The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

The Good Postman

Jan Carson


It takes approximately half an hour.

In the two week run up to Christmas it can take almost twice as long. For this reason alone, he hates Christmas.

(He is quick to point out to the religious lady who lives next door that this hatred of the Advent season is work-related, and in no ways anti-Christian. ‘I like a bit of the Baby Jesus as much as the next bloke,’ he claims, when accepting her annual Christmas card, ‘Away in a Manger and Cliff Richard and all that Christian guff; it’s nice for the kiddies isn’t it?’ The religious lady who lives next door, nods earnestly and congratulates herself on the appropriate nature of this year’s Christmas card, carefully selected for its coupling of a non-offensive snow scene with a strongly evangelistic text. She says nothing out loud, but prays the silent fear of God into the envelope before releasing it into her neighbour’s hand).

On normal days it takes approximately thirty minutes.

Every morning he follows the same route; up the left side and down the right. He has long since abandoned the notion of cycling. A bicycle is a liability keeping him anchored to the same pillar, retracing his steps after every third house. 

He carries a heavy, tarpaulin bag, slung like a seatbelt over his right shoulder. Over the years, (twenty two on this route alone), the strap has worn a deep, religious groove across his shoulder blade and breastplate. At night, in bed, he likes to trace this line from beginning to end, quietly reminding himself of who he is and what he does. He has never been the praying sort, but this solitary ritual has kept him humble and penitent for the better part of three decades.

There are forty seven houses in all: twenty four odds on the right and twenty three evens on the left. The going gets easier around the mid-twenties; by house number forty six, (the last on the even side), his bag is generally half empty. He works his way along the odd side from greatest to least, enjoying the marked decline to house number one.

He prides himself on finishing the street by seven thirty am.

The early start allows him to avoid human contact with everyone aside from the man in twenty six. Even then their relationship runs to little more than a casual wave, or at very most, ‘Good morning,’ as the man backs his car out of number twenty six’s gravel drive.

No-one in the street knows his name though the little girl in number thirteen, influenced by the children’s program of the same name, has taken to calling him Pat when she speaks of him over the breakfast table.

‘Pat has been again,’ she sometimes says, while depositing the morning’s mail on top of her Father’s cereal bowl, ‘But it’s only boring, grown up letters today.’

‘Please, don’t drop the post into my cornflakes,’ her Father answers, exasperated by her morning routine.

His name is not Pat. No one in the street knows his real name. Names are not necessary in his line of work.

He enjoys his work and has never considered a career change.

Two weeks after Halloween, his Mother dies. She is ninety two years old at the time of her death. It is hardly a tragedy. He tells himself this, ‘She was very old. It’s hardly a tragedy.’

He takes a week off work.

‘Take a second week,’ the Boss says, but he refuses.

He does not enjoy holidays as people with small children or dogs enjoy holidays. He is not a traveler or a watcher of television. He takes two weeks (compulsory), leave in the summer and five days at Christmas. He uses these weeks to paint various parts of his house which require painting and to fix things which, over the course of the year, have come unfixed. An extra week’s leave would be quite unnecessary.

‘No thank you,’ he says when the Boss insists upon a second week’s leave, ‘one week will be quite adequate. She was very old, after all. It’s hardly a tragedy.’

Nevertheless, the death of his Mother throws him slightly.  He finds himself on one occasion, pouring orange juice over his morning cornflakes, and, on a second, leaving the house still wearing a pair of tartan print slippers.

The religious lady next door is concerned. She makes him a chicken casserole and leaves it on his front doorstep with instructions for reheating. (She also takes the opportunity to slip through his letterbox a bereavement card. On the front of this card are a pair of white-sheathed lilies, embracing a Celtic cross. ‘Sorry to hear of your loss,’ the inside reads. Of course the religious lady does not miss the chance to include a timely Bible verse, hand-printed on the reverse. She smiles to herself as she slides the card through the letterbox, imagining all sorts of eternal possibilities).

He eats chicken casserole for dinner three nights in a row and, on the morning of the fourth, finding the dish still one quarter full, fashions himself a pair of fat, casserole sandwiches for lunch time eating.

