Going Postal

Page 21

'And that was the end of it, sir,' said Mr Groat, as they left the room. 'Actually, I heard where the wizards were saying that the universe was destroyed all in one go but instantly came back all in one go. They said they could tell by lookin', sir. So that was okay and it let old Rumbelow off'f the

hook, on account it's hard to discipline a man under Post Office Regulations for destroying the universe all in one go. Mind you - hah - there've been postmasters that would have given it a try. But it knocked the stuffing out of us, sir. It was all downhill after that. The men had lost heart. It broke us, to tell you the truth.'

'Look,' said Moist, 'the letters we've just given the lads, they're not from some other dimension or—'

'Don't worry, I checked 'em last night,' said Groat. 'They're just old. Mostly you can tell by the stamp. I'm good at telling which ones are prop'ly ours, sir. Had years to learn. It's a skill, sir.'

'Could you teach other people?'

'I dare say, yes,' said Groat. 'Mr Groat, the letters have talked to me,' Moist burst out. To his surprise, the old man grabbed his hand and shook it. 'Well done, sir!' he said, tears rising in his eyes. 'I said it's a skill, didn't I? Listen to the whispers, that's half the trick! They're alive, sir, alive. Not like people, but like . . . ships are alive, sir. I'll swear, all them letters pressed together in here, all the . . . the passion of 'em, sir, why, I do think this place has got something like a soul, sir, indeed I do . . .' The tears coursed down Groat's cheeks. It's madness, of course, thought Moist. But now I've got it, too. 'Ah, I can see it in your eyes, sir, yes I can!' said Groat, grinning wetly. 'The Post Office has found you! It's enfolded you, sir, yes it has. You'll never leave it, sir. There's families that've worked here for hundreds and hundreds of years, sir. Once the postal service puts its stamp on you, sir, there's no turning back . . .' Moist disentangled his hand as tactfully as he could. 'Yes,' he said. 'Do tell me about stamps.' Thump. Moist looked down at the piece of paper. Smudgy red letters, chipped and worn, spelled out: 'Ankh-Morpork Post Office.'

'That's right, sir,' said Groat, waving the heavy metal and wood stamper in the air. 'I bang the stamp on the ink pad here, then bang it, sir, bang it on the letter. There! See? Done it again. Same every time. Stamped.'

'And this is worth a penny?' said Moist. 'Good grief, man, a kid could forge this with half a potato!'

'That was always a bit of a problem, sir, yes,' said Groat. 'Why does a postman have to stamp the letters, anyway?' said Moist. 'Why don't we just sell people a stamp?'

'But they'd pay a penny and then go on stamping for ever, sir,' said Groat, reasonably. In the machinery of the universe, the wheels of inevitability clicked into position . . . 'Well, then,' said Moist, staring thoughtfully at the paper, 'how about . . . how about a stamp you can use only once?'

'You mean, like, not much ink?' said Groat. His brow wrinkled, causing his toupee to slip sideways. 'I mean . . . if you stamped the stamper lots of times on paper, then cut out all the stampings . . .' Moist stared at an inner vision, if only to avoid the sight of the toupee slowly crawling back. 'The rate for delivery anywhere in the city is a penny, isn't it?'

'Except for the Shades, sir. That's five pence 'cos of the armed guard,' said Groat. 'Right. O-kay. I think I might have something here . . .' Moist looked up at Mr Pump, who was

smouldering in the corner of the office. 'Mr Pump, would you be so good as to go along to the Goat and Spirit Level over at Hen-and-Chickens and ask the publican for “Mr Robinson's box”, please? He may want a dollar. And while you're over there, there's a printing shop over that way, Teemer and Spools. Leave a message to say that the Postmaster General wishes to discuss a very large order.'

'Teemer and Spools? They're very expensive, sir,' said Groat. 'They do all the posh printing for the banks.'

'They're the very devil to forge, I know that,' said Moist. 'Or so I've been told,' he added quickly. 'Watermarks, special weaves in the paper, all kinds of tricks. Ahem. So . . . a penny stamping, and a fivepenny stamping . . . what about post to the other cities?'

'Five pence to Sto Lat,' said Groat. 'Ten or fifteen to the others. Hah, three dollars for all the way to Genua. We used to have to write those out.'

'We'll need a one-dollar stamp, then.' Moist started to scribble on the scrap of paper. 'A dollar stamp! Who'd buy one of those?' said Groat. Anyone who wants to send a letter to Genua,' said Moist. 'They'll buy three, eventually. But for now I'm dropping the price to one dollar.'

'One dollar! That's thousands of miles, sir!' Groat protested. 'Yep. Sounds like a bargain, right?' Groat looked torn between exultation and despair. 'But we've only got a bunch of old men, sir! They're pretty spry, I'll grant you, but . . . well, you've got to learn to walk before you try to run, sir!'

'No!' Moist's fist thumped the table. 'Never say that, Tolliver! Never! Run before you walk! Fly before you crawl! Keep moving forward! You think we should try to get a decent mail service in the city. I think we should try to send letters anywhere in the world! Because if we fail, I'd rather fail really hugely. All or nothing, Mr Groat!'

'Wow, sir!' said Groat. Moist grinned his bright, sunny smile. It very nearly reflected off his suit. 'Let's get busy. We're going to need more staff, Postal Inspector Groat. A lot more staff. Smarten up, man. The Post Office is back!'

'Yessir!' said Groat, drunk on enthusiasm. 'We'll . . . we'll do things that are quite new, in interestin' ways!'

'You're getting the hang of it already,' said Moist, rolling his eyes. Ten minutes later, the Post Office received its first delivery. It was Senior Postman Bates, blood streaming down his face. He was helped into the office by two Watch officers, carrying a makeshift stretcher. 'Found him wandering in the street, sir,' said one of them. 'Sergeant Colon, sir, at your service.'

