The key to this job is knowing.
Now, you’ll say to me,’well, that’s obvious’, but you are not following me correctly. You’ll say to me, ‘sure you’d have to know the route’, and that’s true, but its not what I’m meaning. You’ll concede that I’d probably grow to the know the people, but I’d reckon you’d conceive of it only in terms of a leaden, plodding walk and a passing pleasantry to a face that you find only vaguely, but it its own way intimately, familiar. You wouldn’t deign to grant me any more knowing that that.
And that’s precisely where you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.
I say again, the key to this job is knowing.
Yes yes yes, I can tell you all about the slowly shifting structural face of the city. I’ve been walking my route long enough to have formed the opinion that cement and steel are actually more liquid than solid in nature. Slow moving, perhaps, but again you are not using your mind to penetrate deeply into the real intention of my words. Buildings, pavements, walls and roads all course by so fast that it is my opinion that the real river that flows through this city is the grey ground beneath your feet.
I’ve seen so much change around me that sometimes I think its my route, the one that I’ve beaten into the earth for more than twenty, thirty years now, that’s the most permanent thing about this whole goddamn modern mess. My route is invisible to the naked eye but is carved deep deep deep into the grain of this city’s personality (and if you don’t think city’s have personalities then you are a fool, my friend. I have come to know this city a sarky but hopeful young pup). A geometric seam of my collected experiences, built up by the history of years. Look at it just right, in exactly the correct way, and you can see that it’s this city that moves around me, not me around it.
Yes, I can tell you all that, but there’s so much more to it.
I live my life in the secret hours, in the deep chilled dark of the dying night as it calmly subsides into the dawn time of navy-grey skies shot through with streaks of amber. I start while you sleep and get to watch as all the little engines of life come whirrling into gear. I get to walk my route and watch the hundred thousand little dramas unfold.
I only need one clue to know the story. Just one small touch of something out of place lets me peer into the crack and watch the whole unbridled tale unfold before me. The years have turned me into a story detective, or a inspector of humans, if you will. By watching I see, and by seeing I know. There is precious little that can be hidden from me in my small kingdom of the world.
You don’t believe me. It’s okay, I can tell you don’t. I can see your eyebrows cocked out of place. But that’s okay. I don’t intend to just work my jaws for you and talk you into submission. I plan to show you some of it, just for a little while.
Follow me now, out of my thick front door, through the sleeping estate, along the treelined avenues that prop up the old night sky and over to the fragile glow of the sorting office windows.
We won’t stay long. Look past the steel trolleys, the walls postered with route descriptions (mine is Route D), past the exposed industrial ventilation pipes and strip lighting, past all of that to the sorting booths. See the boys stood before the latticed shelves, canvas sacks by their side. These are the people that deal out your lives to you, flipping the envelopes into their slots like they’re dealing a hand of poker, all quick movements and blank faces. Can you imagine the life that has passed through their hands? Births, deaths, griefs and hope. You are in the engine now, deep inside the machine, and these are the pistons that help drive things forward.
Look at this lad here. He’s the one that sort through the particulars of my daily route. He writes my adventures, you might say. Gives me the structure within which I get to fill in the blanks or join the dots. Look at him, stood straight and relaxed. Short-sleeve shirt and shorts no matter what the condition of the world outside. Milk-bottle calves blinding the boys all year around. See him flick letters from his hip like he’s drawing a gun, that one is my route being sorted.
We move over. They pay us no mind, the boys, focused keenly but calmly on the motion of the task. Dip your hand into this canvas sack and pull out a letter, any letter, lucky dip, pull it out and show it to me. That one? Good. Hand it here.
I turn it over in my hands to examine it. Addressed to one Sarah Doyle but headed ‘Care of’. Post marked London. The paper is nothing special. Smudged around the edges and you can make out the smear of a finger at the back. Speaks of a tradesmen or someone who works with their hands. Look to, see the crumpled corners, this letter was carried around for a long time before it was finally posted. Well thumbed, you might say. The writer thought about this long and hard after they’d written their words and sealed them inside. With the ‘Care of’ added in there suggests that they don’t want other people to see this. This letter is a secret. There’s a lot of life tied up in this message right here.
You picked well. Yes yes yes. This is a good’un. A right little belter of a story resides in here. We’ll take care with this. We’ll deliver it special. See exactly where it leads.
Pick up these bundles now. They are placed in my satchel with our special delivery tucked away all safe and sound and we move out beyond the fluorescent buzz of the sorting office and into the stirring city. We set into our stride passing some solitary and isolated traffic, and delve into the folds of the morning to see what we can know today.
