Tuesday, 26 February 2013

When queues no longer form

Tramp and I headed for the village shop as the first port of call on our walk today because I needed to post a parcel – and I remembered that this morning was one of the mornings each week that the travelling post office visits our village.

When it was first rumoured that our old post office might be included in the swathing cuts to be made across the country, some local resistance was mounted. After all, it had been a permanent fixture in the village for close on a hundred years, along with the old post mistress, Mrs. Purton, who had run it for almost as long it seemed. A ‘save our post office’ meeting was called in the church hall. Like so many other villagers, though, Tramp and I didn’t attend.

Shortly after the meeting, I met my neighbour Lawrence struggling with his recycling bin half-way up his drive. I’m not sure which way he was going with it, but he had been to the meeting.

‘Hardly anyone there. Typical of the apathy in this village,’ he pronounced, pointedly. ‘People will soon complain when they realise the post office isn’t there when they want it.’

‘But nobody does want it, Lawrence,’ I said, gently. ‘People would rather drive to town than use the post office in the village.’

What I didn't say was, that it wasn’t so much a matter of people not wanting the post office -- more a matter of not wanting Mrs. Purton running it.

          ‘The shop will suffer without the post office next door! Just you wait and see!’ Lawrence fired a final shot over his shoulder.

People said that in her youth Mrs. Purton was a beauty and at village dances admirers queued for a slot on her dance card throughout the night. While she was called ‘Mrs.’ Purton, no-one remembered who or if she did marry; some said she was engaged but her fiancé died in the war and she never looked at another man.

          I only knew Mrs. Purton in her old age. She still had a mind like a whip, and could add up a column of figures faster than a knife cutting through butter (softened butter, of course). But at a time when the Post Office had to modernise nationally to remain competitive, she refused to. She rejected any moves to install credit card machines or to ‘sell’ the new banking services. She sent back the computerised equipment she was supplied to calculate postage and print out labels, and still insisted on laboriously sticking each stamp on every letter and parcel. She continued to keep all her accounts in the old battered ledger, by hand, and this she entered up slowly, as the queues behind her counter grew longer.

          But it wasn’t so much her refusal to use modern technology that deterred people from using the post office, as Mrs. Purton’s temper.  Like the state of her ledger, this deteriorated with each passing year.
          The post office was housed in an annexe attached to the shop. It was Mrs. Purton’s domain, shared only with her cat, Charles. Charles was generally to be found asleep across the yellowing stationery and greetings cards spread around the window seat, while as she grew older, Mrs. Purton was more often than not asleep behind her tall, wooden counter. Charles would hiss and spit at you if you woke him suddenly; Mrs. Purton would snap her words at you if disturbed.

          ‘You can’t send a parcel wrapped like that! Bring it back when you’ve done it properly.’’

          ‘You…boy! Get your sticky fingers off those cards!’

Everyone has a story to tell about their encounters with Mrs. Purton. She was addicted to the Times crossword, and most of us experienced being forced to wait until she had worked out a particularly testing anagram -- she always refused any help with it, though, if you tried to speed things along. On a sunny day, she could usually be found sipping her afternoon tea on the rickety picnic table outside, her shoes off to ‘air her feet’. However urgent your package might be, and even with the post office collection van on the horizon, she would not take her place behind the counter until she had drained the cup and laced up her shoes.

As time went on, the queues grew shorter.

Mrs. Purton had worked way beyond her retirement age when news of the cuts came, although no-one knew just how old she was, and her health was rapidly deteriorating before our eyes. On the other hand, I wondered if running the post office was something that gave her the vitality she still had, albeit diminished. So I was torn over whether to join the move to save our post office, with Mrs Purton installed, or, by doing nothing, agree to a visiting service that promised so much more convenience and efficiency, despite setting out its stall only three mornings a week. Like most people in our village, I opted for the latter, silently.

Mrs. Purton retired when the post office closed but remained in the village, living in her small cottage with Charles. Charles has taken up residence in her front room window, while she often sits outside in her stocking feet, the Times spread on her lap as she dozes in the sun.

June and George, who run the village shop, recently knocked through to the annexe where the travelling post office now sets up three mornings a week. This has proved an astute business move; post office customers now have to navigate a fairly tortuous route around the grocery shelves, which of course encourages them to buy their shopping on the way.  June and George say business has never been better – for both parties. In fact, queues often stretch from the post office counter right through to the fancy breads.



  1. For a few mintues here I have been imagining the Mrs. Purton's I know.

  2. I think we all know a Miss Purton - so glad I was able to summon up yours! Thanks for taking the trouble to let me know.