Going Postal (Discworld #33)


Whatever the original purpose of the room, though, it was now the place where two people lived; two people who got along but, nevertheless, had a clear sense of mine and thine. The space was divided into two, with a narrow bed against one wall on each side. The dividing line was painted on the floor, up the walls and across the ceiling. My half, your half. So long as we remember that, the line indicated, there won’t be any more . . . trouble. In the middle, so that it bestrode the boundary line, was a table. A couple of mugs and two tin plates were carefully arranged at either end. There was a salt pot in the middle of the table. The line, at the salt pot, turned into a little circle to encompass it in its own demilitarized zone. One half of the narrow room contained an over-large and untidy bench, piled with jars, bottles and old papers; it looked like the work space of a chemist who made it up as he went along or until it exploded. The other had an old card table on which small boxes and rolls of black felt had been stacked with slightly worrying precision. There was also the largest magnifying glass Moist had ever seen, on a stand. That side of the room had been swept clean. The other was a mess that threatened to encroach over the Line. Unless one of the scraps of paper from the grubbier side was a funny shape, it seemed that somebody, with care and precision and presumably a razor blade, had cut off that corner of it which had gone too far. A young man stood in the middle of the clean half of the floor. He’d obviously been waiting for Moist, just like Groat, but he hadn’t mastered the art of standing to attention or, rather, had only partly understood it. His right side stood considerably more to attention than his left side and, as a result, he was standing like a banana. Nevertheless, with his huge nervous grin and big gleaming eyes he radiated keenness, quite possibly beyond the boundaries of sanity. There was a definite sense that at any moment he would bite. And he wore a blue cotton shirt on which someone had printed ‘Ask Me About Pins!’

‘Er . . .’ said Moist. ‘Apprentice Postman Stanley,’ mumbled Groat. ‘Orphan, sir. Very sad. Came to us from the Siblings of Offler charity home, sir. Both parents passed away of the Gnats on their farm out in the wilds, sir, and he was raised by peas.’

‘Surely you mean on peas, Mr Groat?’

‘By peas, sir. Very unusual case. A good lad if he doesn’t get upset but he tends to twist towards the sun, sir, if you get my meaning.’

‘Er . . . perhaps,’ said Moist. He turned hurriedly to Stanley. ‘So you know something about pins, do you?’ he said, in what he hoped was a jovial voice. ‘Nosir!’ said Stanley. He all but saluted. ‘But your shirt says—’

‘I know everything about pins, sir,’ said Stanley. ‘Everything there is to know!’

‘Well, that’s, er—’ Moist began. ‘Every single fact about pins, sir,’ Stanley went on. ‘There’s not a thing I don’t know about pins. Ask me anything about pins, sir. Anything you like at all. Go on, sir!’

‘Well . . .’ Moist floundered, but years of practice came to his aid. ‘I wonder how many pins were made in this city last ye—’ He stopped. A change had come across Stanley’s face: it smoothed out, lost the vague hint that its owner was about to attempt to gnaw your ear off. ‘Last year the combined workshops (or “pinneries”) of Ankh-Morpork turned out twenty-seven million, eight hundred and eighty thousand, nine hundred and seventy-eight pins,’ said Stanley, staring into a pin-filled private universe. ‘That includes wax-headed, steels, brassers, silver-headed (and full silver), extra large, machine- and hand-made, reflexed and novelty, but not lapel pins which should not be grouped with the true pins at all since they are technically known as “sports” or “blazons”, sir—’

‘Ah, yes, I think I once saw a magazine, or something,’ said Moist desperately. ‘It was called, er . . . Pins Monthly?’

‘Oh dear,’ said Groat, behind him. Stanley’s face contorted into something that looked like a cat’s bottom with a nose. ‘That’s for hobbyists,’ he hissed. ‘They’re not true “pinheads”! They don’t care about pins! Oh, they say so, but they have a whole page of needles every month now. Needles? Anyone could collect needles! They’re only pins with holes in! Anyway, what about Popular Needles? But they just don’t want to know!’

