One of the more aggravating aspects of being a postman - as I was for over two decades of my life - is dealing with dissatisfied members of the public, and managing to keep from losing one's rag in the face of severe provocation. Those to whom we deliver mail might find themselves justifiably aggrieved at a perceived drop in quality of service, in which case it always seemed important to listen carefully, and to reach for a full understanding of the nature of the complaint in order to resolve it. On the other hand the supposedly injured party was often simply some nutcase lacking the intelligence to spot when something was actually their fault and who, ill-suited to anything resembling responsibility, has decided that the most sensible course of action is to pick a fight with some poor fucker in a blue shirt. Generally such nutcases were easily identified by either the available evidence or basic common sense, and at least a few Royal Mail employees have held to the view that under such circumstances a little retaliation is sometimes justified because, contrary to the popular business mantra, the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is very much mistaken; and sometimes the customer is a complete arsehole.
With regard to giving back a little of that which one has received, at the lowest end of the scale we have what might be termed permissible sarcasm, as deployed in situations where the complaint rests upon some factor beyond anyone's control.
'Excuse me, Postman,' the woman calls from her doorstep as torrential rain sluices across the garden path in sheets. She holds in her hand an envelope which has just come through the letterbox. 'Could you please tell me why my mail is wet this morning.'
Charlie Carr, a gentle old alcoholic presently soaked to the skin, having been working in the pouring rain for the previous hour and a half, smiles with the patience and good grace of John le Mesurier as he explains, 'I do apologise, madam. I really have no idea.'
Others have occasionally taken a more proactive approach, notably John Haddock who routinely told disgruntled members of the public to stuff contested or otherwise contentious items of mail up their arses, often reiterating the suggested direction of insertion with a helpfully illustrative hand gesture. Sadly, he had usually been given good reason for the suspension of the conventional etiquette of the complaints procedure.
Whilst certain complaints may be justified, others have ranged from the misinformed to the just plain annoying; for example, the albino gentleman in Crystal Palace Road who would regularly traipse up to the sorting office to complain that his mail, once through the letterbox of his front door, had landed on the wrong side of the hall he shared with the other tenant. After the third or fourth time he showed up to make the complaint, the boss himself went to the front desk and told the guy to piss off and to not bother coming back if he wished to continue getting any mail at all.
For some reason, I myself rarely had any significant trouble with enraged members of the general public wishing to know what was keeping the postal order that had been mailed to them back in 1963 or the like. Most times when people complained directly to me, it was usually something I was able to resolve, with a couple of exceptions.
There was the woman at the upper end of Lordship Lane who began to receive abusive mail from an unbalanced acquaintance, and because the unbalanced acquaintance was concerned that the abuse should reach the one to whom it was directed, had written additional instructions and advice on the back of the envelope for my benefit. By this means she informed me that she knew what was going on with the mail, and that I had better pack it in because she was watching, and she knew where I lived, and she was personal friends with the postmaster general, despite the fact that he hadn't existed since 1969 when the position was abolished under the Post Office Act.
The first of these letters was quite entertaining, at least for me, but they came every few days, each time with a weirder and more threatening message scribbled on the envelope for my benefit. Eventually I told the boss, and he had some Royal Mail internal security people investigate. The letters stopped.
The next campaign of this kind came a few years later, written upon the envelopes of mail addressed to someone living at 2, Glengarry Road. The messages implied that I consistently misdelivered this mail to some other specific address, and the person living there was reposting the mail with helpful words of advice scribbled across the envelope: Why don't you learn to read?, in the crabby handwriting of someone apparently shaking with anger, or buy a pair of glasses!
The problem for me was that, regarding setting this one right, the mechanism of whatever postal screw up had inspired these messages was unclear, although it seemed reasonable to assume that I had accidentally delivered these letters to an address other than 2, Glengarry Road. I rang the bell at 2, Glengarry Road and the door was eventually answered by a woman of considerable age. I explained that I was apparently in the habit of misdelivering her mail and apologised for the testy annotations written by some anonymous third party. I tried to assure her that I would do my best to make sure that it did not happen again. I had been delivering to this particular route of around eight-hundred houses regularly for at least a couple of years. I knew most of the people to whom I delivered mail by name, and it's not like I ever had days where I thought to myself, you know, I don't think I'll bother reading the addresses this morning. I'll just stick this crap in any old letter box. I doubt anyone will notice.
