There are a number of dogs on my round.
As you may know, dogs and posties have a very particular relationship. This is not a myth. It is very real. Dogs are territorial creatures and we break into their territory. We break the bounds of what they consider their own by walking up the garden path and then sticking something through the door. We are strangers, not friends. We are not invited. The owner of the house doesn’t welcome us in with a handshake or an embrace. We simply stand at the door, a dark shadow, and intrude into their space. We shove something through the door and it makes a noise. The door flaps and rattles and the thing falls on the floor with a thump, and after that we turn and walk away again.
We excite something in dogs which is primal and deep and they react to this in a variety of different ways.
I meet the first dog on my round within about a minute and a half of starting. I don’t see much of it as it only appears through the frosted glass of the front door. It is small and white, a terrier of some sort, about a foot long, and nine inches high. It sees me and it starts to bounce. I mean that literally. It’s like a rubber ball or a yo-yo. It bounces up and down, up and down, about five times its own height, to the level of the letter box, this hazy white blob through the glass, yapping as it leaps.Yap, bounce, yap, bounce. It’s hilarious. It looks like some mad oscillator, pulsing out a precise rhythm, always rising to the exact same point behind the glass, like the blip, blip, blip of a hospital monitor. Well at least we know the patient is healthy. It has a very strong heartbeat.
We have this game. I shove the letters through the letterbox, and it grabs them, dragging them from my fingers. Then it “kills” the letters by shaking them about and growling, after which it drops them on the mat and goes away satisfied. Occasionally I have to knock the door to get a signature, and the householder will pick the dog up. It is really very small. It lies cradled in the man’s arms, snug and secure as he answers the door, but it is always fighting to get free, yapping and growling and baring its teeth. You can see it wants to kill me.
“Oh be quiet Pip,” the man says, affectionately. But I can see it in his eyes. If Pip was a few feet bigger, and I was a few feet smaller, and we’d met in a clearing in a wood somewhere, I would be dead by now. It would have me by the throat and would be shaking me about like those letters in order to break my spine and I would be a doggy breakfast by now, a feast for all its brood.
I measure my day out in dogs. Dogs are my principle form of entertainment.
The next dog is called Barney. Barney has a very aggressive sounding growl, but you soon learn he only wants to play. There’s a little yard outside the house with a gate and as soon as Barney hears me coming he grabs his rubber toy and he starts growling, padding from foot to foot as he does so, chewing on the toy. He’s wagging his tail and looking at me from under lowered brows. He’s obviously saying something profound about the nature of reality. “Look at my rubber toy,” he’s saying. “See, I have a rubber toy.” It’s like the opening salvo in a philosophical debate.
You have to be introduced to the dogs before you pet them. Some of them are friendly, while others would take your hand off. Barney is one of the friendly variety. He only wants to show me his rubber toy.
The next set of dogs are three Jack Russells opposite each other either side of the main road. I don’t know if they are related or not. There are two in one house and one in the other. They are all equally vicious.
The first is in an old farmhouse with an extensive garden which runs right around the house. For some reason the dog doesn’t like magazines. It doesn’t mind ordinary letters, but when a magazine goes through the door it startles it and the dog goes into a kind of frenzy. It goes at that magazine like it was a rat from the sewer requiring immediate disposal. It “kills” off the magazine and then it is coming straight for me. It scatters through the house to the back door making this throaty growl. Occasionally the owner has left the back door open and it can get out. I have to exit the garden fairly quickly, closing the gate behind me, at which point the dog appears in the garden, yapping and barking and chasing up and down the length of the fence.
On one occasion the dog and the owner were in the back garden as I pushed the letters through the letter box, and the dog got to me before I could get to the gate. It was going straight for my ankles. I jumped back, startled. I was holding my bag up in front of it, trying to divert its attention, like a bull fighter does with his cloak. I wasn’t too worried whether it would bite me or not, I was more worried that it might chase me out onto the street, in which case it could have run into the road and under a car. So I was defending myself like this, waving my bag in front of it, fending off its little snapping jaws, backing away towards the gate, when the owner came round. “Ah poor little Alfie,” she said, picking the thing up and cuddling it. “Ooo you poor little thing, your heart is beating so fast. You are so scared.”