He positions the bereavement card, unread, upon the mantelpiece, shifting his grandfather’s retirement clock two inches left to make room.

He phones his elderly aunt in Eastbourne.

‘I’m terribly sorry for your loss,’ he says. At the time he means it.

Thirty seconds after the phone call has ended, he begins to question his own good sense. ‘Surely,’ he thinks, ‘She should have been sorry for my loss. I’d assume that a mother is a larger loss than a sister. Perhaps I should have waited for her to phone me.’

After seven days official mourning he returns to work. Nothing has changed. There are still forty seven houses: twenty four odds on the right and twenty three evens on the left. It continues to take approximately half an hour to progress up the right side and down the left. Nothing has changed, but the man feels completely different.

He feels younger first thing in the morning.

In the five minute gap between eyes open and empty bladder, he considers the possibility of taking a night class. Though not quite convinced to action, the night class remains a recurring thought twenty odd mornings in a row.

He makes the switch from tea to instant coffee. He feels terribly European. He starts taking showers in the morning. Previously he has always showered in the evenings; making the most of the ten minute gap between the local news and Coronation Street. Now he showers in the morning, standing up with a shower cap on.

He experiments with unauthorized subtractions and additions to the official uniform. On Monday he wears a pair of sky blue socks, on Tuesday a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young button - left over from his youth - pinned to the strap of his shoulder bag. On Wednesday he replaces his uniform shirt with the top half of a Tottenham Hotspur kit, hidden beneath his waterproof jacket. On Thursday it rains, so he wears Wellington boots. On the heavily-inclined even side his feet sweat uncontrollably. He smiles to himself, greatly enamoured to have a brand new sensation attached to each ankle.

No one notices any of these additions or subtractions.

On Friday, liberated by the previous four days, he leaves home without his standard issue postal hat. Standing on the welcome mat he entertains a brief moment of restraint, running his finger lightly along the plastic brim before hooking the hat over the banister and, for the first time in almost thirty years, leaving home bare-headed.

All morning he feels odd and naked and capable of remarkable things. He begins to notice things he has never noticed before.

The downstairs lights in number twenty one are always on. The man in number sixteen has left, leaving his wife’s Volkswagen alone on the gravel drive. The people in number seven still have their Christmas wreath pinned to the front door. The lady in eleven has taken up cycling.

‘Now,’ he asks himself, pondering the mountain bike which has suddenly replaced her silver, grey Vauxhall, ‘Do you suppose she’s cycling on account of the recession or is she just trying to lose weight?’

He considers carrying a notebook to record his questions and the occasional, appropriate observation.

Mrs. Hamilton in twenty nine is pregnant again. The children in thirty five have outgrown their swing-set. Mr. Ellis in forty one is still sleeping on the sofa. The cat from number fifteen is in cahoots with the cat from thirty two. They do it loudly in the bins between five and three every morning at seven fifteen.

Though banal, these observations might form the bedrock for conversation should he ever chance to come upon one of the street’s residents in a different situation; Tesco’s for example, in the waiting room at the health centre, or down the local pub after work.

He begins to fantasize about being one of those friendly postmen who receive shortbread biscuits and cards at Christmas.

For the first time in thirty years he allows himself to wonder about the people behind the front doors. He pictures them fat and thin and getting on in years, doing cooking and sex and calisthenics off a VHS tape; arguing in their dressing gowns and drinking beer in tins and playing Trivial Pursuit with the grandkids. He imagines them waiting for his arrival, opening their letters and parcels, smiling and frowning and reluctantly paying off this month’s slice of the credit card bill.

For two weeks he is delighted to realise that he is boring and predictable and part of the monotonous rhythm of the street.

‘They’d miss me if I weren’t here,’ he tells himself, ‘Things would fall apart without me.’ For two whole weeks this realization is more than enough to keep him grinning in his Wellington boots.

Halfway through the third week, things change.

