It was 1966, I was sixteen and in my first year of an interior design courses at Napier Technical College in Edinburgh. In the summer, after l had left school, and, before I started at college, I had worked at the local concrete works. My first job was operating a guillotine cutting blocks of concrete into mock stone of different hues and dimensions, then promoted to making concrete lintels of doubtful structural integrity.
But, the Christmas holiday loomed and my entertainment schedule required money. Seeking a holiday job, I offered my services to Mrs Smith, the postmistress who ran Lasswade village post office.
She peered doubtfully at me over the counter, obviously remembering me as a troublesome boy, one half of the Wilson brothers; recalling incidents involving fireworks, stink bombs and broken windows.
She had once watched, from her back office window, as we recycled lemonade bottles from the unlocked store of the local Grocer and ‘Italian Warehouseman’ in the alley below. By recycle, I mean we stole the empty bottles, took them into the shop, inhaled the smell of ground coffee and other exotic foodstuffs and claimed the two pence return payment. The proprietor, Mrs Black, probably in the grip of the early onset of dementia, failed to realise that we had, ten minutes before, handed in the same bottles. Mrs Black would then wander up the path to deposit the bottles back in the store. And so the process went on, until, in the way of village life, Mrs Smith gave the heads up to my granny, who lived just up the road from the Post Office. The scam was quietly stamped out. So my honesty, essential to the operation of a successful Post Office, was slightly tarnished.
Luckily, Mr Smith, a hard looking but kindly man, ignorant of my childhood misdemeanours, saw a pleasant young man, veteran baker’s delivery boy and, vitally, grandson of Mrs Walter, a regular customer and son of Jim Wilson, Church Elder. The job was mine.
On my first day I turned up dressed in my WW1 full length leather flying coat (discovered in a cupboard in my granny’s house) a trapper hat, and scarf. This was my winter college outfit. I thought it was ‘cool’, defining me as a modish design student. Mr Smith, looked me up and down with the expression of a diner, anticipating a steak, but served a plate of whelks.
“Jings! Whit Soviet Gulag have you escaped from, son?” He said, smiling uncertainly, failing to see the trend setting design student.
My first task was sorting mail in the back office. It was from here in this room that Mrs Smith had looked down on our bottle scam, and decades before, in the summer of 1917, a telegram would have passed through, bringing the devastating news to my family, of the death of my grandfather, Clem, at the Battle of Arras. One telegram among many.
After a mail sorting session, I was introduced to Jimmy Jones. Each temporary worker was partnered with a regular postman and mine would be Jimmy.
We stepped out of the door on our first joint mission into a small snow storm. Once of earshot of the management, Jimmy caught my arm.
“Listen, son,” said Jimmy,” ‘ah dinnae want ye tae gang aroond yer half o’ the roond like Eric Liddell.”
“Eric who, Mr Jones?” The film Chariots of Fire was a long way off.
“Liddell. A runner, son, a famous runner,” Jimmy enlightened me, adding proudly, “a Scottish runner.” Then, getting to the point .“The boy last year got back more than a ‘oor afore me. Made me look slaw, y’ken.”
There was a constant fear of time and motion inspectors, rumoured to carry out clandestine inspections, with dire consequences for any postman dawdling.
“Well, Mr Jones, why don’t we fix a time to meet up, the we’ll go into the Post Office together?” I suggested in a show of worker solidarity.
“That sounds grand, son. And dinnae ca’ me Mr Jones, ca’ me Jimmy.”
And so a four year partnership was formed.
Jimmy was at least sixty, on his last legs I thought, and so I agreed to take the half of the round that started with some local dwellings known as the Swedish Houses, then up to the local sandpit, Melville Castle and a string of farms ending up at Dobbies Nursery. A long, long walk. A long walk, but with few letters. I probably only had about forty letters and, every Thursday, a strange, small package with the weight of anti-matter, to be delivered to the sandpit. Luckily, the sandpit was one of the first deliveries. A large number of the letters were addressed to a bungalow near to the nursery. I remember this because they were from every part of the globe. As I stood in a cloud of frosty breath, feeding the letters through the slot, I would imagine the senders addressing the envelopes and licking stamps in warmer, faraway sunny places: Brazil, Mexico, Portugal and India.
The latter half of the 60s was the time when the government experimented with not turning the clocks back for winter. As a consequence, Scotland, far north of the seat of government in London, was in darkness until mid morning. I started work at six o’clock in the dark and finished my first shift, still in darkness, at about half past ten. I would walk through the silent countryside, along the farm tracks, through a dark tunnel of trees, in snow and frost, the frozen puddles silver pools in the moonlight, singing to myself; ‘My Generation’, Bonzo Dog’s ‘I’m the urban spaceman’ and of course the Beatles ‘Please, Mr Postman’ “Mr Postman, oh yeah, wait a minute, wait a minute, Mr Postman, deliver the letter, the sooner the better…………..”
Occasionally, in the inky blackness I would bump, literally, into a farm worker, and, one morning, a large pig crossed the track in front of me. A scary moment. I had read in a newspaper of an attack by a porker on a woman, nearly chewing her arm off. I froze, stopped singing, as the pig silently slipped into the undergrowth.
My part of the round completed I had to kill at least an hour in the freezing cold so that I could coordinate my to rendezvous with Jimmy. I would find a secluded spot in the woods of Melville Estate, built a large fire and sit reading a book, a flask of coffee and sandwiches by my side. Then it was back to the post office, walking in simultaneously, to the front shop, shaking snow off under the suspicious gaze of the Smiths.
All good things come to an end, they say. Even now, after many decades I still look back with fondness on my days as a Christmas postman. Many times in my life, in stressful moments, I have wished myself back to that simple life, walking through the snow covered countryside, under a canopy of twinkling stars and steady planets.