The Dead Letter Office

I first worked for the Post Office in 198something. Two or three or (unlikely) 1984. I was a Christmas Casual. There were two poets there, Stephen Kelen, who published a collection called To the Heart of the World’s Electricity; and another fellow, his friend, who used to go to Ceylon every year for a holiday. Although I have forgotten his name, I still remember the way he looked when he said there is curfew now in Anurdhapura. I showed him Streets of Music and he intuited, correctly, something ossified therein. We either stood and threw parcels from trolleys into an array of open canvas bags; or sat in Green Valley sorting letters by postcode; while overhead a conveyor belt designed by some antipodean Heath Robinson buckled and sighed and, sometimes, ate the mail. A Russian Chilean gave me a paperback copy of Walden. I recall him saying of our overseers, trained according to the protocols of 19th century English prisons, it ees as eef they come from another planet. It was. The rumour mill alleged an Eskimo had once worked here; and a serial killer. At lunch time (2 a.m.) we used to go down Chalmers Street to the Musician’s Club and drink as many schooners as we could before returning for that last, brief, derisory portion of the shift. Walking home drunk to Golden Grove as the sun came up over the buildings behind me. One day the Russian took me into the Dead Letter Office. It was a little hut at the western end of Green Valley, that avenue of viridian, metallic apertures, on the side upon which I worked; a kind of virginal dread attended it. Strange to see something enclosed in that vast, echoing hall like a railway station concourse. A dwelling on Walden Pond perhaps. Inside was poky and dark and shelved eccentrically, as if the carpenter was forever making room : packed with the small envelopes of yesteryear, inadequately addressed, fading from the memories of those who wrote them, unread by those for whom they were intended. A silent cacophony. I would have read every one . . . but read none. They were inviolable. Unopened, by decree. Another protocol. Where are those thousands now . . . as if it matters. Later I joined up as a Mail Officer, worked in Waterloo with forty Vietnamese, was offered permanency, declined. My friend Lud (real name Roland Girvan) was at the GPO where there was, and perhaps still is, written in chalk around the inside of the bell in the bell tower, the word Eternity in Arthur Stace’s hand. He – Lud – used to go at 2 a.m. up on to the roof above Martin Place and, using the small pipe attached to his key-ring, smoke a few pellets of the black hash; looking out to the dim brown stars setting over the city. One night he took a heavy wooden frame, formerly used around a map, and carried it all the way back to his shed in Redfern where, later, he put a painting inside of it. An abstract, a scribble pattern coloured in with acrylics; you could wash it down with a hose, he told me once. Before he died. It will glow like before, he said. I will someday but know already what I will see. Noise, static, unread letters, fade into the oblivion that awaits all communications, received or unreceived. Whatever remains, speaks. And hears the sound of lake water / splashing – that is now stone. 

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “The Dead Letter Office

  1. Tim Morgan

    I was in the same dorm as Lud (Roland Girvan) at St. Kents as a third form boarder, 1964. We were close friends for a while, often walking the mile from Bruce House to the school together. “There go Lud and Morg” We were both there up to the seven form in 1968. My last conversation with him included my question “where to now?” when we were about to leave for the last time. He did answer something about finding his younger brother (David?). I was the last to leave the senior rooms (New Block) and remember seeing a book “The Life of Riley” left in Lud’s room. I Saw him again briefly for the last time with another friend John Coote (St Kents day boy) at Otago University in 1971.
    Often wondered what happened to Lud, whom I remember as an intelligent
    and talented fellow.

  2. me

    And yet when I asked him straight out if that was where the name came from, he smiled and said, no; but did not tell me what the ‘real’ story was.

    • Linden McCall

      (I will get back to you on this one, want to check that I heard the story correctly last year……..)

      • me

        Lud has an older brother, I met him once, he lives in Melbourne – one version is that he was the first Lud and our Roland inherited the name from him . . . strange, isn’t it, in some ways I don’t want the mystery solved.

      • Linden M

        Hmmmm …… I am sure my friend said they would smoke some very strong dope and listen to Beethoven turned way up loud. Darn, still can’t find my friend’s email address to check how the story really goes……

      • me

        Yeah that’s the story I heard too, from Gerard Smithyman – but then when, years later, I asked the man himself, he demurred . . . perhaps he just wanted to preserve the mystery?

      • Linden M

        I reckon.
        Ah, another poet ! I remember meeting Gerard in Lud’s house in the Rocks.
        What a batch they were/ we are : such singular kiwi characters.
        Wherefore Gerard now ?

      • me

        . . . just moved back to Auckland after decades living in London . . .

  3. Linden McCall

    I named my son after him you know, not Lud, but Roland.

    • me

      . . . & I never did work out where the name Lud came from – did you?

      • Linden McCall

        Aaah..yes, that name was bequeathed to him by others because of his passionate love of Beethoven.
        I found this out last year in China, whilst sharing Lud stories with an old friend of his.
        Dear Lud :there was a life cut short, of a man who dared to follow his own star.

      • Gerard Smithyman

        Discovered this several years too late, as usual…He was called Lud (from Ludwig) by his schoolmates at St Kentigern’s, because of his curly hair and supposed resemblance to Beethoven.

      • me

        That painting fell off the wall the night he died.

  4. ‘Whatever remains, speaks’. I would love to live by those words. Thanks for this!

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