Look at me and what do you see? A man, broad but not fat, straight but not tall, face tucked away behind a beard that’s bushy but not unkempt. And this uniform with its assortment of linen navys and pale iris blue. It’s all a collection of elements that serve as an urban camouflage, taking me places with a small degree of invisibility. I’m not saying that people can’t see me. No, not at all. Indeed, as I said, I’m known by some people well enough. No. It’s not that they can’t see me, it’s that many people don’t see me. Their eyes slide past me just like you wouldn’t notice the cog in a clock. I’m just part of the general workings for most people. I don’t take this badly. Not as an insult or the like. No. It all helps with the knowing, you see. Because I’m unnoticed people don’t hide from me the way they would from others.
You don’t catch my meaning? Well here’s this for example. Point your eyes in that direction across the road there. Have a look at the house with the frilled curtains and the varnished brown door. Number thirty-seven you will note. The driveway is empty. Usually it is filled by a great big hulking black executive saloon, one of those mean looking motors that resemble nothing less than a shark as they bare down on your rearview mirror and glide past in the outside lane, all arrogance and smarm.
It’s not there now. Follow me over. Keep your eyes keen to the still and darkened windows. There’s something alive about a house with people inside, don’t you agree? It just sits differently to a place that’s empty. I don’t know how the aspect changes, but it does so as surely as my knee connects my shin to my thigh. Stroll up the driveway, quiet and gentle. Can you feel that? It feels off, doesn’t it? Let me slip this bundle through the flap, holding the shutter and guiding it closed to avoid the clatter so we can steal back softly to the safety of the pavement.
Keep this place in mind and count the cars that sleep beside the curb. Watch them stationed there, prepped and expectant, ready to meet their masters. I want you to pay very close mind to this one right here, this red estate car hidden beneath the eaves of this tree, a safe distance from anywhere in particular. Note the registration number if you will and make memory of the cuddly toys strewn across the shelf of the boot. I want you to keep these things foremost in your recollection for a short time until I ask you to recall it later.
For now we will move onwards. We’ve plenty of more route before us. We pass more houses, dive head first into squat estates, and watch as the city spins about us, increasing the traffic flow through the streets.
At one stage I do something that gives you pause. I can see you look at me funny as I do it. I can tell a small shock of concern for your current situation trills through your stomach as you witness it.
You see me liberate a lone handwritten letter from one of the bundles as I approach the green front door of a small whitewashed terrace cottage. I stop at the door and raise the missive to my lips, whispering some hushed words deep into the paper before I open the letterbox and post it through. You watch me askance as I tropp away down the pavement, stopping beside a wooden telegraph pole to liberate a hip flask from a hidden inner pocket and take a short nip. I offer you the silver flask but you decline. I have the suspicion that had I offered this five minutes earlier that you would have accepted the drink, but now I’ve shaken the surety with which you have formulated your opinion of me and you don’t know how to take me. What sort of man am I at all? What is this business with the whispers? Is this some subverted way I get my jollies at unknown hours of the morning on people who will never be wise to my subtle perversions? And the booze too, you now question the ‘harmlessness’ of me taking a nip like so. All in all, you no longer know what to think of me.
I will be brutally honest with you. I was putting off displaying or describing the whispering element of my work until I could delay it no further. And I do consider it part of my word. It’s not an easy thing for people to understand or conceive of it in any sort of understanding way so I tend to not talk about it openly. Because it is a peculiarity. I do admit and concede that to be the case. I hesitate even now to attempt and articulate to you what it is exactly that I’m playing at here. But I can see that if we are to continue at all then I’m just going to have to give a lash at an explanation. Not even my colleagues are aware of this activity of mine. I’m trusting you greatly by telling you this. But the key to this job is knowing and I feel you need to know this to understand me and my work correctly. Otherwise all you’re doing is singing the song without feeling the feelings. So, here it goes.
It is a special thing to compose yourself, and I have the talent for knowing the feeling of a missive’s contents when it passes through my hands. It comes like the flash of a photograph as soon as I touch the paper, a crystalised scene complete and colourful, frozen in time but bursting full of the beating life that surrounds and animates it. And I know. I know what the letter means. I understand the reason for its delivery. I mean I know it as a fact.
