop and the cursed rain! I made a few part time friends whilst l was there, but l was seen as some kind of eccentric Ozzie, rather ironically! I wasn’t a true Ozzie of course, but l sure as hell sounded like one! It just seemed that wherever l lived l was always having to battle to be accepted by so called ‘friendly peers?’
However after that short period of time, we all moved down south to Woking in Surrey to our new family home. I started school there, in St Johns at the Winston Churchill comprehensive as it was back then and once more l was faced with a hellishly hard time to reacclimatize to yet another school and again to bullying, being classed as an outsider, weird and – and – AND making matters far worse, l was dropped down a year, because it was considered by the education heads that Australian schooling was behind British schooling to such a degree that l had to be in a year below my age and this played havoc against me because people thought l was backwards. I was 14 and my classmates were all 13.
We will not even discuss the hiding Asperger’s, which wouldn’t be identified until another 30 years, it just easier to say l was at a huge disadvantage to my peers! For most of that year l struggled to fit in, not all of it of course, but for a good few months, and it was during this interim ‘no friends’ period that l made a slight error by accident that strangely enough broke the ice barrier from unacceptance to acceptance with these same peers.
Atypically, as is sometimes the way, one’s misfortune makes for good humour for others, it was also the the time when l came to realise that being a court jester at school, and using humour as my weapon was the way to becoming someone!
I wasn’t ever lonely thankfully when l was 14, l had my books, and my soldiers, my drawing and my writing, l could escape into my own world, but my mother suggested that l needed friends, and that some people [me] were considered too weird for those of the same age, and perhaps it would be best if l got some practice in?
When l enquired how l was supposed to do that, she answered with a ‘pen pal’. A pen pal l thought, oh ok, what could be the harm? Way back then l used to get a magazine called ‘Look and Learn‘, and l knew that in the back section, there were indeed people who wanted to write to other people all over the world, it was indeed the ‘Pen Friends section!’
Pen Pals, Pay Pals – Return To Sender 1977
What l did was l wrote off to four people, and these were the days when it was traditional letter writing, l didn’t even have a type writer! I wrote to boy in Hong Kong, and got no response, another boy in America and no response, a girl in Malaysia and no response and a girl in Guyana where l got way more than l bargained for!
There is a phrase which says sometimes you can be ‘too’ kind! This was one of those times, and it very nearly toppled me over the edge of sanity. You see what wasn’t said in the magazine, is that the girl l was writing to called Krish, was that she was just one of a class of 36 pupils, nor was it said that it wasn’t just her that would respond ….
I got a letter back, my only response and it was from Guyana, from another girl called Ashana, which was strange because l know l wrote off to a Krish!? It turned out that Ashana was Krish’s eldest sister and so she and l exchanged a couple of letters and they were quite fun. She sent me photos of where she lived, her house, her school and her family and l did the same. In her second letter she asked if a friend of hers could write to me as well? I said, sure, why not?
That was my first too kind bad move! Several weeks after l posted my letter off, l received four letters in return! from various’schoolmates’ of Ashana’s and l wrote back to them all, so now l had four pen friends and four sets of letters coming in, with four sets of photos coming in, and thank fully by this time my parents believing this was a new hobby for me, bought me a second hand typewriter!
Several weeks after l had posted off my four letters, there was a knock at the door one Saturday and there stood the postman with a big cheeky smile on his face. In his hand was a huge bundle of letters … 16 in all, all addressed to me!
“My, you’re quite the popular one aren’t you?” He said happily!
I was mortified, l had 16 new letters and they were not even from the people l had written to! I was showered by photos of almost an entire class l thought! i was busy for the next three nights writing off to these people. That was my second and final but too late too kind move!
On the Tuesday after getting home from school, my mother asked me to go into the dining room and look at the table! i did so, and to my absolute horror, there was five piles of letters, 67 letters in all! Now the entire school was writing to me!
On the Wednesday, a further 48 letters arrived, Thursday another 29 arrived and still none of these were from the four l had sent letters to! On Friday, the postman knocked on the door and according to my mother he was not so happy! He had a sack filled with letters for her son from Guyana! He had been told by his bosses that either we were to start paying for delivery or we had to pick them up from the sorting office direct. In one week l had received almost 300 letters from Guyana.
I knew by this time, l was in a spot of bother, not just from the postal office, but my parents as well, who believed l had deliberately caused this to occur!? Making matters worse, was that in some of these letters l was receiving requests for money to be sent and products, in others l was receiving money with shopping lists of things to buy and send back?!
The final straw came, when l received a marriage proposal, with the offer of healthy children from a good wife!! She even included pictures which when l saw them, l gulped hard! My father snatched these away from me, and told me to NEVER mention these to my mother! Which l never did!
The following week, we were receiving nasty letters from the postal office, they had five sacks of letters for Mr Rory Matier and what were they supposed to do with them? They needed collecting, or returning? I chose – Return to Sender!
I never wrote to another pen friend or pen pal ever again, now two things happened after this incident … one a few weeks later when l was in class retelling my story and the class laughed so hard that suddenly people were talking to me and the second one happened months later in January 1978. I received two letters, one from Ashana in Guyana, who called me an evil nasty boy who was unkind for not writing back or not sending money to her family, and upsetting everyone in her school for having their letters returned, and the second was from a girl in Hong Kong called Jennifer Chu asking if it would be alright if she could pass my name over to some friends of hers?
You can imagine my answer!