Going Postal

Page 19

'Bet your life on it, sir,' said Groat cheerfully. 'Is there a problem, sir?'

'What? Urn . . . no. Not at all.'

'You sounded a bit disappointed, sir. Or something.'

'No. I'm fine. No problem.' Moist added, thoughtfully: 'You know, I really have got to get some laundry done. And perhaps some new shoes . . .' The doors swung open again to reveal, not the return of the dogs, but Mr Pump once more. He picked up the box he'd left and headed on towards Moist. 'Well, we'll be off,' said the Worshipful Master. 'Nice to have met you, Mr Lipwig.'

'That's it?' said Moist. 'Isn't there a ceremony or something?'

'Oh, that's Tolliver, that is,' said the Worshipful Master. 'I like to see the old place still standing, really I do, but it's all about the clacks these days, isn't it? Young Tolliver thinks it can all be got going again, but he was just a lad when it all broke down. You can't fix some things, Mr Lipwig. Oh, you can call yourself postmaster, but where'd you start to get this lot back working? It's an old fossil, sir, just like us.'

'Your Hat, Sir,' said Pump. 'What?' said Moist, and turned to where the golem was standing by the dais, patiently, with a hat in his hands. It was a postman's peaked hat, in gold, with golden wings. Moist took it, and saw how the gold was just paint, cracked and peeling, and the wings were real dried pigeon wings and almost crumbled to the touch. As the golem had held it up in the light it had gleamed like something from some ancient tomb. In Moist's hands, it crackled and smelled of attics and shed golden flakes. Inside the brim, on a stained label, were the words 'Boult & Locke, Military and Ceremonial Outfitters, Peach Pie Street, A-M. Size: 7 1/4. 'There Is A Pair Of Boots With Wings, Too,' said Mr Pump, 'And Some Sort Of Elasticated—'

'Don't bother about that bit!' said Groat excitedly. 'Where did you find that stuff? We've been

looking everywhere! For years!'

'It Was Under The Mail In The Postmaster's Office, Mr Groat.'

'Couldn't have been, couldn't have been!' Groat protested. 'We've sifted through there dozens of times! I seen every inch o' carpet in there!'

'A lot of mail, er, moved about today,' said Moist. 'That Is Correct,' said the golem. 'Mr Lipvig Came Through The Ceiling.'

'Ah, so he found it, eh?' said Groat triumphantly. 'See? It's all coming true! The prophecy!'

'There is no prophecy, Tolliver,' said the Worshipful Master, shaking his head sadly. 'I know you think there is, but wishing that someone will come along and sort this mess out one day is not the same as a prophecy. Not really.'

'We've been hearing the letters talking again!' said Groat. 'They whisper in the night. We have to read them the Regulations to keep 'em quiet. Just like the wizard said!'

'Yes, well, you know what we used to say: you do have to be mad to work here!' said the Worshipful Master. 'It's all over, Tolliver. It really is. The city doesn't even need us any more.'

'You put that hat on, Mr Lipwig!' said Groat. 'It's fate, that turning up like this. You just put it on and see what happens!'

'Well, if everyone's happy about it . . .' Moist mumbled. He held the hat above his head, but hesitated. 'Nothing is going to happen, is it?' he said. 'Only I've had a very strange day . . .'

'No, nothing's going to happen,' said the Worshipful Master. 'It never does. Oh, we all thought it would, once. Every time someone said they'd put the chandeliers back or deliver the mail we thought, maybe it's ended, maybe it really is going to work this time. And young Tolliver there, you made him happy when you put the sign back. Got him excited. Made him think it'd work this time. It never does, though, 'cos this place is cursèd.'

'That's cursed with an extra ed?'

'Yes, sir. The worst kind. No, put your hat on, sir. It'll keep the rain off, at least.' Moist prepared to lower the hat, but as he did so he was aware that the old postmen were drawing back. 'You're not sure!' Moist yelled, waving a finger. 'You're not actually sure, are you! All of you! You're thinking, hmm, maybe this time it will work, right? You're holding your breath! I can tell! Hope is a terrible thing, gentlemen!' He lowered the hat. 'Feeling anything?' said Groat, after a while. 'It's a bit . . . scratchy,' said Moist. 'Ah, that'd be some amazing mystic force leakin' out, eh?' said Groat desperately. 'I don't think so,' said Moist. 'Sorry.'

