by Isobel Blackthorn
‘Smell,’ she says, staring down at the address.
She takes another look. ‘Says Smell.’
‘D and B?’
‘B and D.’
‘Same thing. Box 4.’
She tosses the letter in the pigeonhole.
‘I don’t remember the Snells?’ she says.
‘They’re new. Moved from Orange about six months back.’
She picks up the next letter. Box 208. And three for a Mr Pickering on the Snake Road mail run. Then five more, correctly addressed; they can go straight in their pigeonholes. She does it with a deft flick.
A handful that she knows are destined for the counter but hasn’t a clue where.
Does Mr Brown go in B, or in M with Mr Mead? Brown and Mead. She remembers they’re together at the same address, which is something. She doesn’t like to have to ask. She could look up the names in the list Kath has given her, pages and pages filled with fine printed rows, but it’s tedious and a strain on the eyes. Unreliable too—Kath hasn’t kept the list updated.
Each time she asks it’s a little humiliation. Here’s her sister, Kath, five years her junior, her boss.
There are three hundred mailboxes, plus about a hundred roadside deliveries out on the Snake Road run, and upwards of six hundred individuals who collect their mail on the counter. She could be forgiven for not remembering all of that, and Kath does forgive her, but she gives herself no shrift.
Kath’s been running the post office for decades, her way of making good the inheritance. Susan had taken hers to the city, bought a terrace house in Newtown, and married a fine young man climbing high on his own financial advice. Until he crashed and took all of her assets with him.
‘Why not come back?’ Kath had said when she heard the news. ‘I could do with some help around here.’
‘To sort the mail?’
‘I can think of worse things.’
‘Milking cows maybe.’
‘You’ll get used to it.’
What choice did she have? From dazzling to destitute, the house up for auction, all she has left is her car and a suitcase of clothes.
Her mind overflows with surnames and important missives. ‘Don’t put Sam Peterson in with Melissa. They’ve split up.’ Kath says she has to put him in with the counter mail. But then there’s Steve Peterson, the son. S for Sam? Or S for Steve?
There are times she takes a chance, irritated by Kath’s assumption that she’s psychic. She knows Kath will come back at her. She always comes back at her.
‘You mustn’t put S Peterson in with Melissa.’
‘Any S Peterson?’
‘Not unless you want to start a war.’
Over a piece of mail?
Then again, she can imagine how she’d feel if she received a letter addressed to Mr Plank. Even Mr and Mrs Plank would rankle. In fact, Mrs Plank is enough to stir her up.
She’s gone back to Flynn. Susan Flynn.
Kath knows everyone. She knows all the names of all the kids in the big farming families, and the relationship status of every single person in the town. She knows when a Mole has to go in the same box as a Brace, which no doubt means they’re sharing the same bed, but Susan doesn’t like to ask.
Kath takes discretion to perfection. She’s the holder of secret knowledge, the repository of absolute trust. She holds her postmistress status in the highest regard. She’s grown into the role as the post office has grown into her, the two forming a virtuous whole.
Susan feels reckless. She often feels reckless these days. She wants to drive west and not stop till she comes to the ocean. She wants to swim out to sea as far as Chile. She’s cooped like a chook in this tiny old town, trapped behind the counter of its communication nexus, at the mercy of her sister.
Every day Susan is forced to explain to someone or other that she’s Kath’s sister; that she’s been away twenty years—that long?—And they probably don’t remember her from school. No, they look nothing alike. Never have.
They are in fact as alike as an emu and domestic cow. Susan is tall, small-framed and svelte. She takes pride in how she looks. She wears off-the-peg business clothes, even when she’s shopping. Kath is solid and buxom. She wears snug clothes that reveal all the folds of her shape. She wears the stamp of the paddock, the milking bales.
The president of the parents and teacher’s association and head of the school tuck shop comes in with a tin of brownies she’s baked for the school fundraiser.
‘How’s it going, Bev?’
Bev offers Kath a brownie, and Kath takes it and eats it on the spot, leaning against the counter and chatting about dam levels. There she stands, hair scooped back in that officious bun, chewing the cud as if she had all day. Once Bev leaves Kath turns to Susan and says, ‘She likes to chat.’
The post office comes with accommodation out the back. It’s a fine old building, walls of brick and stone, ceilings of that grander height of a bank. Susan thinks Kath sleeps too closely to the job. Her bedroom backs onto the sorting area, right beside the driveway where the delivery van pulls up. The corridor outside her bedroom door is the repository for cartons, boxes and parcel sacks.
Susan’s room is at the far end of the premises, past the living areas and the bathroom. A heavily windowed annex, a room that turns the vagaries of the weather into extremes, a room she chose in preference to the long and narrow chamber sandwiched between Kath’s and the kitchen.
They’ve never been close. Even as children they had disparate interests and tastes, Susan a lover of dress ups and pretty stationery, Kath a down-to-earth girl happy with her toy farm animals and her bicycle. And Susan has known for as long as she can remember that their parents harboured a wish that she’d turned out more like Kath.
If their parents had birthed more offspring, been more like the Moles and the Braces, if their mother had been more a Catholic breeder than a cross-legged Protestant, there would have been less pressure on Susan to be someone she wasn’t. Now the pressure to conform to Kath’s simple lifestyle means she has to carry her childhood about with her like a mail sack of returned-to-sender memories.
It’s Friday and the mail is late. Half the town is coming in to pay a bill or withdraw the weekend cash. There are phone calls from residents on outlying properties with parcel queries. Didn’t want to drive all the way into town for nothing. Kath explains there are folk out on the Upper Snake Road who almost never leave their farms.
