A couple of weeks ago I sold a book. That is not so unusual. I sell books for a living, that and through my scribblings that I hope inquisitive people might pick up and admire and feel an urge to buy, and pay for.
This book was different.
I carefully parcelled it up and took it to my local post office. The dusky postmistress examined the address. She examined me over the top of her half-mooned spectacles as if I was James Bond, which I am not, and then she said: 'Ah ha!'
'Ah ha!' I echoed, like Alan Partridge, and she followed that with: 'There's no charge for that one.'
That reminded me of a hideous Country and Western song from my youth and as I was thinking of that, she did something faintly ridiculous. She glanced around the musty room as if to check she wasn't being watched, and then she tapped the side of her nose with two fingers and whispered through the glass pillbox, 'War zone,' she said, nodding slowly at the package and me in turn, in case I missed her meaning.
'Really?' I said, as she gave me a receipt for money I hadn't spent. I can't ever remember having visited any post office before where they have done anything for nothing. It made a pleasant change, and it must have moved me in ways I hadn't realised, for I found myself a few days later making a donation of the postage costs in the SSAFA charity shop.
After that I went home and forgot all about it, until last Friday.
There it was, blinking at me beneath my browser.
YOU HAVE NEW URGENT EMAIL.
I didn't recognise the sender but I am a sucker for silly messages trying to sell me things I definitely do not need, and opened it anyway.
Dear Mister Carter, it said, the book I ordered and paid for five weeks ago has not arrived. Where is it? Please send a replacement immediately. I am not happy.
'Dash,' I said, four dashes to be precise.
I returned to the post office to see my interesting friend. It almost seemed as though she had been waiting for me. She seemed to know my business better than I did.
'I am not at all surprised,' she said, 'would you like a claim form?'
My office, such as it is, is papered with claim forms, printed papers that I never seem to get round to filling in and sending off. One hears such tales of the length of time and the Spanish Inquisition that always follows. It makes one wonder whether filling out Post Office, or is it Royal Mail? claim forms is time well spent. (Does anyone know where one of those organisation's responsibilities begin and end?)
'A friend of mine at the church hall,' she continued, 'her son is serving at the same BFPO,' (British Forces Post Office. Can one serve at a BFPO?) 'And he told her that their postal deliveries are very hit and miss.'
'Really?' I said.
'Yes,' she said, 'It's delivered by parachute, you know,' and she glanced at the ceiling as if my book might suddenly gently fall. I found myself looking at the cracked ceiling too. Nothing there. Not even a cobweb.
'Sometimes,' she said, 'when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, the mail bag is blown right across the valley... to the opposition.'
'Oh,' I said, 'you think that could have happened to my book?'
'Seems likely,' she said, handing me a bunch of claim forms.
I went home and stared at the virgin documents, all those vacant red boxes, and as I was doing that, I pondered on the fate of my absent book. Could it have been blown across the valley as she suggested? Could some bearded gentleman now be sitting in the mountains, crouching there, reading my, no, my customer's book, the bearded chap's friends crowding around him, peering over his shoulders, pointing at my missing stock.
And what was this precious book? I hear you ask.
A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Modern Warfare, How to Make Nutritious Meals on a Tight Budget? Nay, nay, thrice nay.
The Beano Annual 2013.
You couldn't make it up.
I wonder what Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen would have made of it all? The Beano Annual 2013.
Sometimes, in my quiet moments I imagine I hear laughter from the mountains, and see gently shaking shoulders. Dennis the Menace, Gnasher, and Minnie the Minx, they all used to make me laugh, a lifetime ago, and we could all do with a laugh sometimes, couldn't we?
Either way, the original book has never been found. I wonder where it is now. If only I knew. As for the claim form? You've guessed it. Still lying there in the "to do" tray, untouched and feeling lonely. When it comes down to it there is always something more important to do than muck about with one of those blessed forms. Fancy a cuppa tea?
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