13. The Post Offices
In the United States, a letter for general delivery can be addressed to any town with a post office. The U.S. Postal Service will then hold the mail for the recipient to collect. In Europe as well as several other countries throughout the world, letters can be marked as poste restante and will be held at the post office that they are addressed to.
In the United Kingdom, Neil knew that post offices would hold mail for him sent from overseas for up to one month. Near the caravan, there were three local towns with post offices which could receive poste restante mail.
Having spent his first night in the forest in the back of the van, Neil awoke cold and uncomfortable. The van was small and the floor was bare corrugated metal. Even though his sleeping bag was good quality, lying on a cold hard surface meant that any warmth was quickly leached away. The small amount of moisture in his breath was enough to condense on the inside of the windscreen and on the walls, so that it was soon damp and unpleasant in the van.
Stretching his aching body in the chilly morning air, Neil then made his way quickly to check the condition of the caravan. Things were much how he'd left them many years before, when he had stayed there with Matthew. This was a relief, because he didn't want to spend time and money modifying the back of the van to make it more comfortable.
It was early and he wanted to avoid the school run and people travelling to work, but he was also impatient. Sleeping in the van and the coach station waiting room had been uncomfortable, but also his eager anticipation kept him awake during the night. There was a tension in his body that made him shudder as if he was cold. He felt a little bit nauseous, with butterflies in his tummy.
Driving to the nearest of the three local towns, Neil parked on the first side street he came to on the outskirts. The street had dark black newly laid tarmac. There was a row of identical red-brick starter homes on either side of the street, each with a driveway leading to a glossy white plastic garage door. Some of the houses had cars parked on the driveway and others had "For Sale" signs outside. This new housing development was only part-sold and building work was continuing at the far end of the street. Neil left his van outside an empty house and started the walk into town. It was over a mile to the town centre.
Ambling along at an unhurried pace, he knew that he had to kill some time before the post office opened. Very few cars were travelling in or out of the town on the back road because it was early, but he could hear buses on the main road as he made his way down a gently sloping hill.
The first shop that Neil came to was a TV repairman. The paint was flaking and the plate glass was dirty. It was unlikely that the proprietor ever opened the shop anymore. Then, he came to a large empty car park which had a sign saying that the next market day would be the following Wednesday. Opposite the car park was a large convenience store with a lorry parked outside delivering stock. Continuing towards the centre of town, he passed a launderette, a Chinese restaurant and a chip shop. Reaching a cross-roads, there was a pub on one corner and a hardware shop on the other.
In the middle of the town there was a green with a church, which was surrounded by shops and other amenities. There was a bank branch, a small department store, two delicatessens, a bakery, a grocer and the post office. Everything was closed except a large newsagents. Neil went inside and bought a local newspaper and a national daily broadsheet. Paper boys were making their way out to start their delivery rounds with bulging bags.
"Is there somewhere round here I can get some breakfast?" Neil asked the man behind the counter, as he paid for his newspapers.
"There's a greasy spoon out towards the station"
Neil continued downhill, leaving the centre. He passed another pub and a petrol station. There was a large supermarket and an agricultural supplies depot and the small train station was on the other side of a roundabout. A flat-roofed building next to the station advertised itself as a café and there were lights on inside.
Sitting down at a formica-topped table, there were already several other people eating, most of whom were wearing dirty work-boots or wellies. This was clearly a favourite haunt of builders and farmers who were on their way to work. Neil picked up a laminated plastic menu, even though he knew that the breakfast choices would be much the same as anywhere else like this in the country.
"What can I get you?" asked a rotund and friendly looking lady with a flushed face.
"Full english with a mug of tea please" replied Neil.
"White or brown bread?"
With remarkable speed, a plate of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried mushrooms and tomatoes arrived, along with a smaller plate with two slices of toast and a mug of milky tea. Neil ate slowly and read the newspapers, killing time. Finishing his food as it was almost stone cold, Neil ordered a second and then a third mug of tea, waiting until the post office was about to open before settling his bill and setting off back into the town centre.
At the post office, a flustered lady was filling the till with bags of coins from the safe.
"Hi, I'm here to collect a letter you've been holding for me. Poste restante" said Neil, offering his Estonian driving license.
