Harold Brightmore leaned back into his chair with a sigh, rubbing at his stiff and aching spine. The chair was almost as old as he was, he thought, one of those old-fashioned wooden ones, with a semi-circular back, padded leather riveted onto it with bronze upholstery studs, and a leather seat that was worn to fit his every bone and wrinkle. The leather was scuffed in places, shiny in others, its original gold now aged to a pale olive green and, no matter how often he oiled it, one of the casters squeaked, adding its own falsetto to the lower-toned rumble as he rolled the chair over the dark oak floorboards. They creaked, too, much like his back.
Old. He really was getting old. And very, very tired. He felt more tired today than he remembered being for many a year. Still, he’d have a long time to rest, after the end of this particular Friday. Today, he would finally retire, after fifty-five years of service to the Royal Mail. And there was the thing. It should really have only been forty-five years, but a mistake had been made. Not the only mistake, either.
He’d joined the Royal Mail when he’d been 20, and should have retired at sixty-five, like everyone else. But years and years ago, when he’d been given his computer record to check, some clerk had made a mistake with his date of birth, made him ten years younger than he really was, and he loved his job, so he’d said nothing. He’d been sure he’d be punished for it, but not so far. Except for punishment with more service, that is, and that wouldn’t have suited everybody, but it was alright by him. So, here he was, retiring at seventy-five, and perhaps it was time to go, now.
And then there was the place where he worked. He was all alone in an old building behind the boarded-up sub-post office in Grimethorpe. He’d lived in this ex-pit village all his life, and even he had to admit that the place had gone to the dogs, despite all the money left behind by the Coal Board. At least the Grimethorpe Colliery Band had survived, which was a hell of a lot more than you could say for Grimethorpe Colliery, and rather more than you could say for Grimethorpe itself.
Forty-two years ago, he’d been delivering letters round and about Grimethorpe, as usual, and he’d been walking down this lane to a big old house which stood quite a way off the road, and this bloody enormous dog that he’d never seen before, and therefore wasn’t expecting, had come bounding out, as they always do when the postman calls, and he’d run out of doggy treats that day, and when the dog had hurled itself at him, he’d staggered backwards, over a child’s little trike, and fallen heavily, flat on his back, and then the ground had literally opened up to swallow him.
They said afterwards that it was a small fault that had opened up over the number three shaft, and it hadn’t gone very far down, but he’d felt as though he was falling into the bowels of Hell itself, but then the barking of the dog had brought help, and they’d pulled him out. After that, he had to walk with a stick, and he’d got some compensation, but he’d expected to be sacked as unfit. They hadn’t, though. There had been this opportunity to work in the Yorkshire Dead Letter Office.
Dead Letter Office. He knew how it had got its name, from the days when people went shooting, and would send hares and rabbits and pheasants and partridges through the post, and there’d be all these little corpses hanging from the walls, address labels round their necks. People still sent dead things through the post, of course, although the health and safety people got huffy about that, but now the office usually dealt with the more alive correspondence. Alive, but undeliverable. And he’d found that it was another job that he loved.
And then had come the second mistake. The Dead Letter Offices had all been moved to Belfast, and called something more modern. The National Return Letter Centre, or something like that. All of them, that is, except, for him. Somehow, he seemed to have been overlooked, and undeliverable mail from South Yorkshire was still brought to him here. He didn’t know why, and as long as they kept paying him, he didn’t ask.
Yorkshire. God’s Own County. He thought that was probably right. Some of it was as beautiful as anywhere on God’s green Earth. And some of it could have been spewed out of Hell, especially when the pits, and the steel works, and the iron foundries and Little Mesters before them, had made the air reek and burn. That was when there were pits and steel works, before the closures and the unemployment and the death of villages, and although it was different now, he thought that God had made Heaven and Hell, and he’d clearly made Yorkshire in their image. That didn’t explain why he was still getting mail that should have gone to Belfast, but he was, and he dealt with it every day.
So. Two mistakes. It sometimes looked as though someone wanted him to stay around. As if he had a job to do. Well, if that were ever so, he did his job every day, and he’d no idea what else might be expected of him. Then he looked down at the two letters in front of him, that he’d taken from the sack delivered to him on Monday, and wondered whether these might have something to do with that feeling. Things left undone.
He didn’t like things left undone. He was a tidy sort, really. He looked around him, at the shelves and cubbyholes that held the fruits of his labours. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that was outstanding. Everything that could possibly be united with either recipient or sender had been identified. Anything valuable had been taken from those items where there was no hope at all of finding their owner – birthday cards with nothing on the envelope, and a five pound note inside from Aunty Ada, for example – and paid into a holding account at the bank. He would pack everything into sacks at the end of the afternoon, this last of all afternoons, the van would be there to take it all away for a rather delayed delivery, and then he would lock the door, and leave. For the very last time.
Except… Except for these two letters. He had half a day, more or less, to find out what to do with them.
He picked up the larger one, rectangular, a good, chunky DL-size envelope, in a heavy cream paper. The writing on the front was strong and angular, in black ink that showed no trace of rustiness. There was no stamp. What there was, though, was a feeling. It was a feeling of pain, of agony, even, of loss, and of sorrow never-ending. Of sins weighing heavily. It was the feeling he had when he thought of the girl who he had loved and lost, of the loneliness of his life. Of the time when he had stolen his best friend’s bike and run it into a wall, bending it beyond repair. And stayed silent. Of the dog that he’d once run over in his car, and he’d never been able to find the owner. It was the feeling of every sin that he had ever committed, and for which he had never atoned, no matter how much he had repented. It carried with it the mental whiff of sulphur, of foundries and of Hell.
And yet… and yet… He took out the letter within the envelope. It showed the mind and heart of a poet. A generous man. A compassionate man. A loving man.
Just like all the others.