'Most of the postmasters I served under hated wearing that thing,' said the Worshipful Master, as everyone relaxed. 'Mind you, you've got the height to carry it off. Postmaster Atkinson was only five feet one, and it made him look broody.' He patted Moist on the shoulder. 'Never mind, lad, you did your best.' An envelope bounced off his head. As he brushed it away another one landed on his shoulder, and slid off. Around the group, letters started to land on the floor like fish dropped by a passing tornado. Moist looked up. The letters were falling down from the darkness, and the drizzle was turning into a torrent. 'Stanley? Are you . . . messing about up there?' Groat ventured, almost invisible in the paper sleet.

'I always said those attics didn't have strong enough floors,' moaned the Worshipful Master. 'It's just a mailstorm again. We made too much noise, that's all. C'mon, let's get out while we can, eh?'

'Then put those lanterns out! They ain't safety lights!' shouted Groat. 'We'll be groping around in the dark, lad!'

'Oh, you'd rather see by the light of a burning roof, would you?' The lanterns winked out . . . and by the darkness they now shed Moist von Lipwig saw the writing on the wall or, at least, hanging in the air just in front of it. The hidden pen swooped through the air in loops and curves, drawing its glowing blue letters behind it. Moist von Lipwig? it wrote. 'Er . . . yes?' You are the Postmaster! 'Look, I'm not the One you're looking for!' Moist von Lipwig, at a time like this any One will do! 'But . . . but . . . I am not worthy!' Acquire worth with speed. Moist von Lipwig! Bring back the light! Open the doors! Stay not the messengers about their business! Moist looked down at the golden light coming up from around his feet. It sparkled off his fingertips and began to fill him up from inside, like fine wine. He felt his feet leave the dais as the words lifted him up and spun him gently. In the beginning was a Word, but what is a word without it's messenger, Moist Von Lipwig? You are the Postmaster! 'I am the Postmaster!' Moist shouted. The mail must move, Moist von Lipwig! Too long have we been bound here. 'I will move the mail!' You will move the mail? 'I will! I will! Moist von Lipwig? 'Yes?' The words came like a gale, whirling the envelopes in the sparkling light, shaking the building to its foundations. Deliver us!

Chapter Six

Little Pictures The Postmen Unmasked - A terrible Engine - The New Pie - Mr Lipwig thinks about stamps — the Messenger from the Dawn of Time 'Mr Lipvig?' said Mr Pump. Moist looked up into the golem's glowing eyes. There had to be a better way of waking up in the morning. Some people managed with a clock, for heavens' sake. He was lying on a bare mattress under a musty blanket in his newly excavated apartment, which smelled of ancient paper, and every bit of him ached. In a clouded kind of way, he was aware of Pump saying: 'The Postmen Are Waiting, Sir. Postal Inspector Groat Said That You Would Probably Wish To Send Them Out Properly On This Day.' Moist blinked at the ceiling. 'Postal Inspector? I promoted him all the way to Postal Inspector?'

'Yes, Sir. You Were Very Ebullient.' Memories of last night flocked treacherously to tap-dance their speciality acts on the famous stage of the Grand Old Embarrassing Recollection. 'Postmen?' he said. 'The Brotherhood Of The Order Of The Post. They're Old Men, Sir, But Wiry. They're Pensioners Now, But They All Volunteered. They've Been Here For Hours, Sorting The Mail.' I hired a bunch of men even older than Groat . . . 'Did I do anything else?'

'You Gave A Very Inspirational Speech, Sir. I Was Particularly Impressed When You Pointed Out That “Angel” Is Just A Word For Messenger. Not Many People Know That.' On the bed, Moist slowly tried to cram his fist into his mouth. 'Oh, And You Promised To Bring Back The Big Chandeliers And The Fine Polished Counter, Sir. They Were Very Impressed. No One Knows Where They Got To.' Oh, gods, thought Moist. 'And The Statue Of The God, Sir. That Impressed Them Even More, I Would Say, Because Apparently It Was Melted Down Many Years Ago.'

