I like writing and I love writing letters. Always have done, ever since I was a small child. Somehow very early on in my life I figured out that if I wrote to a lot of people then at least some of them would want to write back. I suppose now it’s the same sort of thing with emails and Facebook. It’s the responses that count. So, from a very early age, I used to go to the post office, mainly to buy stamps. And postal orders, in the early days of mail order shopping. I seem to remember buying exotic stamps ‘on approval ‘ for my burgeoning stamp collection!
Going to the post office in South Kensington was usually quite a pleasurable experience. First you had choose which queue to join. None of that snaking round the premises. You chose your line and you stayed in it unless you wanted to be glared and tutted at by disapproving pensioners. It was always a gamble. Some poeople just went for their pensions or their stamps whilst others went to pass the time of day with the clerk.
But most transactions were straightforward and pleasant, and so I never really gave the institution much thought.
And then I went to Poland by myself for the first time. I was eighteen, very shy, and my Polish was not bad but not good either. I was missing my family and friends. So I bought a lot of postcards, wrote them, and was told where the post office was to buy the stamps. What a nightmare.
I went up to the counter eventually and asked how much were stamps to England. Normal price – said the grim grump on the other side.
What do you mean by normal, I asked, a bit bemused.
The same as always, she barked. I was very close to tears by now.
I’ve never bought stamps before I said, meaning of course in this country. She looked at me and burst out laughing. I looked at her and burst out crying.
How am I supposed to know. I’ve only been here a week. I live in London, I stuttered. Oh dear. She then told me the actual price and I bought my stamps and fled.
For several years the post office again was a painless experience. And then I went to Salamanca for my year abroad. I was 21, it was the year 1974. Franco era. A military state. I went to the main post office to buy some stamps. I asked for ten stamps to London. At the counter was an old man, sitting on a high stool and behind him was an armed guard, standing with his rifle pointing upwards, but still quite ominous.
Stamps? muttered the clerk.
Yes, said I.
Where are your letters?
I haven’t written them yet.
Oh, he said, why don’t you come back?
No thanks, I’d like my stamps now. Ten please, for England.
And then I watched, totally mesmerised: he rummaged out a sheet of stamps and proceeded to tear each little square off individually, carefully, oh so carefully, following the perforations. Then he placed them deliberately in a pile on top of each other. I’m afraid I didn’t stop him, but when he’d finished I asked him if I could have the ten in an unbroken set. Foolhardy, or what, with the guardia staring at me with his rifle pointing…
Recently , however, the only times I go to the post office are to send parcels of necessities to Kasia. I went just before Christmas to a little subpost office in Southall, just by one of my bus stops. The lady behind the counter was pleasant, chatty and efficient. I sent my parcel and thought no more about it. Today I had to send Kasia her Christmas present; I know, a bit late, but the Christmas season doesn’t officially stop until Candlemas, and that’s a tradition I have to approve of, as we never have time to take our Christmas tree down til then. Anyway today I put my parcel on thescales, and she asks me what city it’s going to . WOODGE, I say and then she looks up and smiles and asks me if the previous one got there. My day was made. A human,caring, being, who remembered.
I am thrilled.