Having recently found myself in the UK with a dodgy Internet connection and e-mails on strike in the Outbox I finally decided to resort to that Old Faithful, The Royal Mail.
I was in Manchester city centre. Looking round for those iconic British symbols, those big shiny can’t-miss-it red cylinders beloved of photo-snapping tourists, I had a strange sense that something was amiss. Not a red cylinder in sight. Where had they all gone?
Come to think of it, there weren’t any red double-deckers either. There were red, white and orange ones. And blue, white and orange ones. What about red phone boxes?
Well, I did spot one, in between a red, white and orange bus and a blue, white and orange bus, but you had to climb over a barrier to get to it. The barrier was red.
In fact the Council was big on colourful barriers. Roads were being dug up everywhere and turned into mazes built of giant bits of red Lego.
There were also numerous litter-bins. These were a shiny black with pretty gold bees on them.
At the end of Day 1, the letter was at the bottom of my handbag, creased, with something sticky on it. I didn’t investigate too closely, but chances are it was a bit of drizzle from a Marks and Spencers lemon drizzle cake.
Day 2, having de-stickied the envelope and flattened it under a book–it was to the bank, mustn’t give a bad impression–I set out to find the elusive scarlet cylinder. Ah! Just round that corner. No, it was a wheelie bin. A red wheelie bin. By lunchtime I’d bumped into several people–me head up scanning the horizon, them head down scanning text messages–and narrowly missed being sliced into salami by a fearsome Manchester tram. It was time for refreshment.
Over another piece of lemon drizzle cake in Marks and Spencers tearoom (when in Rome) I pondered the problem. What did Holmes say? When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Impossible to imagine that no-one posts letters any more. A covert inspection of my fellow cake-munchers was enough to convince me that there were those among them who were definitely not sending e-cards to wish Great Grand Son Dwayne a Happy Birthday.
Ergo, a) the government, in a devious plot to make the UK a paperless society, had gone in for a campaign of subtle dissuasion, painting all the letter boxes grey to blend in with the sky while sowing confusion by painting barriers and wheelie bins letter-box- red or b) somebody had stolen them all.
Back outdoors, changing tactics, I tackled a lady with a shopping bag and an air of local knowledge.
‘Excuse me, do you happen to know if there’s a letter box near here?’
‘A letter box?’
Her reply was on a par with the great Edith Evans riposte ‘A haaaandbaaag??’
OK, I’ve been out of England for a while, but surely the language hasn’t changed that much? Were they now calling them something else? I was beginning to think I’d been abducted by aliens and was now on Planet Letterboxless.
Whipping the grubby envelope out of my bag I waved it in front of her.
Her face lit up.
‘Ee, she’s broken a record today, she has.’
We both gazed at the stamp, bearing the regal profile of our beloved monarch. It was September 9th.
‘Ay. Beaten Queen Victoria, longest reigning monarch. She’s in Scotland today, opening a railway, saw her on the news. Looking right smart she was. She’s a hard worker, I’ll give her that.’
We enjoyed a pleasant discussion about the stabilising role of the monarchy. I omitted to tell her I lived in a country where they’d beheaded their lot. Just when I was wondering if I’d have to show my credentials and join in a rousing chorus of God Save the Queen my interlocutor noticed the time and said a hasty farewell.
I like Manchester. I might have said that before.
Oh, and I did find my letter box in the end.
It was hidden inside the Post Office, behind a machine that takes photographs.
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the letter boxes in Manchester.”
“There are no letter boxes in Manchester.”
“That is the curious incident.”
Not an exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Gregory in “Silver Blaze”.