The Secret Life of a Mail Carrier by Paul Blaney
I don’t recall whose idea it was—most likely Mrs Brook’s since she’s in charge of parcels—but a few years ago we started a Secret Santa at the post office in our small town. Nothing remarkable about that, you might say, and certainly to begin with it was the usual exchange of scarves for fountain pens, vases for mid-price watches, Argyle socks for hardback books. Until last year that is; last year I came home with an Invisibility Waistcoat.
Who could have contributed a gift like that? I had my suspicions (one of my fellow carriers, the assistant sorter, or was it the Post Master himself?) but I never found out for sure. Myself, all I’d given was a pair of gloves; they weren’t even new, not entirely, though nice enough.
This waistcoat would have likely just disappeared (no pun intended) into my closet. I’m like that: I put things away and then forget. But something about its swirling Paisley pattern caught my fancy. (The pattern actually shifts, I noticed over time, though very slowly; it’s in constant motion, like a Lava lamp.) I thought I might have had one like it once, years ago. The next thing you know, I was trying it on and . . . there you are! That’s to say there I wasn’t, standing in front of my full-length mirror looking clean through the space where I ought to have been. Where I still felt I was, and yet apparently wasn’t.
I don’t mind telling you it gave me quite a queasy feeling. I sat down hard on my parquet floor, stood up again, turned around. At length, of course, it occurred to me to take the garment off. Off it came and back came Michael. On it went and I went with it. I must have stood in front of the mirror quite an hour, experimenting, thoroughly absorbed, getting the hang of the thing. And then? And then I did what I’d been going to do in the first place; I hung it up in my closet and made supper. Not that I forgot about it of course. I’m not that forgetful!
What you want to know, of course, is what use I make of this magical waistcoat. The answer is, not as much as you might think. Mostly, to be honest, the waistcoat stays hanging in its closet. I have a job to go to, one that takes its toll on one’s feet, plus shopping and my little recreations, the same responsibilities as you or anyone. But, yes, I do sometimes put on my waistcoat, and not just at home. I go out. Invisibly. Usually it’s in the evening but it might be a weekend morning. Sometimes I wear headphones, which of course disappear too. If people can hear my music, they show no sign. I find it pleasantly liberating to stroll about the town unseen like that.
But I sense a certain disappointment on your part. Perhaps you’re thinking of the lofty ends to which you yourself would employ such a garment. Perhaps you’re devising some elaborate scheme to combat disease or crime, redistribute the world’s riches. Any of those would be wonderful of course; Idid try to think along those lines. What I soon realized, however, was that it wasn’t really me, not my style. Probably I’d have had to move to the city for a start. One is tempted to perform grand and momentous acts but sometimes it’s wiser to do less, to do no harm. At least that’s the way I look at it.
Surely, though, I ought to use my power to do something? Certain people, I know, perhaps most, would take advantage of their invisibility; they’d use it for gain or for pleasure at least. They’d spy on other people and learn their secrets. I’ve never done anything of that sort. It did occur to me that I could use the waistcoat to watch Miss Baumgarten (second assistant post mistress) take her bath, but I quickly dismissed the thought. What if I were suddenly to sneeze and so alarm her? But it was more than that. A gift like mine is instructive; you learn things about yourself. I think perhaps I’m not so curious about people.
Or perhaps it’s just that I’m cautious, or even timid. There would have to be a certain peril attached to a waistcoat like mine. Some people, I’m sure, would hardly take it off; they’d quickly grow obsessed. To see and not be seen, actions without fear of punishment or even blame: I can imagine the appeal. Which, perhaps, is why I only put the waistcoat on once a week or so. I exercise control over my power, lest it control me.
And it’s not true that I do nothing with my waistcoat. I enjoy myself, as I say, and, too, I like to think I bring some pleasure to the lives of my fellow townsfolk. Invisible, I perform occasional acts of mischief: impish acts, pranks. Last month I tripped our pompous mayor so that he stumbled on the steps outside his office. A line of passing schoolchildren saw it; one or two laughed out loud. And yesterday, a rare day off, I stole into the post office and had some fun; each time old Mainwaring got up from her desk, I shifted her blotter or her paperweight. You could see how it vexed the old pedant.
I practice secret kindnesses too. I might fan the face of a woman at a bus stop so she smiles, grateful for the breeze. Or I might use my foot to deflect a child’s ball, save it from rolling into the road or gutter. Above all, however, I like to use my waistcoat creatively. There’s a Greek verb I like; I’ve been fond of it ever since my school-days: elanthanein, to escape notice. Typically it’s used with a participle: he escaped notice entering the city, or she escaped notice leaving the house. Me, I escape notice all over town creating little spectacles. I might shake a branch so it sheds its blossom on a man eating his sandwich on a bench. I might roll down the slope by our war memorial, making the grass ripple under my passing. Why, just the other day there was a breeze and I caught a stray sheet of newspaper by its corner. For several minutes I danced and darted about the square, the newspaper rising and banking like a kite. If someone’s there to appreciate my performance, so much the better. If not, I’m happy just the same.
I suppose you might say I’m an artist, though I wouldn’t say it myself: a performance artist, anonymous, invisible, specializing in serendipity, the unexplained but just right. I don’t plan; I act on impulse, as the opportunity appears and the mood takes me. Invisibility liberates. But really they’re only now and then, these performances of mine. For the most part, I just stroll about with my headphones, listening to Mozart or Leonard Cohen or some old jazz.
Ten o’clock already? That waistcoat won’t be coming out of its closet tonight. A glance at the calendar here on my desks confirms what I already knew: tomorrow is December. The anniversary of my special gift is upon me and I have a decision to make. Or perhaps I’ve made it already. The question, of course, is should I wrap up my waistcoat and put it back in the Secret Santa pile. Part of me wants to hold on—and what if it should fall into the wrong hands, those of someone less scrupulous, someone like Fuller?—but, on the whole, I’m inclined to let go. Perhaps it wasn’t meant for me at all, or only for a time. Maybe I’ll get something good in exchange, a magic flute or hat, or magic slippers—I’m sure I’d get fun out of any of those, not that they’d change my life. Or maybe, most likely, I’ll just get a plain pair of slippers—I could do with a new pair.
Yes, I’ll give up my waistcoat, I’m almost decided. And then maybe, one way or another and in the fullness of time, it will finds its way around to you. If so, you’re sure to discover a truth or two about yourself, which needn’t be a bad thing. I certainly wish you good luck. Maybe you’ll know just what to do with my waistcoat and its special power. If not, don’t worry too much. Try to enjoy it—I hope you’ll get as much fun as I did—and then, once you have, pass it along.
© Paul Blaney 2013
Paul Blaney is Writer in Residence in the SAS Honors Program at Rutgers University. Born of Northern Irish parents, he was brought up in England, and now lives in Allentown, PA. Paul's novella, Handover, was published by Typhoon Press (Hong Kong) last year, while The Anchoress was just published last month. Both are available on Amazon.
The Secret Life of a Mail Carrier was read by Max Woertendyke for the Invention & Discovery Show on 5th June 2013