This story was first published in The Big Issue # 518, 12-25 August 2016.
My mate Paul and I have started a new postal service. An exclusive, boutique service. We have a catchment area of four linear kilometres and a clientele of two.
There are no premium rates. No sorting of letters in faraway places. No red or green postal boxes on corners. No little motorbikes. No big red vans. Just the two of us. And our bikes.
It works like this. I write a letter to Paul. Pen on paper. I put the letter in an old envelope. I write ‘Paul’ on the front. Then I hop on my bike and pedal north to Paul’s house. Four kilometres up the road. Conveniently, Paul’s home is on the way to my day job. I deliver the letter and then pedal to work.
A few days later, if all goes well, I receive a hand-written letter from Paul. His has been posted in the more traditional manner, travelling to an Australia Post sorting depot on the other side of Melbourne and then all the way back.
There was a time, until early this year when Australia Post reduced its services, that our letters would almost cross in transit – like texting or sending emails at exactly the same time. But in slow motion.
Paul is expecting to have to personally deliver his letters soon, given those reduced services. He actually has a postie’s bike, in good working order. He bought it for the nominal sum of $1 from a post office 20 years ago, by which time little motorbikes had replaced most postie bicycles. Paul fixed up his red bike and rode from Geelong to Apollo Bay along the Great Ocean Road, fuelled by nothing but youthful adventure and beverages borne of yeast, malt and hops.
I too have a postie’s bike, but not in good working order. Salvaged from a skip, it’s a rusted machine with a cracked leather seat, flat tyres and a chain that won’t budge. Still, it looks nice in the garden and reminds me that once upon a time I really did want to be a postie.
My aspirations had been fuelled by a 1949 black and white film called Jour de Fete, starring and directed by Jacques Tati. He played the role of an endearing if rather bumbling postie in rural France, trying to keep up with modern US postal services he’d seen portrayed on a newsreel at a village fair.
The nearest I came to such an honourable pursuit was three months as a telegram boy on a 90cc motor-scooter.
Telegrams, dear reader, were the Twitter of their time. Short messages (usually from debt collectors or wedding well-wishers) were telegraphed across the country (or city or suburb) from one post office to another, printed out and entrusted to a 17 year old boy on his motorbike ‘L’ plates. I can still remember delivering a debt notice to an elderly woman who had fallen on hard times. She answered the door in a halo of cigarette smoke looking dazed and glazed, wondering who I was and what I was doing.
It was only ever a fill-in job but I finished a few days short of the three month contract when a vehicle didn’t see me as I headed off on my 4pm run and next thing I knew I was in hospital. Concussion. Bung knee. Postal career over.
But being a postie might have turned out to be more Newman from Seinfeld than, say, Postman Pat and his black and white cat. Stressful and maddening in the city rather than a pleasant time in the countryside.
So, what do Paul and I write to each other? What’s in our letters? Words of encouragement, mainly. Urging each other to stick at this caper called writing – not just of letters but of stories and poems and reflections.
‘A handshake in thought’ is how Paul often finishes his short letters, which are usually adorned with a sketch of a figure in the distance, on a hill, on a horizon.
‘Go long with the wind’ is how I often finish my letters.
Why, you may ask, do we persist in this seemingly out-dated folly of hand-written letters? We do communicate in modern ways from time-to-time (tweets, emails, comments on each others’ blogs) but there’s something to savour about receiving and reading a real letter. There’s a sense of anticipation.
And in writing the letters there’s the sense of slowing things down, of taking one’s time. Of letting the rest of the world spin around madly while we sit at our desks and set down our thoughts for each other. One word at a time.
Paul and I will keep writing letters to each other. I’ll keep delivering them personally. And one day I expect Paul will be hopping on his well-maintained red bike and pedalling my way.
Paul’s own blog, by the way, is somethingreal. Take a look sometime.