Join the Queue
Bodie sighed. Christmas at the ruddy Post Office. A total bloody nightmare. The queue was out the door and half-way down the street, and the poor sods outside were out there in rain that could only be described as stair-rods. But at least it was just one queue. The days where you took your pick from six -- if you were lucky enough to find six clerks serving, generally three were off on their coffee break or having a fag in the loo -- only to find you'd joined the one where the berk being served had three registered packages and his vehicle license to renew, without the relevant documents, were long gone. Instead, everyone now formed one neat line. Very orderly. Very British. If things were slow, all anyone did was mutter under their breath. Or sigh loudly. Which Bodie did -- again.
The old chap in front of him turned around.
"I 'ate Christmas," he told Bodie. "Bloody queues everywhere. All I want is me pension. Me bus goes in ten minutes. Ten minutes! I'll be lucky to be out of here by Boxing Day!"
"Yeah," Bodie agreed, "bloody ridiculous just for two days, isn't it?"
"Too commercialised," the old boy moaned. "I saw the first cards in the shops in August. I ask you. Adverts on the telly, telling kiddies to pester their Mums and Dads for this toy or that. My son has to go into hock for the whole year to pay for it all. Wasn't like that when I was a lad."
It wasn't like that when Bodie was a boy, either, but he didn't imagine his memories were as fond as the old man's, so he just nodded silently, instead, hoping it would discourage him from hobbling down memory lane as fast as his arthritis would let him.
He looked down at the package he was holding. It wasn't even his -- it was Doyle's. He'd had to rush off to court, unexpectedly, with Cowley, this morning, and had thrust it at his partner as he went past, with a casual 'pop down the Post Office with this, for me, will you, Bodie?'
Pop? The little sod knew you didn't 'pop' anywhere at this time of year. He also knew that Bodie rarely refused him anything... and took advantage of that fact on an all too regular basis. It was high time he put a stop to it. Ruefully, he realised it was a thought he often had, but rarely, if ever, acted upon. He turned the package over in his hands, wondering why he was so reluctant to tell his stroppy friend to go to hell -- because here he was, as a consequence, standing in this ruddy queue, having been taken blatant advantage of, yet again.
America. Hmm. Who did Doyle know in Vermont? Oh, yeah, his Aunty Vi -- his mother's cousin or something; if Bodie remembered correctly she was a GI bride. Doyle had been over to visit her a couple of years ago, had spent the two weeks over Christmas and New Year there, in fact, and Bodie recalled feeling very jealous. Christmas in Vermont sounded like his idea of heaven and he's spent the whole time Doyle was away, in a miserable heap -- made worse by the little sod's enthusiasm, on his return, for the beauty of the state. He'd snapped at him in the end, telling him to shut his gob -- one of the few times Bodie had ever lost his rag with his ratty partner.
To tell the truth, he agreed with the old man, Christmas was a bugger -- to be endured, like trips to the dentist or constipation. Agonising while you were in the midst of it but grit your teeth and it was soon over with, thank god.
The queue moved forward one space and Bodie began to have hope, except that the woman who'd gone to the counter had mysteriously lost her assistant. The clerk had gone off to chat to her bald-headed superior and was waving a parcel around in the air. Perhaps they thought there was a bomb in it. Bodie smirked to himself -- that'd wake them up a bit.
Behind him, a girl was trying to keep control of her three kids, not one of them looked older than three and, by the looks of it, all of them suffered from kleptomania. She whacked one of them round the ear and the misery endured by the entire queue suddenly went up a notch as the child's screaming hit ghetto-blaster level.
"Never did me any harm." The old boy was talking to him again.
"What?" Bodie asked, not sure what he meant.
"A good thrashing. Parents these days are scared of their kids. No wonder us pensioners aren't safe in our beds."
Bodie wondered if people who said that, ever really thought about what they were encouraging. He was willing to bet most would have been shocked had they ever met his father.
