Going Postal (Discworld #33)


‘Why, do you believe I will?’

‘Yes. I think that in a few seconds you’ll try to kill me. I’d like you to promise not to.’ She shrugged. ‘This should be interesting.’

‘Promise?’ said Moist. ‘All right. I hope it’s going to be exciting.’ Miss Dearheart flicked some ash off her cigarette. ‘Go on.’ Moist took a couple of calm breaths. This was it. The End. If you kept changing the way people saw the world, you ended up changing the way you saw yourself. ‘I am the man who lost you that job at the bank. I forged those bills.’ Miss Dearheart’s expression didn’t change, apart from a certain narrowing of the eyes. Then she

blew out a stream of smoke. ‘I did promise, did I?’ she said. ‘Yes. Sorry.’

‘Did I have my fingers crossed?’

‘No. I was watching.’

‘Hmm.’ She stared reflectively at the glowing end of her cigarette. ‘All right. You’d better tell me the rest of it.’ He told her the rest of it. All of it. She quite liked the bit where he was hanged, and made him repeat it. Around them, the city happened. Between them, the ashtray filled up with ash. When he’d finished she stared at him for some time, through the smoke. ‘I don’t understand the bit where you give all your stolen money to the Post Office. Why did you do that?’

‘I’m a bit hazy on that myself.’

‘I mean, you’re clearly a self-centred bastard, with the moral fibre of a, a—’

‘—rat,’ Moist suggested. ‘—a rat, thank you . . . but suddenly you’re the darling of the big religions, the saviour of the Post Office, official snook-cocker to the rich and powerful, heroic horseman, all-round wonderful human being and, of course, you rescued a cat from a burning building. Two humans, too, but everyone knows the cat’s the most important bit. Who are you trying to fool, Mr Lipwig?’

‘Me, I think. I’ve fallen into good ways. I keep thinking I can give it up any time I like, but I don’t. But I know if I couldn’t give it up any time I liked, I wouldn’t go on doing it. Er . . . there is another reason, too.’

‘And that is—?’

‘I’m not Reacher Gilt. That’s sort of important. Some people might say there’s not a lot of difference, but I can see it from where I stand and it’s there. It’s like a golem not being a hammer. Please? How can I beat the Grand Trunk?’ Miss Dearheart stared through him until he felt very uncomfortable. Then she said, in a faraway voice: ‘How well do you know the Post Office, Mr Lipwig? The building, I mean.’

‘I saw most of it before it burned down.’

‘But you never went on to the roof?’

‘No. I couldn’t find a way up. The upper floors were stuffed with letters when . . . I . . . tried . . .’ Moist’s voice trailed off. Miss Dearheart stubbed out her cigarette. ‘Go up there tonight, Mr Lipwig. Get yourself a little bit closer to heaven. And then get down on your knees and pray. You know how to pray, don’t you? You just put your hands together – and hope.’ Moist got through the rest of the day somehow. There were postmastery things to do – Mr Spools to speak to, builders to shout at, the everlasting clearing up to oversee and new staff to hire. In the case of the staff, though, it was more ratifying the decisions of Mr Groat and Miss Maccalariat, but they seemed to know what they were doing. He just had to be there to make the occasional judgement, like: ‘Do we embrace divertingly?’ said Miss Maccalariat, appearing in front of his desk. There was a pregnant pause. It gave birth to a lot of little pauses, each one more deeply embarrassing than its parent. ‘Not as far as I know,’ was the best Moist could manage. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘A young lady wants to know. She said that’s what they do at the Grand Trunk.’

‘Ah. I suspect she means embrace diversity,’ said Moist, recalling Gilt’s speech to the Times. ‘But we don’t do that here because we don’t know what it means. We’ll employ anyone who can read and write and reach a letter box, Miss Maccalariat. I’ll hire vampires if they’re a member of the League of Temperance, trolls if they wipe their feet, and if there’re any werewolves out there I’d love to hire postmen who can bite back. Anyone who can do the job, Miss Maccalariat. Our job is moving the mail. Morning, noon and night, we deliver. Was there anything else?’ Now there was a glint in her eye. ‘I don’t have any difficulties with anyone who speaks up about what they are, Mr Lipwig, but I must protest about dwarfs. Mr Groat is hiring them.’