Laying the folded sheet of paper onto the blotting pad, he bent down around the left hand side of his desk, and pulled towards him a silver-grey Royal Mail postbag, half-full. He opened it up and looked inside. What it was half-full of was identical cream envelopes, rubber-banded into bundles of fifty. They’d been coming at regular intervals for over thirty years. If he cracked this problem, someone was going to have a hell of a lot of excess postage to pay.
He picked up the newest letter again and unfolded it. He thought he knew some of the phrases by heart, the ones that were repeated most often over the years.
“I will never regret that I loved you… Memories of you, of what we had, make me strong enough to endure… I wish I could see the spring sunlight on your hair… I wish with all my soul that you could know how much you are still a part of me, the best part of me… I will always love you…”
Like all the others, it was signed with just a single name. Angel.
He put it back down on the fuzzy, ink-stained blotter, and picked up the envelope. Like all the others, it was for delivery to Buffy Anne Summers, at an address in Sunnydale, California. He’d tried. He’d really tried. But Sunnydale was a hole in the ground, had been for half a century, and no one, anywhere, had ever professed to know Buffy Anne Summers. Not even the taxman, and the taxman knew everybody. Only one… being… was as certain as the taxman, and maybe, after all this time, Death was the only one who did know.
He stuck one gnarled hand into the pocket of his navy blue uniform trousers and fished out a crumpled handkerchief. A faint shading of blue dye stained the whiteness of the cotton. He’d thought that the Royal Mail had actually solved the problem of loose dye, but it was a bit late to complain to them now. He blew his nose, a stentorian sound in the quietness of the old building, and then he turned his attention to the second letter. These had started to come only days after the letters from Angel.
The different letters didn’t always arrive in pairs, but often they did, and when that happened, he always opened the cream one, the one full of suffering, first. He saved these others until afterwards. This was a C6 envelope, in pink. The ink was royal blue – this time – and, like the cream ones, there was no stamp. More excess postage, then. He reached around the right hand side of the desk and pulled a second postbag within easy reach of his chair. This, too, was half-full of letters, in a rainbow of envelopes. It was always the same handwriting, though, rounded and feminine.
These, too, were rubber-banded into bundles of fifty. Like those in the other bag, the newest bundle, the one into which he would slot this newest letter, carried a bright red band, so that he could easily find it. All the letters were in order of receipt, each one carrying the official stamp ‘No such address’, each one carefully opened to see whether there was any trace of another address, any information to help delivery, and each one bearing the legend stating that it had been opened by an authorised officer of the Royal Mail.
He picked up the pink envelope. As he held it in his roughened palm, he felt his heart lift. It was the laughter of children, Lilian’s all too brief kisses when he was just a young and foolish lad, the sounds of summer on the moors, the scent of his mother’s baking, lardy-cakes and tea bread, Lancashire hotpot and liver and bacon, and, when they couldn’t afford the meat, bread and scrape. His Dad had got paid on a Friday night, so on Thursdays there wasn’t much left to feed the family with. His Mam would buy some economy sausages for toad in the hole, all rusk and a few pinches of meat, and Harold was sure she must have known that old Bill Higginbottom, the butcher, had been sweet on her for years, and every week, he would give her premium sausages and pretend they were economy.
That was how this envelope made him feel – surrounded by love and goodwill and family, and gifts freely given. He opened it up and unfolded the sheet of paper inside. The phrases were just as familiar as those in the cream envelope.
“I wish you were with me… It’s meaningless without you… All the love there is can’t fill the emptiness… I wish with all my soul I could hold you and tell you I love you… I will never regret that I loved you, only that I lost you…”
They were addressed to Angel at the Hyperion Hotel. A little while after Sunnydale became a crater, the Hyperion became a car park. There’d been even less trace of Angel than of Buffy.
Sighing, he put both envelopes into their proper bundles, and then opened the bottom drawer of his desk where he kept his snap. That was the only thing just now he was sure of – that his snap box held cheese sandwiches, a banana and a Kit-Kat. He’d have liked to have an apple, but his palate of teeth couldn’t manage those any more. He made a mug of tea, and sat down to think.
When the van came, late that afternoon, he carefully hid the two open sacks underneath his desk, and handed everything else to the driver.
“Shan’t be seeing you around, then, Harold.”
“No, Jack. Last day today.”
The driver reached awkwardly into his pocket and pulled out a flattish package, wrapped in gold paper.
“Here y’are, Harold, lad. Come over to the Miners’ Welfare sometimes. We’re allus there on a Saturday night. Perhaps see you tomorrow? Or the week after?”
Harold nodded, the two men shook hands, and Jack drove away. He wouldn’t be seeing Jack. At least, not for a while. He’d decided what he was going to do. He sat back down in his chair, savouring the feel of it for the last time. He tore the wrapping on Jack’s gift open, carefully. A half bottle of Glenfiddich. That was a nice thought. He’d save it for when he got back. He put it into his plastic Tupperware snap box for safe-keeping.
When he left, he took the two sacks with him, and he didn’t even bother to lock the door.
He started his search somewhere he’d never been before. California.
The crater that had been Sunnydale was impressive. There were still no houses within five miles of the place. He visited neighbouring towns, checked local archives, spoke to his counterparts in the Post Office. He’d been dealing long distance with them, and others like them all over the world, for years, and they were pleased to see him. He met their families and their work mates, but none of them could help him anymore now than they had in the past.
And then, someone in the nearest town found an old archive of books from Sunnydale High School. The archive had been retrieved from the effects of a deceased alumnus whose family had fled the crater, and it included an old year book. It was thought that this was the only extant copy. It looked as though it had been partially burned on a bonfire, but he found what he wanted in it. Over fifty years later, many of the fresh young faces in here might well be dead. But, there she was. Buffy Anne Summers.
Oh, for some reason, she wasn’t in the year book as such. There was a space for her, but no official photograph. The owner, though, had carefully glued a photograph of her onto the page, and written her name underneath.
He committed her face to memory. Yes, he could see that girl writing those letters. And although he still had no way to find her, he could see how a man might love her.