He looked at the package again, torn between legging it and thus saving his sanity for posterity, or staying in this human hell-hole and ending up having to be spoon-fed in a lunatic asylum. The assistant-less woman was now wandering the serving area, aimlessly, and with true British phlegm, the line did their best to look the other way to save her embarrassment.
There was footie on the telly tonight, he reflected, trying to cheer himself up. Perhaps Doyle could be persuaded to come over, and if pushed, pick up a curry on the way. Ages since he'd had a good curry -- one of those that made your hair sweat.
He could pop into Tescos, on the way back, for a couple of six-packs -- if he ever got out of here and if the supermarket didn't resemble Harrods on the 1st. January. Having had a woman drop six dinner plates on his foot the last time he was in there, trying to get a half-price leather jacket for Doyle, it wasn't an experience he planned to repeat. Doyle had been unexpectedly called away that time too...
Lost in his own thoughts, Bodie jumped when he was suddenly poked in the arm.
"Go on, you're next," an old dear was telling him. "You're holding up the queue!"
Bodie glared at her. So much for defenceless oaps, the ones he knew would give Hitler a run for his money... oh, that was right, they had -- doubtless that explained it.
He searched quickly along the line of clerks to find the free one. There she was. He walked over to her position and smiled at the middle-aged woman behind the glass partition.
Her frosty silence indicated she was not in total agreement with this sentiment.
"Uh," he began, trying not to feel intimidated, "this is to go air-mail."
"On the scales," she barked.
Bodie lost the intimidation battle, meekly doing as he was bid.
"Where's it going?" he was asked.
"You're too late."
The woman's face took on the regulation 'here I am, dealing with a cretin, when I'd rather be in the South of France' expression.
"Today, as you will observe, is the 16th. December." She pointed to the wall calendar. "The last official posting date to the United States of America was the 11th. December. While you are welcome to post your package at any time... if the last date has passed, the Post Office take no responsibility for delivering it before Christmas."
Official speak for 'sod off', in other words. Bodie stood looking at her, trying to decide what to do.
"Do you still want to post your package, sir? Only there are other people waiting."
The woman's voice was reminding him more and more of Sybil Fawlty and he was beginning to have a great deal of empathy with Basil.
"Uh, yes," he replied, at last. Doyle wanted it posted, so posted it would be.
She took the package from him and looked up the postage. "Three pounds seventy five," she told him eventually.
Bodie fished out a fiver and handed it over. "Cheaper to take it there myself, on Concorde," he muttered.
Judging by her face, that wasn't new one, either.
"Now," she said, "reaching for a green slip. "Can you describe the contents for me?"
Bodie looked at her, blankly. "No."
It was her turn to look mystified. "I beg your pardon?"
"Uh...it's not mine. I'm posting it for someone else. No idea what's in it, love."
She looked at him long and hard, no doubt wondering how she'd come to draw the short straw and get the one who hadn't been in a Post Office since talking pictures had become all the rage.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said, eventually, "your package cannot go without a customs declaration." She stuck the stamps on and handed the package back to Bodie, along with the green slip. "If you would like to move along to the end of the counter, fill it in and then just hand the envelope to an assistant, that would do nicely."
"But..." Bodie began to protest, but she had already pressed the buzzer for the next customer.
Standing at the end, Bodie stared at Doyle's package. He explored it with his fingers, which, of course, revealed nothing, except that it was soft. Perhaps Doyle had sent his aunty some hankies with a V in the corner. Or some socks. No -- men got the argyle socks, not women. Of course, he might not have sent her anything, it could just be a very long winded, twenty page letter in there, so it was no good Bodie inventing something to write on the slip because that could result in all sorts of confusion. He sighed heavily. Turning it over, he looked at the seal. Doyle hadn't Sellotaped over it, so it might be possible just to ease it open and see what the contents were. It didn't seem right -- opening other people's post -- but it didn't appear there was any alternative. And if he wasn't careful, he would be here until Boxing Day, along with the old codger and the girl with thieving kids.
