Going Postal

Page 6


'The whole place is full of undelivered mail?' They were back in the locker room. Groat had topped up the black kettle from a pan of water, and it was steaming. At the far end of the room, sitting at his neat little table, Stanley was counting his pins. 'Pretty much, sir, except in the basement and the stables,' said the old man, washing a couple of tin mugs in a bowl of not very clean water. 'You mean even the postm— my office is full of old mail but they never filled the basement? Where's the sense in that?'

'Oh, you couldn't use the basement, sir, oh, not the basement,' said Groat, looking shocked. 'It's far too damp down here. The letters'd be destroyed in no time.'

'Destroyed,' said Moist flatly. 'Nothing like damp for destroying things, sir,' said Groat, nodding sagely. 'Destroying mail from dead people to dead people,' said Moist, in the same flat voice. 'We don't know that, sir,' said the old man. 'I mean, we've got no actual proof.'

'Well, no. After all, some of those envelopes are only a hundred years old!' said Moist. He had a headache from the dust and a sore throat from the dryness, and there was something about the old man that was grating on his raw nerves. He was keeping something back. 'That's no time at all to some people. I bet the zombie and vampire population are still waiting by the letter box every day,

right?'

'No need to be like that, sir,' said Groat levelly, 'no need to be like that. You can't destroy the letters. You just can't do it, sir. That's Tampering with the Mail, sir. That's not just a crime, sir. That's, a, a—'

'Sin?' said Moist. 'Oh, worse'n a sin,' said Groat, almost sneering. 'For sins you're only in trouble with a god, but in my day if you interfered with the mail you'd be up against Chief Postal Inspector Rumbelow. Hah! And there's a big difference. Gods forgive'. Moist sought for sanity in the wrinkled face opposite him. The unkempt beard was streaked with different colours, either of dirt, tea or random celestial pigment. Like some hermit, he thought. Only a hermit could wear a wig like that. 'Sorry?' he said. 'And you mean that shoving someone's letter under the floorboards for a hundred years isn't tampering with it?' Groat suddenly looked wretched. The beard quivered. Then he started to cough, great hacking, wooden, crackling lumps of cough, that made the jars shake and caused a yellow mist to rise from his trouser bottoms, “scuse me a moment, sir,' he wheezed, between hacks, and he fumbled in his pocket for a scratched and battered tin. 'You suck at all, sir?' he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. He proffered the tin to Moist. 'They're Number Threes, sir. Very mild. I make 'em meself, sir. Nat'ral remedies from nat'ral ingredients, that's my style, sir. Got to keep the tubes clear, sir, otherwise they turn against you.' Moist took a large, violet lozenge from the box and sniffed it. It smelled faintly of aniseed. 'Thank you, Mr Groat,' he said, but in case this counted as an attempt at bribery, he added sternly: 'The mail, Mr Groat? Sticking undelivered mail wherever there's a space isn't tampering with it?'

'That's more . . . delaying the mail, sir. Just, er . . . slowing it down. A bit. It's not like there's any intention of never delivering it, sir.' Moist stared at Groat's worried expression. He felt that sense of shifting ground you experience when you realize that you're dealing with someone whose world is connected with your own only by their fingertips. Not a hermit, he thought, more like a shipwrecked mariner, living in this dry desert island of a building while the world outside moves on and all sanity evaporates. 'Mr Groat, I don't want to, you know, upset you or anything, but there's thousands of letters out there under a thick layer of pigeon guano . . .' he said slowly. 'Actually, on that score, sir, things aren't as bad as they seem,' Groat said, and paused to suck noisily on his natural cough lozenge. 'It's very dry stuff, pigeon doings, and forms quite a hard protective crust on the envelopes . . .'

'Why are they all here, Mr Groat?' said Moist. People skills, he remembered. You're not allowed to shake him. The Junior Postman avoided his gaze. 'Well, you know how it is . . .' he tried. 'No, Mr Groat. I don't think I do.'

