Marsh Cottage stood a little way back from a road that led to a cliff
top and then stopped. It had once run out to a headland where there
had been a small village, but the sea had clawed away the soft
sandy cliff and the houses had long since disappeared. Now, apart
from Marsh Cottage itself, the road served only a pair of holiday
chalets. It was neglected and full of potholes.
On either side of the cottage lay flat countryside, tufty grassland
on the landward side and on the other grazing marsh running a half-mile
down to the sea. The house had been flooded several times
since it was built in the early 1930s but more recently the local
council had raised the sea defences in an attempt to create an extra
beach or two, and since then it had been safe from the spring tides.
Marsh Cottage looked what it was. The unsuccessful prototype
for an abandoned housing estate. Redbrick walls two storeys high
ran up to a pitched slate roof. A suburban bay window faced on to
the road with the front door to one side. Beside the house was a
detached garage alongside which a passage led round to the back. In
the seventies a white-painted wood and glass extension had been
added to the rear of the house and framed the old back door.
On this Thursday morning in early September Marsh Cottage
looked particularly vulnerable as it took a westerly wind full in the
face. An unhealthy yellow sky offered worse to come as a bobble-hatted
figure emerged from the garage, wheeling a bicycle. He
secured the door of the garage behind him, patted the pockets of a
sky-blue anorak, checked the
fastenings on a pannier basket and, mounting the bicycle with care,
negotiated the short, bumpy driveway and turned southwards in the
direction of the town of Theston, two miles away. Martin Sproale
had made this journey, on various bicycles, for most of his adult life.
He was now thirty-six, a little over six feet tall, with a round, soft
face and light reddish hair. His skin was pale and prone to rashes,
and his hands were long and fine.
Elaine Rudge, who worked at the post office alongside Martin, was
still at home. She lived in the centre of town and could walk to work,
and in any case she didn't have the responsibility of opening up,
which brought Martin in on the dot of half past eight. Hair-grip
between clenched teeth, she was standing before the kitchen mirror,
concentrating on herself and a vital quiz question on the Dick
Arthur Breakfast Show.
`The capital of Indonesia is Jakarta, Mombasa or Rio de
Janeiro? The capital of Indonesia . . .'
As the voice from the radio came again, Joan Rudge, a trim,
energetic woman in a padded nylon housecoat, gave a short
dismissive laugh. `Well, it's not going to be Rio de Janeiro, is it.
That's in Brazil.'
Elaine took the grip from her teeth and thrust it into the back of
her head. `Mum, I'm trying to listen.'
`Soft, these questions.'
`You've still got to work out if it's Mombasa or -- what was the
other one?' Elaine said, reaching for a piece of paper.
`Jakarta, Mombasa or Rio de Janeiro?' repeated Dick Arthur
`Must be Jakarta.'
`Well it'll not be Rio de Janeiro,' her mother said again. `That's
definitely in Brazil. That's where Uncle Howard ended up.'
Elaine bit her lower lip for some time and then wrote down
She returned to the mirror and stood a little back from it. She'd
chosen her clothes with more care than usual this morning, as it
was a Thursday and she and Martin always had a drink at the
Pheasant on Thursdays. The pink cotton blouse
was simple but sophisticated, not figure-hugging but very feminine.
She looked in the mirror and flicked the collar up.
Then she flicked it down. She wasn't pretty, she knew that. She
was a hefty, well-proportioned young woman, but on some
days she could look oddly beautiful, the way Ingrid Bergman
did when they photographed her nose right. Her thick head of copper-brown
hair needed work but repaid the effort. She'd woken up with
an ominous tenderness on her lower lip and was relieved to find on
closer examination that it was nothing more than the tiniest of pimples
which she would have no trouble in disguising. Unless of course
Martin was in one of his touching moods. The other evening they'd
been together down by the beach huts and he'd run his fingers very
gently over her face, paying special attention to her lips. Elaine was
curious to know where he'd learnt this, but didn't like to ask. She had
concluded that it must have been from a magazine, or one of his
books. She hadn't liked it much, as the tips of his fingers smelt of
The next question on the Dick Arthur Breakfast Show
concerned nocturnal animals. `That's animals that only come out at
night,' Dick Arthur added helpfully, though most of the question had
been obscured by the noise of Frank Rudge's Dormobile pulling into
the yard. Through the window Elaine could see him wince with
discomfort as he slid the door open
and extracted himself gingerly from the driving seat. Thursday was
market day at Norwich and he'd been out on the road before dawn.
