They sent me to Wellington for training. Two nights in a hotel room with Sky TV and meals paid for. What else could I have wanted? After a good night’s sleep, I reported to the depot. The muscular Norm waved at me from the other end of the aeroplane-hangar space. Norm was staying in the same hotel, he’d knocked on my door the night before. Catching his measure, I knew arriving early would be a good move. With purpose, he closed the distance between us. “Look at these sorting machines, Ed.” He pointed at a gaggle of contraptions like giant printers from the eighties topped with black induction pipes. “They cost eighty million nine years ago. Now they are done, obsolete. Can only read envelopes with barcodes, not actual addresses. No good.” Eighty million for the machines in Wellington or the whole country? How could a barcode give an address? Before I could ask, a guy with a ginger beard and hands black with grease jumped out from behind a partly disassembled mammoth. “They wanted these bloody things scrapped but now they’ve changed their minds. They can’t afford new ones, so I’m putting them back together again.”
“Typical eh,” Norm said. The man with the greasy hands looked satisfied with this comment and got back to work. For me, this inefficiency was good news. I’d feared the post office would be a super-organised place to work. I conquered the urge to ask about the nine million dollars and the barcodes. Experience had taught me not to show too much curiosity too soon
In the training room, I sat on an uncomfortable chair and turned to page one of the manual. Two other trainees, Polly from England and Arthur from Australia, arrived as I was reading. Only in England can they name baby girls Polly. “Cutting it fine, guys,” Norm told them, tapping his watch. At eight-thirty, he began by declaring he was going to keep the atmosphere of the training session light. “As long as you’re listening, eh!” And in the main he did, although he spent inordinate time on security stuff. His military background gave some context to this obsession. He opened his eyes crazy wide when addressing us: an old technique to make everything one said seem important.
“Make sure you hang your uniform hidden behind your towels on the washing line. We don’t want it to get stolen and someone impersonating a postie terrorising the neighbourhood.”
Was he serious? I couldn’t tell. What did Polly think? She chewed her pen and rubbed a red spot on her amble cheek. Arthur repeatedly passed his hand over his head looking for non-existent hair. Their expressions gave away nothing. Norm also warned us to be honest about recording the number of letters we sorted, “If the team leader doesn’t get you for writing up too many letters, the algorithms will.” I was nervous that we were paid for the numbers of letters sorted rather than time worked. What if I was slow?
Polly and Arthur lived in Wellington and went home at four. At six I met Norm at the hotel reception. We had forty-five dollars each on his company credit card for dinner, so we went to a flash gastropub. Norm was flirty with the waitress and I was surprised she didn’t mind. She can’t have been much more than twenty. Despite being in his late forties, Norm was still a good-looking fella. After she had smilingly taken our orders, Norm’s mouth was focused my way. To stop him from talking shop, I asked about his military days.
“You’ll never get to that level physically, never experience those extremes,” he told me about his training to get into the Special Forces. “After fourteen days, I was ripped as mate. But on the last exercise, jumping off the top of a four-metre wall, I broke my ankle. I got invited to do the training again when I healed but decided I’d wanted to join the Special Forces for the wrong reasons…”
After the army, he worked as security for weapons inspectors in Saddam’s Iraq. “It was me reporting to Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, who in turn reported to Kofi Annan. I was only a couple of steps from George Bush. If I said let’s get out of here when inspecting a facility…we got the fuck out!”
Eyeballs popping out of his skull, Norm used what was available on the table to reinforce my understanding of the chain of command. Secretary-General of the United Nations Annan was the salt shaker, Blix the pepper, and Norm himself the large tomato sauce bottle. As he was arranging these objects, I noticed the vascularity of his forearms. The bastard was still in great shape.
I flew back from Wellington happy and unprepared for sorting and delivering mail. Norm had given us useless theory, now I needed practical training. The most important thing was to learn to drive the postal delivery vehicle, the Kivurz. From now on, I’d be on one four hours a day, six days a week, and dreaming of them at night.
Our depot was much smaller than the one in Wellington. Windowless because you couldn’t have members of the public peering in, on the beige linoleum floor, twenty-odd black plastic sorting cases lined up in uneven rows. In front of each case, was a trolley stacked with grey plastic trays full of letters.
