The workload at Royal Mail back in the nineties was roughly seasonal, and at its heaviest during the run-up to Christmas when useless companies specialising in products and services which no-one in their right mind would ever need took to bombarding the public with the worst sort of junk mail. Unfortunately, Royal Mail being what it was, the job of postman was not generally configured to allow for any long periods of time in which one might catch an hour of sleep in the canteen or stand around twiddling one's thumbs. Even during the weeks of our workload at its lightest, we were never at liberty to slow down to anything you could call a leisurely pace. The more reasonable workload just meant that you might actually get time to take breakfast, and that you probably wouldn't end the day with junk mail piled under your bay, held back for delivery until the next day because there were no overtime hours to be had. Naturally this meant that once the flow of festive crap began to increase - usually around the end of August with just a little over one-hundred shopping days left before Christmas - we were screwed because we simply didn't have either the people or hourage to cope with three or even four times the daily amount of mail we'd been delivering back in July. We didn't have the people or the hourage, and the proposition always came down from higher up that although we weren't going to be getting either the people or the hourage, we could shift that weight by application of positive mental attitude.
'Let's go to work, lads,' we would grin to each other, rolling up our sleeves, the steely determination of success in a competitive modern business glinting in our eyes. It was all about attitude.
One day in the late 1990s as the clock crawled towards one in the afternoon, it was all about attitude and bungee cords. The attitude was specifically this shit will be a whole lot easier once I stop caring about it, and the bungee cords were used to secure a wobbling tower of mail bundles in the front basket of my Royal Mail bicycle. The legal limit of that which could be carried in the front basket of a Royal Mail bicycle was twelve kilograms, and I think I had about eighteen or nineteen strapped down with my green and black elastic. I may have remembered those figures wrongly, but the point is that I had a fuck of a lot of work, and certainly more than I should have been carrying on two wheels.
The bundles of mail were for the upper end of Lordship Lane in East Dulwich, specifically the odd numbers running down so far as Melford Road. This was a stretch which would take about fifteen minutes with two or three bundles of mail on an ordinary day, but this was far from being an ordinary day. Once I'd delivered this lot, I would collect further bags of mail I'd already prepared which would be left in pouching boxes situated along my route by one of the drivers. By this method there was, in theory, no upper limit to the quantity of mail I could be expected to deliver, except on this one day I knew for sure that there wouldn't be enough room in those pouching boxes for all of the supplementary bags I'd given to Danny, my driver.
I was paid until twenty past one. The quantity of mail was such that it had taken most of my working day to prepare it for delivery. Andy, my boss, had told me that I was to deliver for as long as I felt like delivering, to make a note of my finishing time, and he would then sort out the overtime I was owed on the next working day. It wasn't a great offer, but there were bosses who would have insisted on my staying out there until every last piece of crap had been shoved through a letter box even if it meant finishing at nine in the evening and thus having worked a thoroughly illegal fifteen hours; and they could have made me do this by threatening me with punitive action on the strength of my delaying the mail if I refused. Andy was one of the good ones. He knew I would be physically unable to deliver the lot, but trusted me to do what I could.
I'd already been at work for eight hours, and I wasn't exactly looking forward to this. I was going to deliver until the urge to set the remaining mail on fire and go home became too tempting to resist. I was going to deliver as much as I could, because it was either that, or face the same situation tomorrow but with tomorrow's mail added to the equation. It was bollocks, not least because of all this mail, probably one item in about twenty was anything you could count as legitimate post - a letter, a bank statement, anything lacking a cartoon teddy dressed as fucking Santa Claus printed on the envelope; which was where the positive mental attitude came in as essential - not thinking too hard about this shit, not thinking too hard about breaking your back hour after hour so as to deliver material of which the great majority would go directly and unopened into the addressee's waste bin.
With the bike fully loaded, I pushed out into the street and peddled cautiously up Crystal Palace Road, balanced like some circus act, so slow that I may as well have been walking, and uphill for most of the distance of one mile and some small change; and it looked like it was going to rain.
Eventually I reached my starting point and so leaned the bicycle up against the wall of the large Victorian house at 565, Lordship Lane, the very same house which can be seen immediately to the left of the railway track in Camille Pissarro's 1871 painting entitled Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich. The house is the furthest up a fairly steep incline as the hill ascends towards the Horniman Museum. Lordship Lane is fairly wide at that point and I noticed a knackered looking car stalled in the middle of the road, just a little further up. Three young men were bunched around their silent vehicle, leaning into door frames to prevent it rolling down the hill as traffic whizzed past on both sides. I could have stopped to help them, and on another day I might have done so, but I wasn't in the most charitable of moods.
It seems no-one gets an easy ride today, I thought to myself, pushing the bike against the wall, wedging it tightly so as to prevent it falling or even rolling down the hill. I pulled my first bundle of mail from beneath the bungee rope at the summit of the tower. I removed the rubber bands holding all the letters together, slipped them into my pocket and then realised I had tried to pack too much into this first bundle. This mail was for just the first three or four houses, but nevertheless the full span of my hand from fingertip to thumb was not quite enough to hold it whilst I looked through to see what I had for whom. I moved closer, supporting the rear of the bundle by pressing it to the wall, pushing my waist up against the crossbar of my Royal Mail bicycle, and began to go through the letters, looking for the last bearing the address of 565, Lordship Lane.
