Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Last Day

It was my twenty-first year working as a postman for Royal Mail. Back when I began at the tail end of the 1980s I had been warned a couple of times about getting out while I could. Find something else while you're still young, they told me. Once you've been in the job five years that's it - they'll take out your brain and you'll be stuck doing the same old shit until the day you die. The warning came to mean more as each year plodded by with a hole in one shoe and shooting pains in that shoulder which bears the weight of the delivery bag. After about the fifteenth year I really began to appreciate what had been meant by that warning, but it didn't seem like there was much I could do about it. It was a job, not a lifestyle choice. My options were limited.

The work was tough, and became tougher over the years. Management initiatives obliged workers to cut corners in order to get the job done in the allotted time so as to avoid disciplinary action or even the sack; and these were corners of the kind which would occasionally result in serious injuries to backs, knees, legs, or hips. The job crippled a few people I knew for life. Some grumbling problem with a knee might heal in six weeks, but not when the first week back on the job made it worse with tough, demanding work and long hours on your feet carrying anything up to a hundred kilos of mail each day; and no there weren't always light duties to which one could be assigned for a recuperative period, and yes it was either suffer or pull a sickie and risk dismissal for excessive sick leave; but just so long as we were knuckling down to whatever new working practices kept the economists happy, that was the main thing.

It had become unbearable, but by 2009, the end was in sight. It was time for me to go, and to keep my fingers crossed for whatever the future held turning out better than the crippling present: slogging my nuts off just to afford the Camberwell based Quality Street tin which took most of my wages in rent, and in which I lived mainly because it was close to the work I had to do in order to pay the rent. I handed in my notice, which didn't feel so weird as I always thought it would have done, as my life had become pretty weird by that point anyway; but at least it was changing at long last. I'd spent the previous three years trying hard not to dwell on certain paragraphs from Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly because they were a bit too close to home:

Arctor had hit his head on the corner of a kitchen cabinet directly above him. The pain, the cut in his scalp, so unexpected and undeserved, had for some reason cleared away the cobwebs. It flashed on him instantly that he didn't hate the kitchen cabinet: he hated his wife, his two daughters, his whole house, the back yard with its power mower, the garage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon. And entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all of that.

Probably he should have regretted his decision. He had not. That life had been one without excitement, with no adventure. It had been too safe. All the elements that made it up were right there before his eyes, and nothing new could ever be expected.

I handed in my notice and realised how few of my colleagues I would genuinely miss. Half of the office had stopped talking to me anyway. There had been a strike, and everyone but everyone had agreed that it was bollocks, that a work to rule would be far more effective, and that they weren't going to honour this strike, not this time. We had all had enough. Then the strike came, and everyone went on strike because hey it was a day off. I went into work regardless for reasons already stated, and because I couldn't afford not to. It was strike and make myself homeless whilst remaining on good terms with people who had probably never really been my friends in the first place, or do my shitty job and just about keep a roof over my head.

I had expected the traditional last day I'd seen when old boys packed it in, everyone called off the sorting for a few minutes, a speech, some jokes, and everyone patting Ron or Jeff or Snowy on the back. When my time came I knew not to expect that, because to most of the staff I was just another scab. This made it easier to leave. Andre, who hadn't said a word to me in three months, shuffled up once all of his mates had left to do their deliveries. He shook my hand and muttered that he was sorry about how things had turned out. The people I liked were sad to see me go, or were at least happy for me, and thankfully I had taken Woodward Road as my regular delivery route for those last couple of weeks. The position of the Woodwarde Road sorting frame meant that I was at least among friends. We laughed and joked as usual, as we did most mornings, and I still couldn't quite take in that this would be my last time here, the end to something which had endured for the entirety of my adult life.

The conversation somehow turned to getting caught short whilst out on delivery. I began the job working in Chatham in Kent, a town with many, many alleyways, and with a much earlier starting time than came to be the case in the London offices. It had been fairly easy to find somewhere to take an early morning leak if necessary; but the situation was very different in London, obliging delivery staff to race back to the sorting office in the absence of an accommodating café or public convenience. It being my last day, I decided that I might as well confess my guilty and possibly disgusting secret. I kept an empty plastic two pint milk container in my delivery trolley. If no other options were available, it usually wasn't too difficult to find a dark corner around the side of someone's home in order to make use of this improvised portable urinal. Naturally this set Terry chuckling, it being exactly the sort of thing that tickled him. Jokes were exchanged as we worked, expanding on the theme and making each other laugh all the more. We decided that Royal Mail should commission delivery trolleys with a built in urine storage facility. A strategically placed hole in the side of the trolley would provide access, so one could appear to be simply stood by one's trolley inspecting letters without any member of the public realising you were actually having a sneaky piss.

'What about the postwomen?' I wondered.

Terry explained that their needs could be met by means of some sort of extendible hose attachment with a funnel on the end. By this point I was, as usual, crying with laughter. This was the sort of shit I really was going to miss.

Eventually I had all the mail in the frame. I tied it up, stowed it away in the trolley, and left without ceremony. The few who I liked, who had made working at that place bearable, all wished me well, and I have since kept in touch with them by one means or another. The rest left a bad taste in the mouth, not so much because I had let anyone down - as was clearly the view - but because I felt they had let me down. I had expected better of them than playground politics.

Not talking to you. You smell.

Yet in a sense it helped, serving to cauterise twenty plus years worth of memories, rendering them down into something finite, something which had happened and which no longer really mattered by any terms I could have anticipated.

It was sunny as I pushed the trolley up Woodward Road and began pulling bands from bundles of mail. The load was relatively light for a Saturday, but I didn't feel like rushing around. For once, I could afford to take my time.

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