THE MAN WHO CALLED ME ‘LOVE’
One of the best jobs I have ever had, was in the first year of my marriage, when for a few months in 1979, I was a postman in a small North Yorkshire town. The customers, or perhaps I mean the all too worthy and delightful service consumers, divided into those who unquestionably loved you, and those who emphatically did not. The former included the Headmaster of the Comprehensive, a tolerant, sensitive and handsome man of about 50, who took no offence at the fact I wore a woolly hat, his substantial intelligence confirming that it made no difference to my qualities as an effectual post-person. I was a casual employee, which meant I didn’t have to wear a uniform, just an identificatory band around my arm. However an overweight garage mechanic with a sullen Straw Dogs horror movie mien, gave me a look of frank loathing every time I brought him some post. I couldn’t work out whether it was the woolly hat, or the dusty jeans or the wispy beard, or the very long hair, or my notable thinness. He himself was very fat, and looked like a sulking championship pig in an agricultural show, who thinks it should have got first prize but comes Special (= We Feel Especially Sorry For You) Consolatory Boar Award.
There is a lot of nonsense talked about supposedly warm-hearted, wholly homogeneous northerners, both by themselves and by the rest of the UK. Roughly speaking, and likely because of a history of extreme geographical obscurity, all parts of my native Cumbria are openly and instinctively friendly, the industrial bits possibly more tangibly so. Bizarrely though, and perhaps because the county is so big, in Yorkshire, it is only the industrial cities where you find any real warmth i.e. Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and the like. Get in the rural parts, and especially rural North Yorkshire, and they are as clannish and at times as rude as Jack and the Beanstalk’s Giant. Things are doubly confounding, because all the men in North Yorks routinely address each other as ‘love’, in the way that all other northerners address the opposite sex exclusively.
I didn’t know about the surprising men-men ‘love’ vocative, till I turned up in the little town, and took the job on the post. After a while, you stop feeling any sense of lingering macho repugnance, not that I was spectacularly overloaded with that item, given that at 20, I was both writing poetry and studying Sanskrit, and had hair down to my admittedly very attractive arse. In any case being addressed as ‘love’, did not always betoken an extension of the beautiful abstract noun, as opposed to the affable vocative equivalent. Most memorably I once went in our North Yorks pub, where Annie and I dallied several times a week, and where we both consumed a fair amount of lager. I had been given a birthday cheque by someone, and at the time had no bank account sorted, so asked the burly publican behind the bar if he would cash it for me. He and everyone there in the bar knew that we were both in decent work, and there was absolutely nil risk whatever entailed with a £25 cheque. Yet he gave me a tender double whammy, when he said to me with the sweetest ever smile:
Imagine all the endlessly ramifying and mortifying extensions of that. Supposing a North Yorkshire gay bloke called Ron, from a funereal dump like Pickering or Seamer or Filey, suspects his partner of perfidious infidelity, and asks him one night the agonising question, ‘Do you still love me, Dave?’ Whereupon Dave, the Pickering or Seamer or Filey blighter, goes and heartlessly imitates that paradoxical Zen master of a publican of 36 years ago, and says to poor old thread-clutching Ron:
On the post they gave me several nicknames. One was obvious, ‘Chic’, and no not the French adjective pronounced ‘sheek’, even though my blue woolly hat was palpably fetching enough. It was homage to the very funny Scots comic, Chic Murray, who after his TV success went on I believe to host a popular nightclub in Edinburgh, but died tragically early, aged 65. I also rejoiced in the nickname of ‘Garlic Jack’, as I regularly cooked Annie and me Italian, Chinese and Indian food stuffed to the gills with the delicious bulb. The postman sorting next to me first discerned it, and exclaimed, Phew, what a fucking stink! and that was the start of it all. Though even now, nearly 40 years later, I have no idea who the original garlic-loving Jack might have been.
Things were different on the post and altogether much more professional, nay stringently academic, some 7 years earlier. In the winter of 1972 an old friend of mine took a temporary job in Oxford that included the Christmas rush, plus a few months before and after. The first day, unlike me in N Yorks, who was simply designated to follow someone else on their round, he was given a formal induction along with other novices, in a makeshift lecture hall with slides and pointers and bullet points, and all the rest. He was required to study the taxing science of Postation, and given this was long before computers, it comprehended the ponderous intricacies of mail flow, ergonomics, missing stamps (agh, the byzantine options there, most of them resolving to charging the luckless addressee at last twice the price on arrival). Then there was the nightmare of inadequate addresses, and of course this was in the now inconceivable era before postcodes. All this was most deeply interesting to such as me, as I have atrocious handwriting, and once in 1980 wrote to a friend in Hawaii, who took a whole year to receive my by then prehistoric letter, and it had amazingly gone by Cambodia, Laos, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, S. Korea, N. Korea, Japan, Inner and Outer Mongolia, and even Ho Chi Minh city, on its wavering but dauntless peregrination.
