Going Postal

Page 17

Moist spat out paper and sucked air into stinging lungs. 'They're . . . alive!' he gasped. 'They're all alive! And angry! They talk! It was not a hallucination! I've had hallucinations and they don't hurt! I know how the others died!'

'I Am Happy For You, Mr Lipvig,' said Pump, turning him the right way up and wading waist deep across the room, while behind them more mail trickled through a hole in the ceiling. 'You don't understand! They talk! They want . . .' Moist hesitated. He could still hear the whispering in his head. He said, as much to himself as for the benefit of the golem, 'It's as though they want to be . . . read.'

'That Is The Function Of A Letter,' said Pump calmly. 'You Will See That I Have Almost Cleared Your Apartment.'

'Listen, they're just paper! And they talked!'

'Yes,' rumbled the golem ponderously. 'This Place Is A Tomb Of Unheard Words. They Strive To Be Heard.'

'Oh, come on! Letters are just paper. They can't speak!'

'I Am Just Clay, And I Listen,' said Pump, with the same infuriating calm. 'Yes, but you've got added mumbo-jumbo—' The red fire rose behind Pump's eyes as he turned to stare at Moist. 'I went . . . backwards in time, I think,' Moist mumbled, backing away. 'In . . . my head. That's how Sideburn died. He fell down stairs that weren't there in the past. And Mr Ignavia died of fright. I'm sure of it! But I was inside the letters! And there must have been a . . . a hole in the floor, or something, and that . . . I fell, and I . . .' He stopped. 'This place needs a priest, or a wizard. Someone who understands this kind of stuff. Not me!' The golem scooped up two armfuls of the mail that had so recently entombed his client. 'You Are The Postmaster, Mr Lipvig,' he said. 'That's just Vetinari's trick! I'm no postman, I'm just a fraud—'

'Mr Lipwig?' said a nervous voice from the doorway behind him. He turned and saw the boy Stanley, who flinched at his expression. 'Yes?' snapped Moist. 'What the hell do you— What do you want, Stanley? I'm a little busy right now.'

'There's some men,' said Stanley, grinning uncertainly. 'They're downstairs. Some men.' Moist glared at him, but Stanley seemed to have finished for now. 'And these men want . . . ?' he prompted. 'They want you, Mr Lipwig,' said Stanley. 'They said they want to see the man who wants to be postmaster.'

'I don't want to be—' Moist began, but gave up. There was no point in taking it out on the boy. 'Excuse Me, Postmaster,' said the golem behind him. 'I Wish To Complete My Allotted Task.' Moist stood aside as the clay man walked out into the corridor, the old boards groaning under his enormous feet. Outside, you could see how he'd managed to clean out the office. The walls of other rooms were bowed out almost to the point of exploding. When a golem pushes things into a room, they stay pushed. The sight of the plodding figure calmed Moist down a little. There was something intensely . . . well, down-to-earth about Mr Pump. What he needed now was normality, normal people to talk to, normal things to do to drive the voices out of his head. He brushed fragments of paper off his increasingly greasy suit. 'All right,' he said, trying to find his tie, which had ended up hanging down his back. 'I shall see what they want.'

They were waiting on the half-landing on the big staircase. They were old men, thin and bowed, like slightly older copies of Groat. They had the same ancient uniform, but there was something odd about them. Each man had the skeleton of a pigeon wired on to the top of his peaked hat. 'Be you the Unfranked Man?' growled one of them, as he approached. 'What? Who? Am I?' said Moist. Suddenly, the idea of normality was ebbing again. 'Yes, you are, sir,' whispered Stanley beside him. 'You have to say yes, sir. Gosh, sir, I wish it was me doing this.'

'Doing what?'