The old woman didn't seem to quite know who I was or what I was talking about. She held the letters in her shrunken hand and stared at them. 'I think these must be for Donald,' she said eventually. 'They aren't mine.'
I could see past her that the house had been divided into two flats, upstairs and downstairs, as were a few dwellings of this type along the same road. She was not the only occupant.
Still, despite my best efforts, the letters kept coming back to me every couple of months, the same address and the increasingly abusive comments: It's no wonder Royal Mail is failing so bad when they employ idiots like you, and then the bewildering have you got a bat problem? in furious upper case. My eyesight, intelligence, and parentage had been called into question and it was beginning to piss me off.
About twenty yards from 2, Glengarry Road was 2A, Glengarry Road, another house divided into flats stood upon the corner with East Dulwich Grove. It had occurred to me that the most obvious possible mistake was that I had been mixing up the mail of these two addresses, so I had been extremely careful to avoid doing so. I therefore assumed that if, despite my best efforts, I really had still been delivering mail addressed for one to the letterbox of the other, then I probably had a brain tumour or some major cognitive dysfunction. I called at 2A, Glengarry Road with the letter addressed to 2, Glengarry Road, the one which had been returned with the suggestion that I might have a bat problem. The girl who answered the door denied ever having accused me of having a bat problem and, to my surprise, recognised the name of the person to which the letter was addressed. He lived in the flat above her own.
At last I understood.
An individual living at 2A, Glengarry Road was sent mail by a person or persons who had assumed that the A detail referred to his occupation of a flat within a building rather than to the building itself, and was therefore wrongly addressing his mail to 2, Glengarry Road, which is where I'd been delivering it. Whilst I was able to remember the names of many people to whom I delivered mail, this tended to break down where multiple occupancies were concerned, there usually being too many names to recall, and so many tenants coming and going that it was difficult to keep track.
Therefore there was a person living at 2, Glengarry Road other than the old woman, and a person who had accused me of having a bat problem because his receiving incorrectly addressed mail was apparently destroying his life, and somehow this was my fault. There followed another few months of my keeping an eye on the names at the two addresses before I at last worked out who I was dealing with.
His name was Donald Jones. He was in his late fifties and had already distinguished himself as potentially seeming a little rude. He always wore a battered leather jacket and leather trousers, all fully zipped up as though having recently arrived by motorcycle. He had a sour, unkind face, and walked slowly as though having shat himself. I'd said good morning to him a couple of times, as I did to everyone because there's never a good reason not to, but he would never respond, instead regarding me with apparent disdain as though I'd greeted him with what's up, gangsta? I didn't bother after that. It's not like you have to be friends with everyone.
The day finally came. He shuffled towards me along the pavement, as ever in the leathers.
'Excuse me, might I ask if you've been having some problem with your mail of late?'
He spoke with the voice of a tiny rodent, a faint noise like someone drawing back a curtain in an old house. 'The letters for next door keep coming to us. Our regular postman—'
'I've been your regular postman for about three years now. By next door I assume you mean 2A, Glengarry Road.'
'No, I live at—'
'You live at 2, Glengarry Road. I know. You're getting mail for the house on the corner though?'
The uncomfortable half-smile faded a little. 'I know it's not you. When you're on holiday and they put another postman on—'
'Oh you see but it is me, because I haven't been on holiday since about September. You see the thing is that in situations such as this I tend to recommend that when a wrongly delivered letter comes to your house, a letter which should have been delivered next door, the best course of action is usually to walk twenty yards along the road and deliver it yourself instead of writing silly messages on the envelope before walking two-hundred yards to the nearest pillar box in order to make a point.'
His faint little voice began to crack, and I wondered if he was about to start crying. 'It happens every day,' he squeaked. 'It's too much. It's all the time.'