The post here on Kythnos is unarguably a mystery, and an absolute agony at the moment. I arrived in the autumn of 2013, and it was truly excellent and flawless in both directions until December 2014. Well before starting my blog, I had written two or three well-received pieces about Kythnos, which seemed inadequately served by sending them as email attachments that I assumed no one would ever read. Instead like a fearless self-publishing zealot, I printed them off, then photocopied and posted them approximately 50 at a time, from the Hora Post Office. As I have written earlier, the previous Kythnos postman, as dry as a bone and unmoved by absolutely everything, instead of being delighted by such a massive and unexpected counter revenue, looked at me as if I was insane, and indeed asked me bluntly what person in his right mind would want to buy 50 bloody stamps. The licking alone, was his unspoken implication, being a pointless labour of Hercules and of course I with my Cumbrian flat cap and probably South Korean shorts, looked nothing like doughty old Hercules, did I?
Up till last December, a letter or postcard from Kythnos to a foreign destination, would take reliably 7-10 days, regardless of whether it was to the UK, USA, Albania, Sweden, India, Bhutan, or the Bewitching Moons of Saturn. In the opposite direction, add perhaps another 2 days, no more, and probably consonant with Athens Sorting Office laughing itself delirious for a whole 2 days and nights, at the idea of anyone writing to bloody daft Kythnos, from say Wroclaw, Poland, as my daughter Ione sometimes did. But then come last December, the sour old postman retired, and his place was taken by a much younger man, who sad to say, one shrewd glance informed you would never cut the Cycladean mustard for years, possibly even decades, to come. He had an ill-fitting baseball cap, short but springy hair, a wide and friendly face, but also an innate, perpetually puzzled helplessness, and an inflexible and pointless obstinacy, which alas will surely permanently prevent him entering the Superleague of Advanced Postation, whether present day Greek or the exemplary English variety of 43 years ago. Breathtakingly, and right from the start, he upped his ante and his future CV, by taking no less than 3 weeks Christmas holiday in Athens, and given that Kythnos has only one postman, not a little postatory stagnation was observed to ensue. Kythnos business went stone dead for 3 bloody weeks, instead of 3 Merry Yuletide days. If there had been no such thing as email and no such thing as texts, Kythnos would have simply congealed like a blood clot, and it would have been no more, and it would not have been a pretty or a dignified 2015 Cycladean island burial.
Item. Two letters dispatched mid-December from me to the UK, both containing large cheques to be paid in by a friend, took 3 months to get there from Kythnos i.e. arriving mid March 2015. The Greek postmark, my friend informed me, read March 3rd. That can only mean the letters sat either in Kythnos Hora, or in an Athens sorting office for 77 days or 11 piquant weeks, before being reluctantly forwarded to dear old Blighty.
Item. Ditto for a pair of Christmas presents to a Cumbrian uncle aged 86 (komboli worry beads, a fine joke, as he is the least worried person in the whole universe) and a Cumbrian aunty of 96 (Greek cat calendar and Greek dog calendar) who is presently living in a Residential Care Home. They both got their Christmas presents in mid March.
Worse still, you can’t even blame Kythnos, just because it is a laughably obscure Greek island. Last November, I needed to do some crucial shopping in Lavrio on the mainland, and decided while I was there to post a birthday present to a friend in Mississippi. I trudged the fair distance to Lavrio Post Office, and it cost me all of 12 euros or over £9, to send the bulky parcel. I jested with the counter lad that it would go by plane, not by fishing boat, and he chortled at the lovable absurdity of my Monty Pythonesque British fancy. I’ve never talked to him since, but I assume it actually travelled on the back of a one-eyed seagull with severe wing arthritic displacement, hence insuperable navigational problems. My US friend’s birthday was 25th November, and she got her present on the 26th of February, again, most movingly, a sterling and let’s face it, a very repetitive, hence reliable 3 months.
Postscript: Not even the 3 months rule can give anyone, and least of all me, lasting consolation. I am still awaiting a Christmas present posted from Canada approximately 4 and a half months ago. If ever I get it, it will do for next Christmas. Or maybe the Christmas after that? Or maybe a Christmas beyond even our mathematical, not to say ecological and apocalyptical computation?