‘Fine workers, Miss Maccalariat. Keen on the written word. Hardworking, too,’ said Moist briskly. ‘But they do not tell you what their— what they— which— if they’re ladies or gentlemen dwarfs, Mr Lipwig.’

‘Ah. This is going to be about the privies again?’ said Moist, his heart sinking. ‘I feel I am responsible for the moral welfare of the young people in my charge,’ said Miss Maccalariat sternly. ‘You are smiling, Postmaster, but I will not be funned with.’

‘Your concern does you credit, Miss Maccalariat,’ said Moist. ‘Special attention will be paid to this in the design of the new building, and I will tell the architect that you are to be consulted at every stage.’ Miss Maccalariat’s well-covered bosom inflated noticeably at this sudden acquisition of power. ‘In the meantime, alas, we must make do with what the fire has left us. I do hope, as part of the management team, you will reassure people on this.’ The fires of dreadful pride gleamed off Miss Maccalariat’s spectacles. Management! ‘Of course, Postmaster,’ she said. But, mostly, Moist’s job was just to . . . be. Half of the building was a blackened shell. People were squeezed into what was left; mail was even being sorted on the stairs. And things seemed to go better when he was around. He didn’t have to do anything, he just had to be there. He couldn’t help thinking of the empty plinth, where the god had been taken away. He was ready when dusk came. There were plenty of ladders around, and the golems had managed to shore up the floors even up here. Soot covered everything and some rooms opened on to blackness, but he climbed ever up. He struggled through what remained of the attics, and clambered through a hatch and on to the roof. There wasn’t much of it. The descent of the rainwater tank had brought down a lot of burning roof with it, and barely a third remained over the great hall. But the fire had hardly touched one of the legs of the U, and the roof there looked sound. There was one of the old postal pigeon lofts there, and someone had been living in it. That wasn’t too surprising. Far more people wanted to live in Ankh-Morpork than there was Ankh- Morpork for them to live in. There was a whole sub-civilization at rooftop level, up here among the towers and ornamental domes and cupolas and chimneys and— —clacks towers. That’s right. He’d seen the clacks tower, and someone up here, just before his life had taken a turn for the strange. Why would a loft built for carrier pigeons have a semaphore tower? Surely the pigeons didn’t use it? Three gargoyles had colonized this one. They liked clacks towers anyway – being up high was what being a gargoyle was all about – and they’d fitted into the system easily. A creature that spent all its time watching and was bright enough to write down a message was a vital component. They didn’t even want paying, and they never got bored. What could possibly bore a creature that was prepared to stare at the same thing for years at a time?

