The mailman was pale from being in a whale. I called him over and asked, —Did you deliver my letter?
—I couldn't, he replied. —I'm sorry. I had unforeseen problems. When you gave me your letter I noticed it said urgent, so I hurried to the docks and caught the next steamer to the USA. I kept the mailbag close to me at all times, as is my duty. I'm conscientious in my work, which is the reason, I believe, that I have kept my position for so long. The other passengers, realising I was an agent of the government, treated me with respect, and I was grateful for that. It is always comforting to know that, as a government employee, my work is appreciated by the public, as I am sure you will appreciate.
The first few days of the journey were peaceful enough, and I became acquainted with a young lady named Mavis Rawbottom. Her father had been a mailman back in the days when mailmen were mailmen, but he had been injured one morning when delivering an odd shaped parcel and a postcard to the Chinese Embassy. The postcard, for whatever reason, was thrown back in his face, struck him in the eye, and somehow or other, no one knew how, caused an aneurysm, which, after much suffering, brought about his death.
Mavis was an attractive woman, with a large nose. There's nothing sets off a face better than a prominent nose. She had never married, devoting her life to caring for her sick father, which, I think you'll agree, shows something of her personality.
Of course, I never married either; carrying the mail isn't a career suitable for a married man; never knowing when the next postcard will blind you, or worse.
So, like two lonely souls we found solace on the star strewn evenings when we strolled the decks. Do you know I think those days were amongst the happiest of my life. You may find it difficult to believe but I've had a hard life. My father was a banker who cared only for money. I rarely saw him and I was always in awe of his height and majesty. My mother was a neurotic and was always bursting into tears at the slightest provocation.
But I digress. I have to explain about your letter.
One evening Mavis invited me back to her cabin. I was nervous; I'm not comfortable with women, especially if I like them. I never know what to say to them, and I liked Mavis a great deal. During those blissful moments when we walked around the deck as friends I was full of things to talk about, but as soon as I stepped into her cabin, and I realised she would be wanting me to make love to her, my mouth dried and I could think of nothing to say. Can you understand that?
—Yes, I said, wishing he would get to the point and explain why my letter was undelivered.
As she removed her coat, she asked, —Cat got your tongue? and smiled. I tried to overcome my nervous disposition and was about to return her smile when suddenly the boat lurched and Mavis fell into my arms. I felt her warmth for an instant, an instant that to me was Heaven, but when the ship lurched again, she slipped from my arms and fell to the floor. I staggered and fell too. Water splashed in through the porthole.
The storm came upon us in the night, suddenly with anger and fervour. The ship was rocked from side to side. Fish flew out of the sea. Passengers crowded the passageways in panic. For a time I lost Mavis, and when I found her, looking wild-eyed and frightened, we clung to each other as if together we would survive but separate we couldn't.
The captain yelled, Abandon ship!
Together we were lowered in a lifeboat. It was crowded and the others complained about my mailbag, but I was reluctant to let it go.
I said, I have a letter in here which is marked urgent.
Well, they said, keep that letter and throw the rest away.
I don't know if you were aware, but mailmen swear a vow to deliver the mail, no matter what obstacles may thwart them, nevertheless I realised, in the circumstances, I had no choice other than to release my mailbag and watch it float away on the ocean waves.
As it was, the mailbag was probably safer with the waves than it would have been with me, for a few minutes later a whale rose from the sea and its giant teeth crunched into our lifeboat and Mavis and I, clinging to each other, were swallowed as one.
You would never imagine how hot and stuffy it is in a whale. So hot I had to remove my jacket. An act I now regret because in one of the pockets was your letter.
A young boy and his mother had been swallowed with us. He kept whining and sobbing and his mother kept telling him to shut up.
Mavis took out her knitting needles. She loved knitting, though I didn't think this was the ideal place for creating textiles. Above her a fleshy bulbous mass dangled.
That's a tonsil, she said, and stuck a knitting needle into it.
Immediately the whale gave a hefty cough and we were hurled back into the sea, all four of us together.