I experienced sudden and dramatic pain and was dimly aware of mail falling from my grasp in a shower. I had an instantaneous mental image of Danny, the younger and much fatter van driver who had been given the task of conveying my supplementary bags to their pouching boxes. Danny had decided it would be funny to sneak up on me from behind and jump on my back, and as soon as I thought of this I realised there had to be some other explanation. I was aware of the stalled car seen a few moments before, and Danny's imagined ambush became a vehicle rolling back down the hill, those three men desperately trying to steer it onto the pavement and away from the roaring traffic.
So a car had rolled down a hill and hit me in the small of the back at something like ten or more miles an hour. It had pinned me to the crossbar of my bicycle and then bounced back into the road with some force as a terrifying indication of how hard I had been hit. As I fell, I noticed that I was screaming and that the pain was like nothing I'd ever experienced, because someone had effectively dropped a car engine on the base of my spine. I rolled on the pavement, still screaming and now staring in astonishment at something which absolutely could not have happened. The three men were grabbing at their vehicle, trying to steer it back onto the pavement a little further down, but still it was too heavy and the incline was too great for them; and my bicycle was on its side with mail everywhere, the front basket and the steel tubing in which it had been nested were crushed flat as though in some Bugs Bunny cartoon, and this was why I was screaming rather than just plain dead. I'd been stood pressed against the crossbar, and so the first thing with which the front of the car had made contact was the basket of the bicycle, side on.
'You are okay.' It was one of the three men. He leaned down to grin at me as though selling something, and his English wasn't very good. I couldn't tell whether it was a question or a prediction. 'You will be fine in a moment.'
I understood that he really wanted to hear that yes, I would be fine, and that nothing was his fault. I formed my screaming into words, hoping to communicate that on the contrary, I seemed to be experiencing some degree of discomfort. People were gathering around, all looking down as I tried to draw breath for further screams. The pain was beyond belief. It seemed a miracle that I could feel my legs, that I could see no blood. An ambulance was mentioned.
Danny and Rodney were there, two other postmen. They were with Andy, my boss, who was talking to someone on the phone. I managed to explain that I thought Danny had been mucking about and had jumped on me unawares. I think they thought I was joking. They laughed, glad to see that I was apparently okay.
I had somehow stopped screaming.
'Don't move, mate. The ambulance will be here any minute.'
I lay back on the pavement and looked up at the sky, still amazed that I was alive. I looked across to the car and realised that the police had turned up. I explained what had happened. The policeman asked me where the other one had been stood.
The other one - he who had either asked or insisted on my being okay - was on the ground, head lolling from side to side as he was tended by ambulance staff.
'I thought he was the driver.'
'He's putting it on.' The nurse rolled her eyes.
'He was fine a minute ago.'
I was hoisted onto a stretcher and into the back of the ambulance.
'What about the mail?' I asked Andy, suddenly remembering what I'd been about to do before the sky fell on me.
'Fuck the mail. Don't worry about it.'
The sequence of events coalesced into an order that at last made sense as the ambulance trundled towards the emergency department at the hospital in Camberwell.
'You're in shock, but it will pass,' the nurse explained.
I realised I had got out of the delivery from hell, out of having to cut off as it got dark, thus leaving myself stuck with twice the amount to do the next day. I wasn't even going to be at work the next day, I decided, thrilled; and then bewildered by how terrible a job had to be if this was better, but still thrilled regardless.
I was wheeled into the hospital and left there for an hour or so, with a nurse occasionally checking to make sure I wasn't in too much pain. The explosion had dulled to a red raw throb, uncomfortable but bearable. I sat and thought over the possibilities of my never walking again, and of a fractured pelvis, but the thoughts didn't quite ring true. If either were the case, the pain would be worse.
I was x-rayed and sure enough nothing was broken, just severely bruised. The bicycle had saved my life, or at least my legs. I was given a pair of crutches, and pointed in the direction of the bus stop. Walking was uncomfortable, but I was in no hurry.
Next day I inspected where it was most sore. My groin and gentleman bits were a dark plum colour. This wasn't going to be a simple case of popping a few paracetymol and then back to work before the end of the week, and frankly I was disinclined to rush back given the general lack of goodwill that had been displayed by Royal Mail upper management in recent years. I believe I was off for about six weeks, or until I was ready, depending on which way you look at it. The crutches had been convenient for about the first week, but I took to slow unassisted movements once the second came around.
The police had been in touch with me, and none of the three men had been found in possession of a driving license. Nevertheless, they would not be prosecuted, unless I specifically wanted them prosecuted. I was still quietly furious at the sight of my supposed benefactor rolling around and moaning like a wanker, pretending to be as much the injured party as I had been, but I didn't want to become any further involved. I eventually returned to work around the same time as Ted who had also been off for a while. He had been sat in a parked Royal Mail van with his arm out the window. A passing truck had clipped his elbow and broken it.
'Did you claim compensation?' he asked me.
I said that I hadn't, and it hadn't even occurred to me to do so.
'You should've done,' he said. 'I got two thousand out of it!'
I tried to imagine what it would be like to have that sort of money dropped in my figurative lap out of the blue, but I just couldn't get there. It was too far beyond my experience. It wasn't even too late to claim, to call up one of those television advertised law firms specialising in people whose lives have been destroyed by paper-cuts or stubbed toes, but it wasn't a road I would ever have been happy to walk down regardless of whatever pot of gold lay at the end, not even on crutches. I'd been hit by a car, and had walked away, and had been subsequently spared stuffing envelopes on which were printed cartoon teddy bears dressed as fucking Santa Claus through the letter boxes of a disgruntled public for an entire six weeks; and despite everything, it felt pretty good.