Post Box by Debbie Vince
This story is to remember Sophia Strangways who planted a Holly on 30 April 1910.
I don’t think I’d have done it if Yvonne had been there. She would have put a kindly hand on my shoulder, telling me it was “only banter”.
As it is, I have been summoned to Brian’s office where I sit nervously, peering out of the window overlooking the little sorting station. I see Yvonne emerging from the back door, adjusting the webbing strap on her oversized mail bag. She has made herself a pad to stop it cutting into her shoulder. She pushes her red bicycle onto the path just as Bob dashes out brandishing a stray envelope. He stuffs it into her bag, then gives her a quick kiss on the cheek before disappearing back inside. Sean comes out next, sporting a pair of mirrored sunglasses, presumably to hide his bruises.
He was unlucky that I was left-handed, as I had managed to graze him with my ring when my fist collided with the bridge of his nose. The force of the punch had surprised us both. He had staggered backwards until he lost his balance and crashed, in slow motion, into the sorting frame laden with the morning’s post. The letters and parcels snowed down around him, along with the little plaque announcing “Palmerston Close” which had always been loose in its brass holder. It landed squarely on his shiny bald head, before sliding off inelegantly to the floor. Numbly, I watched as he retrieved his cap from underneath the table, then scrabbled about like a crab, reaching for the smashed pieces of his glasses.
He stuffed the broken shards into his pocket, pulled himself up and made his way with as much dignity as he could muster, out through the back door.
“What is wrong with you?” Mick had said, breaking the silence.
I turned back to my desk, willing my tears not to fall. The great stack of mail in front of me was waiting to be categorised, filed and loaded into the back of the van.
Deliveries later that morning were the subject of various complaints. Most of Nelson Close went to Trafalgar Way. Yvonne had already told me that Colonel Jones, from the White House, had got a parcel for the new Underwear Boutique, and the Red Lion was in receipt of mail destined for the Primary School. All misdemeanours of which I would soon be accused, I was sure, but paling into insignificance beside this morning’s fracas.
As I sit waiting on the hard wooden chair in my boss’s office, I look up at the noticeboard. Pinned on it is a photo of the little party he had given last summer to commemorate Bob’s 20 years on the post, which had coincided with my first week. The edges of the snap are curling and it looks fuzzy under the glare from the window. I lean forward in my chair and see Yvonne with her broad smile and her hands clasped lightly in front of her, a sprig of heather, probably picked from her garden, pinned to her lapel. I am in the middle, my hair untidy and my shirt slightly crumpled, the standard-issue grey jacket hanging shapelessly around my small shoulders. I can just make out my Post Office badge. I was so proud of it back then.
There is a splodge of grease on the left leg of my trousers. Perhaps I had had to change the wheel of the van. Bob had delivered an amateur crash course in mechanics in my first 48 hours. “No special treatment,” Mick had observed to his colleagues, “just because she’s a woman. She needs to be able to do it just like the rest of us.” Sean had concurred. “Equal pay, equal work,” he quoted as he looked me over. I had been aware of all their eyes on me as I underwent the short, sharp lesson in roadside independence, all fingers and thumbs. It didn’t even occur to me then that the puncture might not have been an accident.
In the Polaroid print, Mick stands behind us, all 6ft 7in of him, with his bushy moustache and the beginnings of a straggly beard. I imagine his long arms dangling by his sides, awkwardly. He is grinning at Sean, who seems to be pointing at something behind my back. I look at Sean’s bald head and enormous spectacles and swallow hard.
Quickly I rub a paper hanky across my wet palms, as I hear the door shut behind me. Brian enters wearing his trademark brown M&S suit, his turquoise tie protruding over his paunch. His hair is slicked back and his face is set. Any laughter lines in the photo above us are not visible this morning.
To find myself in Brian’s office is a rare event. The first time was when he beckoned me in after I had timidly knocked the door on my first morning. He shook my hand, welcomed me aboard, then took me through to meet the team. Mick hadn’t been able to look me in the eye. He had wanted his brother-in-law to get the job, and he told me so to my face. Brian hadn’t flinched. “Not my decision, mate,” I overheard him saying later.
Yvonne was just happy to have a female ally. She confided that she never thought there would be another woman on the staff. Bob was her husband. They had been married for over 25 years, and worked together for most of them.