‘Stanley is editor of Total Pins.’ Groat whispered, behind Moist. ‘I don’t think I saw that one—’ Moist began. ‘Stanley, go and help Mr Lipwig’s assistant find a shovel, will you?’ said Groat, raising his voice. ‘Then go and sort your pins again until you feel better. Mr Lipwig doesn’t want to see one of your Little Moments.’ He gave Moist a blank look. ‘. . . they had an article last month about pincushions.’ muttered Stanley, stamping out of the room. The golem followed him. ‘He’s a good lad,’ said Groat, when they’d gone. ‘Just a bit cup-and-plate in the head. Leave him alone with his pins and he’s no trouble at all. Gets a bit . . . intense at times, that’s all. Oh, and on that subject there’s the third member of our jolly little team, sir—’ A large black and white cat had walked into the room. It paid no attention to Moist, or Groat, but progressed slowly across the floor towards a battered and unravelling basket. Moist was in the way. The cat continued until its head butted gently against Moist’s leg, and stopped. ‘That’s Mr Tiddles, sir,’ said Groat. ‘Tiddles? said Moist. ‘You mean that really is a cat’s name? I thought it was just a joke.’

‘Not so much a name, sir, more of a description,’ said Groat. ‘You’d better move, sir, otherwise he’ll just stand there all day. Twenty years old, he is, and a bit set in his ways.’ Moist stepped aside. Unperturbed, the cat continued to the basket, where it curled up. ‘Is he blind?’ said Moist. ‘No, sir. He has his routine and he sticks to it, sir, sticks to it to the very second. Very patient, for a cat. Doesn’t like the furniture being moved. You’ll get used to him.’ Not knowing what to say, but feeling that he should say something, Moist nodded towards the array of bottles on Groat’s bench. ‘You dabble in alchemy, Mr Groat?’ he said. ‘Nosir! I practise nat’ral medicine!’ said Groat proudly. ‘Don’t believe in doctors, sir! Never a day’s illness in my life, sir!’ He thumped his chest, making a thlap noise not normally associated with living tissue. ‘Flannelette, goose grease and hot bread puddin’, sir! Nothing like it for protecting your tubes against the noxious effluviences! I puts a fresh layer on every week, sir, and you won’t find a sneeze passing my nose, sir. Very healthful, very natural!’

‘Er . . . good,’ said Moist. ‘Worst of ’em all is soap, sir,’ said Groat, lowering his voice. ‘Terrible stuff, sir, washes away the beneficent humours. Leave things be, I say! Keep the tubes running, put sulphur in your socks and pay attention to your chest protector and you can laugh at anything! Now, sir, I’m sure a young man like yourself will be worrying about the state of his—’

‘What’s this do?’ said Moist hurriedly, picking up a pot of greenish goo. ‘That, sir? Wart cure. Wonderful stuff. Very natural, not like the stuff a doctor’d give you.’ Moist sniffed at the pot. ‘What’s it made of?’

‘Arsenic, sir,’ said Groat calmly. ‘Arsenic?’

‘Very natural, sir,’ said Groat. ‘And green.’ So, Moist thought, as he put the pot back with extreme care, inside the Post Office normality clearly does not have a one-to-one relationship with the outside world. I might miss the cues. He decided that the role of keen but bewildered manager was the one to play here. Besides, apart from the ‘keen’ aspect it didn’t need any effort. ‘Can you help me, Mr Groat?’ he said. ‘I don’t know anything about the post!’

‘Well, sir . . . what did you use to do?’ Rob. Trick. Forge. Embezzle. But never – and this was important -using any kind of violence. Never. Moist had always been very careful about that. He tried not to sneak, either, if he could avoid it. Being caught at 1 a.m. in a bank’s deposit vault while wearing a black suit with lots of little pockets in it could be considered suspicious, so why do it? With careful planning, the right suit, the right papers and, above all, the right manner, you could walk into the place at midday and the manager would hold the door open for you when you left. Palming rings and exploiting the cupidity of the rural stupid was just a way of keeping his hand in. It was the face, that was what it was. He had an honest face. And he loved those people who looked him firmly in the eye to see his inner self, because he had a whole set of inner selves, one for every occasion. As for firm handshakes, practice had given him one to which you could moor boats. It was people skills, that’s what it was. Special people skills. Before you could sell glass as diamonds you had to make people really want to see diamonds. That was the trick, the trick of all tricks. You changed the way people saw the world. You let them see it the way they wanted it to be . . . How the hell had Vetinari known his name? The man had cracked von Lipwig like an egg! And the Watch here were . . . demonic! As for setting a golem on a man . . . ‘I was a clerk,’ said Moist. ‘What, paperwork, that sort of thing?’ said Groat, looking at him intently. ‘Yes, pretty much all paperwork.’ That was honest, if you included playing cards, cheques, letters of accreditation, bank drafts and deeds. ‘Oh, another one,’ said Groat. ‘Well, there’s not a lot to do. We can shove up and make room for you in here, no problem.’