Paul, his latest acquisition from the Youth Training Scheme, checked
his spiky blond hair in the wing mirror and by the time he'd got down,
Elaine's father already had the back open and was reaching for
the first of the long, flat boxes of Spanish lettuce.
Theston post office was part of an uncompleted 1930S development
in the centre of the town. It was the work of Cedric Meadows, the
Borough Architect, who had left for Malaya a year later, leaving
undisclosed debts. On a good day, when Martin cycled into North
Square he saw the redbrick walls, the asymmetric stone-dressed
tower, the steeply gabled roof and portentous curved steps up to the
bulky oak front door as a rather splendid mess. On a bad day he
barely saw the post office at all, his eye being drawn unwillingly to
the neonbordered, poster-plastered window of the video store on its
left and the jumble-sale jolliness of the Save the Children shop on its
As he had done every morning, forty-eight weeks a year for the
last sixteen years, Martin cycled around two sides of the square and
turned into Echo Passage. If there were no unwelcomely parked
cars he would slowly raise his right leg, transfer his weight to the
left-hand pedal and, braking as he did so, glide balletically into
Phipps' Yard, coming to rest, precisely, alongside the back steps of
the post office. Ernie Padgett, the current Postmaster, a title he had
privately refused to relinquish when postmasters had been officially
renamed managers four years earlier, lived on the premises. He
would normally have opened up and had some tea on, but recently
he had been unwell and with retirement imminent had seemed to be
losing interest in the job. Highly irregularly, he had entrusted his
assistant, Martin, with a set of keys and these Martin had to use
As Elaine arrived there was already a brace of regulars waiting
outside the main door. At their head was Harold Meredith, a small,
sturdy man with a walking stick and a head of closely trimmed
white hair, more often than not concealed beneath a tweed cap. He
took care over his appearance and wouldn't
dream of leaving the house in anything less correct than a hound's-tooth
jacket and an Army Pay Corps tie. His pale, smooth-skinned
complexion showed little sign of age, though he was known to be
over eighty. Since his wife's death five years earlier, the post
office had become his adopted home.
`You're up with the lark, Mr Meredith,' Elaine called jauntily,
because that was the way he liked it.
`I'm up for a lark any day,' came the ritual reply.
`I'm too old for you, Mr Meredith,' Elaine protested and fluttered
her eyelashes as she reached the top of the steps and pressed the
doorbell for Martin to let her in.
Elaine and Martin refrained from any physical contact whilst they
were on post office premises. Even when there were just the two of
them in the back kitchen they only ever touched accidentally. Elaine
had begun to entertain increasingly elaborate fantasies of coffee-break
passion but Martin remained the complete professional and,
once he was inside the building, his sole relationship was with the
public. No enquiry, however fatuous or ill informed, failed to receive
his full attention, nor was any irrelevant personal information treated
as less than engrossing. Even Mrs Harvey-Wardrell, whom Elaine
thought the most vile creature imaginable, could not dislodge his
mask of professional affability.
Pamela Harvey-Wardrell was the self-appointed queen of
Theston society. She was a snob's snob, a woman of such epic and
ineffable unselfconsciousness that, if born poor and unwelcome, she
might well have been certified mad, She was another early riser. A
keen ornithologist, she could often be seen on the marshes at dawn,
glasses raised, scouring the reedbeds. She was over six feet tall and
from a distance, in her deer-stalker, Barbour jacket and matching
thigh-length waders, she could easily be taken for a small tree.
Though she could wait for hours on a jacksnipe or a water rail
she had no patience for humans and this particular morning her
restlessness was almost tangible as Martin explained slowly and
laboriously to Harold Meredith the intricacies of the Pension
Income Bonds, something which he had to do on more or less a
weekly basis. Mr Meredith nodded earnestly as he listened.
`So would you like a leaflet?' Martin asked him.
`Oh, yes please,' he returned, eyes lighting up.
Martin leant down to the cupboard and, flicking it open with his
right foot, withdrew a small pile of them. He detached one and
handed it to Mr Meredith. `Here you are. Pensioners' Income
Bond Booklet, Series 2.'
`D'you want it back?'
`No, you hang on to it, Mr Meredith.'
`How much is it?'
`Oh, for God's sake ...' came quite audibly from behind him.
`Morning, Mrs Harvey-Wardrell.' Martin offered a placatory
She didn't seem placated.
`I'm in a dreadful hurry.'
`Yes, I'll be with you right away. That should answer all your
questions, Mr Meredith.'
`How much is it, Martin?'
`Completely free. Compliments of the Post Office.'
