Handle with Care

 

The tanned blonde quivered in the queue in front of Gloria’s station, her sighs growing deeper and more pointed with every minute she waited. Her arms, lean as a lioness, pushed twin girls with matching pigtails in a stroller that was probably worth more than Gloria’s dented second hand Toyota Corolla. The two kids stared at her wide-eyed, silent as dolls, as their mother stormed forward.

“This is my third time here,” she cried, shrill as a hadeda. The girls’ pigtails shook. Every clerk stopped their endless shuffling and typing to lift their tired, reddened eyes and stare. “Maybe you will be able to help me.” A demand, not a question.

At the job interview, her supervisor had warned her of these bitter, rich women with hours on their hands to fight with yet another ‘useless’ nationalised system, women with a vendetta against the current government. She could sense in the words he wasn’t saying that he didn’t think she could handle it. She was used to dealing in paper, classification and sorting and ensuring that books, shoes and toys were always neatly kept in their rightful place, so the Post Office seemed a good fit. She wanted to tell him, “This is not my ideal job by any means!” However, after the public library closed down, and as a single woman of a certain age, she had no choice but to find other work. And she had to handle it, regardless of her nerves…

“Just speak slowly and calmly to them, the way you would a child in the throes of a temper tantrum,” he had instructed, in a tone not dissimilar to the one he suggested she adopt. She never expected her first specimen to arrive so soon – she’d hardly had a chance to practice her scripted response! Yet beneath the fancy clothes and heavy make-up, Gloria saw two wild brown eyes similar to her own. Eyes like this scream with despair, they beg for just one thing to be in their control. It doesn’t take much for one lonely soul to recognise this in another.

“What can I do for you today, Ma’am?” she said, ending off with the warm smile she had practised in her training sessions.

“I’ve already been here three times, trying my best to collect a parcel that was sent to me from London six months ago. I have records that it was sent and an international tracking number,” she shakes a well-worn slip in her face, “yet you lot cannot find a damn thing. So my question is, where the hell do these parcels go?”

Everyone knew what she was implying. Something valuable was owing to her, something they at the Post Office could never have, and one of them had stolen it for themselves.

Yet while Gloria would not call her colleagues motivated, they were certainly not thieves. Eddie at the desk to the right of her used to be a cop before he got injured in a highway shootout and was forced to leave his service. Sylvia, with her ratty weave and bright red lips, fell pregnant with three kids before she had the chance to realise that she had always dreamed of becoming a beauty therapist. Her supervisor, Vuyo, hid textbooks on Diplomacy and Negotiation under his desk, suggesting that he too hoped for something closer to the life he had dreamed of. Every worker at the South African Post Office, like the packages they quietly processed every day, was destined for someplace else.

The queue was growing long and rumbling. Gloria did not have all day to fix this. She took the woman’s details and promised to call her within fourteen working days as was the requirement.

“Don’t worry, dear,” she said, touching her lotion-slicked hand as she passed the slip through the partition, “I will do everything in my power to ensure that your parcel reaches your rightful home.”

Conscientious as she was, she used her tea break to search the storeroom until her back threatened to give in. She phoned Customs and Post Offices nearby. There were several leads and false hopes, but every one ended up nowhere. Her colleagues laughed at her with a patronising fondness that she found infuriating. Forget respect for one’s elders. Past a certain time of life, the prime as it was called, everything seemed to be dismissed as the folly of the bored and old. “Why waste your time?” Eddie laughed, as he scrolled through the latest crime news on his phone. In the meanwhile, similar cases trickled in, sometimes several times a day. Gloria patted every unsettled seeker on the hand and wrote down their names and numbers in her blue-lined exercise pad. Soon she had pages and pages of names, a handwritten book of loss. 

This was no longer an isolated incident. Parcels were disappearing into a black hole somewhere, and Gloria was determined to find out where that place was.

“Don’t you think it is a bit strange that so many parcels are going missing?” she asked Sylvia one day over a cup of weak tea and a Marie biscuit.

