A couple of months ago, Penny Post covered the story that Martins in Hungerford High Street may be closing, possibly leaving the town without a post office. Having heard further rumours about this I went in yesterday morning to enquire further: a newshound on a fearless quest for truth, oblivious to the fact that the pasty I’d bought from Squires across the road was getting cold. The news comes first, lunch second. I figured I would be in and out in no time – quick question, quick answer. How wrong I was.
There were half a dozen people queuing for the post office (perhaps 4 Jan is the last posting date for surface mail to the Falkland Islands for Christmas 2017) so I went instead to the shop till. There was an elderly woman being served who was asking for a first class stamp.
“We’ve run out,” the assistant told her, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m afraid you’ll have to go to the post office.” She pointed at the queue.
The customer sighed.
I remembered that I had a book of first class stamps in my wallet so I took one out and gave it to her.
“Don’t worry,” I said as she thanked me. “I’m confident I’ll be repaid by an act of generosity by someone else just when I least expect it.”She briefly gave me a surprised look as if expecting a hidden catch, or perhaps a request to sign something, but then gratefully went on her way. That, I thought, was that. Glowing slightly, I turned to the assistant.
To my surprise she was handing me a penny. I thought for a moment it was some lucky charm or perhaps a small medal that post offices awarded in such circumstances.
“I’m very superstitious,” she began, “so I need to pay you – you see, you’re not allowed to give away stamps in a post office.”
It was easy to believe her. Stamps are strange things. They’re legal tender (I think) and so are sort of like money, which is something you mess with at your peril. My thoughts about stamps are also confused by having been told by my cousin when I was about seven that if you stuck a stamp on upside down the Queen would come and find you and cut your head off. Even at the time I’d felt this was over-doing it rather but the thought stuck in my mind and, half a century later, I’m still careful about sticking stamps on dead square. For all I know it might even be true. There were times when you really could buy a stamp for a penny. I reflected on the irony that I, the co-owner of Penny Post, had been offered a penny in exchange for a stamp in, of all places, a post office. I thought about mentioning this oddity but decided it would involve too much back story. Instead I remembered something else I’d heard, that it was illegal to buy stamps with a credit card though you could do so with a debit card. I asked about that. The assistant had never heard of it. If it were true she would surely have been well aware of it and probably been able to quote the relevant act of parliament. My knowledge of stamps and the laws surrounding their use and purchase were proving to be very sketchy. Remote indeed were my chances of becoming Postmaster General.
All the time I was also wondering what to do with the penny. There was no point in putting it in my coat pockets because both of them have holes and there were already a good number of items rattling about in the bottom of the lining which make me sound as if I’m playing a small drum kit when on the move. One of my trouser pockets had developed the same problem the day before which had resulted in a cascade of coins ending up in my shoe: but I couldn’t remember which pocket. Of course, no gentleman will ever put a coin in his back pocket. There was another consideration. I felt that I hadn’t really earned or even wanted this payment. My act of spontaneous generosity, mixed with a bit of ‘what goes round, comes round’ self interest, had somehow been compromised. Moreover, having made this gesture I had almost immediately found myself enmeshed in a legal, moral and sartorial tangle. The obvious solution was to put the coin in the charity box on the counter, which I did. The circle thus seemed to have been closed: but as I walked out I wasn’t so sure.
My question to you is this: has Help the Aged now (i) assumed responsibility for the crime I committed by giving a stranger a stamp in a post office or (ii) inherited the unexpected favour that a few minutes before I had confidently expected to receive for the same action? All I do know is that all this excitement made me forget to ask what was going to be happening to the post office, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you. I appreciate that this is shocking journalism. Perhaps I should leave this kind of thing to the Newbury Weekly News.