The Post Artist

by Andrew Crumey

From The Great Chain of Unbeing (2018)


The Postman has learned his art through long experience and practice. The optimisation of routes, the economical management of time. In his journeys through the streets he has had the opportunity to study the diversity and (he reflects with satisfaction) the fundamental simplicity of the world he finds. He has observed that dogs are stimulated to initiate barking by sound and sight as much as by smell, and have an innate response to uniforms of every kind. He has noted that well managed doors attract more mail than those which suffer neglect. He has often considered writing a book based on his rich experience: he knows the addresses of several publishers who might be interested.

The Postman has noted over the years a change - a deepening - in his attitude to the craft. Obsessed initially with brilliance of technique, he sought speedy delivery and a showy flourish. In the early days he was satisfied by power and volume more than tone. His footsteps on the path, the clapping of the letterbox, the flutter and fall of the delivered items: all these had to be well audible, even to the hard of hearing.

It was only as his career developed that he began to appreciate the fact known to all the masters, that technique should only be a platform, never an end in itself. He now sought the subtle nuance, the unexpectedly appropriate touch that could raise a good delivery to one sublime. Fundamental to this new (and for him revolutionary) approach was the principle that the mode of delivery should always be in perfect harmony with the subject. Bills and legal notices should arrive to an even, resolute rhythm of footsteps; the entry should be firm, just, merciful - always decisive. Love letters must come with passion; letters of condolence with tenderness and sympathy, untainted by sentimentality. Above all, a postman must never be apologetic. Even the most grovelling of letters can be given some nobility.

In his pursuit of perfection the Postman found himself entering his next phase (his "middle period") when he began the systematic practice of steaming open all mail before delivery so as to prepare himself correctly. Most pieces were relatively undemanding but there were also those few that posed deeper problems. It might be a letter to an aunt or a reply to a newspaper advertisement, yet it would somehow seem to possess a quality of otherness, a hidden depth that would compel the Postman to sit long into the night planning his approach, practising the steps, perfecting the intended movements of the wrist. He would make notes in pencil, draw sketches of the type of drop he desired; endless sketches that he would ponder, cross out. Sometimes he would hold on to a difficult piece for days or weeks while he tried to decide exactly what he wanted. There would be happy flashes of inspiration that would wake him in the night, send shivers through his body, bring forth warm tears. There were also many failures. In the most exceptional cases he would make a preliminary visit to the intended street (out of uniform, naturally) and look carefully at the door of the problem address, mute and imposing. He would study the architecture of the house, take measurements, consider the likely weather. On several occasions he arranged rehearsals in the middle of the night, silently walking barefoot on the path then putting through the letterbox the piece of mail with a string attached. Once, he found that the tape holding it in place had come loose; the letter remained trapped inside when the string was pulled out, and so it was necessary for him to make use of an open kitchen window in order to break in and retrieve the letter before delivering it properly (and most memorably) in the morning.

Now, he knows, he is in his late period, when mastery and habit are one. The transition became discernible in retrospect: no artist can be his own critic, only the curator of his own history, and the Postman thought little at first of what he subsequently understood to have been prophetic symptoms of profound transformation. For a while he put it down to advancing age, being no longer as vigorous in mind or body as when he made those debut rounds decades ago with a delivery sack as full as his youthful and ambitious heart. Gradually, however, the signs multiplied. The weighing scales at the depot betrayed the incontrovertible truth of steady decline. He bumped into people in the street; youngsters at first, but soon pedestrians of any age, faces lowered, their thoughts engaged by texts delivered electronically. An analogous homogenisation, too long ignored, had already infected the envelopes on which he still strove to practise his craft. Handwritten letters, he realised, were becoming as painfully rare as the hairs on his head. In response he gave greater attention to printed bills, discovering that their stark delivery could express a strident modernism; but this, too, proved no more than a cry against the certainty of oblivion. The world was going online, life itself was increasingly virtual and intangible. His art was the solid fossil of an extinct era.

At least the news was given to him in person; made redundant on the very verge, he felt sure, of the masterpiece towards which his entire career had been unconsciously steering itself. It is as Post-Postman that he now undertakes his final magnum opus, his home having become his personal delivery route, a shrine to correspondence. Innumerable letter boxes of every kind crowd the walls, enabling him to exercise virtuosity without limit, sending hand-crafted missives to himself. He sees through his window the couriers with their bland packages and imagines the whirring drone that will one day lift him away to anonymous incineration. But he is happy to have lived for his craft and to have learned its most profound lessons. Art is truth: never lose faith. And post early for Christmas.