To my surprise, I was enjoying this. 'And that would be where you're wrong because, as I say, I've been delivering to both addresses uninterrupted since September, so I know that when you say every day you actually mean that it's happened maybe a few times, perhaps every six weeks or so.'
He made another noise. He seemed to be physically decreasing in size.
I continued. 'Whilst I appreciate that the offending letters of doom should have been addressed to 2A, Glengarry Road, they weren't and have therefore been correctly delivered by myself because that's my job, so all the shit you've been writing on the envelopes about how I need glasses or should learn to read has been somewhat off target, and I can really do without having remarks of that kind directed at me first thing in the morning, do you know what I'm saying?'
I paused for breath and to take stock of whether I'd said all that I had intended to say. I was finding this encounter strangely cathartic. Ordinarily I find myself tongue tied or babbling incoherent crap when speaking in anger, but for once it felt like I was channelling Peter Cook at his most acerbic. It felt great.
'As for whether or not I've got a bat problem - that doesn't even make sense. I mean I suppose you were once again trying to make some biting commentary about my supposedly terrible eyesight somehow based on my delivering letters to the addresses which are actually written on the fucking envelopes, but it doesn't really work, does it? Have you got a bat problem? You really need to get back to your team of writers and have a word with them about that one.'
He mumbled sorry about a thousand times and wilted off in the direction of Lordship Lane, shell-shocked by my righteous testimony. I had met his kind many times before in and around Dulwich, always the most vocally liberal until some underclass minimum wage functionary short changes them at the whole food joint and they turn into the Duke of Wellington horsewhipping a shopgirl. Donald had clearly imagined I would be chastened, perhaps even devastated by the force of his vicious satire, that I would wither as I faced the terrible truth of his learn how to read and have you got a bat problem? Being a shit-thick blue collar manual labouring schmoe I would be too busy thinking about beer, tits, and football to ever defend my crime, and so he had looked as though he'd quacked his pants once he realised I wasn't quite the thick working class tosspot he'd bargained for.
Years later I discovered that Donald was supposedly an artist of some note, or at least of some note amongst the sort of people who make it their business to note such things. He suffered from some kind of debilitating illness which was to account for the tortoisey quality of his shuffling gait.
Donald's partner was described by Edna Mode from The Incredibles - with whom I was romantically involved at the time - as my mate Steve, which meant that she had met him at a private view and they had exchanged pleasantries for about a minute. He and Donald worked together as artists, and as usual I was supposed to be impressed by this. My mate Steve produced mosaics and sculptures, and had been in Time Out or something of that sort. I looked him up on the internet, and immediately recognised the guy. I often passed him on the street whilst out on delivery, and we always said good morning to each other because I assumed he was probably someone to whom I delivered mail, and when you pass someone on the street every day, after a while it becomes more embarrassing to ignore them than to exchange a polite greeting. Of course I didn't realise my mate Steve was Donald's partner until I looked him up following some unrelated suggestion originated by Edna Mode from The Incredibles. This explained why I had seen my mate Steve with such frequency, specifically that he had been visiting his partner, and it explained the sculptures I had noticed in Donald's front garden on one occasion, two concrete pillars decorated with shattered fragments of colourful ceramics.
The pillars were, I suppose, totem poles shaped so as to resemble mugs and cups stacked on top of one another, because they had been commissioned by Blue Mountain Coffee in Northcross Road, so mugs and cups - coffee and tea - do you see? Donald and my mate Steve also provided the mosaic design at the front of the coffee place, yet more fragments arranged to depict cups and spelling out words like coffee and aroma, which is quite ingenious when you really think about it.
I'd almost made Donald cry, and now I saw him in a new light. He was a sensitive artist and there was someone who loved him. Yet still he was the man who had asked me whether I had a bat problem, who had asked me whether I was able to read.
More than a decade later and it seems that whatever was wrong with Donald got the better of him, and so he is no longer with us, and once again I find myself thinking ill of the dead. I'm sure he was a lovely man to those who knew him; but that isn't the same as saying he was incapable of being a dick; and in all honesty I don't think I've ever enjoyed educating someone as to the extent of their own petty, mean-spirited bullshit as I did during those few minutes.
That was a great day.