She became my unofficial mentor, helping me to map out my route, pointing out the new builds, listing the people who had just moved into the area, and making sure I understood the re-directions. She warned me about the potholes on the narrow farm tracks, and patiently helped me to decipher scruffy handwriting.
She was full of little tips about hand cream for our chapped skin, feral felines and stray animals. “Always keep a stash of dog biscuits in your pocket,” she told me. “There’s a horrible Alsatian at Medlar Farm, but he can always be distracted by a Bonio.”
“There’s an old dog just moved into ‘Jack’s Retreat’,” said Sean. “Wobbled her wrinkly old tits at me last Thursday when I dropped off a parcel. She should be so lucky.” He turned to eyeball me and laughed unkindly.
“Don’t worry about Sean,” Yvonne said in a voice just loud enough for him to hear, “you’ll soon get used to him.”
He must have taken that as his cue to come across and pat me on the shoulder.
“I’m an acquired taste, love,” he said, sticking out his tongue and brushing the tips of his fingers along my backside as Yvonne disappeared into the kitchen.
When she came back through I asked her why it was only ever us who served up the PG Tips, in the assortment of chipped china mugs. “I don’t trust them to do it properly,” she said. “And it’s close to the gents.” It was my turn to smile.
Over the months that followed I watched as Sean displayed his penchant for playing to the crowd, joking in his thick Irish accent. The louder the reaction, the better he liked it, and the braver he became.
He was away for a fortnight one summer, which felt like a holiday for me too.
“Isn’t it nice not to have to listen to all that…smut?” I said to Yvonne as we washed up in the kitchen, confident she would concur.
“You mustn’t take it to heart,” she said, “it’s just his sense of humour.”
“He doesn’t do it to you, though, does he?”
She laughed, “He knows Bob would punch him on the nose.”
“I’d pay money to see that,” I said, “it must be a nice feeling, though, to know somebody’s looking out for you.”
She put her hand on my shoulder. “Sorry,” she said. “It must be tough, with Ray being laid up.”
“It’s easier in some ways,” I replied. “At least I know the money I earn won’t be spent in the pub. It’s school shoes now, instead of pints of beer.”
I thought of my injured husband, immobile on the settee at home, staring into space. He was certainly in no fit state to defend my honour. Not that he would have anyway. He was badgering me for a portable TV, so he could watch the horse racing.
“It’s not the work that’s the problem,” I said to Yvonne, “it’s Sean….the language, the touching, the constant innuendo. Do you think,” I asked tentatively, trying to keep my voice level, “that Bob might have a word with him? Man to man.”
“I think that would be asking a lot,” she said. “They’re friends, really. It’s just Sean’s way. You have to take him as you find him.”
I had my back to the door when I heard him march in on his return from Bognor. I turned quickly to see him checking out his audience.
“Hi Dot,” he said, “I’ve got a present for you.” He was grinning from ear to ear, with one hand behind his back. “I’ve heard you like sucking on this,” he leered, thrusting a stick of glistening pink rock towards me.
“You’re disgusting,” I said, attempting to push it out of the way. He whipped it away quickly and shouted to Mick to catch as he lobbed the sweet across the room.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, winking theatrically at the others.
I grabbed my bag and bustled past him, catching Mick guffawing into his beard.
“Trouble is with you,” Sean shouted at me as I attempted to open the heavy door, “no sense of humour.”
The glossy calendar appeared just before the first Christmas, with women in various states of undress. Sean reached across me to remove the old one with its torn pages and pictures of chocolate-box cottages, before stuffing it into the bin at my feet.
“What do you think, Dot?” he grinned, standing back and revelling in my discomfort.
“Why don’t you take it home and hang it in your kitchen?” I asked him, “or wouldn’t your wife like it?”
“It’s a bit of fun,” he said, slapping me lightly on the backside. “You jealous?”
“Leave me alone, you creep,” I could feel the blood rushing to my face.
I screwed up what little courage I had and knocked on the door of Brian’s office. Flushed and tongue-tied, I clumsily attempted to describe the escalating situation.
“Oh, you women,” he said, looking up distractedly from his sheaf of papers. “Sometimes we can touch you and sometimes we can’t.”
“Please,” I said, “can you just have a word?”
“Gather round, boys,” Sean said one morning when he returned for a break, halfway through his round. “Not for your ears, Dot,” he continued.
“Had to get a signature off of that new woman at Fir Trees, looked as if she’d just got out of bed, tits hanging out of her nightie.”
