Excerpt from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

A Novel

by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2012, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2013, 368 pages

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1
Harold and the Letter

The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelled of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbors’ stockade fencing.

“Harold!” called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. “Post!”

He thought he might like to go out, but the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday. The vacuum tumbled into silence, and his wife appeared, looking cross, with a letter. She sat opposite Harold.

Maureen was a slight woman with a cap of silver hair and a brisk walk. When they first met, nothing had pleased him more than to make her laugh. To watch her neat frame collapse into unruly happiness. “It’s for you,” she said. He didn’t know what she meant until she slid an envelope across the table, and stopped it just short of Harold’s elbow. They both looked at the letter as if they had never seen one before. It was pink. “The postmark says Berwick-upon-Tweed.”

He didn’t know anyone in Berwick. He didn’t know many people anywhere. “Maybe it’s a mistake.”

“I think not. They don’t get something like a postmark wrong.” She took toast from the rack. She liked it cold and crisp.

Harold studied the mysterious envelope. Its pink was not the color of the bathroom suite, or the matching towels and fluffed cover for the toilet seat. That was a vivid shade that made Harold feel he shouldn’t be there. But this was delicate. A Turkish Delight pink. His name and address were scribbled in ballpoint, the clumsy letters collapsing into one another as if a child had dashed them off in a hurry: Mr. H. Fry, 13 Fossebridge Road, Kingsbridge, South Hams. He didn’t recognize the handwriting.

“Well?” said Maureen, passing a knife. He held it to the corner of the envelope, and tugged it through the fold. “Careful,” she warned.

He could feel her eyes on him as he eased out the letter, and prodded back his reading glasses. The page was typed, and addressed from a place he didn’t know: St. Bernadine’s Hospice. Dear Harold, This may come to you as some surprise. His eyes ran to the bottom of the page.

“Well?” said Maureen again.

“Good lord. It’s from Queenie Hennessy.”

Maureen speared a nugget of butter with her knife and flattened it the length of her toast. “Queenie who?”

“She worked at the brewery. Years ago. Don’t you remember?”

Maureen shrugged. “I don’t see why I should. I don’t know why I’d remember someone from years ago. Could you pass the jam?”

“She was in finances. She was very good.”

“That’s the marmalade, Harold. Jam is red. If you look at things before you pick them up, you’ll find it helps.”

Harold passed her what she needed and returned to his letter. Beautifully set out, of course; nothing like the muddled writing on the envelope. Then he smiled, remembering this was how it always was with Queenie: everything she did so precise you couldn’t fault it. “She remembers you. She sends her regards.”

Maureen’s mouth pinched into a bead. “A chap on the radio was saying the French want our bread. They can’t get it sliced in France. They come over here and they buy it all up. The chap said there might be a shortage by summer.” She paused. “Harold? Is something the matter?”

He said nothing. He drew up tall with his lips parted, his face bleached. His voice, when at last it came, was small and far away. “It’s—cancer. Queenie is writing to say goodbye.” He fumbled for more words but there weren’t any. Tugging a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, Harold blew his nose. “I um. Gosh.” Tears crammed his eyes.

Excerpted from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Copyright © 2012 by Rachel Joyce. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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