The other day I met up with Evelyn in one of the village shops. Tiny, with dark brown eyes and a cap of white hair, our former village Postmistress peers at the world over her spectacles in a way that would be endearing if I didn’t know it was because she started losing her sight to macular degeneration a few years ago. She relies on voices more than faces now, and since I have the lone American accent in these parts Evelyn always knows it’s me when I greet her. I gave her a ride back to her house, and after we put the world to rights outside her front door, I went on my way with a smile because she is a big personality in a teeny package.
In small villages like ours a Post Office is central to life, where people do business but also swap stories and information, a busy place over which the highly-regarded Postmasters and Postmistresses preside. Evelyn is a formidable woman in spite of her wee stature, and she is well respected. After my husband had been here for a few years, she put his name forward to be a Justice of the Peace. His nomination was accepted without question, solely on Evelyn’s say-so because around these parts her word and her support are gold. He spent some of his happiest years here on the bench, all because of a quiet word at the right moment, thanks to Evelyn.
When I arrived seemingly out of nowhere she took in my sudden appearance without comment. Biding her time she asked me a few months into my life here, “Are you settling in well?” Up until then most people looked at me curiously but didn’t pry, which had the strange effect of making me feel somewhat invisible. Evelyn’s studiously casual question took me by surprise but I was grateful to be spoken to directly beyond an arms’-length “hello”. We became very friendly from that point forward, and often had a nice “blether” if no one else happened to be in. She was one of the first to notice that my Sem no longer came down to the village with me when he became ill, and in her quiet way she assessed the situation and advised me that I could get a proxy bank card so that I could more easily do Sem’s banking for him. (The Post Office does much more than just mail letters and packages, here; it also acts as a bank.)
At this time of year I often find myself thinking of Evelyn. Christmastime is hard on postal workers, and none moreso than our feisty Postmistress when she still ruled the Royal Mail locally. The closer we came to holiday delivery deadlines, the grumpier and snappier Evelyn became, grumbling about how this was it, this was the year she was going to retire, it was all too much, mutter grumble… Each year it got to the point where people would creep in, hand over their cards and packages with all of their pleases-and-thank-yous firmly in place, and hurry out of there like their hair was burning tinsel. As for myself and some other local internet business proprietors, well, we would time our mailings carefully, aiming for quieter times throughout the day to arrive with bags full of packages to be sent worldwide. Evelyn stood behind the counter, her position in the building slightly elevated from where we stood below, and she would glower at us through the partition as if daring us to come to her with incomplete paperwork.
I learned very quickly that sympathy and politeness got me a long way in Evelyn’s good books, and to be honest my gratitude and appreciation were sincere because I could see what a big job she had to do, all on her own. I think she liked doing it all herself, as she never had an assistant and she rarely took a day off. Instead she was there six days a week from 8:00am to 5:00pm, with half-days on Wednesdays and Saturdays. As the Postmistress she handled mail of course, but also exchanged currency, dealt with “car tax” (which is like car registration fees in the U.S.), completed banking transactions, and took care of anything from bill payments to passport applications to keeping her “posties” in line as they went about their rounds. Part of her lair was also a shop with stationery, postcards and puzzles, and if there was a village raffle the collection point was usually on one of her counters as well. I don’t know how she kept it all straight but she did, and when computers took over the world she learned how to navigate Royal Mail’s complicated intranet system as well, taking it all in her stride.
When I moved here she was well into her seventies, long-widowed and without children, and she showed no signs of retiring. The Post Office and the village were her life. She knew everyone and everything, but she could be trusted not to talk about people’s business and she was well-liked in spite of her seasonal gruffness. Over time, though, I noticed that increasingly she had trouble keying in addresses, hunting and pecking her way over the keyboard and the computer touch-screen, muttering to herself and becoming less unflappable as the years went by. None of us knew back then that her sight was failing, and I just thought that her years were finally catching up to her. But during what was to be her last Christmas as our Postmistress, her irritability grew to the point where shop-owners would ask me somewhat fearfully about Evelyn’s mood if they saw me come out of the Post Office. “We need change,” one of the shop-keepers said, “but someone said that Evelyn is in a rage today and I don’t think I’d better disturb her!” As an aside, that’s another part of village life which has come to mind as I write this: it would not have occurred to anyone to submit a complaint about Evelyn to the head office. Firstly, folks like her, secondly, they knew she would soon regain her composure after the Christmas rush, and most importantly, around here people don’t “clype” on one of their own!
Then one day there was a friendly, sanguine gentleman behind the Post Office counter who said, “I’m just filling in for Evelyn for a while.” He was close to retirement himself, and he came from quite some distance away but he held faithfully to Evelyn’s schedule even in bad weather. When asked he would only say that he would be there for a month or two, but then four months went by, and then two more. Evelyn disappeared almost completely from village life, and someone told me that she only left her house in the very early mornings to go down and do her shopping before hurrying back home again. “She makes it clear that she doesn’t want to speak to anyone,” a village acquaintance told me. They went on to say they’d heard that her eyesight had failed to the point where she could no longer handle the computer work that went with every Post Office transaction. Far from going out on her own terms, she had been forced into retirement and it cut her deeply.
I didn’t see Evelyn for months. It would have been presumptuous to knock on her door when she was still in hiding but I missed her. One day our paths finally crossed. Her steps slowed as I called out to her and I could almost read her thoughts. Would I question her about her retirement, bringing up an uncomfortable topic? Her hesitation and discomfort were evident and I was determined to put her at ease. Greeting her warmly, I never said a word about the Post Office. We talked about her roses – she is an avid gardener – and we had a nice long chat in the sunshine. As we wound up our conversation I told her that I was happy I’d seen her, and how good it was to have had a catch-up. We parted ways and her bright, “Cheerio, cheerio!” was almost back to her normal, well, cheeriness.
The force of nature that she’d been was somewhat diminished but the more she emerged in the following months, the more comfortable she became in her new role as the village’s former Postmistress. Nowadays she is back to her old engaging and friendly self. I don’t say this about many people, but I do adore Evelyn, and she is one of the many women I aspire to be like in many ways. She must be just over eighty years old now, but she is unstoppable.
As it turns out, she got out of the Post Office gig just in time. Sadly, the government is shutting down as many small Post Offices as it possibly can, and they are either being closed completely or integrated into shops if there’s a shop willing to take on the enormous amount of work (without any increase in pay). Our Post Office was first taken over by a local woman who ran it beautifully with the help of two assistants (I wonder what Evelyn thought of that!), but it was lost to them in a mass of bureaucratic nonsense and bad-faith dealing by the powers that be. We fought for our Post Office, but to no avail. We are fortunate to still have a Post Office of sorts through a local shop but the services are much-reduced, and I have to watch every move they make, as – through no fault of their own – the shop staff are wont to make mistakes that could be detrimental to my business. Their training is minimal and shop turnover is high, so there’s always someone new being trained by someone only slightly less-new. Alas, the high standards, the confidentiality and the professional services we so recently enjoyed are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
In hindsight I’m glad that Evelyn retired when she did even though she hadn’t wanted to just yet. Her eyesight let her down but she was spared the betrayal of an organization that she had served so well for nearly all her working life. Not only that… I’ll bet her holiday season is much more relaxed these days, as well!