Decision made, he pulled carefully at the seal of the padded envelope and painstakingly opened the package.
He should have known -- the pressie was wrapped in Christmas paper. Bodie looked at the teddy bears on the wrapping -- all wearing red Santa Claus hats -- and tried to imagine his tough, street-wise partner buying it. It brought a grin to his face and he snorted, loudly.
His next task was to attempt to find out what was inside the ludicrous paper. Luckily, Doyle had just fixed the ends with small lengths of sticky tape and Bodie was able to undo one and peer inside. It seemed to be a scarf, one of those airy-fairy types that women wore around their neck -- a blue one. Nice.
Relieved, he did it back up and wrote 'scarf' on the customs slip. Amount? Next, they'd want to know where he'd bought it, the name of the gormless assistant and where she bought her undies. Not even in his wildest dreams could Bodie imagine Doyle spending much more than a fiver, so he stuck that down, ticked 'gift' and attached the slip to the front of the package. A letter was also included but he assumed that mention of that was not required. He picked it all up to return it to the envelope and as he did, two photos slipped out and fell onto the floor. Damn. He bent down to pick them up and gave them a cursory glance.
One was a view of Buckingham Palace and Bodie realised he'd been there when it was taken. He was the idiot who'd braved rush hour traffic, at Doyle's request, so that he could get the 'right light' for his niece's photo. She was using it in a history project, apparently. The traffic had been much worse than usual because it'd been the night the lights had been switched on in Oxford Street and all hell had been let loose. Bodie sometimes wondered if he'd got a screw or two missing. With Mad Raymond in charge of the electric drill, it seemed more than likely.
He swapped the photos to see what was underneath. Ah, yes. That was the one Murph took of them both, on bonfire night. Silly sod was too pissed to hold the camera straight. Both of them had been sloshed, too, and it showed. Murph had kept saying 'move closer' -- sniggering into his hand like some soppy school-girl. The result was a photo where Bodie looked, boss-eyed, into the camera, and Doyle, instead of saying 'cheese' was looking at Bodie with that all too familiar dopey expression. God knows what anybody who saw it would think and he couldn't imagine why Doyle thought his aunty would want to see it. Still, it took all sorts and it was time he was out of here. He shoved everything back in the envelope and knocked on the glass partition. A clerk came out and Bodie signalled to him.
"Do us a favour, mate, and stick a bit of Sellotape on there, will you? Ta."
Leaving the package in safe hands, Bodie headed out into the street, past all the poor sods still standing there with their Christmas cards and suitable expressions of deep seasonal gloom.
"How'd it go?" Bodie asked as Doyle poured himself a cup of tea.
The only other person in the staff-room was Murph who was conked out in one of the arm-chairs, snoring his head off.
"He got off on a technicality," Doyle replied, sniffing the milk. "Is this fresh?"
"Only if you like your tea with a subtle hint of cheese," Bodie told him. "Betty's away, remember, and the temp's got higher things on her mind."
"Music. Plays for some obscure orchestra. Only it doesn't pay, apparently, so she has to come here and not do Betty's job properly."
"Oh." Doyle looked non-plussed by this piece of information. "Well, couldn't you have got some milk, this morning, while you were out?"
Bodie looked up from the report he was reading. "Do you know where I spent most of my morning, Raymond?"
Doyle adopted an innocent air. "Uh, no. Should I?"
Bodie glared at him. "When's the last time you visited a Post Office, ten days before Christmas, Doyle?"
"Ah. Busy, was it?"
"You could say that. I hate bloody Christmas," he added as an afterthought.
Doyle's lips twitched. "You got my package off, though?"
"Yeah. Despite having to find out what you sent you sent your aunty for Christmas because Sybil Fawlty wouldn't let me post it otherwise."
"I won't ask."
"Was for my cousin, anyway."
"Cousin?" Bodie repeated.