With nothing else to be found here, he made his way to Los Angeles, a list of contacts in his pocket from the Californian postmen and women who had already befriended him.
Los Angeles was… big, especially for a man who walked with a stick, and who had two sacks of mail. He found the old site of the Hyperion Hotel, and it was definitely a car park now. He talked to people in the Post Office. One of them had a friend in the LAPD, and that friend’s mother lived next door to some pensioner who had been a PI in Los Angeles at about the time that the Hyperion met its end. Harold went to call on the ex-PI.
When he introduced himself, explaining that he was from the Dead Letter Office in England, and that he was trying to trace someone called Angel, he thought it strange that Miss Lockley should have a fit of almost hysterical laughter, but he was polite enough not to show it. Eventually, she invited him in. A grey-haired old lady, but still unbent by her years, it seemed unlikely to him that she was still a Miss, and that she should live alone. Still, being a bachelor himself, he certainly wasn’t one to comment about that, and so he didn’t. She made him welcome and made him coffee, and then she asked what he knew about Angel.
Nothing, he told her in all honesty. Just some undelivered mail.
He thought she was going to say something, but she simply got up and fetched a thick manila folder from another room. She riffled through the file and then placed a photograph on the table. It was old and grainy, taken from above, as though it were from a security camera, but it showed a strong, dark-haired young man. He thought it was a young man that the Buffy of the year book could love.
“That’s him. I haven’t heard anything about him for fifty years or more, but that’s him. He’s bound to be d… dead by now. Stop wasting your time.”
He wanted to ask why she had a photograph after all this time, but her scowl was forbidding, and so he didn’t. He went back to his hotel to think. He’d looked everywhere. Everywhere he could imagine, and this was as close as he’d got. There was just one more place, and he knew that it was this one more place that had, more than anything else, brought him to California.
He’d try that tomorrow. If that didn’t work… Well, it just better had, that was all there was to it.
Postal workers across the world stand shoulder to shoulder when it comes to delivering the mail. They may be divided by oceans and by continents, but they are inextricably bound by calling and by dedication. And they have their own network of information. They share history. And they share stories. They even share rumours.
For as long as Harold had worked for the Royal Mail, he had heard that there were rumours about parts of the worldwide postal service, things spoken of only in whispers, and only among the oldest and most worldly-wise. He had been turned sixty before the oldest postmen had told young Harold any of the details. Some rumours had come and gone, but others had stayed, waiting silently for someone who was interested enough to pick them up and breathe new life into them. One of those darker, quieter, but more persistent rumours said that there was something… unnatural… beneath the Post Office in Los Angeles. Something that might help a postal worker in the most dire need. That was his last hope, and his next port of call. He hadn’t gone earlier because, if there truly was something under the Post Office, then the rumour held that it was something that wasn’t disturbed lightly. Harold was seventy-five, with absolutely nothing to go back to. He’d take the risk.
He tried to find a staircase, or a door, or some way down to below ground level. It was days before he understood about the Los Angeles tunnels, different only in detail from the tunnels under Grimethorpe. They were a lot cleaner, he knew that much. When he at last went underground, he had the mail sacks with him. Just in case. He’d tied the necks together with string, and slung them over his shoulder. They were lighter to carry, that way.
He knew that he’d found the right place when he came to a new wooden doorway, set in a massive stone arch. Over the doorway, letters had been chiselled into the stone. They were so new that the mason hadn’t yet cleaned up all the stone chips and dust on the tunnel floor. The Gateway for Lost Souls? Harold shivered a little, but he was just the postman, right?
He reached out to knock on the door, and it swung open silently at his first touch. The room before him looked like pictures he’d seen of Greek temples, but it seemed to go on forever, all around him. Only a few yards away, though, a man in a pork-pie hat was sweeping down cobwebs. A bucket of steaming, soapy water stood by some rusty red stains on the floor. Harold thought that there hadn’t been anyone here for decades.
The man whirled round, evidently surprised at Harold’s trespass. He saw the Royal Mail sacks, though, and visibly relaxed. Harold wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed, now. He hadn’t known what to expect, but, whatever that was, this wasn’t anything like it. He would have felt better wearing his Royal Mail uniform, but he wasn’t, so he had to make the best of it. He reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out an envelope.
“Um. Royal Mail delivery. I heard that I could get help here. I… I’ve got some dead letters to deliver. To these two.”
He held out the envelope. Inside were the page from the year book and the photograph from Miss Lockley. He felt guilty about stealing them, but it couldn’t be helped. The man looked at the images, and then handed them back.
“You’ve just got round to delivering? Now?”
Harold was thrown onto the defensive.
“I’ve been trying to get an address for years!”
The man just grunted. Harold felt mildly irritated at his reception.
“Well, do you know where I can find either of them? What about Angel?”
Harold had decided he’d start by delivering Buffy’s letters. Ladies first. He didn’t think the man was going to answer for a minute, and then he pointed with his broom to a seemingly endless series of arches.
“Down there. Keep to your left. Come back here when you’re finished, and I’ll tell you how to get to her.”
It was a long walk, but the bags seemed to lose weight the further he went. He didn’t understand it, but once he’d assured himself that all the letters were still in there, he was grateful for it. As the passage wound on and on, he wondered what had been meant by ‘Keep to the left’. There had been no junction, no side passages, just this one curving corridor that seemed to be carving itself out as he walked. All things end, eventually, though. Even that corridor.
It ended at a door that looked much darker and older than the one labelled The Gateway for Lost Souls. He rapped on it, then wished he hadn’t, as he almost broke his knuckles. The top half of the door creaked open, like a stable door, and that was something else he wished hadn’t happened. On the other side of the door was… something.
He couldn’t see exactly what lay beyond, because everything was shrouded in mist, but he could see the doorkeeper, and that was quite enough. The dark figure was dressed in a tattered robe, with a loose hood pulled low over his face. He looked… thin… gaunt, even. Sepulchral was another word that came to Harold’s mind.