We floated on the rolling sea for I don't know how long till we were rescued by a passing ship. By this time I was delirious and confined to a cot till we reached shore. I spent many weeks in hospital. I never saw the boy or his mother again.
—And Mavis? I asked.
—We're married, he said, smiling. —Hoping soon for our first born.
—I'm so happy for you.
—The story was in all the papers. Perhaps you read about it?
—Yes I did, I said, —but I didn't realise it was your ship.
—I'm sorry about the letter. Was it important?
—Yes it was, but if I'd known the trouble it would cause you I should never have asked you to convey it. It was for my boyfriend. We had had an absolutely dreadful argument and my letter was to say sorry, it was my fault, please let's make up and get back together. It was such a silly argument. I'm embarrassed now to think of it. He said I'd eaten his last hazelnut whirl – they were his favourites, you understand. I said I hadn't, but – oh, I'm so ashamed to admit it – I had.
Can you imagine the guilt I felt when I realised how upset he was. It was meant in jest. I thought he would find it amusing, and say, You little minx, and tickle my ribs and kiss me. But instead he threw all the chocolates up in the air and shouted at me. And once he had shouted at me I couldn't apologise for what I had done because he needed to apologise first for being rude. Such a horrid argument over such a trivial matter.
He left. He said he was never coming back. I'm only young. How can I conceive of never. Now he lives far away in America.
The mailman's eyes were full of sorrow.
—If the letter is that important and you want it back I can only suggest you obtain passage with a whaler – there's one leaving early tomorrow– and discover if it's possible to catch the whale who tried to eat me and almost certainly still has my jacket with your letter.
I thanked the mailman and he went on his way to finish his deliveries like the conscientious worker he was. I went home and prepared for a new adventure on the morrow. I made jam tarts for the journey.
In the morning I rose early, ate all the jam tarts, and went to the docks. I found a whaler and asked to speak to the captain. He was gruff and smelly.
—You don't look like a sailor to me, he said, —frail little thing like you. Can you wheel a capstan?
—Aye cap'n, that I can.
—And you'd know what to do if you were pooped?
—Aye cap'n, that I would.
—And you could shake a leg to shiver yer timbers?
—Aye cap'n, that I could.
And with that I was hired.
As soon as we were sailing I realised my foolishness in lying to the captain. Beneath me the ship moved, not like a carriage going bumpity bump, but more as if the floor under my feet was wobbly like a jelly. The movement was constant. I could hardly stand or walk. I couldn't count how many times I fell over. Dyspepsia was my constant companion.
I was fearful of the men. I thought at any moment I would be molested. Fortunately their interest seemed to be with the young boys. The cabin boy and the captain's lad gained more lascivious followers than I did. Although that may have been because every time I was spoken to I vomited, which is never a good way of enticing a romantic admirer.
Then we chased our first whale. It was horrific. Such a magnificent animal tortured and killed in such a barbarous manner. It was slit open on deck, but there was no letter inside it.
They harpooned a second, but it got away and I have to admit I said hooray when the animal escaped deep into the ocean.
Then it was time for the third kill. As the harpoons sank into the creature I realised I needn't have come all this way to do this foul deed. I could just as easily have written another letter. My God, what a fool I'd been; this glorious animal suffering and dying just so I could obtain my letter (though of course the main reason for its dying was so that women like me could constrain their bumps and bulges in whalebone corsets). Oh, such an ignominious end to such a glorious creature.
But then it was done and there was no use crying over the matter. The dead whale was hauled on deck and sliced open. The remnants of the mailman's jacket was found and with it, my letter.
Once we docked with our catch I said farewell to the captain and crew and set sail on a clipper bound for New York. The hope of finding my boyfriend had become an obsession. For most of the journey I was ill. Obviously I am not a natural sailor; seasickness together with the recurring nightmare I had of the dying whales made my journey a living hell.
Once in New York I went straight to the address. When I stood in front of the house I realised it had been foolish of me to have gone to all the bother of recovering the letter from the whale because, as I was here, I could just explain the situation in person anyway. But what's done is done as they say.
I knocked on the door and a rather stout woman opened it. I explained who I was looking for.