He finds a bicycle bell in the street, outside the library.  It’s in perfect working order and still rings shrilly when pinched. He slips it into his pocket and takes it home. The bell is wasted on him. He doesn’t own a bicycle. However, the lady in number eleven owns a bicycle without a bell.

He places the bicycle bell on his bedside table and falls asleep staring at the streetlamp, reflected in its shiny surface.

He is in two minds about the bicycle bell. He dreams of ringing bells - large church bells with ropes and towers - and wakes to find the bicycle bell has not moved a solitary inch.

He slides out of bed, pulls on his dressing gown and slippers and pads into the bathroom for a piss. When he returns the bicycle bell is still there, watching him voyeuristically throughout the dressing process. Once dressed, he pockets the bell, sliding it into his jacket pocket where it will be blind and incapable of passing judgment.

He considers phoning his elderly aunt. ‘If you found a bicycle bell in the street,’ he’d ask, ‘Would you deliver it to a lady you don’t know who doesn’t have a bicycle bell?’ The idea of phoning his aunt is ridiculous. She will not understand. She is not a postman. Besides, it is 6:30 am and the aunt is a late riser.

He has a slice of toast and leaves the house still chewing. He has not yet made his mind up about the bicycle bell.

He walks all the way up the even side and halfway down the odd side. Outside number eleven, he puts one hand in his pocket and gives the bell a final pinch. It rings dully, muffled by two layers of cloth. He lifts it out and looks at it carefully. He can see the outline of his own head, like a foggy, out of focus cloud, reflected in the brass dome. He walks over to the door of number eleven, slides three letters through the slot and hangs the bell, by its leather strap, from the door handle.

He feels like a Christmas candle inside.

The next morning he brings Jaffa Cakes for the kids at thirty five. He has no idea whether they will eat them or find it odd, and faintly unsettling, to discover chocolate biscuits waiting on their front door step. He doesn’t care. He feels remarkable all morning and well into the evening news.

Over the course of the next week, he leaves pickled onion crisps on the doorstep of number forty six and two dozen roses, scattered across the windshield of the solitary Volkswagen now parked outside number sixteen. Perhaps the lady who lives there, driving her Volkswagen to work and back five times a week, will assume her husband has returned bringing Marks and Spencer’s roses as a peace offering. He imagines her smiling, colouring slightly perhaps as she arranges the roses in a cut glass vase.

He cannot see the harm in it, so he continues: tinned soup for the elderly lady in number eight, a kitten for the little girl in thirteen who still insists upon calling him Pat, a subscription to Women’s Realm for the nice lady with the well-kept garden.

He cannot stop himself. He feels fifteen years younger than his last birthday. He starts to take a night class every Thursday afternoon at the local Tech.

At night he lies awake admiring the cut of his ceiling and inventing new ways to creep into their homes and kitchens.

He hangs handmade snowflakes from the edges of their doorposts. He bakes a birthday cake for every adult in the street; a proper birthday cake with lightable candles. He opens credit card bills and pays this month’s instalment and the next month’s in advance. He videos a particularly good wildlife documentary off the television and leaves the VHS cassette, already rewound, on a front door step. He drives fifty miles out of his way to send holiday postcards home. ‘Missing you, more than you’ll ever know,’ he writes in a purposefully indistinguishable hand, and neglects to sign his name.

The religious lady next door notices his new demeanour.  At first she attributes it to alcohol. ‘Men of his age often hit the bottle,’ she reminds herself. However, she is then reminded of her bereavement card and also her Christmas card - posted characteristically early - and realises that the man has become converted and is now full of the ‘Joy of the Lord’. She says nothing to the man, but tells everyone at her Wednesday Night Prayer and Bible Study. All the brothers and sisters rejoice with varying degrees of visible enthusiasm and subsequently insist that the man be brought along to the Wednesday Night Prayer and Bible Study the following week. The religious lady next door instantly regrets her eagerness. ‘I think he has night class on a Wednesday,’ she says. It is the truth but it may as well be a lie.

As Christmas approaches a strange thing begins to happen in the street. The man notices it first on the odd side, but within a few days the phenomena is equally apparent on the even side.

At first it is one loaf of bread on the doorstep of number twenty one.