“Royal Mail delivery.”
It was all that Harold could manage to say. Normally, at a back door, with a harried housewife inside, he would simply have announced himself as ‘Postman’, but this seemed to call for something a bit more formal.
“Give it to me. I’ll make sure it gets to the right place.”
A lifetime working for the Royal Mail made him square his shoulders and shake his head.
“No. Sorry. It’s the regulations. I have to make the delivery to the proper addressee.”
The… being… seemed to sigh.
“Very well. Who are you looking for?”
The reply held a trace of impatience.
“Which one? We’ve got a lot of angels down here. Hundreds of them. Lucifer, Samael, Azrael…”
Harold frowned. This didn’t sound right at all.
“No. It’s not a… a… type of person. It’s a name. Angel. Last known address, the Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles. USA,” he added, for clarity. He wasn’t entirely sure he was still in Los Angeles. Or even in the USA.
“Oh. Him. Why didn’t you say so?”
The being swung the rest of the door open, and pointed to a worn path on the ground.
“Follow that. If the path gets hard to see, just follow the blood.”
Harold was confused.
“He comes here to see every new batch of entrants. Perhaps he’s looking for someone?”
The doorkeeper frowned in thought.
“No. I think he’s looking to make sure that there isn’t someone.”
“And that’s when he sends the letters?”
“Letters? No, there are no letters from here. He prays, though, every time, if that’s any good.”
The door slammed shut, and Harold was alone.
Well, he thought, the letters are getting out somehow. I’ve got them here, to prove it. And it was his job to deliver them. After he’d delivered the young lass’s.
He girded himself with the confident invulnerability of postmen across the multiverse, imagined that he had a pocket full of doggy treats, and stepped into the mist, filled with excitement and dread in equal measure.
And stepped out of the mist again, into a strange country of nightmares and dreamscapes. The sun was high and brazen, a hammer beating down on the anvil of the land. There wasn’t a breath of air, and it seemed as though the hairs in his nose would crinkle from the heat. Low hills surrounded him, and strange, moving vegetation. Behind the low hills were craggy cliffs of sharp, cindery rock that looked to have been torn from the burning bowels of the Earth only yesterday. The land was the colour of fired clay, orange and terracotta and red, and the air above it shimmered as though it still retained the heat of the furnace. There were no other beings here, but he thought he could hear screams and cries in the distance.
Easing the sacks on his shoulder, he looked at the path he’d been told to follow. It cut through this smouldering landscape, deep but narrow, and Harold suddenly knew that it had been worn by a single pair of feet travelling to and from the gate for who knew how long, in this otherworldly place. And there was the blood. The path was caked with smears and splashes of it.
Harold set off into the unknown.
He’d expected to feel the heat here in some real and unpleasant way, but he’d only taken a few steps before he realised that this wasn’t the case. He looked down at his feet, and saw that he was surrounded by a thin, glowing haze of darkest blue. His Royal Mail uniform, he thought. He took heart from that, and strode away from the gate. It took rather more steps before he realised that he wasn’t using his stick, and that brought a real smile to his face.
The alien vegetation, full of vicious, wicked thorns and grasping tendrils, tried to wrap tentacles around his legs, to trip him up, but each time he nimbly sidestepped the threatening thickets. Strange creatures slithered or crawled or hopped under his feet, but he anticipated them with thoughts of doggy treats scattered on the path, and he strode on, unhindered. Pools of molten metal gleamed and skittered like mercury in the ruts and footprints that he followed, but he stepped across them, unscathed, buoyed up by history and endeavour from myriad worlds, and from the uniform that he’d worn all his working life.
At last, the path turned uphill, towards a small cave on the hillside, and he followed it. When he reached the entrance, he couldn’t see much in the gloom. There was nowhere to knock, so he called out his mantra, ‘Royal Mail delivery,’ and against all his previous experience, stepped into the cave without being invited.
It was shallow, mean and bare of all comforts. A rocky ledge to one side held the upturned brain case of a skull that had been fashioned into a rough cup shape, and at the back, a man huddled as close into the wall as he could get. He was clothed only in blood. As Harold watched, horrified, wounds came and went across the man’s body, cuts and slashes and burns, and bruises blooming in all their lurid colours. And all painted with blood.
The man seemed unaware of the intrusion into his shelter – it could never be called a home. He simply pressed harder against the wall, his eyes closed, murmuring words that Harold couldn’t quite hear, and occasionally letting out a soft cry. Torn by compassion, Harold ran over to him, letting the sacks slip off his shoulder, and he bent over the man, placing a hand gently on his shoulder.
“Ee, lad, what tha doin’ in a place like this? Why’t tha so hurt? Come up, tha mun get away from here.”
His Mam had always taught him to speak nicely, but in moments of stress, he lapsed into the speech of his father.
The man seemed not to hear him, and Harold realised that against all the odds he must be asleep. Or in some worse form of unconsciousness. He tried again, giving the shoulder a gentle shake.
“Come on, lad, wekken thissen up! Tha’t in a nightmare, and just look at what it’s doin’ to thee.”
The man turned his head towards Harold, his dark eyes now open, but blank of all intelligence. Harold didn’t need the photograph to know that this was the missing Angel, shivering, his hands opening and closing spasmodically, his throat working silently. Then, a few words rasped out.
“This is where I belong… I hurt too many people… I tried… I tried to do what was right… tried to atone…it was never enough. Never enough. Never forgiven.”
“Lad, lad, I’ve got something for you. Something you want… Wake up!”
Angel struggled to his knees, and held his arms out, a penitent crucified against the jagged red-black stone of the wall. The smile on his face was ghastly.
“Did I do something to hurt you? Take someone from you? Or did I kill you? I thought I remembered everybody, but… Here, do what you want, but you’ll have to get in line. There are so many others…”
Harold bent down and took Angel by the shoulders, blood from new wounds squeezing through his fingers.