'Well . . . maybe a man's busy, got a full round, maybe it's Hogswatch, lots of cards, see, and the inspector is after him about his timekeeping, and so maybe he just shoves half a bag of letters somewhere safe . . . but he will deliver 'em, right? I mean, it's not his fault if they keeps pushing, sir, pushing him all the time. Then it's tomorrow and he's got an even bigger bag, 'cos they're pushing all the time, so he reckons, I'll just drop a few off today, too, 'cos it's my day off on Thursday and I can catch up then, but you see by Thursday he's behind by more'n a day's work because they keeps on pushing, and he's tired anyway, tired as a dog, so he says to himself, got some leave coming up soon, but he gets his leave and by then - well, it all got very nasty towards the end. There was . . . unpleasantness. We'd gone too far, sir, that's what it was, we'd tried too hard. Sometimes things smash so bad it's better to leave it alone than try to pick up the pieces. I

mean, where would you start?'

'I think I get the picture,' said Moist. You're lying, Mr Groat. You're lying by omission. You're not telling me everything. And what you're not telling me is very important, isn't it? I've turned lying into an art, Mr Groat, and you're just a talented amateur. Groat's face, unaware of the internal monologue, managed a smile. 'But the trouble is - what's your first name, Mr Groat?' Moist asked. 'Tolliver, sir.'

'Nice name . . . the thing is, Tolliver, that the picture I see in your description is what I might refer to for the purposes of the analogy as a cameo, whereas all this' - Moist waved his hand to include the building and everything it contained - 'is a full-sized triptych showing scenes from history, the creation of the world and the disposition of the gods, with a matching chapel ceiling portraying the glorious firmament and a sketch of a lady with a weird smile thrown in for good measure! Tolliver, I think you are not being frank with me.'

'Sorry about that, sir,' said Groat, eyeing him with a sort of nervous defiance. 'I could have you sacked, you know,' said Moist, knowing that this was a stupid thing to say. 'You could, sir, you could try doin' that,' said Groat, quietly and slowly. 'But I'm all you got, apart from the lad. And you don't know nuffin' about the Post Office, sir. You don't know nuffin' about the Regulations, neither. I'm the only one that knows what needs doing round here. You wouldn't last five minutes without me, sir. You wouldn't even see that the inkwells get filled every day!'

'Inkwells? Filling inkwells?' said Moist. 'This is just an old building full of . . . of . . . of dead paper! We have no customers!'

'Got to keep the inkwells filled, sir. Post Office Regulations,' said Groat in a steely voice. 'Got to follow Regulations, sir.'

'For what? It appears we don't accept any mail or deliver any mail! We just sit here!'

'No, sir, we don't just sit here,' said Groat patiently. 'We follow the Post Office Regulations. Fill the inkwells, polish the brass—'

'You don't sweep up the pigeon shit!'

'Oddly enough, that's not in the Regulations, sir,' said the old man. 'Truth is, sir, no one wants us any more. It's all the clacks now, the damn clacks, clack clack clack. Everyone's got a clacks tower now, sir. That's the fashion. Fast as the speed of light, they say. Ha! It's got no soul, sir, no heart. I hates 'em. But we're ready, sir. If there was any mail, we'd deal with it, sir. We'd spring into action, sir, spring into action. But there ain't.'

'Of course there isn't! It's clearly sunk into this town long ago that you might as well throw your letters away as give them to the Post Office!'

'No, sir, wrong again. They're all kept, sir. That's what we do, sir. We keep things as they are. We try not to disturb things, sir,' said Groat quietly. 'We try not to disturb anything! The way he said it made Moist hesitate. 'What kind of anything?' he said. 'Oh, nothing, sir. We just . . . go carefully.' Moist looked around the room. Did it appear smaller? Did the shadows deepen and lengthen? Was there a sudden cold sensation in the air? No, there wasn't. But an opportunity had definitely been missed, Moist felt. The hairs on the back of his neck were rising. Moist had heard that this was because men had been made out of monkeys, and it meant that there was a tiger behind you. In fact Mr Pump was behind him, just standing there, eyes burning more brightly than any tiger had ever managed. That was worse. Tigers couldn't follow you across the sea, and they had to

sleep. He gave up. Mr Groat was in some strange, musty little world of his own. 'Do you call this a life?' he said. For the first time in this conversation, Mr Groat looked him squarely in the eye. 'Much better than a death, sir,' he said. Mr Pump followed Moist across the main hall and out of the main doors, at which point Moist turned on him. 'All right, what are the rules here?' he demanded. 'Are you going to follow me everywhere7. You know I can't run!'

