Our specially commissioned seasonal short story sees Séamas O’Reilly reflect on the time when he worked with An Post and was privy to a special haul of letters.
When I talk about how I spent that Christmas twelve years ago, people usually ask what I learned from opening every letter in Ireland that was addressed to Santa. My answer is, simply, that whatever else separates them, children possess an inordinate fondness for bicycles. Big, small; with training wheels and without; carrying the insignia of a favourite football team, superhero, or cartoon; pre-garnished with flair in the spokes, or pretty baskets, or a rad mudguard, and in any number of shapes, brands and styles – some commercially available, others clearly improvised from some experimental bike lab deep inside that infant’s head. Sometimes none of those specifics were given at all, but colour was never left to chance. Bicycles were almost universal, whatever the social status or geographical location, but specifying the colour of those bicycles was more universal still. If held to it, I’d proffer it went red, green, blue, then pink and black – in that order. Yellow and white almost never, and multicoloured not once.
So, before I explain how it came to be that I was in receipt of the dreams and desires of every Irish child, I can tell you that I learned about bicycles, and coloured bicycles most of all.
I’d gotten a job with An Post because I was tired of paying the rent in crumpled, weed-stained fivers and a good deal more tired of not quite being able to do so. Phillo’s cousin Mick had gotten me in on the job while he was selling me acid.
“There’s good work hehehe” he said, “to be had hehehe with An Post hehehe over Christmas.”
Phillo said Mick’d gotten a shock when he was a kid and had the laugh since then, which sounded unlikely. His mother said it was something to do with glands, but no further details on that conjecture were ever forthcoming. I was always a bit nervous around Mick because the laugh would have a way of sticking in your head. It was like when an elderly person had a disfigurement so bad your dad had to warn you about it before you got out of the car. Hehehe. All the time. Sometimes every sentence or two, or sometimes, when he hadn’t spoken in a while, every two or three words. Your responses became robotic, and the real worry – the worst, easiest thing you could do – was that you’d start laughing along with him, out of some sort of feckless, friendly instinct. Few people did it a second time, preferring instead to listen to him stone-faced and grave, ignoring the growing sense of drama which arose as each sentence went on for just long enough that you thought surely no laugh was coming, only for it to arrive and reset some infernal counter in your head until the next. His reedy, little laugh, like a metronome keeping him going. His brothers used to tell him if he ever did stop then his brain would explode, which couldn’t have helped. It didn’t even sound like his actual laugh, which was deep and bright and normal, it was a photocopy of a photocopy of a laugh, dull and clipped, dropped into otherwise expressive sentences like sticky little amendments to a chip shop’s menu, the type you find inserting the word PORK over the laminate in a less pleasing font, and making you oddly suspicious that pork had not always been on offer.
One night Phillo got drunk and told me that Mick actually woke up laughing, and I told him he should stop telling people that because I could never look at him the same way after hearing it, which wasn’t fair to Mick on top of all his other troubles. Like how he laughed all the time for no reason. I, of course, just ended up telling everyone myself.
I didn’t start off with the Santa job. I went in as a relief sorter. These jobs were plentiful on account of An Post being so overstretched with all the extra bits of business mail that would be going through the depots at Christmas, and postmen being too union-ed up to take the slack. Better, it was thought, to get in cheap holiday labour from idlers who were less discerning about sorting envelopes all day for the first three weeks of December. The beauty part was you’d get 12 hours’ pay for about 5 hours work, since you’d get in at 10am and were paid until 10pm, on the off chance there was some hiccup on the road or some van broke down and you had to stay late. What I hadn’t been told was Christmas sorting had a way of packing twelve hours’ work into five, and often very much more besides, because by some odd ingenuity of planning, it was where all of the day’s post from all over Dublin eventually wound up. I was offered gloves on the first day but only had the sense to accept them on the second, by which time my princely little palms had been rubbed to ribbons by overhandling.
The other seasonal staff were an odd bunch, since no one doing the holiday sorting at Cardiff Lane had chosen this option over a visiting fellowship at the Sorbonne. We were not any of us in that best, most golden, phase of our busy lives. The job attracted people who needed quick cash and had nothing better to do in the run-up to Christmas, and we had little else in common beyond that. The oddball quotient was, therefore, through the roof. There was a guy called Matt who had a tattoo of the word TATTOO on his left hand and didn’t want to talk about it. There was a very tall man who stood separately from us during fag breaks, and we later discovered this was because he was in the remarkable habit of smoking two cigarettes at once, side-by-side, and this something about which he was, perhaps reasonably, bashful. We found this so funny, so enlivening within the vacuum of time and space in which we worked, that we all started doing it. A few of us kept it up the entire time, either out of a need to show some sense of good sport or as a final, depressing admission of just how empty and devoid of external stimuli our lives had become.
