Everyone has a favourite kind of small news item – a story their eye jumps to first. I will always read stories about UFO sightings and stories about large docile animals living indoors (a classic of the genre is the cow/capybara/hippo that "thinks it's a dog"). But the one I pore over is the story of the postie or courier who has abandoned the mail.
This story is rare. In New Zealand it comes around once every year or two, though sometimes we have a dry spell for years and I wait for the story like a stargazer hungry for a meteor shower. The story is more common in the United States, where it takes the form of grizzled sentences like, "50-year-old Mark Wayne Thompson took mail from his rural postal route in Louisiana to his home in Pitkin, where from December 1, 2016 to May 1, 2017, he burned at least 20 tubs of mail." Mail abandonment in the US often involves fire, while here it usually involves a ditch.
The mail abandonment story is a sad story, a story of broken trust, disappointment and lost jobs. It usually begins with a good citizen going for a walk and coming upon something unspeakable – a pile of parcels lying in a ditch. We hear that the company responsible is taking the matter seriously and conducting a thorough investigation. The story may be accompanied by a photo of the abandoned parcels and people standing around them grimly, like construction workers standing around a hole in a road. We had a system, their postures say, and it has been broken.
We don't find out why exactly the postie renounced their duty but it's easy to speculate. Maybe they just lost the will. They were so tired. Couldn't bear to look at the mail anymore – the needy mass of it, the way it was never finished. People kept wanting more things and faster. Every day, another dog took exception to their presence. Every day, someone else stood at their letterbox in their dressing gown, tapping their foot. The postie was like a twig in Huka Falls, submerged, buffeted. So, they drove down a country lane and threw a whole load of mail out the window and felt a bit better.
The story seems particularly shocking because the abandonment of responsibility is so literal – all of those names and destinations unmet, left for the worms and the birds to do with what they will – and because the delivery of mail seems the very manifestation of all that is good and functioning in a society. The mail must get through. It's also shocking because a lot of us have had fantasies of doing something similarly passive-aggressive in our jobs but most of us have repressed those fantasies because that is what it means to live in a society.
If you really want to defy the rules and shun authority, it's best to do it in the most spectacular way possible. Like the guy who hired a marching band to play after delivering his resignation to his boss or the guy who danced around the office with a boombox on his shoulder playing Bohemian Rhapsody or the flight attendant who grabbed two beers from the drinks cart then deployed an emergency evacuation slide to exit the plane, after announcing, "I've been in this business for 20 years. And that's it. I've had it. I'm done." (It would've been perfect but, after going down the slide he realised he'd left his bags behind, so he had to scramble back up the slide, retrieve the bags and slide back down again.)
During the past weeks, we've been reminded so often of the people who hold our country together, who fulfil our needs and wants and demands. They are workers who have been taken for granted and/or treated fairly shoddily by their bosses and the public alike. And, even though it's bad news, that's what I like about the mail abandonment story: it's like an actor breaking the fourth-wall illusion, reminding us that we – or, at least, the stuff we bought on the internet – are at the mercy of others. Anyone can have a terrible day, anyone can reach breaking point.
It's also good for us to be disappointed now and then. There was a story recently that when lockdown lifted someone ordered McDonald's and the burgers turned up without the meat patties inside them. Just some greasy, blank buns – the colour of sadness. I felt sorry (in vegetarian) for that person but also, like everyone's been saying, you can't just flick a switch and have everything reappear as normal. And that includes meat patties.
I'm looking forward to the easing of Covid-19 restrictions. My hair is the size of a small dog and I miss going to the pub with friends. These tiny losses and dishevelments, like the rule-breaking postie, remind me how much we need people.