"Yeah. Bit older than me... in her late thirties. Got a couple of teenagers who drive her nuts. Bit worried about her son, he's 18 and she thinks he might be, uh... you know."
Bodie had no idea and shook his head, so Doyle put his hand on his hip and pouted and he twigged immediately.
"Oh," he said and blushed.
"Told her it wasn't the end of the world," Doyle added.
"Isn't it?" Bodie replied, concentrating hard on the report.
There was a loud snort from the other chair -- Murph waking himself with his own snoring. He sat up, yawning.
"Ahhhh, if it isn't David Bailey -- here to show us how to take quality photographs," Bodie said, sarcastically. "Focused are we? Feeling snappy? No need to say 'cheese', there's some in the milk bottle there."
"What's the matter with him?" Murph asked, scowling at Bodie.
"Post Office Blues," Doyle explained. "And he doesn't think much of your photographic technique, either."
"Oh. Well, can't sit here all day, nattering to you two. Some of us have got work to do," he said, and yawned again.
The two men watched as he got up and left.
Bodie went to pour himself a cuppa. Looking at the 'milk' he decided to have it black.
"Dunno what your cousin will think of that snap," he said, over the top of the cup. "Why the hell d'you send her that?"
"Wanted her to see who I was rabbiting on about, all the time. I thought it was quite a good shot Murph took, it's all there if you look hard enough."
What was? Bodie decided that discretion was the better part of valour and didn't ask.
"Footie on the box tonight, do you fancy coming over?" he ventured, changing the subject. "You could pick up a takeaway on the way."
"Yeah, why not. Chinese?"
Bodie paused before answering. "Whatever. Not fussed."
Doyle regarded him for a long moment. "Yes, you are."
Bodie looked away, quickly. "No, I'm not."
"Liar. You'd take a curry over a sweet and sour, every time."
"I told you, I'm not fussed," Bodie insisted.
"And I told you, you are. So, tonight, it's curry. Okay?"
"Fine. I don't really care, Ray."
"As long as I come?"
Bodie was startled into silence.
"Would it be so terrible to tell me?" Doyle asked, gently.
It struck Bodie that this might be one of those moments, after which, things were never quite the same again. He sought refuge in humour.
"What? That I'd rather have a curry than a chinky?"
Doyle grinned and, as always, Bodie found himself unable to resist responding in kind. Off guard and laughing, he was totally unprepared when the other man stepped close and caught his arm.
"Do anything for me, wouldn't you, Bodie? Spend hours at the ruddy Post Office, drive me round London in the rush hour... eat umpteen Chicken Chow Meins you don't fancy. And what for? What do I give in return?"
Bodie stared at Doyle, unable to answer -- too afraid that whatever he said, he would give himself away.
"You do things for me," he said, eventually.
"Yeah? Like what?"
Bodie shrugged. "Can't think of anything offhand but you must do."
"I doubt it. Selfish bastard, I am. Taking's in my nature. Doesn't mean I don't care, though. Understand me?"
Bodie's heart skipped a beat. "No," he said, warily.
Doyle's eyes softened. That look again. It'd confused Bodie ever since he'd first spotted it -- some time ago now.
"I'll give you a clue," Doyle suggested.
He leaned forward and placed a tentative, feather-light kiss on Bodie's cheek. Bodie couldn't have been more shocked if his partner had just whipped out a liver-sausage sandwich and started noshing it. He stood, glued to the spot, with his mouth wide open.
"You'd better shut that or I might put something in it," Doyle winked.
Gradually the gaping hole was replaced by a disarming grin -- just as the door opened.
"Cowley wants you, Bodie," Murph announced. "Soon as poss -- yesterday, if you can manage it."
Doyle aimed another of his dopey looks in Bodie's direction and Bodie's heart melted.
So that was it...
"Tell him," Doyle said, turning to Murph, "to join the bloody queue."
-- THE END --
Originally published in Discovered in a Letterbox 20, Winter 2001