Once upon a time there was a red-brick, seventies-modern style, four-storey building situated off town centre. In the afternoon/evening all the mail collected from pillar boxes, companies and post offices in the region was conveyed here in mail vans of varying shapes and capacities. The mail was collated then segregated, according to size or payment method or both and dispatched according to its destination at various times during the evening shift. The further the mail had to travel the earlier it needed to exit the office. But the bottom line was that any mail outside the immediate postal district had to be resting on the last van leaving at 22:30.
It’s a simple methodology and yet it seldom works as pedantically as the system intended. Nevertheless there were fail-safe techniques designed to pull any bumbling shift-manager out of the shit. One was the walkie-talkie which all the managers carried. This accessory was as necessary to them as any bling, ipod nano, MP3, mobile-phone or other such accoutrement was to the average teenager. These two-dimensional automatons, usually dearth in the art of mail logistics, people skills and man-management, had unmitigated imaginations when it came to the carriage and use of the device. Like latter-day Kids (the Billy and Sundance variety) they would slip the radio onto their trousers or belts at various degrees (circumference-wise) and convenience (midriff bulge-wise) The position not only determined the style by which the wearer would rip the walkie-talkie from its harness and into their greasy palm but, far more crucially, it dictated the way they walked.
The younger managers and those that were acting managers (substitutes on a temporary basis) either wore them at the side or at the rear, usually without a belt. Those that adopted the side method favoured the delivery over habit. They would reach for their tool with a determined arching arm that would swoop down on its prey and lift it swiftly to the greedy mouth as if to swallow it whole within micro seconds of the first crackle of radio wave. Their ex-postman’s gait, emancipated by heavy post bags and three-hourly walks a day, was transformed into a swagger; their hips thrusting left and then right, as if they were about to burst into a local saloon to confront and dispatch the bad guy. This mannerism seemed to alter the behaviour of their backsides which, after a while, would jut out further and further as if an extension was being added to it. If, or any particular reason, they’d back into a room their arse would enter a full minute before the rest of their anatomy.
Those that favoured wearing the radio at the rear, were substansive (permanent) managers, and they always wore belts. In their previous incarnations as postmen or in their private life when they used to be part of the human race, they couldn’t have spelt the word belt never mind wear one. So these were the only belts they had ever worn and very soon, after further purchases, the ornament would become more and more abstruse and extensive. Consequently the grasping of the radio was initially awkward, but was more than compensated by the strut that developed between the anus and the parasite resting neatly across the top of either cheek. However with weeks of practice at home in front of the mirror, miming the Taxi Driver scene, they developed a snatch that rivalled De Niro’s and could have the radio nestling in their fingers long before Travis Bickle could declaim: “Are you looking at me?”
The last batch was the obese or those on the short path to obesity via the lack of exercise and better life style afforded to them from the overpaid and overvalued management grade. They had belts for sure but were unable to use them for radio purposes because they struggled to attach it due to the scarcity of space between the flab and the leather holding the fatty tissue in place. Those that had persevered abandoned the fashion almost instantly after the first night as the constant thrusting of the radio clip between stomach and pelt slowly loosened its grip on the waist with the result that they spent most of the shift holding up their pants and dropping the radio.
Nevertheless once owned the radio was a manager’s best friend, his confidant and the implement by which he could, to misquote Scott, “weave his tangled web” especially during dispatch times. “They’re just tying the last lot up now” was one old stand-by. Another: “Only half a dozen bags left for the chute” the chute being the vessel which slid the outgoing mail bags from the processing floor on 3 to the loading dock on the ground.
Since the late shift dock manager was far too pressed in ensuring that the dispatching heavy-goods vehicles were loaded up to the best of their capacity and that her staff hadn’t absconded for a sly fag, a pint or an early finish, there was no way for them to check that what was being transmitted to them from above was anything other than the truth.
Very soon, with pained experience, they concluded that the only true thing that ever emanated from above was a shit-storm from the biggest arse in the postal business. When a processing manager said there were six bags left he meant sixty bags. One could consider this process of disinformation as Pythonesque if one could credit the mis-informants with the possession of a micro-ounce of intellect.
The other stand-by was the goods lift. Its role was similar to that of the curtain or screen that a magician uses. You place something behind it and it disappears. So it was with the doors on the lifts. You put mail in it destined for the ground floor, the doors shut and when the lift came back the mail was gone! Nobody on the processing floor cared what happened to it after the elevator chugged into life (not to be depended upon) and lowered its cargo away. If the bay was in total carnage with missing vans and mail occupying every square inch of available space they cared not a jot. It had left the floor and as far as they were concerned they’d cleared, even if it would not leave the building on time.