Susan is halfway through the supermarket’s banking. Bev’s come in to collect the primary school mail. Kath hovers, making sure Susan follows procedures. Then she sees through a window the white mail van pull into the drive.
‘You’ll be all right?’ She sounds doubtful.
Susan ignores her and carries on counting.
‘She hasn’t lodged many cheques,’ Kath says, addressing Bev.
At that, Susan loses her place and has to start over.
Kath gives her a nudge. ‘Go and help Tracy. I’ll be quicker. Go on.’
Anger pings in her guts. As she leaves the counter, she avoids Bev’s gaze.
Outside, ten bulging parcel sacks are stacked beside five boxes of letters.
She grabs a sack and drags it inside. What the hell do people order through the mail around here? She’s seen car parts, tractor parts, paddles, golf clubs, a saddle, even live bees. Queens apparently. All that, and she’s only been here two weeks.
Two weeks and her back’s complaining.
Tracy strolls in, the typical country postie, stocky, proud, face rugged from the sun; her head full of explanations—There’s been an accident on the highway. Police closed the road. A fatal I heard. And they’ve a new boy on. Susan doesn’t speak. There was a new boy, and a fatal, only last week.
With all the mail inside Susan begins the sort, opening a box crammed with letters. She has no choice but to stand with her back to Kath and Tracy. Stand with her back to their friendship. For they’re close, bosom-to-bosom close, talking in low voices, heaven knows what about. She hears snatches, names, and when the chatter becomes furtive and neither seems to want her to hear, they go outside and talk by the van on the pretext of Tracy needing a smoke.
Susan has a run of Snake Road mail and two addressed to a woman from Broken Hill, miss-sorted by someone up the chain. They’re followed by a clutch of wrongly assigned mail of D & B Snell: B & D Smell. She pauses. Someone must be playing a joke. The Snells live on Upper Snake Road on a property at the forest’s edge. Without a second thought, she puts their letters in with Tracy’s mail run.
She wonders who they are, the Snells, what they do and what they look like. She imagines a pigeon pair of corpulent types existing on a diet of hardboiled eggs and cabbage soup. Clearly Orange couldn’t cope and they’d been fanned out of town. Their mail following on after. Only, the letter lacked a yellow redirect sticker. The sender has their new address. A hard of hearing Telco call centre employee, maybe.
What do B & D stand for? Bertha and Darren? Beatrice and Dan? Bob and Diane? Kath has told her but she’s forgotten. Names have a habit of slipping through her mind. In the city, her phone did her memorising for her. And there wasn’t much to remember: hair appointments, the gym, lunch with girlfriends; her husband had taken care of the rest.
Kath and Tracy return, bringing with them a waft of cigarette smoke.
‘You settling back in yet, Susan?’ Tracy asks.
She wonders how to answer. What’s Kath been saying about her, out there in the driveway?
‘Bit different from the city,’ Tracy persists.
Tracy must have asked her the same questions at least a dozen times by now. They never seem to get past this point. Susan has no idea why. She doesn’t mind, any further and she’d be forced to mention the wasteland that was her marriage.
They fall into silence, Kath working the counter and sorting the parcels, Tracy organising the Snake Road mail run, and Susan squinting at envelopes, cursing the casual way people give out their addresses: an, ‘It’ll get there,’ attitude bordering on blind faith.
She’s wrestling with the Brace’s overstuffed mailbox when the doorbell tinkles and a couple about her age walk in. The woman is garbed in stained overalls and the man in a misshapen T-shirt and loose jeans. Finding she’s alone, she puts down her letters and goes to serve.
‘Can I help?’
‘You Kath’s sister?’
A rush of annoyance washes through her. They’ve only been in the area five minutes and even they know her as ‘Kath’s sister.’ It’s as if her identity has been wiped clean away and replaced with some outgrowth of Kath.
‘What can I get you?’
‘You don’t look anything like her.’
‘What name is it?’
‘Sorry, we forgot the key. Box 4.’
Halfway to the box she remembers: The Snells. She gave their mail to the Snake Road run. Embarrassed, she decides not to mention it.
She hasn’t made it back to the counter when Kath breezes in. ‘Belinda, how are you? Hi, Dave.’
Choosing not to hang around, Susan goes to the bathroom. On her way back, she bumps into Tracy, loaded up with mail.
‘You coming to the Snells?’
‘What’s at the Snells?’
‘They’re having a housewarming. You should come.’
She pictured herself there, fielding questions about why she went away, why she came back, and smiling each and every time someone makes some remark about how she’s nothing like Kath.
‘When is it?’
Susan goes to hold the fly screen open, making a mental note to double book herself.
On her way to her van, Tracy stops and turns round.
‘Kath’s pleased you’re back, you know.’
‘It isn’t easy for her. She’s the youngest. I’m the youngest too, so I relate. It’s hard knowing that you let your folks down.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘I guess you wouldn’t. The youngest always lives in the shadow of the oldest.’
Susan lets the fly screen swing back of its own accord. Through the wire mesh she watches Tracy load her van.
Tracy looks over. She grins and says, ‘See you at the Snells?’
Yeah, see you at the Snells, she thinks, sensing a new way of pigeon holing, there for the taking like an unassigned mailbox. All she needs to do is take the key Tracy has proffered.
She goes back inside the mailroom to join her sister.
A Londoner originally, Isobel Blackthorn is an author, blogger and educator currently residing near Melbourne, Australia. Isobel holds a PhD in Western Esotericism. She is the author of nine novels, including her acclaimed Canary Islands collection and The Unlikely Occultist: A biographical novel of Alice A. Bailey.
Learn more at https://isobelblackthorn.com/about/ or tweet her @IBlackthorn.