‘But I am supposed to make it work again as it used to, Mr Groat.’

‘Yeah, right,’ said the old man. ‘You just come along with me, then, Postmaster. I reckon there’s one or two things you ain’t bin tole!’ He led the way out, back into the dingy main hall, a little trail of yellow powder leaking from his boots. ‘My dad used to bring me here when I were a lad,’ he said. ‘A lot of families were Post Office families in those days. They had them big glass drippy tinkling things up in the ceiling, right? For lights?’

‘Chandeliers?’ Moist suggested. ‘Yep, prob’ly,’ said Groat. ‘Two of ’em. And there was brass an’ copper everywhere, polished up like gold. There was balconies, sir, all round the big hall on every floor, made of iron, like lace! And all the counters was made of rare wood, my dad said. And people? This place was packed! The doors never stopped swinging! Even at night . . . oh, at night, sir, out in the big back yard, you should’ve been there! The lights! The coaches, coming and going, the horses steamin ‘. . . oh, sir, you should’ve seen it, sir! The men running the teams out . . . they had this thing, sir, this device, you could get a coach in and out of the yard in one minute, sir, one minute! The bustle, sir, the bustle and fuss! They said you could come here from Dolly Sisters or even down in the Shambles, and post a letter to yourself, and you’d have to run like the blazes, sir, the very blazes, sir, to beat the postman to your door! And the uniforms, sir, royal blue with brass buttons! You should’ve seen them! And—’

Moist looked over the babbling man’s shoulder to the nearest mountain of pigeon guano, where Mr Pump had paused in his digging. The golem had been prodding at the fetid horrible mess and, as Moist watched him, he straightened up and headed towards them with something in his hand. ‘—and when the big coaches came in, sir, all the way from the mountains, you could hear the horns miles away! You should’ve heard them, sir! And if any bandits tried anything, there was men we had, who went out and—’

‘Yes, Mr Pump?’ said Moist, halting Groat in mid-history. ‘A Surprising Discovery, Postmaster. The Mounds Are Not, As I Surmised, Made Of Pigeon Dung. No Pigeons Could Achieve That Amount In Thousands Of Years, Sir.’

‘Well, what are they made of, then?’

‘Letters, Sir,’ said the golem. Moist looked down at Groat, who shifted uneasily. ‘Ah, yes,’ said the old man. ‘1 was coming to that.’ Letters . . . . . . there was no end to them. They filled every room of the building and spilled out into the corridors. It was, technically, true that the postmaster’s office was unusable because of the state of the floor: it was twelve feet deep in letters. Whole corridors were blocked off with them. Cupboards had been stuffed full of them; to open a door in-cautiously was to be buried in an avalanche of yellowing envelopes. Floorboards bulged suspiciously upwards. Through cracks in the sagging ceiling plaster, paper protruded. The sorting room, almost as big as the main hall, had drifts reaching to twenty feet in places. Here and there, filing cabinets rose out of the paper sea like icebergs. After half an hour of exploration Moist wanted a bath. It was like walking through desert tombs. He felt he was choking on the smell of old paper, as though his throat was filled with yellow dust. ‘I was told I had an apartment here,’ he croaked. ‘Yes, sir,’ said Groat. ‘Me and the lad had a look for it the other day. I heard that it was the other side of your office. So the lad went in on the end of a rope, sir. He said he felt a door, sir, but he’d sunk six feet under the mail by then and he was suffering, sir, suffering . . . so I pulled him out.’