The same would happen at night. All other mails due for the city and its immediate postal district were sent in local vans dispatched hourly throughout the night-shift. The incoming work from around the country was sorted with that retained for the city from the earlier collections. The final dispatch was at 06.00 and the night-shift dock manager would stand there in his bright yellow Ikea park attendant coat like a lemon and listen to the following messages coming from the night processing managers: “We’re just tying up” or “there are only six bags left”
The Mail Centre (Part two)
The Barrier and other entry points
The mail centre had two bay doors to allow entry and exit for all vehicles, accompanied by barriers positioned ten feet inside. The latter were raised and lowered via the appropriate buttons in the gatekeeper’s hut which was situated next to the entry bay. These barriers were notorious for their artificial intelligence. At a whim and without the digit prompt from the gatekeeper they would raise or lower themselves at the most inconvenient of times. They also had certain suicidal tendencies, barrier-wise at least. Occasionally when a vehicle was entering or exiting and they stood in the elevated position, they would suddenly plummet down and collide with the front of the vans, being snapped from their moorings in the process. One never knew what caused them to drop or could ever guess when they would do so again but the Post Office engineers (acronym Romec) displayed remarkable faith in them. Rather than replace them they would simply re-install them.
The main door for pedestrian postmen and women known collectively as “Walkers” and office staff could only be accessed by use of a swipe card. Legitimate visitors could pass via the doorkeeper, who would admit them once a senior manager had sanctioned the appointment. The gatekeepers and doorkeepers were the forgotten staff; their faces and personalities unimportant. They were numerous, more it seemed than required to cover three shifts, and they all resembled the supporting cast from a George Romero film. They would stare directly at you but you were cognisant that the nerve ends and electrical impulses between eye and brain had been disconnected long ago. The only thing that counted for much was their finger. This pressed the buttons that allowed entry to both human and machine alike. As long as the tenuous link between these two organs was maintained the future of the Post Office was secure. They were not allowed to read, write or, God forbid watch films on their portable DVD players (although the latter could be achieved by secreting the machine and setting the sub-title option) These measures were designed to increase security by eradicating any distraction that would enable a thief, or even worse, a Terrorist to sneak past the inattentive sentinel. This was particularly harsh on somebody who was only utilising a small percentage of their human functionality for the larger amount of the time.
One Christmas a young student was asked to cover this duty over the three week “pressure” period. After 8 hours a night, 40 hours a week and 120 hours in total, staring straight ahead and nodding to those who passed her by, she too had inherited the traits of the doorkeeper. Her smile, once bright and engaging, had transfigured itself into a grotesque combination of grin and grimace. Her vocabulary and tone of voice, which on her first night had been extensive and charming, had been reduced to monosyllabic and monotone respectively. Of course the average doorkeeper was never in danger of this kind of intellectual meltdown nevertheless the blatantly obvious upshot to this bureaucratic silliness was that even the most alert of attendants very quickly fell asleep on duty.
This had more effect on the well-being of the staff rather than making for a more secure building. Because the delivery system was dependant on ‘casual’ labour and as the latter seldom wore uniform and very quickly became innumerable, the door/gatekeepers stopped challenging them. All that was required for a thief to slip by was to obtain a postbag, not as hard as it seems, and follow in a legitimate postman with a swipe card during the afternoon. At that time of day the delivery office was unsupervised (the management for that section had long gone home) and so the floor and all it held was theirs.
For the kosher postmen and women, nodding button-pushers were a pain in the nether regions. One particular doorkeeper had gone into such a trance that a postie, who had arrived at two-thirty in the morning for overtime, was unable to raise the un-Lazarus-type creature despite breaking a small bone in his fist thumping in vain on the plexiglass screen that protected him from Joe P. Ironically, at this time of night and in his comatose state, security was actually enhanced as any potential thief required the services of a swipe card to pass Sleeping Beauty.
Our poor postie, however, surrendering the effort of the main door in order to sustain his sanity, stormed around to the bay doors but fared little better here as the gate-keeper was also in the land of Nod. Evidently frustrated and sore from his experience he decided, unwisely, not to bother inviting the slumbering guard back into the conscious world and began to clamber over the barrier. Oh, if only he were a driver and aware of the idiosyncratic nature of that red and white striped fiend. I wonder, even now, if he had attempted to hurdle it and lay little or no weight thereon, he may have escaped unscathed. Alas, and presumably still in a state of annoyance, he pushed down hard on the centre of the barrier and lifted his right leg over to the other side. One could only liken what happened next to the consequences of pulling a donkey’s tail. No sooner had the unfortunate man’s right foot set down on the concrete and he was astride the obstacle, than it decided to raise itself.
