It was hot – one of those few warm and sunny days in the summer of 2008.
I hesitated in the doorway of the Post Office. The queue was already zig-zagging up and down, herded in those barriers made up of moveable posts and what always remind me of giant elastic bands.
Who but the British would stand there so patiently? So quietly. So self-contained – or so anti-social depending on your point of view. Only the occasional mutter when somebody in front was taking an extra long time, or a counter assistant left the window. Otherwise, it was hold everything close; stand still; avoid eye contact. The only signs of life was when the electronic voice called, “Cashier Number 1 please”, with a faint echo of the caller in a Bingo hall.
I weighed the alternatives. Tough it out now, or come back with bags full of shopping in an hour or so. I decided to join the queue now.
Fairly soon I began to realise this was not a normal day. The queue was slightly restless. There was a lot more shuffling and muttering than normal. Then when the voice boomed, “Cashier Number 9 please”, I realised why.
A young woman walked the length of the high old-fashioned counter to the far Number 9 window, scrutinised by the entire queue. The restlessness had come from those near her, and now all the other patient folk, like me, could see the cause.
She was scruffy; there was no other word for it. Her clothes had been thrown on at some stage, but looked as if they had not been taken off for quite a while.
Her hair stuck out all over the place. There had been some attempt to restrain it with those elastic bobbles, much beloved by Sally when she was with us. But lank, greasy strands had escaped and the streaks of orange and pink and green added to the chaotic look. Sally had always experimented with colours too, often with disastrous results, mainly involving exclusion from school until she conformed.
Then I caught a glimpse of the tilt of the head and the hint of the ‘don’t care’ shift of the shoulders. But these shoulders were so painfully thin. In fact the whole body was emaciated, not unlike the Lowry stick people, or the Holocaust survivors. There were several places which could have been dirt marks, or tattoos. But as I peered through the gawping crowd she turned and looked straight at me. I hastily found something utterly riveting on the floor beneath my feet.
Sally. My heart raced and my stomach turned over. This was the Sally who had come in to our home and family and had finally left us all emotionally battered and bruised and with a feeling of utter failure.
As I tried to shrink behind the old couple in front of me I heard the all too familiar voice. The very clear enunciation, the Home Counties vowels, still as totally out of place in this once mining community, as it had been ten years ago.
As always where Sally was, an argument broke out when she didn’t get instant gratification. “But I have to have the money now!” It used to be, “I have to have those shoes, that magazine, go to that concert and on and on”. No matter what the fad or fashion. It had to be now, or war would break out. No quarter given.
The ultimate weapon was always, “I’ll tell my social worker about you perverts”, even though this was the same social worker who “didn’t give a toss” and was “a complete waste of space” in most other mentions.
Of course we perverts were also the ones called upon for company, opinions, reassurance and even to hear some of Sally’s darkest secrets and haunting memories. Just so long as we didn’t say “No”.
Back at the counter, the opening skirmishes were in full swing. The poor man, who did not have a clue what he was up against, was trying to explain that the Giro cheque, or whatever people get these days, Sally was presenting had been cancelled and so he could not pay out on it. Sally was adamant and thus far, deceptively polite.
It had been lost and therefore reported as lost and had been cancelled. But now it was found and she needed money. The man tried again. Cancelled meant no money available. New cheque must be in the post.
Sally, (for now I was quite certain), all big eyes and seduction, was also sure a replacement cheque was in the post, but not yet in her hand. So she needed to be paid the money from the old cancelled cheque.
The temperature was rising all round. Stalemate. Snipers on the front line. The rest of us pinned down and helpless in the reserve trenches. All the other counter assistants seemed to have frozen as well, because not only was Number 9 at a standstill, but so were all the rest. Every body was sucked in to watching the unfolding saga.
Less politely now Sally told the man about his dubious parentage and his lack of mental capacity. Perhaps she struck a chord, because he went very red in the face and studied his finger nails. Perhaps that’s what they get trained to do. To avoid aggressive eye contact. He certainly knew about the broken record style of negotiating because he quietly went through it all again, in a quiet, flat, unemotional voice. Cancelled cheque: no money. New cheque: money payable.
At this point I almost smiled because Sally pulled a classic stroke I had taught her. Ever so deceptively quietly and politely she asked to speak to his superior, in private if possible. At least one thing I tried to show her had stuck.
The man slithered away. Most of us in the queue could see him in earnest conversation with a woman wearing spectacles in the back office. But Sally could not see them. She started to pace and poke things on the counter. The scales, the Pin Card Machines, the pens on chains. Bad omens. She glared round at the rest of us. I had tucked in behind a life size cut-out figure urging us all to save with the Post Office and a rack of useful stationery items. She shrugged again, hopefully thinking that she had been mistaken and I was not in fact nearby.
The ‘superior’ was clearly having none of it. Much head-shaking. The poor victim emerged alone. Whimsically, I thought I could hear his spurs jingling as he headed to his very own OK Corral. More arm-waving. More abuse. Aspersions on the competence of the unseen cowering superior.
For the first time I noticed the baby in the buggy. Not surprisingly, it started to wail. No doubt as hot as the rest of us. Surprisingly, Sally turned on the most brilliant and adoring smile as she leaned towards the child and spoke soothingly.
“Never mind, Pippa. Your Momma will find you something to eat without these wankers. They’re all the same. You’d think it was his own money. Tight git.”
‘Pippa’. My own daughter was called Pippa and although her relationship with Sally had been volatile, it seemed that she had been remembered fondly.
‘Momma’ was what my children called me and something which Sally had argued about with them. Some days she did not want to call me Momma, because she had her own mother. It was just that none of us knew where she was.
Some days she had wanted me to be her mother and they had told her I was not. But now here she was Momma to Gemma. Outside in the street, ranting and raving, obviously needing to feed her habit as well as her baby.
As I stepped up to my designated cashier I saw the flashing blue lights outside and knew that once again so, so sadly Sally’s problems had not been solved, but she was being tidied out of sight by the Police. The superior was peering smugly from the safety of her back room.
I went home wearily, my mind in turmoil as I went over and over again what could have been done differently. Would a few more months have made any difference if we had hung on longer? Could we have succeeded if she had come to us sooner? How did her own mother abandon her? Did we really have to cut off all contact? It had seemed the only answer at the time, to avoid the midnight calls, the break-ins, the use of our names and address to get things on credit. The unpredictability and uncertainty.
And what I had witnessed in the Post Office – was it going to start all over again?