Standing on the beach at low tide, I felt my toe tap against something hard: a glass bottle was half-buried in the sand. Small and cylindrical with a fat round cork, it was the kind of bottle you’d keep herbs or spices in. Curious, I picked it up. The sea had done little to discolour the glass; the bottle probably hadn’t been in the water for very long. But as I looked, I discovered to my amazement that it contained a folded piece of paper, burned brown by the sun filtering through the glass. Could this actually be the classic message in a bottle? The note was accompanied by a penny coin. Whoever had written it had included a tithe to good luck. The message must be important.
The cork was rammed in hard and sealed with a fine layer of sand, but I managed to prise it open and extracted the folded paper. It was surprisingly well-preserved and perfectly dry, if a little stiff. When I opened it, there was indeed a message, written in in capital letters: “I WANT A GOOD JOB!”. Just like that. No ‘please’, no ‘I wish I could have…’, just ‘I WANT…’ and an exclamation mark to underline the demand. Was that any way to ask the universe for a favour?, I wondered. The note was written in English and the tide had almost certainly brought it straight back to the very beach from which it had been thrown; the beach where I was standing. Had the writer made similarly disappointing progress? It seemed likely, given the tone of the request.
I found the next call to action in a tea shop. I had gone in when it started to rain and sat down at the nearest table, which still had an empty tea cup and a plate of crumbs left by the previous client. A scrap of paper protruded from under the saucer. Another message! I pulled it out and found that it was wrapped around two pound coins. On the paper someone had written: “This is for the waitress with red hair, NOT for you!” I looked up and saw that there was indeed a waitress with red hair. She was wiping a table not far away.
I was embarrassed by the idea of handing over someone else’s tip. It felt like taking the credit. Not only that, but the second part of the message made me feel strangely uncomfortable, as if I had in fact considered pocketing the money. I tucked the coins and the note back under the saucer and moved quickly to another table, preferring to let the red-haired waitress discover the money herself. Before she could do that, however, two young women, students probably, ran into the teashop laughing and shaking the rain from their hair. They sat down at the table I had just left, and, like me, discovered the coins and the note. One of them read it and tutted loudly, rolling her eyes, before pushing one of the pound coins across the table to her friend and slipping the other into her pocket. “Some kind soul’s given us a discount,” she said and they both snorted with laughter.
Evidently this second message, like the first, had not fulfilled the author’s intentions.
After that, I seemed to hear mis-phrased messages everywhere. A young mother at a zebra crossing screamed at her little boy, “I’m warning you! You’ll get a smack if you do that again!”, when what she really meant was: “Please pay attention when you cross the road. I’m terrified of you getting hurt.” A frail old man with a walking stick angrily shouted, “Bloody hooligans!” at a gang of young kids as they raced past him on their BMXs. A more accurate statement would have been: “My balance isn’t good these days. If I fall over, I’ll probably break something, so please be careful!”
I found the last message of the day in a second hand bookshop. It was written on the inside cover of a well-used volume of poetry. It said, “Martin Beale’s book. Hands off!” The book had obviously been through several hands since Martin had signed it. In fact, some bright spark had written, “Jim’s book now!” with a smiley face. I bought it and took it back to the beach, where, at last, a ray of sunshine was illuminating the wet sand.
I retrieved the glass bottle from my jacket pocket, tore off a piece of paper of the paper bag from the bookshop and sat down on a rock to compose a message of my own. I considered all the things I needed, but the list was too long for just one wish, so in the end I wrote: “This person needs help. Is there anything you can do?” I wrapped my note around the original brown one, replaced the penny and the cork and, with a little wish for good luck, I threw the bottle as far as I could out into the sea.