'For the second time: be you the Unfranked Man?' said the old man, looking angry. Moist noticed that he was missing the top joints on the middle fingers of his right hand. 'I suppose so. If you insist,' he said. This didn't meet with any approval at all. 'For the last time: be you the Unfranked Man?' This time there was real menace in the voice. 'Yes, all right! For the purposes of this conversation, yes! I am the Unfranked Man!' Moist shouted. 'Now can we—' Something black was dropped over his head from behind and he felt strings pulled tightly round his neck. 'The Unfranked Man is tardy,' crackled another elderly voice, in his ear, and unseen but tough hands took hold of him. 'No postman he.'

'You'll be fine, sir,' said the voice of Stanley, as Moist struggled. 'Don't worry. Mr Groat will guide you. You'll do it easily, sir.'

'Do what?' said Moist. 'Let go of me, you daft old devils!'

'The Unfranked Man dreads the Walk,' one assailant hissed. 'Aye, the Unfranked Man will be Returned to Sender in no short order,' said another. 'The Unfranked Man must be weighed in the balance,' said a third. 'Stanley, fetch Mr Pump right now!' shouted Moist, but the hood was thick and clinging. 'Mustn't do that, sir,' said Stanley. 'Mustn't do that at all, sir. It will be all right, sir. It's just a . . . a test, sir. It's the Order of the Post, sir.' Funny hats, Moist thought, and began to relax. Hoodwinks and threats . . . I know this stuff. It's mysticism for tradesmen. There's not a city in the world without its Loyal and Ancient and Justified and Hermetic Order of little men who think they can reap the secrets of the ancients for a couple of hours every Thursday night and don't realize what prats they look in a robe. I should know - I must have joined a dozen of 'em myself. I bet there's a secret handshake. I know more secret handshakes than the gods. I'm in about as much danger as I would be in a class of five-year-olds. Less, probably. Unfranked Man . . . good grief. He relaxed. He let himself be led down the stairs, and turned round. Ah, yes, that's right. You've got to make the initiate fear, but everyone knows it's just a party game. It'll sound bad, it might even feel bad, but it won't be bad. He remembered joining - what was it? Oh yes - the Men of the Furrow, in some town out in the stalks.* He had been blindfolded, of course, and the Men had made all the horrific noises they could imagine, and then a voice in the darkness had said, 'Shake hands with the Old Master!' and Moist had reached out and shaken a goat's foot. Those who got out of there with clean pants won. * In areas more wooded, areas less dominated by the cabbage and general brassica industry, it would of course have been in the sticks.

Next day he'd swindled three of his trusting new Brothers out of eighty dollars. That didn't seem quite so funny now. The old postmen were taking him into the big hall. He could tell by the echoes. And there were other people there, according to those little hairs on the back of his neck. Not just people, maybe; he thought he heard a muffled growl. But that was how it went, right? Things had to sound worrying. The key was to be bold, to act brave and forthright. His escorts left him. Moist stood in darkness for a moment, and then felt a hand grasp his elbow. 'It's me, sir. Probationary Senior Postman Groat, sir. Don't you worry about a thing, sir. I'm your Temporary Deacon for tonight, sir.'

'Is this necessary, Mr Groat?' sighed Moist. 'I was appointed postmaster, you know.'

'Appointed, yes. Accepted, not yet, sir. Proof of posting is not proof of delivery, sir.'

'What are you talking about?'

'Can't tell secrets to an Unfranked Man, sir,' said Groat piously. 'You've done well to get this far, sir.'

'Oh, all right,' said Moist, trying to sound jovial. 'What's the worst that can happen, eh?' Groat was silent. 'I said—' Moist began. 'I was just working that out, sir,' said Groat. 'Let's see . . . yes, sir. The worst that can happen is you lose all your fingers on one hand, are crippled for life, and break half the bones in your body. Oh, and then they don't let you join. But don't you worry about a thing, sir, not a thing!' Up ahead, a voice boomed: 'Who brings the Unfranked Man?' Beside Moist, Groat cleared his throat and, when he spoke, his voice actually shook. 'I, probationary Senior Postman Tolliver Groat, do bring the Unfranked Man.'