“Listen at me! Listen, will you. I b’aint ‘ere to hurt you. I’ve got letters for you. From Buffy Anne Summers.”
Instantly, those blank, dark eyes snapped with intelligence, and the ever-changing patchwork of wounds ceased.
Harold wanted to clean Angel up, wash the blood from his skin, but the brain case on the shelf held something that looked like more blood, and there was no water in the cave, nor anywhere near it that he could recall. So he left Angel sitting in the cave floor, his knees pulled up under his chin, and his arms wrapped around his legs, tucked into the smallest shape that large body could make, and walked back to the sacks that he’d dropped. He unlaced the sack with the letters from the pretty blonde lass, and started to take out the bundles one by one. The sack was, after all, the property of the Royal Mail. Then, he looked across at Angel, tormented and alone, and he put the bundles back in again, except for one.
“Here, lad. Take the sack. They’re all in date order. Nothing’s missing from them, I promise. This bundle’s the first one.”
His grip tightened on it, as he scented the warm, spicy fragrance of old roses, and of… hot cross buns. Yes, hot cross buns. Then he held it out to Angel. The young man looked at it in incomprehension, and then he looked up at Harold.
“Take it, lad. You’ve got a lot of reading to do.”
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I’m the postman, son. I’m just delivering the mail.”
“I… I don’t understand. I died… How can there be letters?”
“I don’t know about that, but dying is absolutely no excuse for not leaving a forwarding address! You hear me? I’ve had the devil’s own job finding you…”
He trailed off the feeble attempt at levity as Angel winced at the word ‘devil’. Then he dug into his pocket for the envelope in there, and took out the page from the Sunnydale High year book. He looked at it, to fix the girl’s face in his mind, and then held it out.
“Here. You look like you could use this.”
He saw slow wonderment dawn on Angel’s face as his hand reached out to take both picture and letters. He seemed to forget Harold’s presence as he stared at the picture, and then he tugged out the top letter in the bundle, and opened the single sheet. As he read what was written on it, a tiny sob sounded in his throat. He looked up, and his voice was almost inaudible.
“If I leave now, will you be okay?”
Angel nodded, but Harold stayed for a while anyway. It seemed that he was there for several hours, watching as Angel read three of the letters, savouring them again and again, and then as he curled up on the floor and went to sleep, his head pillowed on the sack, and the first bundle of letters held tightly to his chest. He was quiescent, almost peaceful, and no more wounds had appeared.
Quietly, Harold slipped back out of the cave.
The armour of his Royal Mail Uniform protected him all the way back – and it was much further than he remembered – until he found the screen of mist that hid the door. The doorkeeper was waiting. He eyed up the single sack that Harold carried, or so it seemed to Harold. With that deep a hood, it was hard to tell.
“You found him, then?”
Harold nodded, but he was much troubled by what he’d seen.
“You won’t take those letters from him, will you? I’ve seen how much you hurt him…”
The doorkeeper seemed shocked.
“Why would anyone here do anything to him? He does a much better job himself. And no, the letters, somehow, are his.”
He pulled back the heavy door.
“Until next time, then.”
Harold hurried out, hoping that was a social nicety rather than a prediction. The doorkeeper’s words followed him down the corridor, ahead of the slamming of the door.
“Stick to the right, or you’ll get lost.”
He did stick to the right, and he didn’t get lost.
When he reached the place where the man had been sweeping cobwebs, almost nothing had changed. Literally. The man in the pork-pie hat seemed to be swatting at the same cobweb, and the same steaming bucket of water sat by the rusty red stain on the floor. It was as though no time had passed here.
The man looked around.
“Oh, you’re back already. Find him?”
Harold nodded curtly.
“Good. You’ll want her next, then?”
In fact, Harold could have murdered a cup of tea, but he thought of the anguished young man, and almost blenched at the thought of that pretty girl suffering the same torments. Her letters didn’t lead him to think that, but neither had Angel’s prepared him for what he’d seen. She was more important than a cup of tea.
“Where do I find her?”
The man indicated with his broom again, back down the never-ending passage of arches.
“Go to the right, this time. Don’t get lost. Just keep going right.”
Once more, Harold set off.
This time, the way seemed harder, longer, and the sack seemed heavier. Perhaps he should have had that cup of tea. He couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten, but he didn’t feel hungry. Just in need of a cuppa.
He wasn’t entirely surprised to find that the passageway ended in a door much like the other one had been. And he still didn’t have anything other than his knuckles to rap on it with. Then he remembered the armour of his Uniform, and put it on. The knocking was pain free.
What did surprise him was the doorkeeper who opened the top half of the door. He looked like the other one. Exactly like the other one.
“What are you doing here?”
The doorkeeper shrugged in a very familiar way.
“I open this one, too. What are you doing here?”
“Royal Mail delivery. For Miss Buffy Anne Summers.”
“I thought it might be. I’ll take it for her.”
“You know I can’t do that. Against regulations.”
The doorkeeper shrugged again and pulled open the gate.
Harold walked in to find the same pearly mist. He looked enquiringly at the hood. The hood pointed to a faint path across the black sand that he stood on. The sand shifted and ran, but there was still a path, of sorts.
“Follow that. It should get easier the further you get in.”
Harold was interested.
“She comes here regularly?”
“Every time there are new arrivals. She’s looking for some one.” This time, he didn’t qualify that statement. He simply added, “She prays each time, too.”
Harold could think of nothing to say, and so he stepped into the mist.
And stepped out into a land more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen before. The sun was a mild benediction, warming him, soothing him, loving him. In the distance he could make out people and children and dogs, seemingly enjoying an afternoon out. Birdsong sounded from somewhere above, and the warm air was scented with the fragrances of summer. A slight breeze brought to him small sounds of joy and laughter. He thought that he could stay here forever, and be forever happy.