She was saying this like it was my fault the dog had gone for me, like I had scared the dog on purpose. You try to explain it to people, but they don’t understand. The relationship between dogs and postal workers is a fundamental one. It is written into the very fabric of life, part of the struggle for existence, like the relationship between predators and their prey. There will always be a rivalry between us. They don’t trust us and we don’t trust them. That dog wouldn’t be happy till it saw me lying immobile by the front door, covered in blood, my letters scattered up and down the garden path. Never mind poor little Alfie. What about poor little me?
The dogs on the other side are even crazier. I’ve only just left one Jack Russell yapping and shrieking along the garden fence, when I’m confronted by two more. These ones are in the bay window of a large detached house opposite. They jump up onto the windowsill and are barking insanely, trying to get to me through the glass. Well, one of them is. The other is in the background, bouncing around on a table, obviously brought to a pitch of hysteria by the other’s frantic yelping. The first one is so obsessed with getting to me that it is banging its nose repeatedly on the glass. It’s a wonder it doesn’t have a callus on the end of its nose, it bangs it with such persistent force. I’ve spoken to its owner. “That’s an insane dog you’ve got there, “ I say. She mutters apologetically and tells me that there are scratch marks on inside of the window where the dog’s teeth are coming into contact with the glass. That’s how mad that dog is.
OK, I have to be honest at this point. I enjoy all of this. Like I say, dogs are my principle form of entertainment. In the case of the crazy Jack Russell in the bay window, I will flap my letters in front of its face as I’m coming to the door. That makes it even more frantic. It falls off the windowsill, doing a back flip, before leaping back onto the sill, and banging its nose on the glass even more. I can make it chase around on the windowsill by flapping the letters up and down in front of its face. The other dog yelps and shrieks and scatters away, spinning on its hind legs. I’m causing mayhem in that front room. This is all part of the sport.
I have various games with the various dogs on my round. I’m sure this is mutual. Most of the dogs are awaiting my arrival. There’s one little lap dog that sits on the back of the settee. As soon as she sees me she leaps into the hall to the front door to receive the letters. Her part of the game is that she has to catch the letters before they fall on the mat. My part of the game is that I have to approach the house very quietly. If I make a noise and she knows I’m coming she will go to the front door before she’s seen me. That spoils the game as I count it as a score if I can catch her eye before she leaps down from the settee. There will usually be a few seconds of frantic barking as we hold each others gaze. She doesn’t quite know whether to confront me there through the front window, or to go to the hall to collect the letters.
I’ve spoken to the owner, a well-to-do lady of independent means. Once or twice she has had occasion to collect the letters before the dog gets to them. Or she picks the dog up. Or she might have closed the door between the living room and the hall. Whichever way, the game is spoiled. So I’ve told her: “you’re ruining our game. You’ve got to let your dog get to the door to catch the letters before they fall on the mat.”
The owner has agreed to this. “You’re the highlight of her day,” she says. “She waits for you. She is very disappointed if you don’t come.”
We enjoy the game so much that sometimes, even if I’ve not got any letters to deliver, I’ll shove something through the letter box – some junk mail or something – just to hear the frantic yelping from the other side.
And so it goes on, through a succession of dogs throughout my round. There are dogs behind doors that wait like silent predators till you shove the letters through the letter box, before grabbing them with their teeth. You have to be careful of these dogs as they could easily take your fingers off. There are dogs behind fences that chase up and down. There’s one Rottweiler that bounds at me as I come up the garden path, leaping against the wire mesh fence with incredible force. That one would kill me for sure. He shares the garden with another dog, a venerable old collie. This one is philosophical. It fixes you with a questioning stare, as if to ask, “and who do you think you are?” while the Rottweiler is circling around again getting ready for its next leap against the fence.
There are dogs in front rooms that hop about and yelp. There are dogs that chatter and dogs that whine. There are some dogs that make such a mess of the letters that the owner has had to fix a box by the front door and block up the letter box. There is one dog that tries to climb the fence to get to me. It’s one of those wire mesh fences and the dog can get about five feet up, lodging it’s paws in the interlocking diamond shapes. It is the world’s only climbing dog.