It propelled him, air-bound, toward the rows of mopeds and motorcycles parked opposite the gatehouse. Having crashed into the first, rather heavily, the rest went down like dominoes, or better still and in conjunction with the shout of “Strike” from those watching on the bay, like nine-pins. The worker, of course, ignorant of the malevolence of the barrier, and therefore feeling himself the butt of a very callous joke, cursed the very sperm which generated the cell that grew the figure known as the gatekeeper. Nevertheless the clatter created by the inequitable meeting of flesh and metal did finally wake the latter up.
And so the mail centre became a place that readily welcomed that section of society that had no business in being there but was extremely antagonistic toward those who had.
As Roy and Spanner, collection complete, drove through the bay doors the barrier obeyed the commands of the finger dutifully. It raised when the gatekeeper pushed the ‘up’ button and lowered only after Roy’s van had passed safely by and the depression of the ‘down’ button. As it landed it rattled. Roy remarked to himself that there was a familiarity in that sound and for a moment he failed to recognize it. Then it sailed in from the murky depths of memory into the blue sky of cognisance. It was Sandra’s slamming of the front door when he came in shit-faced last Saturday night.
He could never understand her anger. It was another “firm do” as they were colloquially grouped. Non-attendance was unthinkable, at least for Roy, who was the sun around which all other satellites twirled. Sandra had long ceased accompanying him. It wasn’t as if he was bad company, rather the opposite. His anecdotal brilliance was what attracted her to him in the first place. But after a few of these parties and not too long after they had been blue tacked together and always after he had consumed vat of lager, she would become the butt of his jokes; his fat jokes.
If only she’d a modicum of that talent; the facility for a quick riposte or damning put-down, she too could be enjoying a Saturday night drink. As it was she made do with the TV. It perhaps didn’t always provide the entertainment of an evening with Roy but at least it didn’t insult her. She, too, knew about the temperamental barrier, its legendary exploits were widely received, and often prayed that just once it would career down on her husband’s head and send him silly; but that didn’t happen today. Yet, the gatekeeper, espying this from the corner of his vision smiled secretly to himself, because he knew what that rattle meant. No sudden gust had blown in, it was a calm day, and there was no other reason for it to shake, but the day was young.
The Mail Centre (Part Three)
If the barriers could be construed as impish, the lifts were diabolical. Although both sets of goods and passenger lifts were only set to travel three and four floors respectively one sensed that they had hidden depths and that the levels on which they were capable of taking people could be compared to that of Dante’s Inferno. The passenger lifts had a penchant for stopping between floors but never on a floor, to preclude any desperate attempt that could be made to prise open the doors and rescue the prisoner. They also had a curious ability to refuse to open their doors at the floor requested and, before the traveller could react, take off either up or down. One member of staff, heavy set and extremely unfit, was making her way to the canteen on the fourth floor, the top level. As it arrived she motioned toward the doors with the usual expectancy but was astonished to see them open only a matter of centimetres before slamming shut. The lift then heading back toward ground.
Between the first and ground floor there was always a slight delay, we never knew why, but the post woman in this story swears blind to this day that the gap was so extended she was convinced it had skipped ground and was still going. In fact, what made it worse was that the bulb illuminating the ‘G’ for ground needed replacing so that it didn’t light at all. When the doors opened those people waiting for the lift on ground level were greeted by this rather large and quivering jelly curled up in one corner of the lift screaming “I’m not going, I’m not going”. She was off work for a few months but with counselling has recovered. She does not travel in the lifts anymore, using the stairs at all times even when going from ground to four. However, on a more positive note, she lost sixty pounds and has now completed three London marathons.
Roy had never experienced these problems although his most embarrassing moment had occurred within them. He was on a late shift and eaten a rather dodgy curry for dinner before leaving for work. On the way his diaphragm had tightened up and the consequential distended pain across his belly had become so irritating that huge beads of perspiration were pealing down his corpulent cheeks. Despite his stomach turning and twisting, rumbling and rocking, and try as he may he could not expel the gas through either of the usual methods. Knowing that the night canteen staff arrived at around nine o’clock he motioned toward the passenger lifts in want of some bi-carbonate of soda. As he staggered into the one available something shifted in his tummy and he prepared himself for a rather large but relief inducing burst of wind. He depressed the button for the fourth floor and as the doors closed he braced himself but as quickly had to “close ranks” again, as it were, as the doors re-opened and a group of part-time workers, all women, climbed in.
“Three, please” one of them asked and Roy obliged. When one is in pain it seems that Time becomes a master of sadism. Not only did the lift appear to require double the time between floors it antagonised the situation by stopping on one and two as well, allowing others in.