"Poster what?" asked the lady.
"Poste restante. You're holding some mail for me to collect" Neil explained.
"Do you have a P.O. box?" she asked.
"No, the letter was sent here poste restante for me to collect" he said.
"You can't collect mail from here unless you have a P.O. box" she said.
"It was sent here poste restante. I don't need a P.O. box. I spoke to somebody before about this. Pete, maybe?" he said.
"Pete's not here. He's not working today"
It was clear that the lady now considered the conversation to be over. Neil simply stood where he was and waited patiently. She busied herself refilling the change in the till again, but she was unable to ignore Neil, who was silently stood by the counter. He caught her eye.
"What's this poster thing you said?" she asked.
"Poste restante" he replied.
"OK, I need to ring my manager and ask how to handle this. I've never dealt with it before. I can't phone him until ten thirty at the earliest"
"Alright, I'll come back later. Thanks for your help. Much appreciated" said Neil and then turned and left the post office with the nicest smile he could muster. Outside, he grimaced. This was so frustrating. He was now faced with a dilemma.
In anticipation of this problem, Neil knew there were letters waiting for him at another two post offices in the area. He could drive to one of the other towns and attempt to collect his mail, or else he could wait here and persevere. He decided to stay and wait until later, given that he wanted to be sure that at least one local post office knew how the obscure poste restante system was supposed to operate.
Returning to the newsagent and purchasing a glossy magazine about electronic gadgets, he then walked back to the café and got another mug of tea. After killing an hour or so, he went to the supermarket and bought cornish pasties, pork pies, sausage rolls, pre-made sandwiches, energy drinks, bottled water, fruit squash, chewy sweets and some cakes. He spent time browsing all the shelves even though he knew that he was only buying some very specific items.
He walked back into the post office at 10:35am. The lady was serving another customer and Neil waited in line.
"Hi" said the lady.
"Hi. I was here earlier" said Neil.
"Yes. I haven't phoned my manager yet" she said.
Again, Neil didn't reply or move. He just stood expectantly waiting. The post office was now empty.
"OK. Give me a second" she huffed.
Getting out her mobile, the lady tapped at the buttons and half-turned her back on Neil as she raised the phone to her ear. After a brief conversation she hung up and turned back to Neil.
"Alright. We've got something for you. I've just got to try and find it" she said.
Neil couldn't stifle a broad smile that spread across his face. A huge weight of tension was released from his body, but also a nauseous feeling twisted his stomach into a knot. His heart pounded, his face felt hot and his palms started to get sweaty.
The lady went into a store room in the back and spent a long while rummaging in various boxes and bags before eventually returning with an envelope. Neil's pulse raced and his breathing quickened as he saw her holding a white letter.
"Can I see your ID again, please?" she asked.
Neil fumbled for his pockets and got out his driving license, which he offered with a slightly trembling hand.
"Yes. That's me" Neil replied.
The lady momentarily studied the photo. This didn't worry Neil. It was his photo, even though it wasn't his name, address or nationality. She handed over the envelope.
"Thanks" said Neil.
He walked so fast that he was very hot and sweaty when he reached the van. Tossing the bags of shopping into the passenger footwell, he carefully stowed his envelope in the glove compartment and started the engine with shaking hands.
It was hard for him not to drive back to the caravan excessively fast, but he had to be careful. A road accident would spell disaster. He was so close to reaping the rewards from his well-executed preparations. He knew that he needed a little more patience in the final leg of his long journey, even though it had been an agonising wait.
Back in the caravan, Neil dumped the shopping bags on the kitchenette worktop, which had nothing on it except a little dust and dirt. There was no rubbish in the caravan, nothing on the floor, the curtains were open and the windows were not obscured by anything except dirt. He sat down at the dining table, tore open the envelope and pulled out a leaflet with a picture of an oriental temple on the front. Unfolding the leaflet on the table, there was something sellotaped inside, which Neil tore off the glossy paper.
Although he had felt that the caravan was perfectly private, isolated, remote and hidden by the dense foliage of the trees on all sides, he still felt a momentary pang of paranoia - like he was being watched - which drove him into the bedroom, where he closed the curtains and shut the door behind himself.