Each dog has its own personality. I have a particular relationship with every dog on my round.
In fact I know the dogs more than the owners in many cases. Most of the owners take me for granted. I’m just the postie, the feller who brings the mail, and I can be safely ignored. But for the dogs I’m an integral part of the drama of their day. I am Iago to their Othello. I am Shylock to their Antonio. I am the villain to be conquered, the enemy at the gate. I am the threat to their master or mistress, and that bunch of letters I hold and thrust through their door could easily be a bomb. Often they are locked up in their houses and I’m the only highlight till the family returns. I am the single incidence in the long hours of their day, and such is their frantic welcoming of my arrival that it would be churlish of me not to reciprocate in some way. That’s why I make a game of it. We are both bound by routine, me and the dogs. We help each other to pass the time of day.
Not all dogs are fun, however. Some dogs are dangerous. That Rottweiler, for instance: that would definitely kill me. Fortunately I know all the dogs on my round, so I know which ones are safe. But occasionally I have to do another round to cover for someone who is away, and then I might not be so up to date on which dogs are OK. There is a procedure for this. There are instruction cards for most rounds. If you are doing a new round you are supposed to take a look at the cards to see what particular requirements there might be, what threats there are. But these are not always kept up to date, and things can change very quickly.
Once I walked into a yard and a dog that was normally locked up had been let out. It was an Alsatian. It was summer. The people, who were normally at work, were on holiday. So they’d let the dog into the yard to run around, and when I came through the gate it went for me. I have two means of defence: my boots and my bag. If the bag has some mail in it, it could be heavy enough to use as a weapon. Or it could act as a diversion. You throw the bag at the dog and the dog will maul the bag first, before it comes for you. That way you can get to the gate. In this case, I didn’t have time. I was holding the bag up in front of me, dangling it in front of the dog’s nose, backing away towards the gate. But the dog had fixed me in the eye and was padding towards me, growling menacingly. It definitely meant to do me harm. Fortunately the owners came out and grabbed the dog before it could make that fatal leap. They were apologising profusely as I handed on the letters and dived out of there, my heart thumping away in my chest. That was a very near miss.
If a postie comes to a gate and there’s a dog on the other side, he can refuse to deliver the mail. He can put the letters back in his bag and walk away from there. If a dog is loose on the street, he can refuse to deliver to the whole street. Most dog attacks happen in the summer months. The kids are at home, and they forget to close the doors behind them. The dog gets out and the unsuspecting postie comes whistling up the path only to be confronted by the family pet miraculously transformed into a ravening beast.
This is a regular occurrence.
Also there are a lot more casual posties now than there used to be. They don’t get proper training. They are just thrown out on a round and told to get on with it. No one ever gets told where the dangerous dogs are and which houses to avoid. There are many more incidences of dog attacks than there used to be: approaching 5,000 a year according to the latest figures.
One regular injury caused by dogs is bites to the fingers. I alluded to this earlier. The dog waits behind the door till you shove the letters through and makes a grab for them. Sometimes your fingers can get caught. If it’s a vicious dog you can get your fingers bitten off. It helps if you know the dog is there. Fortunately the Royal Mail have provided us with the proper equipment to avoid this particular injury. We have these little plastic implements about six inches long and one and a half inches across, like a school ruler with a slot in the end, so we can shove the mail through the door and avoid using our fingers. I don’t know what the technical name for these items might be. I call them “mail shovelling through the door thingies.” Every postal worker in the country has been issued with one of these in the last few months. I don’t know how much they cost, but, knowing the Royal Mail, they will have paid over the odds for them. Unfortunately it takes an extra five seconds or more to load the mail into the slot and to wheedle the thing through the door. It’s a complex and delicate manoeuvre, so we tend not to use them. Mine sits on a shelf on the back of my frame and I’ve never had occasion to take it out. I’d be very surprised indeed if any postal worker actually uses theirs, but I might be wrong.