Going Postal

Page 24

'The clacks?' said Moist. 'I dare say the clacks is wonderful if you wish to know the prawn market figures from Genua. But can you write S.W.A.L.K. on a clacks? Can you seal it with a loving kiss? Can you cry tears on to a clacks, can you smell it, can you enclose a pressed flower? A letter is more than just a message. And a clacks is so expensive in any case that the average man in the street can just about afford it in a time of crisis: GRANDADS DEAD FUNERAL TUES. A day's wages to send a message as warm and human as a thrown knife? But a letter is real.' He stopped. Miss Cripslock was scribbling like mad, and it's always worrying to see a journalist take a sudden interest in what you're saying, especially when you half suspect it was a load of pigeon guano. And it's worse when they're smiling. 'People are complaining that the clacks is becoming expensive, slow and unreliable,' said Miss Cripslock. 'How do you feel about that?'

'All I can tell you is that today we've taken on a postman who is eighteen thousand years old,' said Moist. 'He doesn't break down very easily.'

'Ah, yes. The golems. Some people say—'

'What is your first name, Miss Cripslock?' said Moist. For a moment, the woman coloured. Then she said: 'It's Sacharissa.'

'Thank you. I'm Moist. Please don't laugh. The golems— You're laughing, aren't you . . .'

'It was just a cough, honestly,' said the reporter, raising a hand to her throat and coughing unconvincingly. 'Sorry. It sounded a bit like a laugh. Sacharissa, I need postmen, counter clerks, sorters - I need lots of people. The mail will move. I need people to help me move it. Any kind of people. Ah, thanks, Stanley.' The boy had come in with two mismatched mugs of tea. One had an appealing little kitten on it, except that erratic collisions in the washing-up bowl had scratched it so that its expression was that of a creature in the final stages of rabies. The other had once hilariously informed the world that clinical insanity wasn't necessary for employment, but most of the words had faded, leaving:

He put them down with care on Moist's desk; Stanley did everything carefully. 'Thank you,' Moist repeated. 'Er . . . you can go now, Stanley. Help with the sorting, eh?'

'There's a vampire in the hall, Mr Lipwig,' said Stanley. 'That will be Otto,' said Sacharissa quickly. 'You don't have a . . . a thing about vampires, do you?'

'Hey, if he's got a pair of hands and knows how to walk I'll give him a job!'

'He's already got one,' said Sacharissa, laughing. 'He's our chief iconographer. He's been taking pictures of your men at work. We'd very much like to have one of you. For the front page.'

'What? No!' said Moist. 'Please! No!'

'He's very good.'

'Yes, but . . . but . . . but . . .' Moist began, and in his head the sentence went on: but I don't think that even a talent for looking like half the men you see in the street would survive a picture. What actually came out was: 'I don't want to be singled out from all the hard-working men and golems who are putting the Post Office back on its feet! After all, there's no “me” in team, eh?'

'Actually, there is,' said Sacharissa. 'Besides, you're the one wearing the winged hat and the golden suit. Come on, Mr Lipwig!'

'All right, all right, I really didn't want to go into this, but it's against my religion,' said Moist, who'd had time to think. 'We're forbidden to have any image made of us. It removes part of the soul, you know.'

'And you believe that?' said Sacharissa. 'Really?'

'Er, no. No. Of course not. Not as such. But . . . but you can't treat religion as a sort of buffet, can you? I mean, you can't say yes please, I'll have some of the Celestial Paradise and a helping of the Divine Plan but go easy on the kneeling and none of the Prohibition of Images, they give me wind. It's table d'hote or nothing, otherwise . . . well, it would be silly.' Miss Cripslock looked at him with her head on one side. 'You work for his lordship, don't you?' she said. 'Well, of course. This is an official job.'

'And I expect you'll tell me that your previous job was as a clerk, nothing special?'

'That's right.'

'Although your name probably is Moist von Lipwig, because I can't believe anyone would choose that as an assumed name,” she went on. 'Thank you very much!'

'It sounds to me as though you're issuing a challenge, Mr Lipwig. There's all sorts of problems with the clacks right now. There's been a big stink about the people they've been sacking and how the ones that're left are being worked to death, and up you pop, full of ideas.'

'I'm serious, Sacharissa. Look, people are already giving us new letters to post!' He pulled them out of his pocket and fanned them out. 'See, there's one here to go to Dolly Sisters, another to Nap Hill, one for . . . Blind Io . . .'

'He's a god,' said the woman. 'Could be a problem.'

'No,' said Moist briskly, putting the letters back in his pocket. “We'll deliver to the gods themselves. He has three temples in the city. It'll be easy.' And you've forgotten about the pictures, hooray . . . 'A man of resource, I see. Tell me, Mr Lipwig, do you know much about the history of this place?'

'Not too much. I'd certainly like to find out where the chandeliers went to!'

'You haven't spoken to Professor Pelc?'

'Who's he?'

'I'm amazed. He's at the University. He wrote a whole chapter on this place in his book on . . . oh, something to do with big masses of writing thinking for themselves. I suppose you do know about the people who died?'

'Oh, yes.'

'He said the place drove them mad in some way. Well, actually, we said that. What he said was a lot more complicated. I have to hand it to you, Mr Lipwig, taking on a job that has killed four men before you. It takes a special kind of man to do that.' Yes, thought Moist. An ignorant one. 'You haven't noticed anything strange yourself?' she went on. 'Well, I think my body travelled in time but the soles of my feet didn't, but I'm not sure how much of it was hallucination; I was nearly killed in a mailslide and the letters keep talking to me,' were the words that Moist didn't say, because it's the kind of thing you don't say to an open notebook. What he did say was, 'Oh, no. It's a fine old building, and I fully intend to bring it back to its former glory.'