The man picks it up, examines it, noting the blue mould, furring over the exterior slices and, realizing it is intended for him, slips it into his shoulder bag and leaves.

Two houses down, a broken vase is waiting for him, leaning against the red, patent door. He pockets the vase and also the dead flowers waiting at number six.

As the week continues, all manner of unwanted treasures are left out in anticipation of his arrival: a dead goldfish in a soup bowl, a large leather-bound Bible, a pile of faded love letters from the lady at number thirteen and a child’s bicycle, featuring a cartoon character once popular in the 1980s.

He is forced to bring a wheelbarrow to work, piling it high with all the things people wish to get rid of.

It now takes approximately one and a half hours to do the street. He doesn’t mind. He simply sets his alarm clock for an hour earlier, and returns to the old practice of showering in the evening.

Each morning he loads his wheelbarrow high with good, good things and wearies his way up the even side and down the odd, depositing a treasure on each doorstep and silently removing whatever has been left for him.

On rare occasions, he is able to make a swap; one person’s sadness for a second person’s delight. Thus, a child’s bicycle rejected by the middle-aged couple at number two finds its way unto the front door step of number twenty three, only to be greeted with wild, childish enthusiasm. For the most part, however, he simply removes the unpleasantness and replaces it with something more palatable.

He is a service provider; not only necessary but capable of blessing, and if he should so wish, also souring the early morning moments of those he visits.

On the Wednesday morning of the following week he picks up his first human being; Mr. Ellis, the sofa sleeper from number forty one, still wearing last night’s pyjamas. He arranges Mr. Ellis carefully in the bottom of the wheel barrow, butt first to form a kind of right angle. He does his best to avoid eye contact, picks up the handles and attempts to continue on his round.

‘Aren’t you going to ask what happened?’ Mr. Ellis asks, twisting to meet his eye.

‘No,’ he replies. It is the truth. He has no desire to know why Mr. Ellis has found his way into the wheelbarrow.

‘Maybe I want to tell you.’

‘I don’t want to know.’

‘Listen here, mate, you can’t just swan up our drives every morning and take things off people. It’s not what postmen do.’

‘I give things back too.’

‘A packet of biscuits or a bunch of carnations is no fair trade for carting off someone’s husband of thirty five years.’

‘Look, Mr. Ellis I didn’t ask for you. I just take the things people want to get rid of. I make it easy for them. I’m a nice person. I make things easy for people.’

‘You just take the things that people aren’t strong enough to get rid of by themselves. There’s certain things that should be hard to get rid of. Do you know what I mean?’

‘Yes,’ he says, and lifting the handles of the wheelbarrow tips Mr. Ellis, nose first, into his very own rosebush.

He finishes delivering the morning letters and, ignoring the cast-offs waiting on the doorsteps of each house he visits, completes his round in record time.

He feels like a hospital inside. He sleeps on his sadness and the next morning feels equally unremarkable.

He drives across town, parks his car at the bottom of the street, and beginning on the even side, progresses backwards and forwards across the street, delivering the day’s mail. As he criss-crosses yards and fences, tarmac drives and perfectly manicured lawns, he steps over the shrapnel of everyday sorrow: two broken pushchairs, a dead Labrador, last year’s holiday snaps, a particularly difficult phone call, a whole box full of wigs.

He resists the temptation to get involved. Instead he weaves as he walks, unfurling a large ball of red yarn so it reaches backwards and forwards across the street, tying one door to the next, tangling all the yards together in a glorious Christmassy crow’s nest. And, where the yarn has become entwined with the broken things - the ex-husbands and dead pets, the old diaries and incomplete degrees - he simply leaves it be, allowing the knots and tangles free reign of the street.

When finished, he looks at his watch. It is only 6:45 am. This has been the earliest round of his career.

He glances up the street towards number forty seven, where the first bathroom lights are beginning to blink, and notes the red, red yarn, running like telegraph wires and turtle doves between the odds and the evens and yards which hold them apart.

‘That’s the way it should be,’ he says. He feels like a long weekend inside.

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