Winter’s house

A frosty year spent delivering mail in a small English village proved more fruitful than alumnus Robert Lukins could have ever imagined – it inspired his debut novel. Robert takes us back to the snowy setting that became a home for his characters.

Author and UQ alumni Robert Lukins sits on a stall against a white wall. Author and UQ alumni Robert Lukins sits on a stall against a white wall.

It’s still dark when I head out for work, but then it should be as it’s three in the morning and the deep middle of an English winter. It’s 2002 and I’ve been living in this arcadian Shropshire village for a handful of days, having borne the Qantas flight from Brisbane International for no discernible reason. I’ve chosen to make home in this obscure border village for no clearer motive. I was prone to following my whims in the early days of the third millennium.

The morning I arrived I saw a handwritten card in the pub’s window: POSTMAN NEEDED, so I became a postman.

They gave me a Royal Mail pushbike, a balaclava and torch, and an unreasonably early start time. Alone and coloured by the post office’s single low-wattage bulb I would sort the mail from bags, load up the bike’s basket and push out into the unlit cobbled alley. Sweat would begin to turn to ice in my eyebrows before the end of the first street.

I had a hand-scrawled map folded in my breast pocket but learned the route soon enough. Straight until the betting shop, then a zigzag though the misaligned village centre; a mash of cottages, modern brick and terraces. Then the wider sweeps into the older, unchanged parts of town, where the surrounding fields encroached with green, and space. The homes here were mottled slate, thatch, bedded-in with loved gardens though all was beneath snow. The grass, the bluebell bulbs, the hawthorn. It was already the coldest winter in decades and I could only wonder what my new home must be hiding beneath its white blanket.

It was a surprise to me that no residence in the village possessed a letterbox. The mail was delivered through the slot in each front door, so the routine was to park the bike at the top of each avenue and walk its bundle house to house. Check the number; fumble with the gate; trip on the step; attempt to extract the pertinent letter from the bunch with fingertips long since frozen purple and inflexible; repeat.

They had warned me of black ice – a thin transparent glaze on the roads – but hours before dawn, and with no street lights, all ice is black ice. So with uncanny regularity I would be rounding a corner, typically on a picturesque decline, when I would feel my tyres’ tread lose all traction and the bike would tip radically to one side. The bike, the village’s heavy basket of correspondence, me in my inadequate coat: we would meet the ground with the sound of a bag of ice being broken apart at a suburban Brisbane barbeque. Friction a thing of the past, we would continue on our sides around the bend, spinning, me with my hands around my head, the letters being scattered in a wide arc down the length of the street. Eventually something – a parked car or hedge most often – would halt this performance. I would get the bike and me back to vertical, re-centre my headlamp torch, and begin the task of retrieving and re-sorting the mail.

The bike had the weight and constitution of a Sherman tank and would show not even the slightest confession of damage. Sore and behind schedule I would begin again.

Each round my final delivery would be the same. The basket would be empty but for these last few uninspiring envelopes. Junk mail most often, perhaps a bill. Their delivery would take me out of town three or four miles, up through the uninhabited hills. Empty grazing fields rippled out in every direction. Brambles pushed into the road. Bare oaks made silhouettes.

The village now well out of sight, the colossal manor house would deem to appear as dawn made its first attempts. It was the common style and size of these feudal remnants. Imposing and magnificent; as if a community of regal buildings had coalesced subject to the gravity of its own excessiveness. The manor, though, had been left to ruin. Abandoned for what appeared to be decades, neglect had sought to pull the place into the earth. Windows were shattered, stonework crumbled, nature overtook its walls and pillars; and with no-one to deny it, the junk mail persisted.

Having squeezed the letters through the grand door’s aperture I would walk back up the drive to my propped bicycle. I would stand for some time. The sun would slowly do its trick of awakening the wider world. Starlings flittered. I would free my face and shoulders of snow.

Time had no business here.

The troubles of the past, the cold now, the unknowable ahead: all collapsed into a single point. I had been running away from things in Brisbane. That was the truth. I had found no solution here in the picture book fantasy of this village, this house, but I had secured a fragment of peace. Standing with the Manor at my back, all else ahead, I was no wiser but I could feel a moment becoming solid in my memory.

A concentrated, fearful, haunting, beautiful moment.

This was my life for a year. Twelve months of getting to know a silent, people-less place. Four seasons of delivering the mail and standing in my place in the shadow of the manor. When middle Winter came again I returned to Australia with as little intent as I had left it. I arrived to a golden Brisbane summer that blistered on, indifferent to my absence. I moved into a sharehouse next door to the XXXX brewery. I got burnt pink. I enrolled at The University of Queensland.

A life unfolded.

I wrote, always looking for my place in things and always carrying with me that memory of the manor. That cold fragment. A plan formed to write a novel in which I would finally be honest. To lay all the things bare.

The story would need a house; the characters a home. I knew just the place.

Robert Lukins completed a Bachelor of Arts (Art History) at The University of Queensland. His debut novel, The Everlasting Sunday, will be published by University of Queensland Press on 26 February 2018. The book will be launched at Avid Reader Bookshop, West End, on April 12, and all are welcome. Please register here.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertlukins. His novel will be available at all bookshops, and in ebook.