Gifts, contracts, and whispers
1 October 2001
The capsule's a foot and a half long, scuffed red leather, battered brass, old and built to last. I drop the books inside, latch closed the door, and spin the heavy wheels on the front. The numbers of your address stand out in relief, a motto on this parcel.
Let me say a little of where I am. Outside Borders on Charing Cross Road it's raining heavily and my glasses are spotted from the spray being thown up from the Chairs shooting along the iron rails. The close grey sky is scarcely any darker than the buildings, both thick with soot and dirt. The postal pipe hugs the curb, rivulets of rain on it trembling every time a package flies along it. Here and there it forks, and a pipe splits off to serve a shop or another street. I'm crouching, and I'm sure the tail of my coat is getting soaked. The cold water runs down my face and streams off my nose. There's a opening in the top of the pipe covered by a thick black brush that flicks yet more rain at me as I force the capsule past it, and a quick breath of hot air steams my glasses before the brush seals and the capsule's carried off.
Imagine it zigzag along the floor of London. Propelled along Oxford Street. Here rattling past a junction, there having the address read and the points changing. Always just a few yards ahead of it the rails flicking across, directing, channelling. I wonder whether I could guess the route? Probably not. Who will notice it on its way? Probably no-one. Somebody sleeping against the pipe maybe, keeping warm against it, in an alleyway out of the downpour. Millions of capsules like mine, hurtling across the city. Gifts, contracts, and whispers. I step over them all, hopping over the pipe on my way home.
The postal network grows organically. Nobody knows really how far it stretches, what dark corners brass and leather travel to.
Each switch functions independently, deciding which way to point the rails to route each parcel. Each switch reads the raised address with a metal punchcard, and makes the choice accordingly. And a switch can be placed anywhere, swapped with a straight segment with no rewiring. I'm told that there are special route capsules that constantly circle the network, their innards full of clockwork, timing the paths and reprogramming the switches as they pass, travelling thousands upon thousands of miles a year, every year, over forty now since the system was built.
There's a trunk line down to Dover, a bundle of dozens of pipes that hook into postships. The largest of these carries a hundred thousand capsules, mechanically sorted before being routed across the Continent and beyond.
Not that your books will have to go nearly that far. They'll dodge across London, duck under roads, shoot up the side of buildings, twist and turn again and again in the pitch black maze.
I'm thinking of the capsule noisily dropping onto your floor, on my way home. The yellowing plexiglass covering the Chair is too wet to see through so after I've pushed my address card in I read the paper. It's the usual. Economic concerns. The price of brass is rising. The London Chair Authority are agitating for more pay, but to be honest the system could carry on indefinitely without them. The rails are iron and will last for decades yet, the Chairs just as solid.
The trip home is always different as the points change to route me around hold-ups. I lean into the corners and rattle across switches as sometimes I'm taken down narrow alleys and sometimes I join a main road of twenty, maybe more pairs of tracks. It's all seemingly at random, but there and again I see a landmark through the rain splattered window, crossing the Thames, then iron wheels on iron tracks under railway arches near Waterloo.
It's taking a little longer than usual to get home, and judging by the route we're going around a problem at one of the major interchanges, which happens sometimes. So I read a little more of the paper (a disappearance in Brighton, a widening of the Chair trunk up to Nottingham) and as the rain clears I see that the streetlamps are lighting up, bright orange streaks against a filthy dull orange sky.
And then again I see Charing Cross Road, there again are the lights of Borders.
I leaf hurriedly back through the paper, back to the Chair Authority article where I read on and learn of rumours of threats to tamper with the Routing Chairs, to interfere with the workings of the network. Nervously I tug my address card, but brass pins are still through the punchholes and the safety catch on the plastic bubble is locked down.
I imagine: The books for you not finding their destination, lost under the floorboards, dashing along long disused pipes, scaring the rats.
I remember: The early days of the network, packet loss, London Chairs being accidentally routed to Manchester, eventually found at the end of a line, grassed over, occupents still inside.
(And there goes Borders again.)
It wouldn't have been much. A cog jammed, a routing table not properly greased. A lack of confidence in our whole transport and communication system could bring this City to its knees.
My nails are chipped, my fingers bleeding, but my address card is jammed and the plate above it securely screwed in. Stubborn brass.
The books drop into a derelict house somewhere in Southend-on-Sea, a branch off a branch off a branch that hasn't been used in a decade or more.
My Chair circles the City, across the Thames four times an hour. I've no idea how long it's been now, but I know that it's now sunny outside, and I know that London is beautiful on days like this. The postal pipes gleam and hum along the curbs and on the sides of iron grey buildings against a blue and white sky. The Chairs flash in the sunlight, almost alive dodging past one another, hundreds of them mechanically switched only feet apart, delivering people, swarming, a stunning achievement, a wonder to behold, a yellow and silver sea under a bright sun, a testament to our strength, to our intellect.
And around I go. Borders.
A golden chariot speeding under a golden sun.