I wander in out of the rain, shaking my barnet about like an outwitted sheepdog. The doors have handles but a sign tells me they’re automatic; motorisation added as afterthought, which will need to happen to me if the noises my legs make when I dare crouch are anything to go by.
I’m met immediately by a man who demands to know what I want. I can’t tell if he’s a doorman solidly and professionally making sure I’m sent in the right direction, a bouncer grimly explaining I almost certainly have the wrong shoes to get into the fightiest club in town, or one of those wretches whose souls died long ago directing you to the self-service supermarket checkout. As it turns out, he’s all three. I can be nowhere but the Post Office.
Many things polarise, but fear and hatred of the Post Office is not one of those things. Tell anyone you have to send a small package across three counties and they’ll gaze at you with a heartfelt sympathy they were unable to muster when you told them you had bowel cancer. Everyone dies, but some people, somehow, manage to avoid the Post Office.
This weekend my mother turns an age I can’t specify for fear of labelling her injudicious as a youth. Unusually, the woman actually had a proper answer when I asked the time-saturated “What do you want for your birthday?”, meaning I’m not able to just send flowers or something similarly un-thought through. I have to buy something in a shop or get something sent to me, wrap it up and put a little tag on it, and I obviously resent none of these things.
But then I have to somehow get it 200 miles to the west, and for this I find myself begging for a Delorian to nip back and erase at least two generations of my family, if not more. I will do anything to avoid a trip to the Post Office. That I had the package with me this morning is down to my having confected a reason not to post it on the two previous days when I’ve had countless hours on my hands and a wish to spend none of them listening to a man yelling through a bullet-proof screen about a £70 postal order to the Nigerian High Commission.
Instead of taking it to my local Post Office, which is of course a 20-minute walk away in the back of a newsagent’s that’s shut four days of the week and has no website telling you which days those are, I’ve put it in a backpack and dragged it all the way into central London; I’d rather waste the dwindling time of my employers than my own. But the branch here is a large one, with self-service tills, foreign currencies of the countries with consulates nearby (Cuba, Zimbabwe, even Australia), and wall after wall of jiffy bags you can put something in, seal, write on and pretend you brought in with you. And a major branch like this brings with it fresh complications.
Chief among them is this buffoon now demanding to know what’s in my package, in a gravely booming voice designed to alert nearby sniffer dogs. Naturally confused, my response is “It’s my mother’s birthday present.” Not good enough: “What is it?”
Look mate, I love a good mum like any respectable internet user should but it’s a bit beyond the call of fucking duty for you to be checking my old dear’s getting something sufficiently nice for her big day. I didn’t even know you’d met her. I’m minded to respond with words designed to establish the nature of their relationship and whether he’s the missing puzzle piece I’ve been ignoring since the fucker walked away 37 years ago. Perhaps a simple: “Daddy?”
What I actually say is: “It’s a camera.”
An alert goes off behind his eyes. “Is there a battery in it?” he demands. BECAUSE IT WON’T WORK IF THERE ISN’T. “I don’t know. Probably.” This part of my trip to the Post Office ends with the words on which this man bases his entire existence: “We need to know for security reasons.” Security reasons. An overwhelming calm comes over me as I realise these words are the 21st century precursor to: “I accept you are no threat to us, and you may continue.” Or: “You’re boring me, cunt, go over there.”
I’m directed to a counter marked ‘Foreign currency’ where a woman will, obviously, enable me to send a parcel to Somerset. She’s been told there’s a battery in it but this news has no effect on her vacant visage. I’m expecting her to ask me how much it’s worth and I know to say “not much” to avoid conversations about insurance, but of course if I say that now everyone’s going to think I’ve bought my mum a camera made by Aigo or BenQ and my shame will be incalculable. No, I don’t think I’ll pay an extra £19 to cover the possibility that you’re about to take my cash and my parcel and throw the latter into a sack marked ‘NO’, but thanks for double- and triple-checking that I’m willing to trust you to do the one fucking job you’re here for.
“Have you written your address on the back?”
Schoolboys laugh at novices like me. I ask to borrow her pen and she looks at me with incomprehension. I can only assume it’s because I’ve missed a few steps in this inexorable dance, where I look around for a pen, see a chain made of tiny ball-bearings hanging from the counter, pick it up to find the pen’s been ripped off by a previously ripped-off punter, return my gaze to my partner and only then will she pass her pen beneath her shield.
Eventually I pay for the package to be signed for at the other end, which the woman tells me ensures it ought to get there at some point but not that it won’t have been booted around the corridors of Mount Pleasant in the meantime because I refused to insure my own mum’s birthday present, scum that I am. I look her in the eye and thank her warmly, which she can’t even be bothered to take as sarcasm through her thousand yard stare. I also thank the man on the door and promise to say hello to my mum from him. I think I heard him mutter he’d be seeing her first.
This may be the sole example of a service that could actually be improved by privatisation, which is doubtless why our market-obsessed overlords promise to go no further with it than ‘mutualisation’. I don’t know what that is but if you searched ‘politicians wanking’ you’d probably find pictures of it, along with a few other things. Don’t worry, Pete Townshend got off, you’ll be fine.
There’s nothing to be done about all this. We are doomed to spend hours of our lives being tutted at loudly by people behind us in staggeringly long queues, feeling a peculiar guilt that you’re buying stamps while someone behind needs to do something far more important, like buy some stamps. I’ve looked up franking machines on the internet but they cost so much it suggests these bastards actually want us to go into their hideous dungeons of delivery hell. We can’t ban birthdays, as far as I know. Or can we?
And in the most literal sense imaginable, I blame the parents.