The Way Down by A. A. Milne

Sydney Smith, or Napoleon or Marcus Aurelius (somebody about that time) said that after ten days any letter would answer itself. You see what he meant. Left to itself your invitation from the Duchess to lunch next Tuesday is no longer a matter to worry about by Wednesday morning. You were either there or not there; it is unnecessary to write now and say that a previous invitation from the Prime Minister–and so on. It was Napoleon’s idea (or Dr. Johnson’s or Mark Antony’s–one of that circle) that all correspondence can be treated in this manner.

I have followed these early Masters (or whichever one it was) to the best of my ability. At any given moment in the last few years there have been ten letters that I absolutely must write, thirty which I ought to write, and fifty which any other person in my position would have written. Probably I have written two. After all, when your profession is writing, you have some excuse for demanding a change of occupation in your leisure hours. No doubt if I were a coal-heaver by day, my wife would see to the fire after dinner while I wrote letters. As it is, she does the correspondence, while I gaze into the fire and think about things.

You will say, no doubt, that this was all very well before the War, but that in the Army a little writing would be a pleasant change after the day’s duties. Allow me to disillusion you. If, years ago, I had ever conceived a glorious future in which my autograph might be of value to the more promiscuous collectors, that conception has now been shattered. Four years in the Army has absolutely spoilt the market. Even were I revered in the year 2000 A.D. as Shakespeare is revered now, my half-million autographs, scattered so lavishly on charge-sheets, passes, chits, requisitions, indents and applications would keep the price at a dead level of about ten a penny. No, I have had enough of writing in the Army and I never want to sign my own name again. “Yours sincerely, Herbert Asquith,” “Faithfully yours, J. Jellicoe”–these by all means; but not my own.

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However, I wrote a letter in the third year of the war; it was to the bank. It informed the Manager that I had arrived in London from France and should be troubling them again shortly, London being to all appearances an expensive place. It also called attention to my new address–a small furnished flat in which Celia and I could just turn round if we did it separately. When it was written, then came the question of posting it. I was all for waiting till the next morning, but Celia explained that there was actually a letterbox on our own floor, twenty yards down the passage. I took the letter along and dropped it into the slit.

Then a wonderful thing happened. It went

Flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty– flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–FLOP.

I listened intently, hoping for more … but that was all. Deeply disappointed that it was over, but absolutely thrilled with my discovery, I hurried back to Celia.

“Any letters you want posted?” I said in an off-hand way.

“No, thank you,” she said.

“Have you written any while we’ve been here?”

“I don’t think I’ve had anything to write.”

“I think,” I said reproachfully, “it’s quite time you wrote to your–your bank or your mother or somebody.”

She looked at me and seemed to be struggling for words.

“I know exactly what you’re going to say,” I said, “but don’t say it; write a little letter instead.”

“Well, as a matter of fact I must just write a note to the laundress.”

“To the laundress,” I said. “Of course, just a note.”

When it was written I insisted on her coming with me to post it. With great generosity I allowed her to place it in the slit. A delightful thing happened. It went

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Flipperty–flipperty–flipperty

flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty

flipperty–flipperty–FLOP.

Right down to the letter-box in the hall. Two flipperties a floor. (A simple calculation shows that we are perched on the fifth floor. I am glad now that we live so high. It must be very dull to be on the fourth floor with only eight flipperties, unbearable to be on the first with only two.)

O-oh! How fas-cinating!” said Celia.

“Now don’t you think you ought to write to your mother?”

“Oh, I must.”

She wrote. We posted it. It went.

Flipperty–flipperty –However, you know all about that now.

Since this great discovery of mine, life has been a more pleasurable business. We feel now that there are romantic possibilities about Letters setting forth on their journey from our floor. To start life with so many flipperties might lead to anything. Each time that we send a letter off we listen in a tremble of excitement for the final FLOP, and when it comes I think we both feel vaguely that we are still waiting for something. We are waiting to hear some magic letter go flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty… and behold! there is no FLOP … and still it goes on–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–growing fainter in the distance … until it arrives at some wonderland of its own. One day it must happen so. For we cannot listen always for that FLOP, and hear it always; nothing in this world is as inevitable as that. One day we shall look at each other with awe in our faces and say, “But it’s still flipperting!” and from that time forward the Hill of Campden will be a place holy and enchanted. Perhaps on Midsummer Eve–

At any rate I am sure that it is the only way in which to post a letter to Father Christmas.

Well, what I want to say is this: if I have been a bad correspondent in the past I am a good one now; and Celia, who was always a good one, is a better one. It takes at least ten letters a day to satisfy us, and we prefer to catch ten different posts. With the ten in your hand together there is always a temptation to waste them in one wild rush of flipperties, all catching each other up. It would be a great moment, but I do not think we can afford it yet; we must wait until we get more practised at letter-writing. And even then I am doubtful; for it might be that, lost in the confusion of that one wild rush, the magic letter would start on its way–flipperty–flipperty–to the never-land, and we should forever have missed it.

So, friends, acquaintances, yes, and even strangers, I beg you now to give me another chance. I will answer your letters, how gladly. I still think that Napoleon (or Canute or the younger Pliny–one of the pre-Raphaelites) took a perfectly correct view of his correspondence … but then he never had a letter-box which went

Flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty

flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty–flipperty

flipperty–FLOP.

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