'What happened to him?' said Moist, horrified. Bates opened his eyes. 'Sorry, sir,' he murmured. 'I held on tight, but they belted me over the bonce with a big thing!'

'Coupla toughs jumped him,' said Sergeant Colon. 'They threw his bag in the river, too.'

'Does that normally happen to postmen?' said Moist. 'I thought— Oh, no . . .' The new, painfully slow arrival was Senior Postman Aggy, dragging one leg because it had a bulldog attached to it. 'Sorry about this, sir,' he said, limping forward. 'I think my official trousers is torn. I stunned the bugger with my bag, sir, but they're a devil to get to let go.' The bulldog's eyes were shut; it appeared to be thinking of something else.

'Good job you've got your armour, eh?' said Moist. 'Wrong leg, sir. But not to worry. I'm nat'rally imp-ervious around the calfy regions. It's all the scar tissue, sir, you could strike matches on it. Jimmy Tropes is in trouble, though. He's up a tree in Hide Park.' Moist von Lipwig strode up Market Street, face set with grim purpose. The boards were still up on the Golem Trust, but had attracted another layer of graffiti. The paint on the door was burnt and bubbled, too. He opened the door, and instinct made him duck. He felt the crossbow bolt zip between the wings of his hat. Miss Dearheart lowered the bow. 'My gods, it's you! For a minute I thought a second sun had appeared in the sky!' Moist rose cautiously as she laid the bow aside. 'We had a fire-bomb last night,' she said, by way of explanation for attempting to shoot him in the head. 'How many golems are for hire right now, Miss Dearheart?' said Moist. 'Huh? Oh . . . about . . . a dozen or so—'

'Fine. I'll take them. Don't bother to wrap them up. I want them down at the Post Office as soon as possible.'

'What?' Miss Dearheart's normal expression of perpetual annoyance returned. 'Look, you can't just walk in, snap your fingers and order a dozen people like this—'

'They think they're property!' said Moist. 'That's what you told me.' They glared at one another. Then Miss Dearheart fumbled distractedly in a filing tray. 'I can let you ha— employ four right now,' she said. 'That'd be Doors 1, Saw 20, Campanile 2 and . . . Anghammarad. Only Anghammarad can talk at the moment; the frees haven't helped the others yet—'

'Helped?' Miss Dearheart shrugged. 'A lot of the cultures that built golems thought tools shouldn't talk. They have no tongues.'

'And the Trust gives them some extra clay, eh?' said Moist cheerfully. She gave him a look. 'It's a bit more mystical than that,' she said solemnly. 'Well, dumb is okay so long as they're not stupid,' said Moist, trying to look serious. 'This Anghammarad's got a name? Not just a description?'

'A lot of the very old ones have. Tell me, what do you want them to do?' said the woman. 'Be postmen,' said Moist. 'Working in public?'

'I don't think you can have secret postmen,' said Moist, briefly seeing shadowy figures skulking from door to door. 'Anything wrong with that?'

'Well . . . no. Certainly not! It's just that people get a bit nervous, and set fire to the shop. I'll bring them down as soon as possible.' She paused. 'You do understand that owned golems have to have a day off every week? You did read the pamphlet, didn't you?'

'Er . . . time off?' said Moist. 'What do they need time off for? A hammer doesn't get time off, does it?'

'In order to be golems. Don't ask what they do - I think just go and sit in a cellar somewhere. It's . . . it's a way to show they're not a hammer, Mr Lipwig. The buried ones forget. The free golems teach them. But don't worry, the rest of the time they won't even sleep.'

'So . . . Mr Pump has a day off coming?' said Moist. 'Of course,' said Miss Dearheart, and Moist filed this one under 'useful to know'. 'Good. Thank you,' he said. Would you like to have dinner tonight? Moist normally had no trouble with words, but these stuck to his tongue. There was something pineapple-prickly about Miss Dearheart. There was something about her expression, too, which said: there's no possible way you could surprise me. I know all about you. 'Is there anything else?' she said. 'Only you're standing there with your mouth open.'

'Er . . . no. That's fine. Thank you,' mumbled Moist. She smiled at him, and bits of Moist tingled. 'Well, off you go then, Mr Lipwig,' she said. 'Brighten up the world like a little sunbeam.' Four out of the five postmen were what Mr Groat called horse de combat and were brewing tea in the mail-stuffed cubbyhole that was laughingly called their Rest Room. Aggy had been sent home after the bulldog had been prised from his leg; Moist had a big basket of fruit sent round. You couldn't go wrong with a basket of fruit. Well, they'd made an impression, at least. So had the bulldog. But some mail had been delivered, you had to admit it. You had to admit, too, that it was years and years late, but the post was moving. You could sense it in the air. The place didn't feel so much like a tomb. Now Moist had retired to his office, where he was getting creative. 'Cup of tea, Mr Lipwig?' He looked up from his work into the slightly strange face of Stanley. 'Thank you, Stanley,' he said, laying down his pen. 'And I see you got nearly all of it in the cup this time! Nicely done!'

'What're you drawing, Mr Lipwig?' said the boy, craning his neck. 'It looks like the Post Office!'

'Well done. It's going to be on a stamp, Stanley. Here, what do you think of the others?' He passed over the other sketches. 'Coo, you're a good draw-er, Mr Lipwig. That looks just like Lord Vetinari!'

'That's the penny stamp,' said Moist. 'I copied the likeness off a penny. City coat-of-arms on the twopenny, Morporkia with her fork on the fivepenny, Tower of Art on the big one-dollar stamp. I was thinking of a tenpenny stamp, too.'

'They look very nice, Mr Lipwig,' said Stanley. 'All that detail. Like little paintings. What's all those tiny lines called?'

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