I kept a low profile at the depot. I was twenty-eight years old but felt like a shy teenager around the grim-faced, fast-moving team of posties. I knew if I stayed silent for too long they would think me a weirdo. So, one morning tea time in the smoko room, I decided to make conversation. I sat at one of the particle board tables and looked through yesterday’s paper. Two other posties, Dawn, with hair dyed bright red, and the strongly-built Ross, sat on an adjacent table barking about how to best fill in a daily docket. “Doesn’t make any difference how you fill it out, Dawn. Inside they pay you for the letters you sort and outside for the time it takes you to deliver – they assume you take two fifteen-minute breaks.”
“What you don’t know smart arse is that I put in lost time – it doesn’t affect my pay, but it does affect my performance times.”
“This isn’t the bloody Olympics.”
Ross was considerably younger than Dawn and his tone indicated he thought her a middle-aged fool. Dawn ‘humphed’ at Ross’s comment and they were quiet for a moment. This was my opportunity, although I had nothing to add about the dockets. I put down the paper and prepared to express something positive about the job. But simply coming out with a phrase along the lines of ‘the job is great!’ would have been out of character. Too enthusiastic. I went with, “The good thing about this job is that you never touch a computer…” They both looked at me. Was I talking to them? My comment had come out of the blue. Awkward. I feared they’d ignore me, but no, it wasn’t a cliquey workplace.
“Is that what you used to do? Were you a computer guy?” Asked Ross. He held his hands out and typed on a ghost keyboard. I had to be careful, I didn’t want to get painted with that brush. A computer geek I was not.
“No no, computers were just a part of some jobs I’ve done. What I didn’t like was working with Microsoft Excel. Some managers love Excel…constantly creating more pretty coloured spreadsheets to be filled in by their underlings.”
Ross looked confused. Hadn’t he heard of Excel? He can’t have been much more than thirty. Lucky him if he hadn’t. Was he having me on?
I helped him out, “Excel is a program used for doubling up admin records, financial calculations and a bunch of other stuff.”
“I like Excel, it’s logical,” said postie Dawn.
“Yes, the problem with me is I’m not detail-oriented, so Excel doesn’t appeal.” I reckoned that was diplomatic, rather than saying fuck off Dawn, Excel is awful.
“Yea I’ve noticed you aren’t a detail guy,” said Ross.
“How’d you get this job then?” asked Dawn.
“Some people are good at interviews,” remarked Ross.
I was surprised he’d noticed something about me, and then I thought, shit, postie-ing was about being meticulous about your redirections, holds, PO boxes, etc., and now these guys thought I didn’t give a fuck. So much for a successful foray into small talk waters.
Johnno, the postie from Birmingham, made his entrance saving me from continuing the awkward conversation.
“Blimey not even time for a copa tea,” he lamented, flopping down, all arms and legs, on one of the well-worn couches. Johnno was an old salt who’d been on the job far too long.
“How many circulars you got to deliver today Johnno?” Dawn asked.
“Too bloody many.” Johnno stood up, struggled into his high-visibility vest and left. My fifteen-minute break was up and so I followed him out.
The next day I got to work early enough to grab a coffee in the smoko room before sorting time. The first time I’d been in there alone, I checked out the walls covered with posters and newspaper clippings. ‘Salsa classes Tuesday nights?’ No thank you. ‘Postie Retires After 42 Years.’ Bog help us. Then I looked at the table. What luck! As an exception to the rule, today’s paper presented itself. The local paper mind, not the Dominion Post from Wellington. The lead story was about rats. The local exterminator was getting lots of callouts. In the cold weather, the rodents were seeking shelter in people’s houses. The biggest nuisance was they chewed through your pipes. You could tell how big a specimen was by the teeth marks. ‘The largest one I’ve trapped this year was about the size of my Chihuahua,’ according to the exterminator. That didn’t sound very big.
Ross stormed in and set about making an instant coffee with unnecessary intensity. He sat down and took rapid sips from his plastic cup. I recognised the ‘ God, another day’ expression on his face. I took advantage of having something to talk about.
