These days, emails and texts have replaced the art of letter writing, but what happens if the email address has a mistake such as a .com instead of a .co.uk? This story is based on a real experience when I found I was receiving emails for someone else with the same name as me – although real life started and ended with a polite message to the sender to let her know of her mistake. In this story, I imagine what life would be like for two people who meet via a wrongly sent email and whether such an occurrence would ever end in something more than friendship.
Francesca Greenstone rereads the email, feeling perplexed.
“Hi Fran,” it begins. “It was good to see you and the kids last weekend. I think Mum enjoyed having us together under one roof again, despite the noise. Any thoughts for a present for her birthday? J x”
What kids? she wonders. And, Who on earth is this person?
It’s obviously a case of mistaken identity: the only friends she has whose names begin with J are Justine and Julie from work, and they never get together at weekends. Besides, she thinks now, wrinkling her forehead as she tries to remember, she spent most of last weekend in bed with a migraine. Whoever this email was meant for, it definitely wasn’t her.
It takes another three emails – one thanking her for choosing the scarf which “Mum really loved” and the other two asking about holiday plans – before she can pluck up the courage to reply, apologetically, that “I think you’ve got the wrong person.”
Almost immediately, she receives another message. “So sorry. I must have mistyped my sister’s email address – she’s Fran Greenstone too, but .com and not .co.uk. Jon”
Greenstone isn’t a common name. A part of her wonders whether they might be related in some way, but she’s too reserved to ask. Besides, if his sister has children, she’s probably married and inherited the name ‘Greenstone’ as part of the deal.
She doesn’t hear again from Jon for weeks, is on the verge of emailing him to check he’s okay when another erroneously addressed message pops up on her screen. Her feeling of pleasure at noticing the signature is dispelled instantly as she peruses the contents. His wife has left him and he is struggling to cope.
Impulsively, she types a response. “It’s me again – the wrong Fran. I’m so sorry about your wife.”
She’s not expecting him to answer, but he sends a brief line, thanking her for her support and promising to try not to make the same mistake again. Does he mean marrying the wrong woman, or emailing the wrong person? she wonders, thinking about how lonely he must feel – how lonely she herself is – with no significant other to share life’s ups and downs.
Over the next few months, he emails her regularly, laying bare his heart as he talks about the break-up and how much he misses his wife. She too knows the pain of abandonment – was going to get married years ago but was left, not at the altar but at the reception, when she caught her hours-old husband kissing another woman. Wisely, she mentions none of this in her exchanges with Jon – this isn’t about her: it’s about him and getting him through the pain. From time to time, she allows herself to dream that their virtual relationship will blossom into something more; but she’s never even seen a photo of him, knows next to nothing about him apart from the pain he’s poured out recently. Instead, she is his shoulder to cry on, the sounding board for his questions, the safe harbour in his sea of confusion. If only, she thinks wistfully from time to time, someone loved me enough to miss me like that.
Gradually, as time passes, his venting becomes more infrequent and so do his emails. It’s almost as if fate conspired to push both of them together at a time when Jon needed it most but is now gently prising them apart again so that life can begin once more. If she feels a twinge of loss at his withdrawal, she says nothing: serendipity introduced them but didn’t promise a happy ending. Perhaps sometimes, she thinks, friendship has a predetermined shelf-life, and the date on her connection with Jon has already expired.
She still checks her inbox on a daily basis, but his name has been absent for months. From time to time, she tells herself that this is a good thing, that he’s moved on; nevertheless, she finds she misses those emails from a man she didn’t know.
Christmas comes, and with it an e-greeting from some website or another, depicting an animated snowman and other suitably festive clichés. The message reads simply, ‘Thanks for helping me out last summer, J x’
She dutifully sends a reply: some carol-singing mice who squeak ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’ when the attachment is opened. She’d much prefer a physical card, but they’ve never exchanged addresses or even phone numbers: they exist for each other only within the shadowy world of the internet.
For some years, their communication is intermittent at best – birthday wishes; the odd joke. He’s met someone else now, and so has she; but she still dreams of what might have been, rereading all of his old emails on the nights when Rick’s working late. It isn’t cheating, she tells herself: she and Jon never kissed, never even met. All the same, she can’t resist letting her mind wander into the realms of ‘What if …’ She still doesn’t know what Jon looks like, but she imagines someone tall and dark, perhaps with curly hair; visualises them meeting by chance in the city, on a train, in the park … She feels as if her soul would recognise his, as if something inexplicable would draw them together. Lying in bed, she tries not to picture his hands cupping her face as he kisses her tenderly; attempts to shut out the longing she feels to see him just once, to put her mind at rest.
It seems like a cruel twist of fate when the final misdirected missive for his sister turns up in her inbox, but at least the wedding photo shows her what Jon looks like, smiling at his new bride with all the optimism of fresh love. Her hand hovers over the ‘download’ icon, then she thinks better of it and presses ‘delete’ instead. Closing her laptop, she turns to the man sitting next to her and tries not to think of the emails that she will no longer receive.