Underfoot, there was no longer black sand, but soft grass, bejewelled by nodding wildflowers, which he stooped to touch with wonder. As he stood up, Harold felt a moment of fear that he had lost the path, an alien emotion in this gentle, loving land, but then he saw that it was laid out in front of him, leading his feet surely across the meadow, a mixture of starry daisies, lustrous buttercups and brilliant gentians. He set off, once more, into the unknown. Once more, he was filled with excitement and dread in equal measure, but this time, the dread was that he would have to leave this place behind, and he might never again know its peace and absolute love. He withdrew into the shelter of his Uniform, a dark blue glow around him, thin but tough, and he felt stronger.
High overhead, there was singing, soaring and uplifting, more liquid than the nightingale and just plain… ethereal. Harold wondered where that word had come from. As he walked on, he thought he felt something brush against him, something familiar and wonderful. And then another. And another. There was soft, sweet pain as he recognised the love in those touches. Lilian, who he’d loved, but who had married Charlie Beresford. They’d stayed friends, even though it had hurt him every time he saw her. Yes, they’d stayed friends until she’d died, only a few years ago. Charlie was still alive and kicking, and Harold knew that she was waiting for him, had truly loved him. But she’d loved Harold, too, and they’d all see each other again. When he was ready.
There was the comfortable love of his Mam. The sturdy pride of his Dad. More, many more, of the people he’d known and lost, happy to see him. He was a visitor here, and he could feel, but not see, feel but not touch back, and so he wrapped his armour a little closer, and strode on.
The path led him to a broad and winding river, bordered by willow and oak and alder, and he could see a place laid out for a picnic, with a small crowd of people, laughing and hugging. The path led straight to them and he wondered whether, if they moved, the path, too, would move.
As he got closer, he could see that the tiny blonde in the centre of the throng was the one he’d come to find. Buffy Anne Summers, dressed in what he thought was the height of fashion, at least from what he’d seen in Los Angeles. She was surrounded by friends and family, and he knew that she was dead. All the others seemed to melt away, a last touch or kiss or caress for her, and then it was just Harold and her.
“Buffy Anne Summers?”
“Yes? Who are you?”
“Royal Mail delivery for you, miss.”
“Letters? For me?”
“Yes, miss. From the Dead Letter Office, in England. It’s taken me a long time to find you.”
He reckoned that if she’d died when the letters started arriving, she’d have been something like forty. Here, though, she looked about twenty, perhaps a year or so either way. Her skin shone golden in the living light of the sun.
She smiled, and this already bright and joyous world became just that bit brighter. And then he looked into her eyes and saw something dark and old. Something empty and hollow.
He’d seen the same look in Mrs Rodgers’ eyes when her only child, John, had gone missing. Run away to London, they thought, but he never came home. And every day, she was waiting for Harold to bring her a letter, standing outside her front door, waiting for him to walk up that path. When he had nothing for her, he would just wave to her, to let her know he understood, and she would turn silently away, back into the house. When he had something to deliver, she would simply stand, anxiously, twisting the hem of her pinny between her work-worn fingers. And when she saw that no matter what Harold gave her, there was no letter from John, she would thank Harold, and he would see that empty look in her eyes, the one that he saw now in Buffy’s.
Quickly, he dropped the sack to the ground, and unlaced the neck. He reached in and pulled out the earliest bundle, and handed it to her. When she saw the handwriting, her hand went to her mouth, and he thought he heard a tiny sob.
“He… he’s written me all these?” she whispered, flicking through the bundle.
“No, miss. He’s written you all these.”
He showed her the open sack.
“And I’ve got this for you.”
He gave her the photograph, and she held it as though it were something precious, something that would break if she dropped it.
“Is he… Is he still… alive?”
It seemed to him that her hesitation before she said ‘alive’ had another meaning than the obvious, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. And somehow he knew that he shouldn’t answer the question. He didn’t know what he would say, anyway.
“I think you should read his letters, miss.”
She nodded, and walked over to the shade of an ancient weeping willow. She sat down on the brightly coloured blanket that had been spread on the grass beneath it. He carried the silver sack over to her and left it propped against the tree trunk. She’d already opened the first letter, but she looked up from reading it, to thank him. She was crying. In this place of absolute love and ultimate happiness, she was crying, silent tears streaking her cheeks.
He pulled out his handkerchief and offered it to her, ashamed that it wasn’t cleaner, but she waved it away, and swiped at her eyes. When she looked up at him, she smiled again, but the tears still threatened, and the smile was tremulous.
“Will you be alright? Should I fetch someone?”
“No, I’ll be fine. I’d just like to be alone for a while, to read these. Unless…?”
She fell silent, but he knew what she’d been going to say. But, he didn’t know whether Angel could ever come to her from where he was, so he didn’t answer. Awkwardly, he patted her shoulder, and then made his way reluctantly back to the path, and to the door. He didn’t look back. If he had, he might not have left at all.
The doorkeeper silently held the door open for him. Harold was almost through it when he turned back to the cloaked and hooded figure.
“Why is she here, and he’s… there? Why?”
The figure shrugged in that familiar way, but then he answered.
“You get the afterlife you believe in, I suppose.”
Then the door closed behind Harold, and he was alone in a featureless passageway, with walls that suggested you could easily fall though them into an infinity of nothingness. And he stayed on the left hand side of the passageway, so as not to get lost, although he felt lost inside, now, with no sacks of mail to deliver, and heaven behind him.
The man in the pork-pie hat was still swatting at the same cobweb, and the bucket still stood, steaming.
“So, how’d you get on?”
“You found her, yes?”
For once, Harold ignored the question. He was sure, after all, that this man knew he’d found the woman he was looking for. Whichever one that was.
“Why me? Why have their letters been coming to me? To Grimethorpe?”
The man shrugged.
“God’s Own Country, isn’t it?”
It was indeed, and it occurred to Harold that he’d always truly believed that, and he’d never once thought to ask ‘Which god’? Perhaps he was asking now. He shuddered at the thought.
“Why are they apart? Any fool can see that they belong together. So why are they apart?”
