This Week’s Bit of String: Letters to Putin
If you were a cultivator of stories, working in a post office, would you find yourself quite curious about what you were helping people send? I’ve always been quite numb to the letters and parcels—professional or perhaps just zombified—but sometimes my curiosity is truly piqued.
‘I need to send this letter to Russia.’ The soft-spoken piano teacher puts the envelope on my weighing scales. His thick, square glasses glint in the fluorescent lights.
I stamp the letter. It’s meticulously addressed to the Minister of Justice in Moscow. ‘I keep seeing these today,’ I tell the piano teacher. ‘What’s going on?’
He informs me Russia has begun proceedings to label Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists. So the steady stream of polite, earnest customers posting letters to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, Justice Minister, and even President Putin himself—are attempts to reason with the enormous state.
I had no idea. And that’s just one thing I’ve learned working at the post office. I shall take my leave with a little mess of weird but possible story threads.
A pale old man collects his pension from the post office every Monday, his fingers trembling as he tries to remember his PIN. One week he told me his wife had cardiopulmonary disease, and a bad car accident a couple months before while returning from a hospital appointment certainly didn’t help. But he smiled as he said, ‘I know all about being a woman now, since my wife’s laid up. Running about doing all the work! Tell you what, if I have to come back as something when I die, I hope it’s not a woman.’
Monday comes around again. ‘It’s beautiful out today.’ The man says as his fingers jitter, uncertain, an inch above the card reader’s keypad. ‘The sun was so warm in our garden.’
I ask how his wife is doing.
‘She passed away yesterday morning. Sixty-three years we were together. I used to call her my little ray of sunshine…’ His voice is hoarse.
I’m nearly moved to tears myself. I’ve worked in a nursing home; I’ve seen bereavement and death before. But it’s different seeing it ‘in the real world,’ watching someone stricken so recently go through the necessary motions. At the post office, I’ve had to tell relatives we can’t ship human ashes to distant loved ones (apparently it’s a fire hazard). I’ve certified copies of death certificates, and helped bereaved parents close their late daughter’s bank account—the mother quietly explaining what she needed, the father sitting in the waiting area staring straight ahead.
Stories aren’t just big moments; they’re little ones. They’re how we drag huge burdens through each tiny step.
Beyond School Doors
Likewise, I’ve seen disability before. I’ve supported secondary school students with all kinds of difficulties, who worked tremendously hard to get through the schoolday. Once again, the post office showed me a different perspective.
A girl in her late teens or early twenties comes to my counter, taps her ear, and utters ‘Deaf.’ She slips a note under the heavy glass partition of my ‘Fortress’ (that’s literally the Post Office terminology for the secure cubicle). She needs a box for posting a jacket to the USA, the note explains. I take her to the stationery and show her what the shop offers for packaging. We communicate with hand motions and the odd inarticulate noise. She seems pleased with the selection.
I think about how it must feel, forced to introduce oneself in such a way; to be immediately distinguished by what some might perceive as a deficiency. What bravery and resourcefulness surround us, and we barely even realise.
My previous jobs have inspired a great deal in my stories, as I’ve gotten to know students, colleagues, and nursing home residents very well. In the post office, interactions are fleeting, but still colourful and informative. It’s a lesson in efficiency. If my imagination can be so fuelled by a two-minute encounter, maybe I could shoehorn my observations into a flash fiction piece. My notebooks bristle with label-backs and till roll fragments scrawled with funny place names: Bald Knob Ridge, North Carolina. Thistley Hey Road, Liverpool. Runaway Heights, Jamaica. Thanks to these, I could still feel, despite being locked alone in a ‘Fortress’ at the back of a perishing shop in a town classed as a ‘Rural Area of Deprivation,’ that the world was at my fingertips. Not just geography, but the realm of words, with its truly infinite possibilities.
What windows does your job allow on the wider world?