“The Post Office is just one big unsolved mystery.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” she leaned forward and whispered, “once we had to deliver a crate of toys to The Parliament Buildings. Express nogal. And I’m not talking childrens’ toys. Risque, you know, Adults Only. And then another time we found a parcel with a teddy bear inside and you should have seen writhing tummy, not a child’s toy, I’m telling you! Eddie cut the thing open and it turned out there was a live snake there!”

Gloria wanted to be sick, “A snake?” No wonder this place was cursed.

“Ja, one of those reptile smugglers trying to be clever, you know? Anyway, what I’m saying is you can’t go after every mystery in this place. There’s just too many. You’d be here day and night! And Lord knows we don’t get paid enough for that!” She shakes her head, “Ma-Gloria, you’re too old to be worrying about such things.”

“But I am worried! It’s not just things – it’s people’s things! Things that got lost in our care!”

“They’re not lost, they are just misplaced. But if you are so concerned, you could look in the dingy old storeroom in the basement,” said Sylvia, as if this was the most natural way forward, as if hundreds of people’s packages didn’t hang in the balance. “But you didn’t hear it from me…”

A shadow of doubt darkened Sylvia’s urgent whisper. This ignited forgotten fire ignited within Gloria, a fire that wanted to illuminate dark corners and reveal kept secrets, a fire that burned for justice. 

             “Why haven’t you gone there?” she asked Sylvia. It’s not as if she was immune to the mystery of the disappearing parcels. Just the other day, a small, wound-up pensioner threated to pull Sylvia by her decaying locks to the Police Station if she didn’t locate the last three issues of his subscription to Britain’s Best Country Gardens.

“Oh, it’s not in my job description,” she shrugged, checking her watch. And there, under that comment, was the answer. Gloria had witnessed first-hand this problem with many people who had lost hope. Life makes you small, so small you can fit inside a post box, and you never realise that you have the power to get out. But no, not her. She is braver than that.

The rest of the day floated under the wave of her desire. Every pair of wild eyes with pupils shimmering with rage, every high-pitched shout, blended into one powerful current that pushed her through the afternoon. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, “I’m going to fix this mess.”  

It was her turn to close up for the night. She smiled serenely as she wished her colleagues a good evening, enjoying the burning amber glow of the afternoon summer sun. One by one, their cars rattled out the car park while she soaked the last of her buttermilk rusk in a cup of tea. She slung her handbag over her shoulder and turned off her cellphone. She locked the door and gave it a little tug to double check, certain that she was now alone. Finally, she could get down to work. 

She shuffled down the grey corridors, taking in the washed out signs. Some harmless posters on health and safety in the workplace (women of her age should under no circumstances be lifting any boxes); alongside them remained rules typed out in Afrikaans, dated before 1994. The filthy banality of her country’s history pressed in on her. The political seasons may have changed but the legacy lingered on. Her legs shook and her bunions stung as she eased herself down the metal stairwell, from the past into the mysterious present.

 

The old door is rusted shut from years of neglect. Gloria runs a trembling finger around the doorknob gleaming silver under the black coat of dust.

“Sies man!” she mutters under her breath. She is a woman of clean counters, scrubbed floors and perfectly ironed clothing. A woman of order. How is anything supposed to function correctly when one is surrounded by filth? She should report this. She should grab her permanently elusive supervisor by the arm and march him to this very door, except she is not supposed to be here, is she? An ouma such as herself shouldn’t be squeezing down precarious stairwells and heaving in air heavy with dust, but she has never been one to leave things alone.

Now, as she stands before the stubborn door, summoning up the strength to pry it open, beneath her yellow cardigan a chill grips her by the shoulders. Who would find her if she were to slip and fall? Would anyone care? After all the loving striving and nurturing she has done in her life, she never once expected to find herself, towards the end of it, so alone.