The man – and something else occurred to Harold. He didn’t know the man’s name, and he wondered whether that might matter, in the long run – the man put down his broom, although there were plenty of cobwebs left to sweep. He leaned down to the bucket and lifted out a soapy cloth, which he dropped onto the floor, and he started to push it around with his foot. It made no impression at all on the bloody stains. Harold knew they were blood, although he’d never seen a blood stain like that in his life. The man seemed to be considering whether to answer that question, and so Harold let the silence hang between them.
“Do you think that Angel has learned that there’s nothing to be gained from pointless punishment?”
“And do you think that Buffy has learned that even Heaven isn’t enough, if you left the wrong people behind on the way?”
“And do you think that they’ve both learned that they don’t have forever to indulge themselves?”
“I…” Harold was going to try and say again that he didn’t understand, but he rather thought he did. He’d read their letters, and they made more sense now. Angel thought he deserved every punishment that could be heaped onto him, and Buffy thought that she wanted to get back to the peace and love of Heaven, of her mother and her father and her friends, more than anything else. They had both been wrong.
The man looked him squarely in the eye.
“I… Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Good. Then I’ve got a job offer for them. Well, more of a destiny offer, really. Will you take it to them?”
Harold nodded. After all, making sure that messages got delivered was his job.
He tramped down the bloodied path once more, the Uniform armour glowing darkly against the shimmering heat. A creature that looked like a chimera of a man and a monster tried to block his way, but he sidestepped it, and threw an imaginary doggy treat down, just in case the monster part responded. It did, and he shuddered at the sight of it.
It’s wicked to mock the afflicted. He could hear his Mam’s voice even now, telling him that. She’d scolded him once, and told him he’d go to Hell for doing just that. He hadn’t told her the truth about it, and he wondered now whether he should have done, whether it would have relieved her mind. He’d been in his last year at school, and it was his friend, Andy Hellaby. Andy was a bit older than him, and had started work down the pit. There’d been an accident, and Andy’s back was broken. He’d finished up in a wheelchair. And on this day, Harold had been taunting him with a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, staying just out of reach, no matter how Andy tried to reach the chocolate from his wheelchair.
Harold’s Mam had played pop with him, and had clipped him round the ear, something she never, ever did. But everything wasn’t always what it seemed. What Harold hadn’t told her, and regretted now, was that Andy had asked him to do it. If you want to learn to really control your wheelchair, you’ve got to have something to aim for. And Andy loved a Chocolate Orange. They’d done it again and again, until Andy could turn the thing on a sixpence, but only when Harold’s Mam was out of the way. He wondered why he was thinking like this, recounting his sins, in this place of torment.
And then there was Angel’s cave just a little way ahead.
Harold called out at the entrance, but there was no answer. He ducked his head and went in anyway, relieved to get away from that brazen sun. Angel was curled up asleep, and this time it seemed a more natural sleep. He wasn’t shivering, for one thing. There was no blood, for another. At least, Harold amended, with incurable honesty, no fresh blood. And he was curled around the mail sack, holding it to him as though it were the most precious thing in the world. Some envelopes peeked out, and they looked as though they had been opened, often. Harold found the mental space to wonder about the passage of time, here.
Then Angel stirred. As soon as he understood that he wasn’t alone, he whirled into a defensive posture, crouched in front of the precious bag, ready to spring, his handsome face contorted into a snarl. Then he recognised Harold, and he stood up, slowly.
“I’m sorry. I… I thought…”
Harold’s Uniform had blazed out around him, but now it settled back to a dark glimmer.
“It’s alright, lad. You… you weren’t to know it were me.”
“Why have you come back? Have you got any more…?”
The wistful voice trailed off as Harold shook his head.
“No, but I’ve got a message from someone else?”
“Someone else? Who?”
And still Harold didn’t know the man’s name. Drat.
“A man cleaning up some Grecian temple under the Los Angeles Post Office. Wears a pork-pie hat. He says…”
Harold cleared his throat, and ran the message through his mind to make sure he got it right.
“Have you finished indulging in your fit of self-flagellation, and don’t you realise they need someone to replace the Oracles? Someone a bit less… tetchy… and a lot more hands-on, to help the next generation of champions. Are you up for the challenge? Oh, and I’m to tell you that I’m going to Miss Summers next, to ask her the same thing.”
The confusion on Angel’s face was followed by a look of incredulous hope, but at the mention of an offer to Buffy, that look of hope died as soon as it was born.
“Buffy should have the chance. She… she’d be better at it. She brings out the best in people. She always has.”
He turned away, then, unwilling to let Harold see his face. It took Harold a few moments to process that, and to understand the problem.
“Don’t be a dumbo. It isn’t an either/or offer. It’s a both of you offer. Together.”
Angel’s back stiffened, and he raised his head. When he looked back over his shoulder, Harold saw the whole gamut of emotions racing across his face.
“And if she wants me with her, how would I get out of here?”
“Same way as you got in. Through the door. All you ever had to do was ask.”
Harold went back to the door with a spring in his step. He thought the doorkeeper might be smiling, too, but it was impossible to tell. As the man opened the door, he said, “I suppose you’ll want to see her next, will you?”
“Yes,” said Harold, surprised.
“Well, just turn left along the wall, and it’s the next door down.”
It was only a few feet away, and she said yes.
Angel and Buffy arrived in the temple a second or two behind Harold. The man in the pork-pie hat was still scrubbing the sopping cloth over the floor with his foot.
They said it together.
“Whistler…” and then they saw each other.
Harold could see that they wanted to hold each other, to reassure themselves of the other’s solidity, perhaps even to make up for lost time, and he willed them to do it, but they held back, shy in the presence of others. The way they looked at each other across that room, though? They might as well have kissed.
The man stared at them in satisfaction.
“First job is to finish cleaning up. I was never very good at it. I had a new front door put on for you, but you’d better decide what décor you want. This temple look is so old hat.”
He looked at Buffy.
“And when I say that, I’m hanging on to my rib cage.”