Around the city, the clacks towers were lighting up. Only the University, the Palace, the Guilds and the seriously rich or very nervous ran their towers at night, but the big terminal tower on the Tump blazed like a Hogswatch tree. Patterns of yellow squares ran up and down the main tower. Silent at this distance, winking their signals above the rising mists, outlining their constellations against the evening sky, the towers were more magical than magic, more bewitching than witchcraft. Moist stared. What was magic, after all, but something that happened at the snap of a finger? Where was the magic in that? It was mumbled words and weird drawings in old books and in the wrong hands it was dangerous as hell, but not one half as dangerous as it could be in the right hands. The universe was full of the stuff; it made the stars stay up and the feet stay down. But what was happening now . . . this was magical. Ordinary men had dreamed it up and put it together, building towers on rafts in swamps and across the frozen spines of mountains. They’d cursed and, worse, used logarithms. They’d waded through rivers and dabbled in trigonometry. They hadn’t dreamed, in the way people usually used the word, but they’d imagined a different world, and bent metal round it. And out of all the sweat and swearing and mathematics had come this . . . thing, dropping words across the world as softly as starlight. The mist was tilling the streets now, leaving the buildings like islands in surf. Pray, she’d said. And, in a way, the gods owed him a favour. Well, didn’t they? They’d got a handsome offering and a lot of celestial cred for not, in fact, doing anything at all. Get down on your knees, she’d said. It hadn’t been a joke. He knelt, pressed his hands together, and said, ‘I address this prayer to any god who—’ With a silence that was frightening, the clacks tower across the street lit up. The big squares glowed into life one after the other. For a moment, Moist saw the shape of the lamplighter in front of one of the shutters. As he disappeared into the dark, the tower started to flicker. It was close enough to illuminate the roof of the Post Office. There were three dark figures at the other end of the roof, watching Moist. Their shadows danced as the pattern of lights changed, twice every second. They revealed the figures were human, or at least humanoid. And they were walking towards him. Gods, now, gods could be humanoid. And they didn’t like to be messed about. Moist cleared his throat. ‘I’m certainly glad to see you—’ he croaked. ‘Are you Moist?’ said one of the figures. ‘Look, I—’

‘She said you’d be kneeling down,’ said another member of the celestial trio. ‘Fancy a cup of tea?’ Moist got up slowly. This was not godly behaviour. ‘Who are you?’ he said. Emboldened by the lack of thunderbolts, he added: ‘And what are you doing on my building?’

‘We pay rent,’ said a figure. ‘To Mr Groat.’

‘He never told me about you!’

‘Can’t help you there,’ said the shadow in the centre. ‘Anyway, we’ve only come back to get the rest of our stuff. Sorry about your fire. It wasn’t us.’

‘You being—’ said Moist. ‘I’m Mad Al, he’s Sane Alex, and that’s Adrian, who says he’s not mad but can’t prove it.’

‘Why do you rent the roof?’ The trio looked at one another.

‘Pigeons?’ suggested Adrian. ‘That’s right, we’re pigeon fanciers,’ said the shadowy figure of Sane Alex. ‘But it’s dark,’ said Moist. This information was considered. ‘Bats,’ said Mad Al. ‘We’re trying to breed homing bats.’

‘I don’t believe bats have that kind of homing instinct,’ said Moist. ‘Yes, it’s tragic, isn’t it?’ said Alex. ‘I come up here at nights and see those empty little perches and it’s all I can do not to cry,’ said Undecided Adrian. Moist looked up at the little tower. It was about five times the height of a man, with the control levers on a polished panel near the bottom. It looked . . . professional, and well used. And portable. ‘I don’t think you breed any kind of birds up here,’ he said. ‘Bats are mammals,’ said Sane Alex. Moist shook his head. ‘Lurking on rooftops, your own clacks . . . you’re the Smoking Gnu, aren’t you?’

‘Ah, with a mind like that I can see why you’re Mr Groat’s boss,’ said Sane Alex. ‘How about a cup of tea?’ Mad Al picked a pigeon feather out of his mug. The pigeon loft was full of the flat, choking smell of old guano. ‘You have to like birds to like it up here,’ he said, flicking the feather into Sane Alex’s beard. ‘Good job you do, eh?’ said Moist. ‘I didn’t say I did, did I? And we don’t live up here. It’s just that you’ve got a good rooftop.’ It was cramped in the pigeon loft, from which pigeons had, in fact, been barred. But there’s always one pigeon that can bite through wire netting. It watched them from the corner with mad little eyes, its genes remembering the time it had been a giant reptile that could have taken these sons of monkeys to the cleaners in one mouthful. Bits of dismantled mechanisms were everywhere. ‘Miss Dearheart told you about me, did she?’ said Moist. ‘She said you weren’t a complete arse,’ said Undecided Adrian. ‘Which is praise coming from her,’ said Sane Alex. ‘And she said you were so crooked you could walk through a corkscrew sideways,’ said Undecided Adrian. ‘She was smiling when she said it, though.’