The Teller

By Eilish Mulholland 

The post office on Albion Street is unseemly. Built in a boundless plain of 1950s architecture, the jutting porticules and sweeping concrete tiers were all that anyone in Godwin seemed inclined to talk about. The grocer, Harry Peters would always exclaim that the money should have been spent on the veteran homes after the war, saying that the post office was for commie organisations and such like only to resign himself to his adage that “politics were progress, politics were progress”. I never paid him much heed. The man had an uncanny habit of stepping over your feet when you asked him for anything from the top shelf, and besides his fruit was always too expensive to be any good. This barrage of general commiseration was often not uncommon though for the residents of Godwin. From the vicar’s choice of ceremonial robes, to the floral arrangements at the town fete, as the local teller there was always an endless stream of post slips to be dealt with on a daily basis. Requiring individual sorting, blue was for airmail, green for local postage, and an unflattering shade of mauve was for complaints. It was always dominated by the mauve. Mauve against the price of postage stamps, against the delivery rota, the use of glue, the choice of knocks chosen by the postman upon delivery, the inadequate telephone lines, and most recently the change to a new set of information posters .

“We have another one about the posters”. I exclaimed, turning to Joan and waving the card around her face.

“Another?” she groaned and pulled a face of disgust. “Why can’t they get it into their heads that it’s not us but the higher ups?”

I sighed, pushing the air out between my lips so it made a hissing noise.

“Don’t even bother Joan. I already had Mrs Brock breathing down my neck that Mr Hevers is not to be disturbed with such trifling matters of the public body.”

Joan was about to make some witty remark about Mr Hevers the regional branch manager and his wandering hands when a villager angrily rapped the glass partition, demanding  her attention elsewhere and I went back to my sorting. 

These posters however were a matter of contention with the general public. Covering the main wall, the new instalment depicted an embossed eye and a postal map for the new directory design. Plastered all over town, the post office had been very insistent to rollout this new scheme, booklets were posted through doors, the queen’s head was given over for stamps with unblinking illustrated eyes to announce the change and we had a dedicated enquiry desk manned by Joan for the event. We all thought it was a great thing, all jazzy and modern for new times and despite the complaints we hoped it would be a success.

*

Yet this job is a mechanism that is a part of something. Everyday as I sit behind the desk feeling my lower back becoming steadily damp with sweat against the chamois leather, the chatter of those voices seem to be reigning around me as I work mindlessly.  I find myself recognising their handwriting now. The Vicar likes to curve his letters into upright soldiers, each one forms a uniform copy of tidy organisation. Precise in its tone, it asserts a correctness that is only fostered in the most ecclesiastical of spaces. Others prefer to use pencil, ballpoint, or mechanical. Some leave an indent on the page, indicative of frustration. Some tear a corner in haste, and crumple that smooth sheet into a tight wrinkle, clearly impatient. Whilst a few, true corrupted persons leave a crater of a watermark or write down a shopping list on the back, none compare to Mrs Ivors. With her name printed on the front, her stylus is infallible. Composed of a sweeping cursive, the wide strokes, quizzical slants, she peppers her page with commas and full stops that all twine into each other seamlessly. Mrs Ivors’ script distracts me though. I feel my skin tingling in anticipation for her letters, a feeling of flushed exertion leaves me unsettled whilst I pick through the contents of the day’s complaints. The woman does not exist except in signature as a final piste, the mistress of form and finality.

Mrs Ivors likes to write letters addressed on lavender coloured envelopes supplied by a British stationary company that makes the same stuff that the queen uses for her letters of correspondence and delicately watermarked with her name on the back of the flap.There’s a stately feel to it, the kind of paper you know you’d only ever use, one sheet at a time for a wedding invitation or for a six shilling bouquet inscribed with a loving message for your spouse. When the letters arrive to be sorted for their district postage, I always find myself stroking her envelopes, the red stamp in the corner almost like a lipstick mark that lets me know she’s still there and communicating. I never read the letters though. I am as blind as justice herself, or that is I at least try to be most of the time.

I couldn’t help but notice one day, recently, that Mrs Ivors’ letters had undergone a miraculous change. Her letters for postage always arrived on a Wednesday morning, clearly marked, the backs stuck together with glue and always in a purple envelope with the postage clearly signified. Yet, unlike her other letters this particular Wednesday I honestly thought someone was playing a practical joke on me. I held in my hand the same signature but it’s appearance almost made me want to vomit out of fear for its contents. Removed from the pleasant lavender letters of correspondence detailing what I assume to be suburban thank you notes, enquires into grandmothers health, a polite decline for a dress fitting, sisterly embraces of concern and briskly billed invoices to tradesmen, grocers and accounts in various department stores, this letter was practically deformed in comparison. Consisting of a hideously cheap, nasty envelope of brown manila paper with a hastily scribbled return address and so clumsily tied thanks to its string and washer fastener that the letter slipped out onto my lap whenever I went to place it in the cubby hole behind me. 

The paper itself was an eyesore. I knew Mrs Ivors always prided herself in having the best stationery possible, but this was like seeing her stained undergarments. It was far too intimate and uncomfortable to even touch with my bare hand. The paper was coarse, grainy and a pathetic shade of watery blue. There was no indented margin to speak of, the script had a jerky motion to it and when I stooped to retrieve it from the floor it was so thin and limp that it slumped into my hands like a rag doll. Each time I tried to squash it back in its envelope it seemed to become more determined than ever to refuse my acts of folding. The first lines kept springing back up like a demented jack in the box and each time they caught my eye I seemed inclined to read further down with each reappearance. 

