It’s all right for Elton John in the TV advert, waxing lyrically about the Queen’s own Royal Mail whilst being showered by parcels, but I’ll bet he hasn’t set one of his daintily shod feet inside a Post Office for years. Lick my stamps, Elton. I’m sure you don’t wake in the middle of the night, heart pumping with mail anxiety, worrying that it’s mid December and you’ve missed the last postage dates for Christmas.
I have a problem with the Royal Mail, exacerbated no doubt by years of Postman Pat videos, so that I still expect to find a sit up and beg bicycle with a wicker basket parked beside the counter, where a postmistress, who looks like Hattie Jacques in half-moon specs, does a lot of satisfyingly final things with a rubber stamp. But postage times they are a changing. Even the name is new – Consignia, though GPO – Grumpily Pissed Off sounds good enough to me. The toy Post Office set I bought for my children for Christmas past did not come with a snaking conga line of coughing, foot-shuffling DHSS claimants waiting outside for it to open every morning, or a built in course on stress management. These days the Post Office is all things to all people – be they pensioners, benefit collectors, mail order shoppers, TV licence payers, passport holders or parcel senders, and if there’s one place you don’t want to be in December it’s standing in a queue trying to post a letter. The lines are longer than purgatory, accompanied by the seasonal sound of ritual tutting, sung to the traditional tune of ‘oh come on all you time wasters’, as you wait and you wait and you wait for the redemptive sound of the mechanised voice summoning you to ‘teller number 3’.
In theory, the Post Office has walls lined with forms and leaflets but there’s a law involving them to empty the shelves of the specific one you want seconds before you enter the building; in my case, the schedule of last Christmas posting dates, which turns out to be rather like queuing to buy condoms when you’re already six months pregnant.
‘There’s a booklet,’ says the Teller no 3 behind his Plexiglas screen; ‘It has little snowmen on it.’ “I looked, I can’t find it,’ I explained. ‘Well it’s there’, he insists, much like the Greek man I asked to direct me to the Acropolis in Athens. Of course, I was right the first time, there is no booklet. By now half the population of Afghanistan has joined the queue. I flirt briefly with the idea of nipping back up to Teller no 3 and telling him off – but, aha – look behind you - cluster bombs of antagonism are sweeping my way. In fact when someone leaves the line, and a man idles a second without obligatorily shuffling forward two inches, there’s a threatened lynching. It’s Post office rage. The unwritten code of queuing means you must at all times be squeezed to the coat of the person in front of you, ready to sprint to the first available window. So, once again I queue. Ten years pass until I eventually oblige a clerk to waddle reluctantly to a distant back room before admitting that they have indeed run out. Luckily he has his own copy, which he can’t give me, as he needs it for reference. ‘Okay – I wondered about the last posting date for The States?’ ‘November the 29th.’ Oh, a fortnight ago. ‘What about Australia, Canada, Lebanon?’ ‘November the 29th.’ ‘And surface mail?’ I venture? The clerk looks at me as though I’d asked him to dance around the room naked with a rose between his cheeks. ‘October the 24th’, he replies wearily. October? Surely I’ve been queuing since then? Since even the deadline for Europe has passed it beats me why he needs to hold on to the booklet. It’s as redundant as the 30,000 postal workers will be over the next 18 months. And God only knows what the queues are going to be like then.
I’m back later with my parcels, sending them airmail on a wing and a prayer and a downright lie. Is there a letter in any of these, asks the clerk suspiciously looking at my parcels with x-ray eyes. ‘If you put a letter in a small packet it has to go letter rate which would make it £365.20 and your first born child’. ‘No, no, no’’ I deny vehemently hoping that no-one will check them for anthrax and discover three sheets of closely typed ‘news’ which would bore you to death, albeit slower than with chemical weaponry. Okay, says the clerk that’ll be £43 for the Australian one, £39.95 for Canada, £33.84 to the States, and, no we don’t take credit cards. Who, without a hefty social security check, carries £100 in cash? And who has a £100 check guarantee card? Not me. So who isn’t sending any Christmas presents this year? Yep, me again. There’s as much chance of me stepping foot inside that Post Office again as Elton John’s handbag clashing with his tights. And as for Christmas Cards – well for anyone who knows me – have a good one, because as seasonal greetings go darlings this is it.