'You did say that about the bones to frighten me, right?' hissed Moist. 'And does he stand in the Gloom of Night?' the voice demanded. 'He does now, Worshipful Master!' shouted Groat happily, and whispered to the hooded Moist, 'Some of the old boys are really happy about you getting the sign back.'

'Good. Now, these broken bones you mentioned—'

'Then let him walk the Walk!' the unseen voice commanded. 'We're just going to walk forward, sir. Easy does it,' Groat whispered urgently. 'That's it. Stop here.'

'Look,' said Moist, 'all that stuff . . . that was just to scare me, right?'

'You leave it to me, sir,' Groat whispered. 'But listen, the—' Moist began, and had a mouthful of hood. 'Let him don the Boots!' the voice went on. Amazing how you can hear the capital letters, Moist thought, trying not to choke on the cloth. 'Pair of boots right in front of you, sir,' came Groat's hoarse whisper. 'Put 'em on. No problem, sir.'

'Pff! Yes, but listen—'

'The boots, sir, please!' Moist removed his shoes, very clumsily, and slid his feet into the invisible boots. They turned out to be as heavy as lead. 'The Walk of the Unfranked Man is Heavy,' the booming voice intoned. 'Let him continue!' Moist took another step forward, trod on something which rolled, stumbled headlong and felt a stab of agony as his shins hit metal.

'Postmen,' the booming voice demanded again, 'what is the First Oath?' Voices sang out from the darkness, in chorus: 'Strewth, would you bleedin' credit it? Toys, prams, garden tools . . . they don't care what they leaves out on the path on these dark mornings!'

'Did the Unfranked Man cry out?' the voice said. I think I've broken my chin, Moist thought, as Groat dragged him to his feet. I think I've broken my chin! The old man hissed: 'Well done, sir,' and then raised his voice to add for the benefit of the unseen watchers: 'He crydeth out not, Worshipful Master, but was resolute!'

'Then give unto him the Bag!' boomed the distant voice. Moist was beginning to loathe it. Unseen hands put a strap round Moist's neck. When they let go, the weight on it bent him double. 'The Postman's Bag is Heavy, but soon it shall be Light!' echoed off the walls. No one had said anything about pain, Moist thought. Well, actually they had, but they didn't say they meant it— 'On we go, sir,' Groat urged, invisible at his side. 'This is the Postman's Walk, remember!' Moist edged forward, very carefully, and felt something rattle away. 'He trod not upon the Roller Skate, Worshipful Master!' Groat reported to the invisible watchers. Moist, aching but heartened, tried two more hesitant steps, and there was another rattle as something bounced off his boot. 'The Carelessly Abandoned Beer Bottle impeded him not!' Groat yelled triumphantly. Emboldened, Moist essayed a further step, trod on something slippery, and felt his foot head off and up without him. He landed heavily on his back, his head thumping on the floor. He was sure he heard his own skull crack. 'Postmen, what is the Second Oath?' the echoing voice commanded. 'Dogs! I tell you, there's no such thing as a good one! If they don't bite they all crap! It's as bad as stepping on machine oil!' Moist got to his knees, head spinning. 'That's right, that's right, you keeps goin'!' hissed Groat, grabbing his elbow. 'You get through, come rain or shine!' He lowered his voice even further. 'Remember what it says on the building!'

'Mrs Cake?' Moist mumbled, and then thought: was it rain or snow? Or sleet? He heard movement and hunched over the heavy bag as the water drenched him and an over-enthusiastic bucket bounced off his head. Rain, then. He straightened up just in time to feel biting coldness slither down the back of the neck, and nearly screamed. 'That was ice cubes,' Groat whispered. 'Got 'em from the mortuary but don't you worry, sir, they was hardly used . . . best we can do for snow, this time of year. Sorry! Don't you worry about a thing, sir!'

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