He didn’t explain that, although she smiled. He turned to Harold.
“Come on, time to leave these lovebirds alone for a little while. They’ll be busier than they think, soon enough.”
Angel called him back.
“The blue and gold body paint isn’t obligatory, then?”
“Would you have worn it if it was?”
“I’ve worn worse.”
Whistler turned away again.
“I’ll be back soon. Just get reacquainted, will you?”
As he ushered Harold out of the door, Harold heard their first, tentative conversation.
“Buffy, are you alright with this?”
“Never better. You?”
“I, yes, I’m good. But… Am I still a vampire? I don’t seem to know, just yet…”
“And I don’t know whether I’m still a Slayer. But Angel…” There was a pause, and even though he had his back to them, Harold just knew that she had slid her hand into her lover’s.
“Angel, whatever we are now, we’ll find out together, this time.”
And then the door closed behind him.
No one came to the building behind the old Grimethorpe sub-post office over the weekend. It was, after all, the weekend. The contractors came on Monday, to board the place up and make it secure and vandal-proof. It was just by chance that one of them, needing somewhere to pee, opened the door to find a toilet. The door should have been locked on Friday night.
And so, it was a startled young man with a full bladder who found Harold sitting in his old wooden chair, a plastic Tupperware box and a half bottle of Glenfiddich on his bony knees. They later said that he’d died of a heart attack on Friday night, it must have been after Jack, the van driver, had been to pick up the mail, and some asked whether it was the best thing for Harold, being as how he was so devoted to his work. He’d have been lost in retirement, they said.
They buried him in a quiet corner of the cemetery, and were surprised how many people turned up for the funeral. Quite a lot of those attending to pay their respects were actually still alive, too.
After that, each November, a simple bouquet of out-of-season wildflowers would be placed on his grave, and there would be the slightly out of place aromas of Yorkshire cooking.
Harold stood in the tunnel in front of The Gateway for Lost Souls, disconsolate, his hands in his pockets. He didn’t know what to do now. Grimethorpe began to seem a bit… restricted… after all this malarkey.
He was surprised to see that Whistler was looking at him in a measuring way.
“Do you feel you’ve done something useful here?”
Did he? Bringing those two young people together again might well be the best thing he’d ever done.
“Like to carry on doing it?”
“You’re a good messenger. We’d like you to carry on doing that. Someone who’ll deliver anywhere, anywhen, without fear or favour. It’s a long-term job. Permanent, for as long as you want it.”
“What would have happened if I’d got lost on the way?”
It suddenly seemed important to know, and Harold waited anxiously for the answer.
“I expect we’d have had to ask a couple of Champions – ex-Champions, I mean – to risk afterlife and limb to find you.”
He thought that was good enough.
“Can I keep the Uniform?”
“Of course. In fact, it’ll be essential to you. You never know where you’ll finish up taking letters to. I’d hang on to the stick as well, if I were you. Make a handy club, not that you should need it that often.”
Harold realised that he’d simply been carrying his walking stick. His arthritic joints seemed more supple, too. And his back no longer hurt. Something dawned on him.
“I’m dead, aren’t I?”
“There’s dead, and then there’s dead. Does it matter?”
“Not if I can have an afterlife like this.”
“You can have whatever afterlife you believe in.”
“What about them?” Harold gestured towards the Gateway.
“They’re going to be better than good. Thanks to you, I think they’ve found a new belief. They’ll be okay now, I promise. They’re back in the world, and the world’ll be better for them. Worlds, plural, actually. You know, they promised each other forever. It’s good when it works out, isn’t it? By the way, I should tell you, I’m a demon, you know. You okay with that?”
“Sure. Um. What am I? A ghost?”
Whistler and Harold went back up into the light of day as they talked about what Harold might be.
Back in the temple, two souls who had been lost, but now were definitely found, were getting cobwebs in their hair as they started to make up for lost time.
Feed Jo Visit Jo
1. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band is, of course, a very famous brass band. It was, indeed, populated by miners from Grimethorpe Colliery, until the colliery closed, together with so many others, and brought the village of Grimethorpe to its knees, also like so many others. Grimethorpe is real, and is just up the M1 from me. Oh, and the name comes from the Vikings. It was the farm of some chap called Grime. Or possibly Grim.
2. Yorkshire is commonly known here as God’s Own County, or even God’s Own Country. We think big, and we’re pretty independently minded.
3. Sheffield and Rotherham have been at the heart of iron and steelmaking for as long as there’s been, well, iron and steelmaking, and Sheffield is internationally famous for its cutlery. The phrase Little Mester is a regional term used to describe Sheffield's self employed cutlers who rented space in factories and had their finished goods sold by the factory owner. - http://www.made-in-sheffield.com/people/littlemesters-pt1.htm
4. Lardy-cakes - Pastries made with lard and filled with currants and spices. A bit like Eccles cakes but different. In the past, they were usually served on special occasions.
5. Tea bread - A sweet yeast bread with dried fruit
6. Lancashire hotpot - A casserole dish of neck of lamb and vegetables, with a layer of potatoes on top.
7. Bread and scrape - Bread and dripping.
8. Toad in the hole - Sausages in Yorkshire pudding
9. Higginbottom - Yes, Higginbottoms do exist – my grandmother’s family were Higginbottoms.
10. Snap - Packed lunch
11. Miners’ Welfare - South Yorkshire has a lot of clubs for the working man – Miners’ Welfare Clubs, Working Men’s Clubs, steel works social clubs, etc. They’re like pubs but possibly rowdier, and each is generally run by a Committee of said working men.
12. Played pop - Gave someone a stern telling off.
Summary: It’s about Angel and Buffy, and communication, and the Post Office. The Oracles lived under the Post Office, if you recall. That was what I said about ‘Letters’, and it holds good for this, too. But this is different.
Maybe 50 years after Not Fade Away. In this dimension, anyway
This story is especially for Chrislee. I hope she likes it.