The font dipped in and out of sight, I could tell that it had been typed and written in some places as the regular lines often jumped into close handwriting at irregular intervals. It started off fairly normally, asking after a mysterious person’s children, how their visit had been much too long in coming etc. It was when I reached the end of the page that I began to feel decidedly uncomfortable with its contents. Unlike any letter I had read before, this paper seemed to hold a plea for sanity that bordered on hysteria. Detailing the events of a past summer, it soon became clear that Mrs Ivors was a guilty party in some vague behaviour that was called “the great unseemly.” It seemed that whoever she had offended was in the process of drawing up a letter to a mysterious commission and Mrs Ivors was evidently trying to dissuade him or her from committing such an act before it trailed off again into nonsense. So engrossed was I in my subject matter that I didn’t even hear Mrs Brock, the post mistress clear her throat behind me. She called my name, “Helena” in her firm, low tone with such authority that I jumped and knocked the envelope and letter onto the ground in a puddle at her feet. Before I could stop her, she had swept the paper up onto the desk with her broad hand and was silently scanning it for means of a return address. I heard her exhale funnily when she saw it was Mrs Ivors address given the state of the thing. She muttered a faint “Curious”, readjusted her glasses and handed me an official red slip for its “unserviceable condition”. I didn’t think much of it after that, despite a burning shame that I’d broken a code of ethics and read another’s letter I just assumed nothing would come of it and Mrs Ivors letters of lavender construction would resume as normal. This had only been a faux pas, I was sure of it.

I was ill prepared though when Mrs Ivors appeared one evening in a state of great agitation. At first, I couldn’t make her out given the weak glow of my desk lamp, but when she came into focus I was shocked by her appearance. I didn’t recognise her. She was thin, delicate with large brown eyes and her lipstick was sinking into the cracks in her lip. Her coat was a shabby grey colour and clashed with her green dress, her cardigan was buttoned oddly so the sides kept ruching up her waist and her hair hung limply around her face in greasy tendrils. She looked positively washed out, and sweat was visibly dripping from her brow. When I rose from my desk to assist her she started out of her trance and her eyes seemed to bulge out from her skull as she observed me quickly.

“My letters, my letters have you sent them?”

“Your letters? I’m sorry madam but-“

“Ah it doesn’t matter, just, they’re not purple ones but they’re different. Brown or black or I can’t remember it wasn’t my usual-“

She stopped and turned very pale, stumbling a little on her feet as I felt a hand come down on my shoulder and squeeze my blouse in a firm manner between their fist.

“Helena, would you be so kind as to get Mrs Ivors a cup of tea?”

I turned, looking up into the face of Mrs Brock who stared calmly ahead, the light glinting off her silver rimmed spectacles and frilled collar and felt my mouth hang open slightly like a fish as I realised it was the same Mrs Ivors as my letters who stood in front of me. I swallowed, tried to say a polite welcome or good evening but instead found myself obediently walking towards the staff kitchen and nodding to Mrs Brock as she compelled me forwards, her sensible flat shoes slapping against the limeoneum as she moved towards Mrs Ivors.

“There’s a dear, not too hot now.”

I shuffled away hesitantly, feeling her eyes bore into my back as I turned round, closing the door on Mrs Ivors pale, trembling face and trying to make tea as quickly as I could. Their voices were muffled over the noise of the steaming tea kettle. Every so often I would hear Mrs Ivors shrill notes over Mrs Brock’s diplomatic tone. The kettle seemed to take forever to boil, and only as I moved to spoon in the tea leaves into the pot and was considering whether or not to offer Mrs Ivors a crumbled custard cream from the bottom of the packet that  a god awful scream pierced the air and the light above me surged to a dazzling beam and finally cut out.

I spilled the tea leaves over the countertop in shock, hastily scrambling to the door only to be met by Mrs Brock bearing a torch.

“Ah Helena, I was about to tell you not to bother with the tea. Mrs Ivors has left.”

“But, the scream, I heard a scream-l”

“Ah, only the wind. It’s settled now. All settled.”

I couldn’t get to sleep that night. Even as I tried to drift off to sleep that scream seemed to pierce through me. I almost dreaded going into work the next day, my head was aching and as I slipped into my desk I was almost released to see Joan back at her desk and smiling at me.

“Morning Helena, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Ah, just a headache. Tell me Joan has-“

But I cut myself short. Almost mesmerised, I walked towards the large poster that hung on the wall and made a noise of involuntary horror. A faint smudge had materialised inside the drawing of the new directory book. Grey in colour, it wasn’t until I approached it that I realised why it disturbed me. There, concealed under the gaze of a watchful eye stood Mrs Ivors, her face frozen mid scream in miniature form with one arm moving as if to shield her eyes from a blast of light.

I stuttered, slowly turning to see Mrs Brock calmly organising the recent postal delivery and feebly felt my way back to my seat, cradling my head in my hands and refusing to answer Joan’s enquiries for the rest of the day. And still to this day,  Mrs Ivors has never sent anymore letters, lavender or otherwise.

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