Mr Meredith's eyes swam with emotion. `I can remember when
you could send a letter to Hong Kong for a penny halfpenny,' he
said somewhat at random.
Mrs Harvey-Wardrell exhaled threateningly. In paisley silk
headscarf, thick-ribbed turtleneck sweater, body-warmer, tweed
skirt, lisle stockings and lace-up brogues, she was looking about as
feminine as Martin had ever seen her.
`I could have walked to Hong Kong by now,' she snapped and,
using her substantial weight advantage, began to edge Mr Meredith
along the counter. Harold Meredith knew this tactic and had his
own way of dealing with it.
`Thank you, Martin,' he said, deliberately slowly. He
gathered up his various documents, picked up his tweed cap,
unhooked his walking stick from the edge of the counter and
moved unhurriedly across the post office to the public writing
desk. Here he set out his papers, then tried to engage Jane
Cardwell, the doctor's wife, in conversation. Having failed to do
so, he reread the latest brochures on Parcel Force rates, live
animal export regulations and forwarding mail to a private address.
Mrs Harvey-Wardrell began briskly. `What I need,' she
announced in ringing tones, as if addressing an open-air rally, `is
two postal orders. One for Sebastian who's just got into Eton with
one of the highest Common Entrance marks they've ever had at
Waterdene and the other for dear Charlie who's nowhere near as
bright but I can't leave him out. Have you anything appropriate,
`Postal orders are all the same.'
`No. I don't mean postal orders, I mean those sort of gift
`Well, we've got these.' He withdrew two cards, swiftly and
expertly, from his sliding drawer.
`Those are ghastly,' said Mrs Harvey-Wardrell.
`Well, that's all we have at the moment.'
`They had dozens of them in Cambridge. All sorts of designs.'
She looked down disparagingly at the two examples Martin had
laid out on the counter. `I can't send a boy wrestling with the
problems of adolescence a bunch of pansies.'
`Geraniums, I think,' volunteered Martin.
`And what's this one?'
Martin examined the card. He wasn't too sure himself.
`I think it's a ship in trouble.'
`Artist in trouble, I should say. Who chooses these things?'
`Well, Mr Padgett does the ordering.'
Mrs Harvey-Wardrell lowered her voice to a whisper, which
rang around the post office. `How is he today?'
`Much the same.'
She leant across the counter. There was something damp and
musty on her breath, like the smell of an abandoned house.
`The sooner there's some young blood in here the better, Martin.
I'll take two ships in trouble.'
Everyone was waiting for Ernie Padgett's retirement. He had been
Postmaster of Theston for twenty-three years and Assistant
Postmaster for twenty years before that. `Padge', as he was
universally known, had long been at the centre of Theston life, twice
Mayor and, like his friend Frank Rudge, on and off the council for as
long as anyone could remember. Half a dozen years ago, Padge and
Frank had laid plans for a property business, a two-man Mafia to
revitalise Theston's fortunes after the collapse of the local fishing
industry. Investment was promised but all that was raised was
expectation and, amidst recriminations, Frank Rudge became a
greengrocer and Padge remained a postmaster.
From then on expert Padge-watchers -- and there were many, for
the relationship between post office and community is close and
pervasive -- detected the start of a decline. He seemed to withdraw
into himself, indeed on occasions to be downright surly. He
developed a constant bronchial cough. He found the new,
computerised systems no match for his voluminous memory, which
he once boasted could retain the serial number of every new pension
book issued over a six-month period. He relied more and more on
Martin to get him through the last few years until he could retire and
claim a pension for himself. But he was too proud a man ever to
admit this and Martin remained in word, if not in deed, only assistant
'They're sending three of them,' announced Padge in the
`Three what?' asked Elaine, glancing up from her cross-word,
grateful for a respite from 14 across, `Hebrew prophet (5)'.
`Three from area headquarters.'
Padge tapped the letter he was holding, impatiently.
`For the -- you know -- for the farewell dinner.'
`Dinner now is it, Padge?' asked Martin between mouthfuls of
bread and cold chicken. `I'd heard it was cheese and pickles ... you
know, something lean and mean and ready for privatisation.'
Martin knew there was a dinner. He was the one who'd
suggested it in the first place. Head Office had only offered sherry
and a presentation, and now here they were muscling in on an
occasion which was supposed to have been a surprise anyway.
Padge took another look at the letter.
`Still, three of them,' he said, with a touch of pride. `Shows they
must consider it an occasion of importance.'
`For your thoughts? What's occupying that big brain of yours?'