'Did I do anything last night that suggested I was sane?'

'I Am Sorry, Sir?' said the golem. But Moist remembered the light, and the whispering of the mail. It'd filled his mind with . . . knowledge, or memories that he didn't remember ever acquiring. 'Unfinished stories,' he said. 'Yes, Sir,' said the golem calmly. 'You Talked About Them At Length, Sir.'

'I did?'

'Yes, Sir. You Said—' —that every undelivered message is a piece of space-time that lacks another end, a little bundle of effort and emotion floating freely. Pack millions of them together and they do what letters are meant to do. They communicate, and change the nature of events. When there's enough of them, they distort the universe around them.

It had all made sense to Moist. Or, at least, as much sense as anything else. 'And . . . did I actually rise up in the air, glowing gold?' said Moist. 'I Think I Must Have Missed That, Sir,' said Mr Pump. 'You mean I didn't, then.'

'In A Manner Of Speaking You Did, Sir,' said the golem. 'But in common, everyday reality I didn't?'

'You Were Lit, As It Were, By An Inner Fire, Sir. The Postmen Were Extremely Impressed.' Moist's eye lit on the winged hat, which had been thrown carelessly on the desk. 'I'm never going to live up to all this, Mr Pump,' he said. 'They want a saint, not someone like me.'

'Perhaps A Saint Is Not What They Need, Sir,' said the golem. Moist sat up, and the blanket dropped away. 'What happened to my clothes?' he said. 'I'm sure I hung them neatly on the floor.'

'I Did In Fact Try To Clean Your Suit With Spot Remover, Sir,' said Mr Pump. 'But Since It Was Effectively Just One Large Spot, It Removed The Whole Suit.'

'I liked that suit! At least you could have saved it for dusters, or something.'

'I'm Sorry, Sir, I'd Assumed That Dusters Had Been Saved For Your Suit. But In Any Case, I Obeyed Your Order, Sir.' Moist paused. 'What order?' he said suspiciously. 'Last Night You Asked Me To Obtain A Suit Fit For A Postmaster, Sir. You Gave Me Very Precise Instructions,' said the golem. 'Fortunately My Colleague Stitcher 22 Was Working At The Theatrical Costumiers. It Is Hanging On The Door.' And the golem had even found a mirror. It wasn't very big, but it was big enough to show Moist that if he were dressed any sharper he'd cut himself as he walked. 'Wow,' he breathed. 'El Dorado or what?' The suit was cloth of gold, or whatever actors used instead. Moist was about to protest, but second thoughts intervened quickly. Good suits helped. A smooth tongue was not much use in rough trousers. And people would notice the suit, not him. He'd certainly be noticed in this suit; it'd light up the street. People would have to shade their eyes to look at him. And apparently he'd asked for this. 'It's very . . .' He hesitated. The only word was '. . . fast. I mean, it looks as if it's about to speed away at any moment!'

'Yes, Sir. Stitcher 22 Has A Skill. Note Also The Gold Shirt And Tie. To Match The Hat, Sir.'

'Er, you couldn't get him to knock up something a little more sombre, could you?' said Moist, covering his eyes to stop himself being blinded by his own lapels. 'For me to wear when I don't want to illuminate distant objects?'

'I Shall Do So Immediately, Sir.'

'Well,' Moist said, blinking in the light of his sleeves. 'Let's speed the mail, then, shall we?' The formerly retired postmen were waiting in the hall, in a space cleared from last night's maildrop. They all wore uniforms, although since no two uniforms were exactly alike they were not, in fact, uniform and therefore not technically uniforms. The caps all had peaks, but some were high- domed and some were soft and the old men themselves had ingrown their clothes, too, so that jackets hung like drape coats and trousers looked like concertinas. And, as is the wont of old men, they wore their medals and the determined looks of those ready for the final combat. 'Delivery ready for inspection, sah!' said Postal Inspector Groat, standing at attention so hard that sheer pride had lifted his feet a full inch off the floor.

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