I suppose I should confess that I wasn’t being entirely truthful earlier when you picked out this here ‘Care of’ letter for Sarah Doyle. Once you placed it in my palm I got my flash immediately. It was the dusty workshop and open window of a lonely young cobbler out beyond in London someplace. I saw it clear and real the way like it was a long-held memory of my own. And all that I said about the markers of its secrecy and the agony and pause that went into its sending was all true. It was sound logic and I meant it all. But I didn’t need any of that to know the letter’s true direction and purpose.
So, there you have it.
I get the feeling you don’t know what to make of all this, and that’s okay. I don’t need to posses your thoughts on this matter. I just need you to know.
Turn your mind aside from that presently because I want you to follow my pointed finger to that house over there. See the car in that driveway, all firetruck red and cuddly toys? Spy that registration number and compare i to the last. I believe you’ll find them identical, yes? Excellent.
Gather with me here and we’ll rest a while up against the support of these London Plane trees. We shouldn’t have to wait too long if I have my timings correct.
We wait, have a nip, count the cars that have been multiplying steadily, and at eight twenty-five on the nose the front door opens and out tumbles a fully stocked family unit of man, woman, small girl and small boy. We are witnessing part of their morning routine. See how they move all fluid and rehearsed, contented in the familiarity of it. They look picture perfect, glossy and model.
One of them works nights and completes their day by dropping the other partner to work and the children to school. Then they return home, drawing the curtains closed and hauling the work weighted bodies into the shelter or the shared bed.
The other in the couple is an adulterer. They are ‘doing the dirt’ as my colleagues would say. Look closely, I won’t tell you which one. You figure it out.
On mornings when the black shark saloon is absent from its berth at number thirty-seven the cheating partner of that couple can be found inside. They have their own routine for days like that.
Before the night shift ends and before the children awaken, they quietly pad out of thirty-seven and make their way home. They wash away the signs of sex and set about working the bedroom into the place of a full night’s restful sleep. Sometimes they pop into bed and let the night-shift worker wake them upon return, sometimes they rub their eyes red and greet them from the kitchen table with waves of coffee fumes swirling up into their face.
If we were to stroll over their now they would both say hello, greeting me warmly from my island of vague familiarity. I must have done that hundreds of times with them, but what’s more is I have greeted the other at number thirty-seven any amount of times as they have slid out beneath the shade of secrecy that the early hours provide. They have never so much as batted an eyelid as they salute me there in the exact same warm but distant way they do here. I do wonder if they actually see me, or if this mask of invisibility is that good. I always look for a pause of uncertainty or a jolt of concern passing behind their eyes when they see me approach, but I’ve never witnessed anything to suggest they do feel that. They wave and even as they are doing that their eyes are sliding by me and back into the remains of their day.
I wonder do they fear me a little? Worry about me and what I know? Fret over what I could let slip with an accidentally wayward remark? Harbour secret trepidations that I might rat them out in some sudden spark of misplaced civic duty to the cuckolded of the land, a thought they probably realise is outlandish and silly, but still they can’t quite eradicate it from their darker moments.
I wonder about these things but I know something different.
I know that really I don’t register in their thoughts at all. I am not a factor worthy of concern. And this allows me to slip by unnoticed but all-seeing. And I’m okay with that. Really, I am. I will maintain my privileged position and continue to carry out my work to a world that doesn’t realise how I benefit it. Some would find that thought belittling but me, I derive a great sense of smug satisfaction from it.
So watch them as the pack into that red car and drive away off into the rest of their lives and ponder which of them is not playing on the up. No need to tell me your thoughts, keep them to yourself. This is the sort of thing I get to know everywhere I go. I could give you long years of similar stories that are bundled up and folded into my route. This job is about knowing.
And just like that my route is almost over and the morning has rushed by.
We are beside the canal now. The dregs of the business suits striding into work along the gravelled walkway as the swans glide beside them. The last of the bundles have dwindled to naught in my satchel, leaving only this little ‘Care of’ message for Sarah Doyle to deliver directly to this red-bricked terrace directly before us.
I take the letter out and smooth my thumb over the grubby polish print that smears the back of the envelope and I think of the leaden weight of lost hope that seeps up from the words inside. I spare a thought for my lonely cobbler sat somewhere in across the water. I press the paper to my lips and whisper my words into the bond. You strain forward to try and hear, but you fail to pick up anything so you make do and watch as I finish my prayer, which goes on longer than before, hold open the letterbox and send what I know into the lives of others who will never be the wiser.
Written by Adam O'Keeffe ©2016
Illstration by Stephen Galvin ©2016