Tony ‘Frank’s vision blurred again against the seemingly endless line of pristine, crisp white, gummed C5s. He had what some young wag sharper and more caring than him had probably called ‘the thousand letter stare’. Tony stood, waiting for the urgent metal crunch and shrill beep of a jam. For some reason for him to move or be awake or alive at all. But the franking machine churned on happily and without issue.
Sleeping sounded like the machine.
The machine sounded like sleeping.
“Frank? Frank! Are you with us, dear?”
Tony barely heard the human voices over the song of mechanics. He turned his head to the left and readjusted his eyes for the perception of human faces and their subtle, minute reactions. Terry was a tall, wide man with hair as silver as his face was ruddy. The bastard lovechild of Kray and Crisp, he was Bernados by way of theatreland and the Royal Opera House. To use the term ‘theatrical’ was to misunderstand the euphemism and misread the man. Terry held his large weathered paw out and patted Tony’s cheek.
“Do try and stay with us, won’t you dear? Now Frank, this is the new lad, Roman. Oh, no, wait, I’m sorry dear. Ronan”
The young man tried to speak, unaware of his place in the charade in which Terry was the sole instigator and interested spectator.
“I’m sorry dear, it’s Rohan isn’t it? My mind is slipping in my old age. Rohan! Who heard of such a name. Not like old dear Frank, here. Nice dependable name, nice dependable fella. The very embodiment of geniality and discretion, old Frank. The very heart and soul of this institution. At least on a good day. Runs this mailroom like a fine Swiss watch. Not his real name, of course, but you’ll find out one day, won’t you dear?”
As Terry led Rohan off to continue the tour of the building, he leaned over his shoulder and winked at Tony.
“University wallah are you, Rohan?” Terry asked before the mailroom door swung shut.
Alison made collections three times a day. Three times. Three times eight floors. Three times eight floors times two to four offices per floor. Three times a day. She was only meant to go twice, but she liked going and no one complained. It stopped the fat woman on first moaning about why there was no collection in the late afternoon. Alison liked doing the rounds because it gave her something that she could easily complete. She got to see people and say hello and they said hello back. And she got to collect the letters. The endless streams of C6s. C5s. C4s sometimes. Churning through the machine. Sometimes they needed help. Sometimes he pushed them through twice. Sometimes they jammed anyway and he needed to print labels. For the recorded and the specials Tony would use his special pen. The one with the nice gel ink. His penmanship was second only to his capacity to withstand the repetitious. Two or more and they would go in a special bag. The payslips from payroll on the 6th floor would fly straight through at a rate Tony could never compensate for. The bulky mailouts from HR would churn through slow.
Allison was quiet most of the time. She would witter to herself, but Tony let the machine drown it out. “Frank?” She would ask, but he would pretend not to hear. They used to let her on the machine, but she would make mistakes. She would charge International Relations £259 for a £2.59 package sent out by Domestic. They always claimed it back, of course, but minus the 20% Royal Mail handling fee.
Her witters became louder. She would sit ordering stationery and chatter to herself. Sometimes the chattering stopped. Tony would realise she was no longer there only when asked when the last time he saw her was. He wouldn’t help with the frantic searches or the calming talking. He would frank the post and collect it if need be.
Unlike the letters, time did not move at differing speeds because of its varying weight. It was perpetual. Steady. C5s packed with 6 A4 sheets. Folded once. For some people it was payslips, firing through too quick to collect. For some people it was a stack of fat, overstuffed envelopes, waiting to be put through one at a time. For some it was a line of C4s to be pre-franked. The machine would often consider these as one long envelope and refuse to continue before reassurance. The metaphor had disappeared. Tony was just thinking about post again.
“Look, dear. It’s a postcard from young Rohan. Isn’t that nice? He finally made it to New Zealand. I say, Frank, dear. Did you hear me? Rohan, the lad, he’s finally made it to New Zealand. He sent us a postcard. Isn’t that nice?”
Tony smiled at Terry blankly. He had no idea who Terry was talking about, let alone why he should care.
“Rohan, Frank. Rohan. The lad, dear. From IT. Next door. He worked here for 3 years”
Tony smiled and nodded.
Alison hid more and collected less. A new woman was hired to try and manage the unmanageable. Alison would call Terry’s mobile at all hours of the night. Neither of them slept much. Terry’s demeanour shrank, malnourished. The ‘dears’ dried up, as did the smiles and the post-pub japery. The stink of booze was stronger in the lifts after he had been using them. On one occasion Alison tried to pry her way onto a tube train that Terry had gotten on. She wouldn’t let go of the door, even when it closed on her hand. Transport police carried her away, screaming. On other occasions, ambulances were called to their office. The decision was eventually made to let her go, one that HR had taken an inordinately long time to reach. Alison was cut adrift into an inevitable decent.
The only time Tony looked up during the whole performance was when Alison’s desk was being cleared after weeks of debate. Terry stood outside the office, smoking, as he would so often do, staring into the unknown. Except this time his focus was firmly fixed. There were no jovial comments, no winking mercurial loquaciousness. Terry just held the fixed glare of a man watching something die.
Tony put his head down and carried on working.
Her desk was emptied and everybody left for a meeting. He couldn’t, Tony said. Got to get the post done by four. He made his way through the stacks.
Some of the letters were standard for an organisation of this size. Some were CRB checks. Some of the letters contained the most horrific things imaginable. Things to children. Unproven abuse. Some cases where the alleged perpetrator had now died. Cases that would languish in the agony of the people who still had the capacity to remember. Two of the letters were addressed to people with the same names as old school friends of Terry’s:
Some had the names of famous people:
Some had funny place names:
But Tony didn’t see any one of them. The letters were upside down, facing away. He just stared at the endless stream of white.