It was Christmas season and I learned from the drunk up the hill, who did the trick every year, that they would hire damned near anybody…
First they were shown how to sort letters. To separate stamps at a glance, distinguishing between incipient values in an eyeblink. First class red. Second class blue. The special celebration stamps. The varying denominations. Small and large. Franked and unfranked. International and freepost. Subs and redirects. The difference between a letter and a parcel a matter of millimetres, milligrams, look and feel. A form of metaphilatelism. Unthinking identification. Timbrology in reverse.
He had worked for the post office before, partially to supplement his income from bar work following university, and partially after reading Bukowski’s Post Office. He believed there was a romance to postal work, a gritty earnestness that chimed with his affinity for all things vaguely socialistic. Though he soon discovered there was nothing romantic about rising and dressing in deep December darkness each morning, driving out to the next town to stick letters in pigeon holes for six hours in a vast depot, working under florescent strip lighting that gave him a headache, the cold midwinter wrapping around him like frozen cling film. He lasted three nights before coming down with a virus. Called in sick and didn’t go back.
On a wet Saturday in early November he attended a recruitment event at his local sorting office. He had expected it to be overwhelmed. In fact, there was only a handful of people there. The other recruits were mostly students and retirees. A few Eastern European workers. Mainly men. One or two women. Waiting to be interviewed, he listened as a couple from Poland were told that they were not eligible to work for the post office if they already had a job which conflicted with the required hours. The post office expected total commitment.
A whiteboard listed the available shifts in red marker pen.
Calculating that he could maximise his income by working three hours a night for five weeks, when it was his turn to be interviewed, he put himself forward for the Mon-Fri shifts. He said he was available to work immediately. They took his photograph for the ID badge and said they would be in touch.
Two weeks later he started his first shift. It was already dark when he arrived at the depot. Only 5pm but it felt like the middle of the night. He gave his name to the female post office employee at the collection desk and was asked to take a seat and wait.
There were four plastic seats in the small waiting area, and another casual occupying one of those seats, a blonde boy in a black hooded jacket. He took a seat next to him and started reading Commercial Workers’ Union flyer. Other casuals arrived, filing in one by one, giving their name to the woman and following her instructions, as if waiting to claim the same parcel.
The rest of the team consisted entirely of men. Clad to a man in jeans and drab anoraks. The new Highland tartan. A few younger and a few older than him, but none his age. Some sat, others stood or hovered, impatient to get on with the job. One or two attempted to engage the woman in conversation, without much success, as she continually disappeared through a door behind the counter, presumably to confer with her seniors. Some had worked the Christmas period at the depot before, some hadn’t. Most kept their counsel. A few muttered, pithy comments. Stabs at humour.
A door opened. The woman came through into the and said, Follow me. She led them into a large meeting room and asked them to take a seat and wait. A man in a red Royal Mail fleece and ID badge on a lanyard came in. He introduced himself as a service manager, before handing round employee handbooks and non-disclosure agreements, which he asked everyone to sign.
Whistleblowers, he explained, collecting the signed forms. Not that there’s anything to worry about, he added. But you can’t be too careful.
The manager gave a brief introduction about their role in the Christmas period. Sorting post and parcels, other duties as required. There might be some overtime and work after Christmas for a fortunate few. Maybe a permanent job for those who impress. Then he switched on the TV at the far end of the boardroom to show them the health and safety video.
The video was either profoundly dated or chronically underfunded. For fifteen minutes they watched an actor impersonate a petty criminal from Dagenham, replete in stonewashed jeans and white trainers. When he wasn’t directing his Nadsat monologue to the camera, he engaged in a series of increasingly hapless attempts to pilfer various postage items, in a range of different scenarios, only to be repeatedly frustrated by the diligence of the service’s employees. Wile E. Coyote as East Enders extra.
Then followed more de riguer instructions about bending knees to lift letter trays, separating overfilled post bags and not running in the depot. If you see something that doesn’t look right, tell us.