“You seen this article about rats, Ross?”
“No? Let’s have a look. Hey, this is today’s paper! Awesome.”
I gave him a few minutes to read it and then said, “Something a bit fishy about the story. What kind of rat exterminator would have a Chihuahua? I don’t buy it, these journalists will do anything to flesh out the story. What do you reckon?”
“You might have something there,” Ross said. “I bloody admire rats, very resourceful animals… Did you know they can’t vomit? They either stomach something or die.”
“Wow, interesting.” Maybe this Ross was worth getting to know. But further chat could wait, we had to go to the morning brief.
And a serious meeting it turned out to be. Team Leader Mavis was fuming, “If anybody else rolls their Kivurz the pilot program is off. Cancelled.”
Failure. Shame. Budgetary mishap. Taxpayers’ lament, think big over. We’d be off our electric Swiss three-wheelers and back on push bikes to deliver the mail. Only two people had rolled a Kivurz trike and neither had been injured. A larger number of us had committed the lesser crime of tipping over our trailers. I looked around me at the other posties, hardly a crew of Hell’s Angels or reckless drivers. Quite the opposite in fact, all around me I saw patient, attentive faces.
“If all eyes weren’t on us before, believe me, they are now,” Mavis barked. “Come on guys we’ve worked too bloody hard for this to be taken away from us now.”
We were the pilot city for these fancy Kivurz electric vehicles. An honour to be chosen. No more slogging it out on push bikes. They had introduced the Kivurz for mail delivery in Switzerland five years ago. It was a three-wheeler, powered by a battery. That the Kivurz was electric was a PR coup for the post office. They could brag about how environmentally friendly the new vehicles were. Not as friendly as a bicycle though. The Kivurz had a top speed of forty-five kilometres an hour, making it uncomfortable to drive them in traffic because cars would tailgate you. While delivering we drove them along the footpath. At the front of the Kivurz was a box-shaped container with handlebars behind it. Either side of the seat were plastic yellow panniers. Next to one of these panniers was a special compartment for the barcode scanner. The back of the vehicle featured a double-doored cupboard with shelves – a good place to store parcels and letters for the second half of your delivery run.
If you had more mail than would fit in the front box, panniers and cupboard you could attach a trailer to the back. The trailer meant you had to take corners slow, so many posties tried to overpack the back cupboard to avoid taking it.
The uniform was not the same as the old bike postie version. It made you look ridiculous: a large white helmet, a long-sleeved red and yellow shirt with elbow pads, and MC Hammer-style pants. Shorts weren’t allowed – they wouldn’t afford any protection in a crash. However, the union was fighting for the return of shorts, as the Hammer pants would be sweltering in summer.
The Kivurz did have some good features. When there was no weight on the seat, the brake automatically engaged. So you could jump off to deliver a letter on a hill without the fear it would roll off. It also had a great wheellock and could make very tight turns. And you could zip up hills without any physical effort, in contrast to the sweat-covered days of the bikes. The main drawback of these machines was their lack of stability. If you came off the curb at an angle one wheel would go up in the air. Your heart would be in your mouth for that split second before it touched down again. And the bloody trailers should have had trainer wheels like on kids’ bikes.
All the doom and gloom of rolling machines and denting trailers was forgotten when Mavis reminded us today was the monthly morning tea shout. If eating a piece of cheesecake made you feel like you were taking part in a Marques de Sade-type fantasy, I reckon you were on the right track in life. After three hours of mail sorting, we made our way to the smoko room. And indeed there was cheesecake as well as sausage rolls and lollies. No company-provided morning tea in New Zealand could be called complete without sausage rolls. Everybody had a cup of tea or coffee in hand too, except for bloody Johnno. That speedy stick insect had forfeited the morning tea and already gone out on his run so he could brag the next day about how early he’d finished.
The topic around the crumb-covered tables was the Kivurz vehicles: “First time I saw all you guys head out on those eco-numbers I was choked up. Beautiful what we’ve done here…”
“Yep makes you think! Just plug the fucking things in and they go all day. Fourteen dollars a week it costs to run them…”
“But twenty thousand to buy one and they don’t even keep you dry, I still want an electric push bike…”
“Yea bring back the bikes!”
