“A full bag today, Albert.”
“There’s a lot of them brown envelopes – War Office ones… ”
“Any news from Tommy, lately?”
“Did you hear about Charlie’s son?”
“Aye. It’s sad. Very sad”.
George and Albert were joined by Constable ‘Jock’ Bremner, who often popped in for a cup of tea and a chat with his old pals at around this time. He nodded to Albert and then to George.
“Jock, here, says he’s got all four serving now,” said George.
Jock needed no further cue. “Ahl four of mah bairns nae, and what can ah do, eh? Ah’ll tell you what ah can do: Gi’ me a rifle and a bayonet and ah’ll sort out bloody Kaiser Bill. It’s us old un’s started it! We should fight it – nay bloody bairns. Four of mah wee laddies out there, fightin’, and ah’m stuck hir, sittin’ on m’arse. Ah’ve ’ad mah life, but mah bairns…” Jock ran out of words. Albert and George looked at the floor. The constable sipped his tea, eyeing Albert’s bag with suspicion.
“You’ll be late, Albert,” said George.
“Aye, I’d best be off.”
“Looks like a nice day for the weather.”
“I’ve ’ad worse. It’s a bloody big load and no mistake.”
George wondered why Albert did not check to see if there was a letter for 70 Grayson Lane. Albert was more taciturn than usual, but otherwise seemed inclined to treat the day like any other.
When he had adjusted his smart Royal Mail uniform, and given his peak cap an extra polish (of which he always seemed extraordinarily proud), Albert left the building and cycled down to Dalby to begin his round. His postbag, overwhelming the bicycle’s rear basket, was of record weight and the back wheel bit down hard on the road.
The town, comprised of mills and the terraced houses that served them, was still half-asleep. In the East, the sky was the colour of raw flesh.
The town of Dalby lay at the bottom of Sankey Hill. He freewheeled down it, swooping down from the heavens as he did every morning, geography conspiring to make him seem eager to start.
He zoomed past fields of sheep that were dotted like gravestones on the hillside; past drystone walls and glimpses of poppies; and past Sankey’s farmhouse with its glowing window and smell of baking bread
Dalby rushed up to meet him. The road flattened out and the fairground ride was over.
The first houses began at a crossroads. Here Grayson Lane intersected the main road through the town. Number 70, a corner house, would later mark the end of his round. His wife, Mary, saw him from the kitchen window, as she always did, and walked out onto the cobblestone pavement to wave. This was their daily ritual, a connection to their son Tommy. Albert had left the mill and had taken Tommy’s job at the post office when Tommy had joined the Army. He had asked for, and obtained, the very same round, a legacy passed not from father to son, but from son to father. She noticed that today the postbag on Albert’s bicycle was bulging. It was beyond her imagination to understand why, so she gave it no thought. Her husband returned her wave and this was enough to assure her that all was well.
She knew how proud her husband had been when Tommy had taken the King’s Shilling. He told everyone he met that he was only minding Tommy’s job until he got back from the Great War. He did not mention that he had bullied his son into going. Albert talked of war but Tommy talked of peace. Albert talked of duty but Tommy talked of fools. Albert talked of honour but Tommy talked of life. It was the father who secretly placed white feathers in an envelope, and it was the son who had delivered it to himself, and it was the father who had said, “What did I tell you!” when the son had opened the envelope at the end of his shift. Mary found out the truth much later and there was a terrible row which lasted on and off for days. She did not dare mention any of this in her letters to the front.
Albert began his duty. His shoes immaculately polished, his trousers sharply pressed, his back as straight as he could get it nowadays, he fired the first brown envelope through the first letterbox, propping his bicycle against the wall of every house he visited.
At first, only mad barking dogs seemed to be aware of him. Every sane creature was sleeping. The cobbled pavements and the roads were wet with dew but had not yet begun to steam. The horse dung had long stopped steaming and the children who were paid to shovel it up were still in bed.
The first time he had to pass through an already completed section of the round, some of the houses were closing their curtains. A baby was crying somewhere as the red sun appeared for the first time between the houses.
The postman continued unloading his bag, letter by letter.
More curtains were closing as more people woke up and found what was lying on their doormats. Usually, the postman would whistle for much of his round, enticing many from slumber with a tone-deaf remix of popular tunes, but today the only noise he made was the clack of his shoes on cobblestones and the clicking of the bicycle chain. In this mechanical fashion, Albert soldiered on.
When he had finished the main road and was about to turn into Station Street, Albert was approached by a large lady wearing a pinafore and holding a wet saucepan.
“Are all them from the War Office?”
“Not all, Missus. I can’t stop to talk.”
She peered into the postbag.
