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What the postmaster saw


Man peeks through a mail slotIt is Melbourne Cup eve, 5.30am. Magpies chortle, querulous seagulls bicker on the beach, the first light of day flashes from the rising tide. Why am I up and about at this hour? Well, I'm simply going to the newsagent — which is also the post office — at dawn.

Let me explain. In this small coastal town, the combined newsagency and post office is run by Mac. Like rural postmasters and mistresses of story and legend, Mac is full of tales and theories, knows just about everyone and observes their comings and goings, likes and dislikes, eccentricities, qualities and faults.

'You're a writer,' he says to me one day, 'you should spend a day here some time, learn a bit about the passing parade.'

So, it's arranged for the day before the Melbourne Cup when, as well as locals, there will be long weekenders, day trippers and all kinds of other 'blow-ins', as Mac amiably calls them.

'I'll come down around eight,' I say.

'Six o'clock is when we get moving. See you then.'

And that's how I come to be admiring the beach in the half light of dawn on the day before the Melbourne Cup.

'This is a beautiful time of day,' Mac says as we manoeuvre various displays — hats, sunglasses, toys, paperbacks — to their positions outside the shop. 'And it's different every morning.'

By half past six most of the preparatory work is done. The computers are glowing, things are where they should be, papers are on their racks: 'We're out of gaol,' Mac says. Although neither the newsagency nor the post office is officially open, a bloke wanders in and buys an Age. A chap in bike rider's Lycra and a woman in running gear follow — so like it or not, the day has begun.

Within an hour or so the shop is humming with talk and movement. Mac is unfailingly courteous, but he has some iron rules. A woman at the counter who talks ceaselessly into her mobile phone receives a steely glare and silence. Someone with both ears plugged into his iPod finds Mac has also suddenly and inexplicably gone deaf.

He knows the locals, of course. Each new arrival is threaded into a sort of endless conversation which functions at two levels — greetings to the customer and side-of-the-mouth asides to me.

'This bloke coming in now,' he tells me quietly, 'is a retired supreme court judge. Argues the point about everything.'

'Good morning, Your Honour.'

'This one was a neurosurgeon — very difficult bastard.'

'Lovely morning, Doc.'

'Watch this woman, Brian. She'll have the exact change in ten cent pieces in a special purse.'

'Good morning — two dollars thirty.'

She hands over twenty-three coins.

'Can you give me two $5 notes for a ten?' says a fresh-faced youth.

'I can give you one,' Mac says, 'fair enough?'

Rick, who runs what he calls Café Armageddon next door, drops in for change and pretends amazement to hear that I'm writing about Mac.

'See me,' he says, 'I'll tell you all you need to know — and it's not pretty.'

Just before eight, the mail arrives and Mac combines sorting with serving. A steady stream of people is now winding through the shop, and a queue builds up at the post office counter.

'The computer's gone slow,' Mac apologises to the nearest customer.

'Well, it is Monday,' she says.

By 9am the pressure has relaxed a little only to be pumped up again by the arrival of lots of children. They are everywhere, mostly under people's feet.

'Well, you better get your bets on,' Mac advises a very small boy whose look of utter incomprehension combines bewilderment with that expression of corrosive scorn that little kids so often reserve for their more stupid elders.

The newsagency's Melbourne Cup Sweeps are filling up rapidly. For the more knowledgeable punters Mac occasionally gives a cryptic tip with the change: '"Sheer talent", Race eight — know the owner.' Or, 'Race 5 number 5, mate. Dead set' — neither saluted.

During a mid-afternoon lull, we chat in his tiny office. I learn that cards, toys, gifts, stationery and art supplies are where the money is and that there's little return on newspapers and magazines. That, as captain of the local B Grade cricket team, Mac made 71 not out and took four wickets on Saturday and the local paper didn't even bloody mention him. And that post office box users who complain might find a huge black and red rubber spider squatting on their mail

The day ends with another rush of customers and then, around 5. 30pm — a neat 12 hours since I started — I help him trundle all the display gear back inside. With the doors closed, Mac produces a couple of stubbies and, leaning on the nearest counter, we toast what he reports has been a 'very good day'.

Walking home, I reflect that this experience amounts to more than its confusion of fragments. In its small way it is a glimpse into the 'frail, travelling coincidence' of a community, the benign pulse of the everyday.

Brian Matthews headshotBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Mail slot image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Melbourne Cup



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Existing comments

HD, Prof. Matthews.

Pam | 08 November 2013  

You haven't lost your knack, Brian.

John Carmody | 08 November 2013  

What a beautifully written piece. Evokes all sorts of lovely childhood memories of the seaside kiosk/newsagent/grocer. Alas that the corner store is passing. Its characters really are the (underappreciated) lifeblood of small towns. Thank you for a happy memory.

Angela | 08 November 2013  

Thank you for this most enjoyable piece - I especially loved the phrase in your last sentence.

delwyn | 08 November 2013  

This delightful piece sounds ever-so-much like the small beachside town to where I have just taken up residence. Does the author feel inclined to reveal the name of the town (even if privately) - or even hint at which side of the bay it is on?

Kenneth McKeown | 08 November 2013  

mac is a legend of a small community

CAMERON | 10 November 2013  

I was there, I swear. It's not just the devil that is in the detail, God is also there. Thank you for a lovely gem - I enjoy it right now after a sad bereavement; it is peaceful and brings me back gently to earth.

Eveline Goy | 10 November 2013  

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