Because of the sausage rolls inside me, sitting on the Kyvurz was difficult for the first hour of delivery. My digestive system had dealt with the problem by the time I reached the Masonic Retirement Village. “Hope it’s not all bills today mate,” one white-haired gent said. Haven’t heard that before mate. He wasn’t the only one waiting by the mailbox. “No good, it’s no good,” grumbled a hair-in-rollers octogenarian, “the mail was slow before…but now it only comes every two days it’s even worse. When I get my TV guide the week is nearly over.” I felt bad for her and I couldn’t tell her to check online. Reliant on the mail and TV, here lived relics of an ancient civilization.
The Tainui Rest Home had a great view of the mountain but the residents were less active than at the Masonic. One old guy with a bandage on his head staggered out his front door and thanked me profusely for the Pizza Hut flyer I handed him. I hoped for some old know-it-all to materialise and lecture me on the mountain. “Stratus clouds hanging off its leeward side, see there!… The mountain rose above a group of cumulus clouds early this morning…lenticular clouds covered it not long after you dropped off the wrong mail the other day young man…” No such fucking luck.
Five hundred mailboxes done, the clouds thickened and the mountain disappeared robbing me of my view, but on with the mail. Rusty with sharp edges, small slots stuffed with slug-eaten newspapers, rotting wood that would fall apart if you weren’t careful – some hazardous mailboxes on this street. My soft hands got bloody trying to get letters in. If you bled on a letter that wasn’t good. I coloured over the blood stains with a black marker pen. Problem solved…I needed a break, so I got a filled roll at the bakery and burned over to the church cemetery. The electric motor of my machine turned off with a beep as I touched the sensor with the circular key. I walked about munching my roll and looking at the headstones.
Here rest the earthly remains of Henry George,
Who was born June 17, 1842,
And killed in action at Mahoetahi,
Nov 6th, 1860.
The trumpet shall sound and the
Dead shall be raised incorruptible.
The next part of my run featured back streets where you wondered what year it was. I spotted the DX mail guy up the road, anonymous with his visor pulled down. He was riding his motorbike across immaculately manicured grass berms, leaving tyre tracks without a care in the world. I burned with envy. An organisation like ours with all its rules and regulations would never compete.
“Is that solar-powered buddy?”
A member of the public had appeared, shouting at me from the other side of the road. He was a big guy, wearing Air Jordan basketball boots.
“No mate it isn’t.”
“Well then, you should put some solar panels on it.”
“Yea yea it might make it go faster,” I shouted back, trying – without stopping – to replicate his friendly enthusiasm. But doing two things at once was inadvisable; as I turned the corner onto Hine Street I clipped a power pole. My vehicle went up on one wheel, hesitated, and then came back down the right way. The trailer, however, crashed with a clang onto its side. I got out and righted it, but the red paint on the side panel was scraped and the mudguard dented. At the least, this would be two forms to fill out and a telling-off. Hardly a dramatic accident, but would the pilot be called off because of this wee mishap? Would I become a pariah? ‘If it wasn’t for that idiot we’d still be going up hills on our electric numbers’ – or was a reversion to push bikes what everybody wanted? I told myself to calm down, the big deal was rolling the machines, not tipping trailers.
Mr Renewable Energy, him in the Air Jordans, had followed me. He was laughing his arse off.
“Where did you learn to drive mate? How long you been a postie?”
“Jesus Christ himself couldn’t drive,” I answered. A stupid thing to say, but unexpected and it left the guy flummoxed. When does doing the unexpected ever fail? Seeing his fuddled features trying to come up with a response, I’d achieved a small victory. Before he opened his mouth, I took off to my next delivery point, some hundred metres down the road.
When I got back to the depot, Dawn was unloading her trike…her eyes went to the damage on my trailer. “Well”, she said dryly, “I guess that’s the equivalent of falling off your bike. We used to say you weren’t a postie until you’d taken a tumble.”
I suspected Dawn would make sure everybody got to know I’d had this little accident. But this was it, at last, I felt like one of the team.