“Leave them, please.” said Albert.
“My God, postman, you’re destroying this town!” she said, theatrically. Albert snorted and carried on.
Soon he was cycling along Station Street, over the railway bridge and round the sharp bend to the right as the street followed the line to the station. There was a copse of holly and oak on the other side and a cacophony of birdsong was bursting from it. Normally, he would slow down at this point, but not today.
Just before the houses began, he saw a small boy sitting on a log, staring at the ground with an unaccountable fascination. It was little Tommy, bearing the same name as his own son. Several times in the past, the lad had helped him by delivering all the mail on one side of a section of the road. Albert always gave him a coin for his efforts.
The boy jumped up when he saw the postman. “Ants!” he said, pointing at the ground, expecting the postman’s face to mirror his own excitement.
“Do you want to deliver some letters for me?”
Little Tommy, hearing a new urgency in Albert’s voice, and sensing the importance of the task, turned into a whirling dervish and was soon knocking on every door on one side of the road and shouting, “Mail!” before finally standing on tip-toe to fulfil his duty. This was the only time he could knock on doors and run away without getting into trouble. Albert, with much less haste, served the houses on the opposite side of the street. Tommy lived at Number 245, the house that marked the end of their brief partnership. As they approached it, Albert gave the boy the least valuable coin he had.
“Bye postie!” Tommy said, and ran across the street to Number 245.
Albert had apparently not realised what the boy was carrying.
At the front door, a thin, birdlike woman was standing, alerted by her son’s vocal method of delivering mail. “Look, Mam, a letter for you! It says War Office! It must be from Dad!” He proudly showed off the coin.
The woman nodded politely at the postman. Little Tommy’s relentless chatter was cut out by the door slamming shut. The quiet of the early morning returned.
When Albert had to pass through a road he had covered half-an-hour earlier, many more people were awake, and many more windows were in mourning. If the postman had believed most of the letters contained nothing more than news of the wounded, this illusion was now crushed. There were no front gardens to the houses and the sounds of intimate domestic life spilled out onto the pavement. Albert would have heard human grief in all its bizarre variety. A child might be distressed for many trivial reasons, and such evidence could be dismissed, but the unnatural sobbing of grown men could not.
House after house, street after street, the postman diligently completed the process begun by the Army’s recruiting sergeant. Unsuspecting pedestrians smiled at him, unaware of what he carrying.
In Spenser Street, a boy and a small girl emerged from their house just ahead of him to begin the trek to school.
“Do weeeeeee have a letter?” The girl asked. “Can I post it?”
“Number 44,” said the boy.
Albert was about to look in his bag but then stopped and said, “I’ve got nowt for any little un’s. On your way, now!” The children were so surprised, they said nothing. It turned out there was no mail for Number 44. As they walked away, the little girl turned her head and stuck out her tongue but the nasty postman’s face was impassive.
Perhaps his mind was occupied with thoughts of his only son, and the image of Tommy marching down the main road of Dalby with his regiment, behind the town’s brass band, looking resplendent in his new uniform and off to do his duty as the onlookers shook their flags and cheered. “The Huns are bound to turn tail and run when they see this lot coming!” Albert had said to the man standing next to him. The soldiers’ voices boomed with manly vigour as they sang; their boots drummed on the cobblestones; their faces shone with youth and dreams of glory. That was the last day Albert had seen of Tommy. A photograph of him in his uniform dominated the wall above the mantelpiece, his gaze permanently fixed on something only he could see. “Do your duty, son. That’s all any man can ask.” Albert could think of nothing else to say in those parting words. A handshake later and he was gone.
“Does yer proud…” he once said to Mary, looking at the photograph and fondling Tommy’s first letter home. Again, he could not make mere words express how proud he was.
Albert had often remarked to his wife how unforthcoming Tommy’s letters were. The ‘good days’ were described in vivid detail. The ‘bad days’, the really interesting part, were not.
Once, he wrote the burning question: Have you killed any Germans? But got a response as vague as anything from the War Office.
He never understood how a soldier could not describe the bayonetting of a boy who looked fourteen and was screaming for his mother. And he could not guess how the same soldier would feel when a mate told him what “Mutter” meant in German.
The postman approached the corner of Cowden Road and Lomax Street. Two women, neighbours, were standing outside their front doors, gossiping. Albert had a saucy postcard for one, and a letter from the War Office for the other.
“How do, postie!” said the auburn-haired neighbour with the enormous bosom. “Is your missus giving you everything you want?” She, and the flaxen-haired younger neighbour with the slightly smaller bosom, laughed raucously.
“Ee, he’s a miserable old sod, this one, Beryl” said the younger one.