No point in harping on about things that cannot be helped. She lays down her beret, pats her helmet of curls and gets to work. Simply turning the grimy handle gets her nowhere. An exploratory push elicits little more than a groan. Enough messing about. She takes a few giant strides backwards – fortune favours the brave  – then slams her shoulder into the centre of the door and releases a giant, cracking noise, like a tree falling down in a forest, and, suddenly, she is inside, the air around her taut as a held breath.

At first, everything shimmers black. Only when her eyes adjust does she realise that this is because the blackness is moving. Tall towers of parcels and letters are stacked towards the ceiling, waving like sea grass in an imperceptible breeze. How long has this world gently moved behind this door? She sneezes. As if finally becoming aware of her presence, every pile freezes still.

Gloria is not one for superstitious rubbish, but there is something about this room makes her clutch the cross around her neck and sing a comforting church hymn to break the silence. Just standing in the centre of it makes a bottomless sadness choke in her throat. She should leave – it’s probably almost dark and it’s not safe being here alone, but the room pulls her in deeper.

She wipes the dust off a parcel within her reach and turns it over in her hand. The brown paper is worn and the blue curly handwriting has faded. The script on the back of the package is careful, every word perfectly formed, the writing of someone who cares. 

 “To precious Abigail, on your fourth birthday.” The postmarks suggest it has travelled all the way from New York. Naturally, she prods and squeezes to determine the contents. It feels soft, perhaps with arms and legs. No movement, so not a snake-smuggling teddy bear at least.

Poor thing. Imagine how she waited and waited for a present that never came. Her kids at that age were similar – standing at the door waiting for the toys, sweets and cash that Papa promised – but of course nothing ever arrived. She would coax them inside with promises of vetkoek and mince when their lips started to turn blue from standing in wait, three little sentinels barefoot in the damp dusk grass. The memory coils dark and uncomfortable in her chest.

She can’t just close this door and do nothing. How many other children have been disappointed? How many people have lost things they love? After rigourous scratching in her handbag, she finds a boiled sweet and pops it into her mouth. This is going to require some energy and firm resolve.

A system is quickly established. For every bag of post dragged up the stairs and posted in the mailbox, a glass of water and a spare breath. As the piles of parcels grow shorter, her energy only increases. Where is the hip pain that has kept her up at night? How are her knees not giving in? No time to wonder, only time to wipe her brow as she is possessed by an otherworldly fever. 

If she had her glasses on, she would have noticed something strange about the parcels. Many have dates etched on them from the past. Not just the recent past, but twenty, thirty, one-hundred years ago. And then there are the letters addressed for future decades and centuries. Yet regardless of time, brown paper remains brown paper. Stamps remain just stamps. Gloria does the only thing to be done, she travels up and down the stairs and sets each one off on its unique journey.

Besides, she is caught up in the memory of the letters she has sent, and the letters she hoped to receive, but never did. One has a particular sting. Before she met the disappointment she tried to shape into a husband, she had a great love. In those days she was young and perfectly turned out in print dresses that pulled in at her tiny waist and puffed out towards her dancing shoes. They met on the dance floor, their hands brushing against one another as the jazz quivered from her heart to her feet. He was always the only one who could keep up with her. His name was Gazini, meaning blood, a born warrior. They spoke about what would happen when the struggle was over. He was the intellectual type, with more than enough fire to make him trouble. He wanted to write books one day, stories that were no longer powered by rage. She wanted to sew clothing, maybe even sell her dresses and skirts and make money off her handiwork at the market. “You dream too small,” he had chuckled, and he made her feel as if she could have anything in the whole world.

He went away, of course. And though they sent each other letters as he clenched his fists in exile, he eventually had to go underground. On his request, she pushed through the bushes on the side of the highway, heart pounding, and buried the last scraps of paper bearing his handwriting.

  Nothing escaped her father’s eagle eye. “Gazini a no-good communist and a bad influence on my little girl,” he’d hiss “There is no future in troublemaking,” he growled, and pushed her confused spirit in the direction of a passive man who was lesser. “But he is there at least.”