Handbooks distributed, and non-disclosure forms signed, they were taken through to the back offices and given their ID badges. The manager handed out hi-viz vests, or PPEs, which he instructed them to wear whenever they crossed the lorry park.
The drivers swing around the corner of the loading yard, the manager said, and without the hi-viz they won’t see you in the dark. The hi-viz will stop you being crushed to death. So make sure you wear it. If you lose it, you may die.
He led the casuals out onto the depot floor, a huge warehouse which had been divided in two. One side was for incoming mail, with pigeonholes tagged with local postcodes, and the other was for outgoing mail, which had been collected from the post boxes around the city that day. The incoming side looked like it had been abandoned, while the outgoing side looked like it was building to some sort of physical crescendo, with Royal Mail employees in red polo shirts and fleeces moving quickly over the floor, or else stood at a long metal table with sloping edges, continually bending and twisting and jerking their arms like poorly-engineered prototype robots.
These workers were stood at what he learned was the open facing table, the last in the country, a throwback to the time when all post was manually sorted by hand. Every other major sorting office across the country now had some automated system in place. Here, they still relied on the dexterity and assiduousness of people.
As casuals, their job principally was to assist the regulars by sorting incoming post as it arrived, bagged and tagged on large metal-framed trolleys, or Yorks, as they were named after the city of their manufacture. Each York held up to twenty bags of letters, or ten bags of parcels. Sometimes letters and parcels were separated out, sometimes they weren’t. First class parcels were to be sorted with the bags of letters, while second class parcels were separated in a special sorting ring. Sorting second parcels became a much-coveted job, as it a complete doddle compared to sorting letters, which was hectic, repetitive and undertaken under the watchful gaze of the ever-present management.
The Yorks came into the depot through plastic doors and were swung into position close to the open facing table. One person snipped off the tag with scissors and tipped the bag onto the table, catching the deluge of mail before it slithered to the floor and pushing it into the centre in a manner akin to smearing butter on a huge piece of bread. The other casuals stood at the table, sorting the letters and reposting them into the appropriate pigeon hole underneath. Once the pigeon hole was full, the casual would bundle up the letters with a rubber band and drop it onto the conveyor belt, where they were unbundled and fed through a counting machine by a Royal Mail regular.
Key to the process was flow. Flow of post from the boxes to the collection vans, from the Yorks to the table, from the table to the man at the end. A seamless movement from sender to recipient without delay or disruption. The casuals were expected to slip as seamlessly as possible into that flow, to avoid a backlog of post building up. Collections deliveries came in at 5pm and the table should be clear of letters by 8pm. At that time, all Yorks containing first class post had to be out of the door and onto the back of delivery lorries.
To begin with he worked with deliberate care, examining every letter and stamp to identify its categorisation. All along the table, his fellow casuals worked laboriously, painstakingly, considering their envelopes as a philatelist might, holding the envelope and scrutinising it at length, before leaving their position at the table and waving it under the nose of the nearest manager, jabbering excitedly about incomplete addresses, unusual postage values, handwritten letters addressed to ‘Father Christmas, The North Pole’.
As the week wore on, their eagerness took its toll. They were working too fast, clearing the facing table before the next York could appear. The Christmas deluge had not yet materialised, only the first few Christmas cards had begun to trickle through. All they had to sort were invoices and a handful of late November mailshots tantalising people with Black Friday discounts. For that first week, most nights they were sent home after a couple of hours.
The regulars regarded them with amusement or disinterest, these enthusiastic upstarts from outside, deferential non-unionised co-workers doffing their caps to the management. Some welcomed the casuals, smiled as they passed and thanked them at their task, while others eyed them with suspicion or gave them a wide berth.
Christmas was undoubtedly their least favourite time of the year. Longer days, greater volumes of post and more grinning imbeciles in civvies and hi-viz vests stampeding around the depot floor as if they were doing them a favour by being there. Once the casuals were gone and Christmas was done, it would be back to business as usual, the same tasks over and over, day in, day out. Large letters. Franked mail. Special deliveries. Subs.