'Good. How old are you, Mr Lipwig?'

'Twenty-six. Is that important?'

'We like to be thorough.' Miss Cripslock gave him a sweet smile. 'Besides, it's useful if we have to write your obituary.' Moist marched through the hall, with Groat sidling after him. He pulled the new letters out of his pocket and thrust them into Groat's crabby hands. 'Get these delivered. Anything for a god goes to his or her or its temple. Any other strange ones put on my desk.'

'We picked up another fifteen just now, sir. People think it's funny!'

'Got the money?'

'Oh, yes, sir.'

'Then we're the ones who're laughing,' said Moist firmly. 'I won't be long. I'm off to see the wizard.' By law and tradition the great Library of Unseen University is open to the public, although they aren't allowed as far as the magical shelves. They don't realize this, however, since the rules of time and space are twisted inside the Library and so hundreds of miles of shelving can easily be concealed inside a space roughly the thickness of paint. People flock in, nevertheless, in search of answers to those questions only librarians are considered to be able to answer, such as 'Is this the laundry?'

'How do you spell surreptitious?' and, on a regular basis: 'Do you have a book I remember reading once? It had a red cover and it turned out they were twins.' And, strictly speaking, the Library will have it . . . somewhere. Somewhere it has every book ever written, that ever will be written and, notably, every book that it is possible to write. These are not on the public shelves lest untrained handling cause the collapse of everything that it is possible to imagine.* * Again. Moist, like everyone else who entered the Library, stared up at the dome. Everyone did. They

always wondered why a library that was technically infinite in size was covered by a dome a few hundred feet across, and they were allowed to go on wondering. Just below the dome, staring down from their niches, were statues of the Virtues: Patience, Chastity, Silence, Charity, Hope, Tubso, Bissonomy * and Fortitude. * Many cultures practise neither of these in the hustle and bustle of the modern world, because no one can remember what they are. Moist couldn't resist removing his hat and giving a little salute to Hope, to whom he owed so much. Then, as he wondered why the statue of Bissonomy was carrying a kettle and what looked like a bunch of parsnips, he collided with someone who grabbed him by the arm and hurried him across the floor. 'Don't say a word, don't say a word, but you are looking for a book, yes?'

'Well, actually—' He seemed to be in the clutches of a wizard. '—you are not sure what book!' said the wizard. 'Exactly. It is the job of a librarian to find the right book for the right person. If you would just sit here, we can proceed. Thank you. Please excuse the straps. This will not take long. It is practically painless.'

'Practically?' Moist was pushed, firmly, into a large and complex swivel chair. His captor, or helper or whatever he might turn out to be, gave him a reassuring smile. Other, shadowy figures helped him strap Moist into the chair which, while basically an old horseshoe-shaped one with a leather seat, was surrounded by . . . stuff. Some of it was clearly magical, being of the stars-and-skulls variety, but what about the jar of pickles, the pair of tongs and the live mouse in a cage made of— Panic gripped Moist and, not at all coincidentally, so did a pair of padded paddles, which closed over his ears. Just before all sound was silenced, he heard: 'You may experience a taste of eggs and the sensation of being slapped in the face with some sort of fish. This is perfectly—' And then thlabber happened. It was a traditional magic term, although Moist didn't know this. There was a moment in which everything, even the things that couldn't be stretched, felt stretched. And then there was the moment when everything suddenly went back to not being stretched, known as the moment of thlabber. When Moist opened his eyes again, the chair was facing the other 'way. There was no sign of the pickles, the tongs or the mouse, but in their place was a bucket of clockwork pastry lobsters and a boxed set of novelty glass eyes. Moist gulped, and muttered: 'Haddock.'

'Really? Most people say cod,' said someone. 'No accounting for taste, I suppose.' Hands unbuckled Moist and helped him to his feet. These hands belonged to an orang-utan, but Moist didn't pass comment. This was a university of wizards, after all. The man who had shoved him into the chair was now standing by a desk staring at some wizardly device. 'Any moment now,' he said. 'Any moment. Any moment now. Any second . . .' A bundle of what appeared to be hosepipes led from the desk into the wall. Moist was certain they bulged for a moment, like a snake eating in a hurry; the machine stuttered, and a piece of paper dropped out of a slot. 'Ah . . . here we are,' said the wizard, snatching it up. 'Yes, the book you were after was A History of Hats, by F. G. Smallfinger, am I right?'

'No. I'm not after a book, in fact—' Moist began. 'Are you sure? We have lots.' There were two striking things about this wizard. One was . . . well, Grandfather Lipwig had

always said that you could tell the honesty of a man by the size of his ears, and this was a very honest wizard. The other was that the beard he was wearing was clearly false. 'I was looking for a wizard called Pelc,' Moist ventured. The beard parted slightly to reveal a wide smile. 'I knew the machine would work!' said the wizard. 'You are looking, in fact, for me.' The sign on the outside of the office door said: Ladislav Pelc, D.M.Phil, Prehumous Professor of Morbid Bibliomancy. On the inside of the door was a hook, on which the wizard hung his beard. It was a wizard's study, so of course had the skull with a candle in it and a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling. No one, least of all wizards, knows why this is, but you have to have them. It was also a room full of books and made of books. There was no actual furniture; that is to say, the desk and chairs were shaped out of books. It looked as though many of them were frequently referred to, because they lay open with other books used as bookmarks. 'You want to know about your Post Office, I expect?' said Pelc, as Moist settled on to a chair carefully put together from volumes 1 to 41 of Synonyms for the word 'Plimsoll'

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