All day, trucks wheeled into Cardiff Lane by the dozen, showering us in a deluge of letters packed in big scratchy nylon bags. Each day, soundtracked by Christmas hits on the crackly radio that rang out over two acres of trays, crates, parcels and forklifts, we lifted, unbundled, and sorted hundreds of thousands of letters via destination; first by county, then country. It was the kind of mind-numbing work that required very little conscious thought and almost no effort, other than placing tremendous strain on palms, wrists, and my right ear, since that was the unfortunate organ facing my immediate neighbour Vinnie. My first impression had been that Vinnie wasn’t a particularly thoughtful person, but I was quickly disabused of this notion when I discovered that he had lots of thoughts, and an ungovernable passion for converting every single one of them to breath. He was fond of combining two pieces of faulty information he must have read too close together, turning them into a single, widely improbable factoid; like his belief that the combined mass of spiders you eat each night constituted one of your five a day, or that MI6 blocked the astronaut Michael Collins from leaving Apollo 11’s landing craft because his name would have been bad PR for Britain. “The RA? In space? They’d never allow it,” he said, as if MI6’s motives were known to him, and should be presumed by us.
Worse were the times I found myself agreeing with him. “You never see female skeletons,” he said to me once, as if we were on that very subject. “In cartoons, or horror movies, or whatever. Just a normal skeleton, not one in a dress, or given long hair. I mean just your standard skeleton. Women have skeletons too, so why are they always blokes in films?” Vinnie was an amateur boxer who played drums in a Velvet Underground tribute act, although any discussion of the band or their music quickly hit a dead end because he “wasn’t a fan” himself. “We only started doing it because our da has the van,” he told me, “so it just made sense.” Three or four nights a week, I learned, Des Brown’s red Talbot van ended up delivering not carpets, in-lays, and carpet and in-lay fitting materials, but the brazenly indifferent sounds of Felt Groove: A Velvet Tribute to pubs and community centres throughout Dublin and the South East. It’s said that few people bought The Velvet Underground’s records at the time, but everyone who did formed a band. It was perhaps comforting to learn that the same was true of those who bought carpet vans. Nevertheless, when the chance arose to ditch the sorting area for a trip doing mail rounds, I jumped at it with both fags.
While Cardiff Lane collected all the post from Dublin each night, it collected every single letter to Santa from the entire country. These were ordinarily sorted by a guy called Cyril, as an adjunct to his full-time job as a postman. This role was coming to an end, and when I joined Cyril on the final pick up of that day, it was for his last ever route, about which he was evidently emotional. Cyril was a kindly sort, large and portly with a reddish-grey beard, set upon a face so pleasingly red, and cheeky of expression, he looked like the recipient of regular, hearty smacks from an unseen Victorian governess, forever catching him pinching apples from her pantry. I too was feeling sentimental, but this was because I’d stayed up too late with Mick the night before, who had just been dumped and needed some encouragement. I hadn’t meant to stay up so long, of course, but he was in a bad way and it just seemed like the Christian thing to do was to take the acid with Mick, which was still now floating through my bloodstream as me and Cyril hit it off so famously.
Some kids asked for things Santa couldn’t give. I mean, a lot of them did obviously, even just when it came to bikes, but I here refer to other, more meaningful things. A few asked for parents or grandparents to come back from the dead and at least one asked for a dad to be broken out of prison. Many asked for celebrities to be their boyfriends or girlfriends, and some settled simply for the ardent love of the girl across the street. I would tell Mick all about those letters, cos the night we took that acid, I’d found him on the floor of his flat, quietly sobbing in a tangle of Christmas ornaments I presume he’d ripped off the tree, which now lay flat on its back in the other side of the room. He had obviously thrown it about the place in a fit of emotion, but I remember looking at the scene in front of me and thinking it looked like he’d ripped its lights off in erotic fervour, and had frantic sex with it, before propelling it away from himself in post-coital disgust. His pain was heartfelt, no doubt, but since he would have had to stand up to buzz me in, it was hard not to detect some degree of performance when I found him like that just 90 seconds later, sniffling as he listened to 1950s ballads.
Faron Young’s 1955 hit It’s A Great Life If You Don’t Weaken, a song I’d never heard before, was on repeat, an odd choice for someone whose musical taste, up ‘til now, had been whatever was playing in Spar that week. It was, he said, something to do with his granny, although I intuited that his song choice had more to do with the Giant’s Causeway of crushed cans that lay beneath his coffee table, and from which he now extended like a soppy, inebriated Fionn mac Cumhaill. I wasn’t accustomed to seeing him like this. It was, after all, more emotion than I expected from a guy who had the Godfather theme as his ringtone, and we soon decreed that the only thing for it was some acid trips as a livener.
