The Liberty, Romford, 26th May 2022
When I was a child, the Central Post Office in Romford was huge. To my little eyes, there seemed to be at least a hundred counters, and the queue would sometimes stretch all the way out the door. I remember the post office first being on South street then downsized to fill the gap where Sainsburys used to be in the arcade. It is now reduced to half a dozen or so counters tucked away at the back of the top floor of WH Smiths - itself half the size of what it used to be.
I have a parcel to post. My daughter’s new trainers. Size 5 - too small. Needs 5½. College in not much more than a year, then the whole world ahead of her. Can hardly believe where the time has gone.
I am twenty minutes early, and already three people are in the queue before me, snaking round the metal-poled guardrail. A life-sized plastic post box stands at the front of the queue - a note in bold type stuck to it stating ‘DIGITAL SERVICES ARE UNAVAILABLE’. I have no idea what this means. A tall man is first in line, and stares hard into his mobile phone as if he stares hard enough it will change the outcome of whatever he is transfixed by. Behind him, a well-dressed woman clutches a parcel the size of a shoebox to her chest. Her eyes are wide behind expensive looking glasses, and she chews her lip - first one side, then the other, then back again. An elderly woman is hunched directly before me, a bulging carrier bag in her right hand. Her head is down, and she stands motionless.
All is silent.
I stand in this queue of no words wondering about the lives of the three people before me. And I wonder why I am here at this moment. I know why I am here - the trainers, but why am I really here. Why this moment, this place, these people?
Out of the corner of my eye, someone approaches. I turn my head a little, pretending to look at the rack of Filofaxes and notebooks. A man in a tweed suit, the bushy white hair on the sides of his head and a similarly bushy white Kitchener moustache puts him between, I think, seventy and eighty years old. He hovers, seemingly undecided whether to join the queue. His hesitation intrigues me. I expect a man with such an impressive moustache to have more confidence. I consider his age. At seventy-five, or so, he would have been born in the late forties. He has seen the coming and going of Elvis, Buddy Holly, JFK, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. He was there when England won the World Cup, when Martin Luther KIng Jr was shot, when man first landed on the moon. He saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breaking up of the USSR and the invention of the Internet. His life has been filled with extraordinary moments. And now, nearing the end, he hesitates to join a queue in a post office that used to be five times the size above a shop that time has cut in half.
I look at the time on my mobile, and instantly wish I was rolling up the sleeve of my black hoodie to check the time on my long-dreamed of 1930s watch. Ten minutes to opening. The queue is as it is. Nothing has changed. And the silence, God the silence.
To the absolute horror of everyone before me, a young man in an electric blue tracksuit with matching cap - ridiculous to my old eyes but apparently in fashion - marches straight up to the counter at the far end of the row, plants a parcel there, and marches away. A member of staff - it seems they do exist - comes out from somewhere, checks the parcel and retreats to wherever she was hiding. The tension in the queue is palpable. The man looking into his phone shuffles from one foot to the next, the lady clutching the parcel to her chest blows her cheeks out and the elderly woman in front of me shakes her head as if she’s just witnessed something truly awful.
But still they remain silent.
The same member of staff reappears to switch on three automated parcel machines lined up against the wall to the right. The light above one of the machines glows red, the other two green. Two out of three ain’t bed, I suppose, as Meatloaf might have said if he had the misfortune to be here. Gawd rest his soul.
Another member of staff materialises and makes her way to one of the counters. One cashier. One counter. That's it. The man at the head of the queue pockets his phone and almost leaps the ten foot from the queue to the cashier.
Not a one of us heads for the two working automated machines. The willingness to commit seemingly not present in any of us.
A shuffling behind me.
I turn round.
The hesitant old man has turned into a pink man in his thirties - pink shorts, pink legs, a pink and red tie-dyed hoody and a face the colour of bludgeoned ham.
The man who had been at the head of the queue rushes past me, eyes on his phone, seemingly finding his way through the shop by some sort of radar.
The queue stumbles forward.
The other staff member directs the well-dressed, wide-eyed woman with the shoebox parcel to the automated machines and the elderly lady in front of me makes her way to the counter like she’s treading through a minefield. I’m guessing she’s dealt with this particular cashier before.
At the front of the queue, I am able to hear every word.
Cashier - Yes?
Elderly lady [takes a soft, square something wrapped in brown paper and Sellotape from her bag]- I’d like to post this, please.
Cashier - Put it on the scales.
Elderly lady [gestures to scales on front of counter] - Here?
Cashier [clearly irritated] - Yes, there. [Elderly lady places parcel on scales] You can take it off the scales now.
Elderly lady [takes parcel off scales] - How much is Special Delivery?
Cashier [consults some sort of chart or screen] - Seven pounds sixty-five.
Elderly lady [clearly troubled by the cost] - What about Recorded delivery?
Cashier - Three pounds seventy.
Elderly lady - Which one is faster?
Cashier - Special Delivery.
Elderly lady - Is Special Delivery signed for?
Cashier - No.
Elderly lady - Can I have the other one, please.
Game, set and match, elderly lady.
Well played, madam.
The parcel is handed over, the transaction paid for and the elderly lady scuttles away in fear of being chased from the shop.
‘Would you like to come over here, please?’
It is the other member of staff. And it is me she is speaking to.
I follow her to the automated machines, and she helpfully takes me through the process of printing out a label and paying for the service.
‘It goes over there,’ she informs me with a smile, pointing to the counter containing the parcels of Electric Blue Man and the well-dressed, wide-eyed woman with the shoebox.
The parcel in place, I leave the rear of the top floor of WH Smiths, and descend the stairs, dreaming of stopping off for a coffee and a Belgian bun (or two) before I head for home.
As I near the bottom of the stairs, I see a lady - I’m guessing seventies - carrying a long parcel under her arm like a French stick. A clatter of heels from behind me rattles past. It is the irritable cashier. As she nears the bottom of the stairs, she informs the elderly lady with the parcel like a French stick the post office is now closed.
The French stick lady visibly crumbles.
‘When is it open?’ she says.
‘Don’t know,’ replies the cashier with something of a grin, and carries on her merry way.
I remember I had planned to take a photo of the post office for this piece, and return upstairs. I see there is another sign now stuck to the plastic post box alongside the 'DIGITAL SERVICES ARE NOT AVAILABLE' sign. The new sign reads: ‘POST OFFICE CLOSED’.
It had been open ten minutes.
I head for the stairs and wonder when I next need to post a parcel whether this place will even exist, or whether time and progress will have made memories of us all.