Elaine and Martin were sitting together in the beer garden of the
Pheasant Inn, at Braddenham, a modest village fifteen minutes'
drive inland from Theston. Its thatched roof and quaintly angled
half-timbered facade dated back to the late 1970s when it was rebuilt
after a fire. The beer garden was little more than an outside space, a
lumpy slab of lawn confined by a quick-growing cypress hedge. Half
a dozen metal tables hugged the wall of the pub for protection. They
looked out towards swings and a climbing frame which were to Ron
Oakes, the publican, a Kiddies' Grotto, and to most of his regulars
another way of recycling old tractor tyres.
But now autumn was approaching and families with young
children came only at weekends. Soon the swing would be chained
and padlocked and the wind and rain would see to the paint on
the climbing frame.
Elaine preferred to sit in the garden if she could. In her
experience, once inside a pub it was hard to keep a man's attention.
He would find other men and they would start to argue over things
that were of very little interest to her, generally football or fishing or
cars or the inexorable decline of standards in almost every area
except pub conversation.
Human relationships were what interested Elaine. They were
such an endlessly rich and fascinating subject, an all-year-round
phenomenon. A twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week
phenomenon. Men could talk about passion and elation and despair if
they happened within the confines of a league match, but for Elaine
such emotions were too important to be squandered by football
commentators. She was a romantic. She yearned and felt and
sensed with an intensity which she had never yet been able to share.
She had had boyfriends and they had said that they loved her, but
she knew they loved go-karting and windsurfing just as much, and
she wanted to be more than just an exciting evening out. Martin was
different from the others. He wasn't gregarious, and he had no
interest in sport.
Though he was still reserved and uncomfortable in talking about
his feelings, she was convinced that beneath it all Martin felt the
same way she did, which was why she was attracted to him, why
she persevered with the relationship. At least it was a relationship.
Until the Christmas before last it had been two people sitting beside
each other behind a post office counter. Now he touched her face
and sometimes took her hand.
Elaine watched him conduct some private battle with himself. He
thrust his lower lip forward and drew in the muscles tight around his
`You're quite pensive.'
`I was thinking about the future,' he said.
`Well, no wonder you were pensive. Which bit?' asked Elaine.
`Of the future.'
`Oh ...' He smiled bleakly. `The nearest bit.'
`Am I in it?'
She knew this would irritate him and she was right. He took a
studied sip at his beer and set the glass down before answering her.
`As a matter of fact, no. Just me and a large public company.'
`Beginning with P?'
`How did you guess?'
`There aren't many left to choose from,' she said.
Martin smiled ruefully.
`Are you not getting on well together, you and the Post Office?'
she asked him.
Martin's frown deepened. A shadow of a breeze came from
somewhere and ruffled his fine, soft, red hair. `I don't know. That's
the damn thing. I don't know. Padge is going in a fortnight and no
one's written to me or got in touch with me. I mean, you'd think
they'd have said something.'
`Well, you know what they're like at Head Office. They've got
`Too much to bother with us?' Martin was indignant. `We work in
a Crown office. Who runs it matters.' There was real anger in his
voice, and it quite aroused Elaine.
`You'll get it. I know,' she said.
`You know, but what do they know? I know my job. There's
nothing I don't know about running a post office. But oh no, that's
not enough any more. Now it's all management training stuff. I
hated that seminar in Ipswich. Role-plays. Making business plans.
Couldn't think of a word to say.'
To Elaine there was little more exciting than an angry man
confessing a weakness. She grasped the remains of her pina colada
decisively. `Look, let's finish our drink, go back via Omar's, get
two cod and chips and take them down the harbour. It's a lovely
She watched Martin for a moment. The hairs in his nose needed
`Kiss me,' she said.
Martin glanced quickly round the garden.
`No, here.' She pointed to the soft white skin at the bottom of her
She thrust her chin high and pushed herself towards him.
`I still think they should have confirmed it. They would in any
other business.' He leaned across and put his lips lightly on the side
of her neck. It smelt soapy.
Elaine sighed. `Be nice if you could do that without having to look
`I've got to be conscious of my public role. Specially when I'm
`It would be nice to have a drink from our own bar in our own
living room without having to come out here every Thursday.'
Martin nodded to himself. `I think I'll contact the union. Check the
Elaine reached in her handbag and brought out a bottle of
`I'm thirty next year, Martin.'
`There must be prior requirement of notification,' he said.
`You know what I mean.' She dabbed the scent below her ears
and around her neck. `Don't you, Martin?'
Martin looked up warily. `You wouldn't want to be married to an
`No, you're right.' She leaned across and kissed his cheek. `But I
wouldn't mind being married to a Manager.'