The in-jokes of our evening quickly became too incomprehensible to be here recounted, save that we began re-writing the lyrics to It’s A Great Life If You Don’t Weaken until, through an infinite regress of pragmatic modification, its refrain became merely A Fine Life, An OK Life and, finally, A Grand Life. We left the world put back to rights and, stumbling home at 6am, Faron Young’s mantra was still ringing in my head, comingled with thoughts of It’s A Wonderful Life, no doubt inspired by the Christmas decorations that bandied across homes from Ranelagh to Rathgar, unmolested by my amorous friend. Falling into lidless, gurning sleep, and kicking the sheets like an idle pup, I reflected on how acid had made it easier for me to be kind to Mick, how such an altered state can make a brother of anyone. And the good type of brother, not the type who tell you your brain might explode. The way that being high made you drop your defences and embrace your need to be kind was, I thought, a lot like how Christmas performs that same task for society as a whole. Those who can’t get their hands on acid, at least.
It was because of the acid that I got the letters gig, since by the time I joined Cyril on his rounds the following evening, my mind was still unravelling from the previous night’s exertions and I shuffled about in a state of exhausted euphoria. Cyril was a philosophical soul who smoked rollies – one at a time – and didn’t listen to the radio on principle. “I listen to the city,” he said, purring these words like a giant novelty lion, while pointing out things about Dublin I’d never seen before: the sites where Rebel boys had hung, where bullet holes pocked the statues on O’Connell St, and the ignoble spout where the Poddle flows from its underground concourse beneath the castle and into the Liffey at Wellington Quay. Ordinarily, these kinds of touristic sentiments would have seemed wearing or sentimental, but they were comforting to my fragile state, and coming from Cyril, who was plainly the country’s last postman poet. He was philosophical about retirement, and his last day coursing through Dublin’s environs along a route he’d worked for decades. He was proof of there being people, and times, that can speak simply enough to make you feel like an idealist, where others might seem corny or arch; who can mine through that thicker outer layer to retrieve some softer, pre-cynical segment of your id and speak to your better self. Talking to Cyril freed up that sappy part of my brain activated whenever I try and speak a foreign language and find myself saying pleasant nonsense about how beautiful Ireland is, partly because it’s easier than describing, say, Athlone in detail, and partly because it’s something I’ve always believed but only feel comfortable saying in German to an Albanian man I will never meet again. I told him he was a good choice for Santa Claus. Spurred by our connection, he told me that job would be shared out amongst all the relief workers, unless I wanted to do it by myself. The next day I left Vinnie to begin my new role.
Like working in the media or writing for a living, opening children’s letters to Santa is one of those jobs that feels better to tell people about than to actually do. So, I told everyone. I regaled tables at parties about how I was the sole person on Earth allowed, legally or ethically, to open any envelope containing those children’s innermost wants, and I described the toys, bicycles and boys they so desired. I told everyone how any letter addressed to Santa Claus, even if it just had Santa, with no address, and no stamp, would find its way to me. It sounded heartwarming – it was heartwarming – that any which had a return address would get a personal reply from Santa, sealed with a Lapland watermark and a North Pole stamp. The bulk of the letters I got were clearly sent in batches by teachers who’d received templates from An Post and coached their class through their letters, before packaging them together, with neatly appended addresses for each child. But there were still some mavericks among the clade, those who had clearly gone out on their own and assembled their own letters off their own bat, who wrote long, fiddly messages in barely readable handwriting, screeds that went on for pages and pages and finished with a hopeful, but fundamentally useless, “Micky, aged 8”.
Sadly, around twenty percent of all the letters I received were sent by children who hadn’t gotten the memo, and either didn’t know their own address or thought it unnecessary to provide it to a magical flying man in the habit of delivering billions of toys in 12 hours. It was these which were placed in the bin, and it was these which began to work on me the longer I worked there; the sadness of that pile of spurned missives, filled with dreams and love and the hopes of a kinder world. And it was these which I began to tell people about more and more, until I noticed they didn’t like that part of the story quite so much. On my last day, I opened one such letter, addressed simply to Santa, without even a stamp or a seal. It was, surely, filled with the promise of bicycles not to be, but I opened it to find two words in Mick’s sarcastic scrawl.
“Don’t weaken,” I read, smiling, before tossing it in the bin.
Words: Séamas O’Reilly
Illustrations: Ruan Van Vliet