The only time he saw one of the regulars lose his cool was when someone changed the radio station from MFR to Magic FM, which happened to be playing non-stop Christmas hits. After thirty minutes of Jonah Lewie, Shakin’ Stevens and Maria Carey et al, one of the regulars left his work station to volubly demand that they changed the fucking station back to MF fucking R. The piped music stopped, and he returned to scanning first class parcels without further word.
By the start of the second week he had fully merged into the flow of the depot, his body intuitively discovering the most efficient way of identifying stamps and retrieving letters from the pile and slipping them into the pigeon holes at speed, in a frenetic blur of limbs and folded paper. Another cohort of casual recruits began that week. He watched them lifting letters from the pile, ponderously turning them over to consider their destination, as he tipped the heavy bags onto the tables, one after the other pouring an unceasing flow of envelopes.
With a couple of the other casuals they came across a piece of art brut, a York daubed in graffiti by various unknown hands. The collaborative artwork, titled Journey of a York, recorded all the depots and postal districts the York had visited for since 2015. Plymouth, Bolton, Potters Bar, Preston. He thought of the millions of parcels and letters that York had contained. Countless legible acts of kindness and condolence, threats and demands, congratulations and commiserations. All the hands that had pushed this York from one end of the country to another, the thousands of fingers that had picked and sorted its ghostly contents. A testament to humanity. They added Inverness, Dec-2017, and began filling the York with parcels
The third week it snowed heavily, and the Yorks came in covered in water, with a crust of slush on their plastic base. Edges of Christmas cards crinkled by snow. Another cohort of casuals arrived, less impressive than the last, slower, doubly ponderous, less adept at sorting, less cognisant of the need to maintain the flow. The managers pressed them to work faster. He had anticipated more frenzied screaming from the manager, but instead they remained impeccably calm. Firm with their requests, but never tyrannical. They were used to this, the culmination of months of planning from Head Office and the regional director.
Come December the entire population of the Scottish Highlands decided to post their Christmas cards en mass. These now comprised the bulk of the post, a range of sizes and shapes, confusing the casuals with their identical first and second-class stamps. The dribble which had become a torrent now became a deluge.
The depot could no longer cope with the volume of letters coming in each night. Instead he and some of the other casuals were tasked with traying the letters up so they could be passed to another depot. There they would be sorted by machine and redistributed. It was quicker to tray up the letters and get them back into the mail vans than attempting to sort them at the depot. Not that they weren’t still trying to sort some of the post. One night he watched two tippers working flat out, like pistons in an engine at full throttle, tipping bag after bag onto a table overflowing with letters, a cluster of angry-looking Yorks massing behind them.
Along with the original cohort, he had graduated from sticking letters and tipping bags of post to sorting second class parcels, assisting with special deliveries, sorting incoming parcels. Dumping polystyrene boxes of smoked salmon and black pudding into mini-Yorks. Slam-dunking Amazon deliveries and Asos returns in the parcel ring. Pushing bagged parcels through a pre-flight x-ray machine, with a broom handle dubbed ‘the podger’, while one of the regulars checked them for contraband.
The parcels were due to be put on a plane to the remote Scottish islands that evening. He asked one of the Polish girls if there was anything in particular they were looking for. Dildos, she replied. Stornoway parcels are always full of dildos.
He found a small role in the world for himself that Christmas, facilitating the spread of festive goodwill in some nominal way. Seeing all the cards and letters to Santa bearing a child’s handwriting, the envelopes addressed to those living alone, the parcels of presents with Please be careful or Merry Christmas scribbled on them. The lengths people went to make someone happy. Make just one someone happy. And the work of post office, helping others make just one someone happy, was nothing less than heroic. He found it profoundly moving.
Late sending his Christmas cards that year, he took his bundle up to the conveyor belt and placed the cards directly upon it, watched them travel along the belt and into the hands of the regular who passed them through the counting machine and stacked them in a tray, certain they would reach their destination before Christmas Eve, while resignedly accepting that few of those sentiments would now be returned, if any, while retaining the faintest belief, like the hushed faith at the heart of the season, that each card represented a warm embrace or the briefest smile, however fleeting.