—Oh no miss, she said. —He went back to England. He had a young lady there. He hadn't heard from her, and he was worried in case something had happened. So he just packed up and left. Left the place clean of course, all paid up. I miss him. But, and here she whispered, —I think the ship he boarded was one of them that was sunk in that terrible storm we had.
—Thank you kindly, I said, and, with a heavy heart and wretched soul, I returned to England. The return journey was even worse than that which had taken me to America. I was so distraught I could neither eat nor sleep. Could it be true – would I never see my true love again?
Once home in London, my first task was to check the losses in the shipping register for the night of the storm. There I discovered his name. Rescued, returned to England.
My heart jumped. Thank God. He was alive.
But where? There was no mention of his whereabouts in the register. I hurried to the clerk who told me my beloved was in the Royal Maritime Hospital.
Oh, you shall never know how my heart raced as I travelled from Hampstead to Greenwich. The longest journey in the world. I repeatedly told the driver, —Please hurry, please hurry. But he looked at me with a face of scorn as if we had all the time in the world.
The nurses at the hospital were so kind and helpful with their greetings and smiles; such a relief after a journey with a scornful man. They took me along an endless corridor to a well-lit ward and there I saw him, resting, his eyes closed. I clasped his hand and whispered, —My love, my only true love, please forgive me, and his eyes opened and our tears flowed, and through a window the sun broke free of a cloud and sunbeams shone over us.
—My sweet, he said, —how did you find me?
I recounted what had happened since the incident with a hazelnut whirl, and still holding his hand, I asked, —What happened to you?
—After I left, he said, —I was in such a rage I didn't know what to do. I had to get as far away as possible. I wandered the streets for hours and bumped into Bubble, you know, Carruthers, and he said Arthur old boy, haven't seen you for ages.
I told him I needed to leave England and he said, Good lord! Leave England? What on Earth for? Well, if you must.
Without being in the least inquisitive, he gave me the address of an insurance company in New York who were in need of clerks and I sailed for New York and a new life.
The work was interesting and I had lodging with a kind lady, but I missed you dreadfully. One day the separation became too much for me; I had to see you again. I left my employ and lodging, and sailed for England. Only eight days out we were ravaged by a dreadful storm. The passengers and crew were washed overboard and the ship sank. As I was bewailing my fate and thinking I would never see you again, a giant whale skimmed the waves full of bobbing souls and gobbled us all up.
In the belly of whale! Can you imagine it? What had I done to deserve this? Just as I was thinking, This is more than I can take, someone shouted there was a letter for me. It was from you. Discovered in a postman's jacket.
Oh my sweet, when I read your letter I was so heartbroken. I realised how much I loved and needed you; what a fool I'd been to leave you. But then I looked at the jacket and thought, My God she ran off with the postman!
I know what you're thinking: I was crazy to doubt you, but being in a whale unhinged my mind.
I flung both jacket and letter as far from me as possible and railed and shouted. The whale hiccupped and the others, noticing this, railed and shouted too, and we all stamped our feet and screamed. This became too much for the whale who coughed us back into the ocean.
—My poor darling, I said, —what a terrible ordeal. But even as I said it I could only think, Poor whale, he didn't have much success at dinnertime.
—Oh, my dearest, he said. —Why did you leave me for the postman?
—I didn't, my sweet, I answered. —I gave him a letter to take to you urgently. Unfortunately he was eaten by a whale.
—Oh no, he escaped like you. But left his jacket behind.
My beloved looked at me with much affection, and softly whispered, —If I hadn't read your letter I wouldn't have become distraught and instead of being thrown back into the sea I would have been digested. My dearest, you saved my life.
Given that my eating his chocolate had caused the problems in the first place I couldn't see the logic of that, but nevertheless I acquiesced and we clung to each other and cried together till a nurse came to tell us visiting time was over.
Tomorrow is my wedding. I'm so happy. We will have roast duck with potatoes, peas and julienne carrots, port with figgy pudding, dainties and lavender tea. But no chocolate, and especially, no hazelnut whirls.