“Aye,” said Beryl. “He wants cheering up, Elsie. Get yourself a fancy woman, postie. That’ll put a smile on yer face!”
They went on with their innuendos, subtle and not so subtle. Albert stood looking awkward with the two items of mail. Eventually, Elsie held out her hand, absent-mindedly, while still talking. Albert gave her the letter. He gave Beryl the postcard. Then he got on his bicycle and peddled away as he heard Beryl exclaim, “Eh, Elsie, that’s the kind of chap I’d like, a big strapping lifeguard!”
Fifty yards farther on, he looked back to see Beryl helping Elsie indoors.
Now that the workers were in the mill and the children were at school, the streets were predictably quieter. But many had stayed at home. Dalby’s rush hour had been a strangely muted affair this morning.
For some, life did not go on. There was nothing to do but black out the windows and adjust to the concept of a smaller family. A generation was disappearing with no explanation. Each letter was really a form, a typed notification of either death or ‘missing in action’. Spaces were left for name, rank and serial number. (Only the families of officers ever received a telegram.) No other information – except the condolences of Lord Kitchener – was available.
Just beyond Jock Bremner’s house, with its distinctive blue door, stood Hamble Road School for Boys. It was break-time: the playground was full and the pupils were making an extraordinary din. As he approached the blue door, Albert found a brown envelope. The postman did his duty, got on his bicycle, and peddled past the playground. As he neared the next house, he looked in his bag. The next three letters were brown and they were also for the Bremners.
Albert swore violently, cursing the War Office. “Why can’t they put them all in the same letter! How was I supposed to know?” was the expurgated version.
He went back to the blue door. Jock’s grief was clearly audible through an open window. His wife of all people was trying to comfort him. “We should thank the Lord it’s only one that’s gone, pet. We should be grateful for that…”
Albert delivered all three letters simultaneously. The sounds from the open window stopped. The postman again cycled away, but faster this time.
Then the playground went silent. A hundred hearts stopped. The children listened in terror as a man and a woman were apparently being murdered in the house with the blue door.
They were taking a long time to die.
Break-time was over.
When Albert had finished Hamble Road, and then Bunters Lane, his round finally began to take him in the general direction of home.
“You’re late today, postman,” said Miss Greenly, a retired schoolteacher, who was carrying home a basket of groceries.
“A big load today today, Missus.”
“Miss. Why…why such a big load? What’s going on?”
“Mostly letters from the War Office, Miss.”
“But that can’t be!”
She stared at Albert’s bag and then at his face. Neither of them could think of what to say so she went indoors to monitor his labours from behind a net curtain.
The June sun was now high and he was sweating profusely but he did not loosen his tie or take off his cap. He was often slowed down by people giving him the time of day – many more people than usual, because of how late he already was. News was getting around, and some stood at their front doors, waiting. With studied professionalism, he would look at the cobblestones or in his bag, but never at those who stood guarding their homes as if trying to ward him off. Only when a brown envelope bore their address would their eyes meet. They’d watch him as he carefully checked exactly how many War Office notifications they had been allotted – for them this was an agonisingly delay, but the postman had learned his lesson. They received their mail without betraying any emotion, for the postman was virtually a stranger. They thanked him, went inside, closed their doors, and the postman moved on.
As Albert neared the end of his round, the remaining contents of his bag made it obvious that Grayson Lane would have its share of bad news. Yet he soldiered on, as if proud to serve, despite his aching legs, his blistered feet, and his sweat-soaked vest.
Eventually there was only Grayson Lane left to do. To get there, instead of cycling back through Hamble Road, as he usually did, he chose another route that meant a return trip through Station Street. Little Tommy was sitting on the same log as he had been several hours earlier. Again the boy’s attention was on the ants’ nest. This time, however, Tommy ignored the postman. Instead, he was pounding the ground with the largest stone he could wield. Over and over it thumped into the earth and he grunted with the effort. Slowly, methodically, he murdered every insect he could see. They were scurrying around, trying to defend their territory, sacrificing all for the defence of their queen. The ground shook; crater upon crater deformed their world. They screamed their ant screams. Their passing was marked in red on the one headstone that killed them all. There was no escape.
Little Tommy could not escape.
Albert’s son had not escaped.
And Albert himself did not escape when his wife, seeing the brown envelope in his hand as he approached Number 70 Grayson Lane, and the look on his face, slammed the door.
The following morning, Lily Newsome delivered the mail in Dalby. It was her first day working for the Royal Mail. Being new, she made a few mistakes here and there, such as delivering a brown envelope to Jock Bremner’s house instead of to the house next door. He calmly accepted her apology. She had difficuly understanding his accent, but inferred to her relief that he had no sons at the Front.