I swear that time Bob actually looked embarrassed but he laughed politely all the same. Mick, as usual, was doubled up beside him.
Sean turned to the pile of parcels on the floor. I remember thinking how excitable he was. Momentarily, he had his back to the others, chortling to himself before he turned around with his left arm behind him. He had shoved a long cardboard tube between his legs, spread apart, and he marched up and down the office, pointing the cardboard phallus towards the ceiling. “Ready, Mrs Furry Trees,” he shouted, “I know what you want, and I’m coming to give it to you!”
“You’re a pig,” I stammered.
“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t like it, Dirty Dottie. Probably why you’re so bloody miserable.”
I grabbed my post bag and left the office, catching the sleeve of my jacket on the flaking door frame, tearing the cuff.
The topless woman in the calendar gazed down at me the next morning as I was trying to sort the mail for the High Street. Flustered, I was conscious I was muddling the piles. The letters for Churchill Close had become mixed up with those for the Larkman Estate, and I had dropped two of the parcels for Wellington Avenue.
Sean was upping the ante, and I didn’t know where, or if, he’d stop. It was the Indian summer of ’76, but I made sure I had my waistcoat on over my short-sleeved shirt. It was a little on the tight side but offered some protection. I could feel the sweat building up under my arms.
“Going to be another warm one,” said Sean with his familiar leer. “You look hot, Dot.”
“Seriously,” he said, “I think you should take a few layers off. Or maybe you haven’t got anything on underneath.” He looked around, raising his eyebrows.
“Have you got any knickers on, Dot?”
“Mind your own business,” I said.
“I’ll find out,” he announced. He started to walk towards me, rubbing his palms against each other and smacking his lips together, enjoying the tension.
“Scared I’m going to pull your trousers down?” he laughed.
And with one quick movement he lunged towards me, with an outstretched palm directed towards my crotch.
My reaction was instinctive. I think Bob must have got my elbow in his chest as he was stood behind me when I leant backwards, clenching my fist before landing the blow.
Brian interrupts my reverie, bringing me back to the present.
“I’ve had a word,” I hear him say, “and I think the best thing to do, under the circumstances, is to put the whole sad saga behind us. Sean is very sorry for the way he’s behaved, and he’ll say so to your face if that’s what you want.”
“In front of everybody?” I ask.
“Er, no,” says Brian. “I don’t think that’s necessary, but he will offer you a sincere apology.”
“I know you’ve rung Personnel.” he continues, “but I can tell you that if you get them involved it will get completely out of hand. Sean has a lot at stake. Do you realise what you would be doing to him?”
“Did he realise?” I ask, “what he was doing to me?”
“Honestly,” Brian says, “I don’t think he did. It’s just his way. It’s…office banter.”
He sees the look on my face and puts up his hands. “But, but, of course, it has to stop.”
“I want to see Lynne,” I say, “before I make a decision.”
“If you get Southampton down here,” Brian says, “we’ll never hear the end of it. He could lose his job and his pension.”
“Maybe he should have thought of that,” I say, emboldened.
“His wife has terminal cancer,” Brian announces suddenly. “Do you want that on your conscience as well?”
I stare at the floor, nonplussed.
“Can you promise then?” I ask, after a pause, “that he will never touch me again?”
“You have my word,” he says, getting up from his chair.
Sean never spoke to me again, which I counted as a blessing. Six weeks after the blow he took early retirement. I lasted a further three months, and then got a job as a van driver for Andover Electrical Factors. I think Brian must have written me a glowing reference, glad to see the back of me.
I bumped into Yvonne at the Christmas Fayre in the Town Hall and she told me she had gone part time, and that Mick’s brother-in-law had finally got the job he had coveted. Brian had put in a word. Sean had got a job in B&Q on the paint section.
“How’s Aileen?” I asked, “is she in remission?”
“From what?” Yvonne looked puzzled.
“The cancer,” I said.
She shook her head.
“You must be mistaken,” she said. “Aileen’s fine. She’s just got back from a cruise round the Med with her sister.”
Debbie moved up to Norfolk some five years ago from Hampshire where she worked juggling finances for a construction business. She has now swapped credit control for creative writing and is much happier for it. She loves the many cultural activities of this wonderful city, but also enjoys the outdoors, particularly walking and horse-riding. She brought her horse, Bluey, up from the South and keeps him at Felmingham and in turn he keeps her sane.