'You Are Allowed Autonomous Movement Within The City And Environs,' the golem rumbled. 'But Until You Are Settled In I Am Also Instructed To Accompany You For Your Own Protection.'

'Against who? Someone annoyed that their great-granddaddy's mail didn't turn up?'

'I Couldn't Say, Sir.'

'I need some fresh air. What happened in there? Why is it so . . . creepy? What happened to the Post Office?'

'I Couldn't Say, Sir,' said Mr Pump placidly. 'You don't know? But it's your city,' said Moist sarcastically. 'Have you been stuck at the bottom of a hole in the ground for the last hundred years?'

'No, Mr Lipvig,' said the golem. 'Well, why can't—' Moist began. 'It Was Two Hundred And Forty Years, Mr Lipvig,' said the golem. 'What was?'

'The Time I Spent At The Bottom Of The Hole In The Ground, Mr Lipvig.'

'What are you talking about?' said Moist. 'Why, The Time I Spent At The Bottom Of The Hole In The Ground, Mr Lipvig. Pump Is Not My Name, Mr Lipvig. It Is My Description. Pump. Pump 19, To Be Precise. I Stood At The Bottom Of A Hole A Hundred Feet Deep And Pumped Water. For Two Hundred And Forty Years, Mr Lipvig. But Now I Am Ambulating In The Sunlight. This Is Better, Mr Lipvig. This Is Better!' That night, Moist lay staring at the ceiling. It was three feet from him. Hanging from it, a little distance away, was a candle in a safety lantern. Stanley had been insistent about that, and no wonder. This place would go up like a bomb. It was the boy who'd showed him up here; Groat was sulking somewhere. He'd been right, damn him. He needed Groat. Groat practically was the Post Office. It had been a long day and Moist hadn't slept well last night, what with being upside down over Mr Pump's shoulder and occasionally kicked by the frantic horse. He didn't want to sleep here either, heavens knew, but he didn't have lodgings he could use any more, and they were at a premium in this hive of a city in any case. The locker room did not appeal, no, not at all. So he'd simply scrambled on to the pile of dead letters in what was in theory his office. It was no great hardship. A man of affairs such as he had to learn to sleep in all kinds of situations, often while mobs were looking for him a wall's thickness away. At least the heaps of letters were dry and warm and weren't carrying edged weapons. Paper crackled underneath him as he tried to get comfortable. Idly, he picked up a letter at random; it was addressed to someone called Antimony Parker at 1 Lobbin Clout, and on the back, in capitals, was S.W.A.L.K. He eased it open with a fingernail; the paper inside all but crumbled at his touch.

My Very Dearest Timony, Yes! Why should a Woman, Sensible of the Great Honour that a Man is Doing Her, play the Coy Minx at such a time! I know you have spoken to Papa, and of course I consent to becoming the Wife of the Kindest, Most Wonderfu— Moist glanced at the date on the letter. It had been written forty-one years ago. He was not as a rule given to introspection, it being a major drawback in his line of work, but he couldn't help wondering if - he glanced back at the letter - 'Your loving Agnathea' had ever married Antimony, or whether the romance had died right here in this graveyard of paper. He shivered, and tucked the envelope into his jacket. He'd have to ask Groat what S.W.A.L.K. meant. 'Mr Pump!' he shouted. There was a faint rumble from the corner of the room where the golem stood, waist-deep in mail. 'Yes, Mr Lipvig?'

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