When Alec takes time off, we can always tell. The signs are unmistakable: We get at least three items of morning mail addressed not only to people who have never crossed the threshold of our house, but who quite evidently spend their days living in other houses.
How can we know this?
It has something to do with what is written or printed on the envelopes.
When Alec takes time off, he is replaced with a temporary postman. This nameless substitute, and he may well be a different one each time for all I know, cannot be called well qualified for the post (if you'll excuse the pun).
For instance, although the number and name of our house is attached with noteworthy screws to both of our gateposts - HILLTOP 48 - we are, when Alec is away, the daily recipients of letters addressed to 46, 48a, and even 52.
Phoning (as I always do) the local sorting office on Victoria Road to complain enables me to revisit socially with the man in charge of our area (and it is always a cheery occasion), but it never makes the slightest difference. He seems just as amazed as we are by the situation. He promises he will "have a word" with the alternate postman. But still we continue to have other people's epistles.
After two weeks of this approximate service (which never seems to bring us a windfall of cash, or a Rembrandt, or anything we might feel eager to keep), we can instantly divine Alec's reappearance in the neighborhood. All of a sudden, we are no longer being asked to pay other people's invoices or remail their mail-order catalogs. Nor, presumably, they ours.
I have a friend living in Suffolk on the East Coast of England who tells me that when she and her husband lived in another village, the local postperson, Pam by name, was famous for delivering mail to wrong addresses. The inhabitants were benevolently sensitive to her feelings, however, and they would wait until she had delivered all the local mail before issuing from their houses to exchange letters and packages, electricity bills and birthday cards. The process was known among them as "Doing a Pam."
One of the advantages of not living in the United States is that the mail carrier comes right up to your door. He doesn't just lean nonchalantly out of his car and throw your mail into a galvanized and flagged tube on a stick out on the street.
We have letter boxes (I gather Americans call them "slots") on our front doors, and the post is pushed through from the outside world into your very own private space. You only have to pad down the hall to pick it up. It is the gallant postman who braves all weathers to bring it right to your home.
One of our neighbors often invites Alec in for a warming beverage and a chat. If I am quick enough to catch him before he heads off down our gravel - he is very quick and efficient - I usually have a few words with him. He is a young man of opinions, and happy to voice them (fast). He is also uncomplicatedly interested in your mail, and happy to discuss its character and contents.
I do not accuse him of the slightest impropriety, but I suspect he knows, just from the sorts of information envelopes provide, more about all of us than we know about ourselves.
And I must say that if I were a postman, I would relieve my much-trudging by reading the postcards I was about to deliver. Wouldn't you?
I remember hearing, as a child, about a postcard somebody sent to a friend on which he had humorously, but with a mixture of realism and generosity, left a carefully outlined section headed "Postman's Remarks." A nice sharing sort of notion. Why shouldn't the messenger participate in the message?
Not that I am suggesting, of course, the prying lengths of a famous fictional Welsh postman, in Dylan Thomas's drama for voices, "Under Milk Wood." Thomas used Willy Nilly as a voice to further our intimate knowledge of other characters, but he is nevertheless a wonderful comic character who tells everyone the contents of their morning mail before they read it, and tells each of his customers the contents of everyone else's mail as well.
To Mr. Edwards he says: "Miss Price Jones loves you with all her heart. Smelling of lavender today...."
Mr. Edwards isn't thrown in the least and hands Willy Nilly his already written love letter back, saying: "Oh, Willy Nilly, she's a ruby! Here's my letter. Put it into her hands now."
On the other hand, he delivers to Mr. Pugh (who doesn't greatly esteem Mrs. Pugh) a parcel that he says, as he hands it over, contains "a book called 'Lives of the Great Poisoners.' "
When we first came to live in this house, the then-postman introduced himself. "I'm Andy Pandy, your postman."
We never knew if his mother had called him that, or whether it was a name he had acquired. I would opt for the second theory, because Andy Pandy was a character in a once-popular book for very small children. On that basis, his name could not be counted among those that any mother would inflict upon her child-one-day-to-become-a-man (or postman).
Alec never introduced himself, being, I think, a shyer type. But after a while everyone simply knew his name. He just developed into an institution. Which is exactly what a postman should be.
When America's postage stamps debuted in 1847, they were hand-engraved and pictured national leaders such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. But over time, stamps evolved from the simple to the sublime. Now, an exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., focuses on stamps from 1960 to 2000 as both cultural markers and art. "Pushing the Envelope: The Art of the Postage Stamp" contains 155 original designs (most of which are smaller than 18 inches) from the United States Postal Service. The exhibition highlights the work of 70 illustrators, including two designs by Norman Rockwell. The exhibit also shows how stamps move from public request to finished product. The show is on view until May 28.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society