Roy was now surrounded by women all destined toward the third floor and was clenching his cheeks as if he had awoken from a nightmare and found himself in a San Francisco bath-house. However with patience and persistence he held out and once reached the ladies piled out onto floor three. The doors then closed, and remained so, and the lift hummed as it pulled upwards one more floor. Roy released his grip and the lift itself responded with a tremor as the trapped gas forced its way into the air. A smile drew itself along Roy’s face but was quickly supplanted by a look of shock and crimson cheeks. As the doors opened on the fourth floor a small woman who had been standing behind Roy at the back of the lift, flew out, like Marion Jones on a double dosage, holding her nose and sobbing.
The goods lifts were Royal Mail’s equivalent of the twilight zone. Their digital floor displays were meaningless. One would state, quite categorically, that it was out of order, and yet mail was being sent up and down in quite the normal manner. Sometimes they would signal that the lift was on the third floor and yet visual evidence from those actually on that floor and peeking into the small observation window that lined up with a similar glass on the lift offered a contrary position. All they saw was darkness, black and thick. This would in turn lead to panic, particularly when a dispatch was in process. As with all professional companies the Post Office had tight schedules and adhered to them religiously, or about as religiously as an Agnostic could get.
As the mail began to queue up beside the lift frantic radio messages would burst out into hyperspace. Mangers on one floor would accuse another of holding the lifts deliberately to delay the mail; his affidavit based purely on the floor display light. Yet others on different floors would swear on the souls of their children that they had had no sighting of the vessel.
In the end one attributed the elevator equivalent to the Marie Celeste It appeared to have the capability of either jumping into parallel universes or moving sideways and pity the fool who ventured forth because, like their brothers, the passenger lifts, these sadistic bastards could hold people for days and for no apparent reason. As one postman sardonically commentated - “Which was built first – our goods lifts or Guantamano Bay?”
To be truthful one wasn’t supposed to travel in the goods lifts and unfortunately the incarcerated victims were always genuine and genial hard-working members of staff, either too pleasing or too afraid of the urgings of management who insisted on actually will the malevolence of the goods lifts on, but they would ride them unencumbered (Health and Safety was one of those issues that management ignored until a major compensation claim bit them in the arse)
With their van safely parked up and the mail offloaded onto the deck there was only the one job left to do and Roy wasn’t leaving this to the gimp. “I’ll take these” Roy barked to Spanner referring to his ‘specials’ the valuable items that were sent under separate cover and had to be transferred immediately to a safe area. They were always collected in a green bag to identify them.
“No problemo Obi One. You wanna coffee?” his escort offered.
“Okay mate” said Roy, surprised and guilty all at once, “I’ll just get rid of these”
Ray avoided the lifts and walked up the four flights to the priority service area to dispose of his special delivery items. He rattled the handle of the turntable into which the items could be deposited and delivered without breaching security and Vic, in charge of the priority section wheeled the drum so the empty space was facing the waiting driver.
“Pop it in Roy”
Roy wheeled to go but only managed a dozen steps when the door flew open behind him
“What’s this?” Vic cried showing Roy the open end of the green sack he’d just handed over.
Roy walked back and peered inside. “I don’t fucking believe it” he exhaled grabbed the bag and ran downstairs calling back to Vic “Hang on mate I’ll be back in ten minutes”
He burst onto the loading bay and sprinted across to the coffee machine to find Spanner leaning against it practising his light sabre technique.
“These yours?” Roy said almost breathless from undergoing more exercise in the last two minutes than the previous two years and handing Spanner the green bag which contained his Walkman, a mars bar, two bags of Prawn Cocktail crisps, a Homer Simpson mug, and a scaled model of Darth Vader.
“Cheers Roy. Where’d you get them?
“Spanner - think carefully. Where are the priority items we normally keep in the green bag?”
“This green bag?”
“That’s the one. The one I‘ve been filling full of valuable items all afternoon”
Roy found himself accentuated each word with exaggerated mouth movements as if he were lecturing a class of deaf people.
“Oh I switched them”
“Why” Roy whispered asking but not really wanting to hear the reply
“Well I was thinking about it. Everybody knows we use green bags for valuables so if any one was thinking of knocking us over they’d go for the green bag”
“Yeah and I’d let them have it if it saved me getting my head caved in”
“But Roy a Jedi cannot afford to think like that. He is a higher being”
And Roy imagined Spanner as a higher being swinging from a gallows.
“Spanner” Roy shrieked and grabbed him by the throat “If you don’t tell me what you did with my specials in three seconds I’m going to send this model of Darth Vader to the planet Haemorrhoid”
“I played the Jedi double bluff. I put them in a grey bag so no-one would know they were valuable”
“Including me you moron” Roy said turning his head slowly to face the huge mountain of grey sacks festooned around the loading dock
Sandra will never believe this he thought dragging Spanner across to play Treasure Hunt