Her sewing machine was abandoned, and then sold for half its worth when she and the children were abandoned too. Not that she ever missed him. Fearless Gazini, forever young, forever a warrior, who knelt down to pick her clumps of fynbos and dared to kiss her in secret hideaways on beaches where they weren’t welcome, always had a far greater hold on her memory.

As Gloria’s shadow moves up the stairs, the clouds of dust in the storeroom collect into joyful spirals, dancing and rippling as if the air was water. A low hum emanates from the walls, growing louder and louder as the room is emptied out. The ancient clocks upstairs haven’t had new batteries in years, but tonight their hands spin and spin, until they settle on the right time – 3:00am. Not that Gloria knows it is so late, as every room fills with a golden glow.

She picks up the final letter, thick and heavy with paper and addressed to a Mr Singh. Gloria pushes it into the mailbox and grins with a sense of accomplishment. Every single parcel has been seen to! She may be reaching the end of her life, but she can still be of use. This doesn’t have to be a dead-end job!

She carries a broom downstairs – may as well give the room a thorough clean and finish a job well done. Maybe she’ll suggest to Vuyo in the morning that they do it out nicely, as a coffee room, a refuge from demands, a space for the clerks to eat their lunch.

She sweeps with power, the humming grows louder and the dust takes on the shine of an exploding star. A supernova. The ending of one thing and the beginning of another. Then, as the humming reaches it’s highest pitch, Gloria falls to the floor, clutching her ears as the room goes black.

Whether it takes a second or a decade, every letter finds its home. The angry blonde who demanded an answer from Gloria receives her parcel on time. Beneath the layers of bubble wrap she finds the silver urn containing her father’s ashes. She doesn’t need to wonder how he felt about her in his last moments, because the parcel also contains a letter aching with his unconditional love. She rides the cable car up Table Mountain – she and the twins in matching pink anoraks, walking this time – and whispers his favourite line of Shakespeare as his ashes are carried away by the wind.

 

Fear no more the frown o' the great,

Thou art past the tyrants stoke;

Care no more to clothe and eat;

To thee the reed is as the oak;

The sceptre, learning, physic, must

All follow this, and come to dust.

 

Twenty years in the future, a woman receives a painting from her childhood self. By some miracle, it is delivered directly to her cubicle in an accounting firm. She opens the packaging with shaking hands. Her technique and use of colour is even better than she remembered. “You got real talent there,” a colleague says flippantly as he walks past. She buys a box of oil paints and hands in her resignation letter the next day.

From the blistering Northern Cape to the icy Joburg winter, from the streets of Soweto to the hills of Hogsback, order in the South African Post Office is restored. Relationships are healed as promises are upheld, the course of  lives changes, sometimes by tiny increments, sometimes by monumental shifts as people read and write the true words that have long been secretly inscripted on their hearts.  

Gloria opens her eyes disorientated and sore. She smells something unfamiliar. Could it be —

“Coffee?” Gazini smiles at his wife.

And while the memory of the night before is already fading, she realises that one of the thousands of unsent letters she found was written in her writing, on exercise paper blotched with her tears. The words contained a simple plea: find me, come get me, I’m ready for us to be warriors together. She is no longer Gloria, alone and forgotten. She is Mrs Gumbi. She is Ntokozo, sitting on her new favourite floral chair in her living room, surrounded by the clothes she has made and the books her husband has written.

In a neighboring suburb, the clerks at the South African Post office remove their hats and jackets as they sit down to work. The cheap linoleum floors are sticky with discarded gum. The corners of bright, falsely-positive posters curl off the wall in a snarl. By lunchtime, the air steams hot with frustration and the scent of fried food as the staff turn their signs to say, ‘on lunch’. It is a day that seems just like every other day, but somehow it is different.

Downstairs is a locked storeroom to which nobody can find the key. This doesn’t matter very much because there is nothing inside anymore, except a dusty yellow cardigan that smells of lavender.