So, this is one of the most beautiful stories I have ever had the pleasure of sharing. A few weeks ago, I shared a photograph of this mail-art on my Instagram account: a painted journey (kind of a map for the postie) of the route my letter will take, from my home in Melbourne, out through the suburbs, past vineyards and the iconic Hanging Rock (remember?), all the way to Pippa's house in a country town at the edge of the Macedon Ranges.
A day later, I received a message from a beautiful German lady called Fine. She had used my mail-art as inspiration to write a short story about a different sort of journey, the slow unfolding of an old man from retirement and grief to openness and adventure. She wrote the story "just because," and sent it to me as a gift. With her permission, I have reproduced it for you here (I gave the story its title, but the rest of the words are Fine's own).
Fine's gift of this story left me slightly breathless. I am always telling people that writing a letter (as opposed to, say, an email or Facebook message) is extra special because you are giving someone the gift of your time. I feel the same way about this story, because she took the time to think about my painting, and through it brought an old man to life with her words.
The next time social media algorithms or online bullying or targeted advertisements on the Internet weigh you down, think about Fine, and this story, and how people all over the world are making the Internet work for them (not the other way around), using it to spread creativity and kindness as far as they can go.
GUS AND THE YELLOW BICYCLE
by Fine Winkel
The elderly white haired man with his old and rusty yellow bicycle (that squeaked with every step on the pedal) had long ago stopped dreaming. Had stopped caring, and had stopped doing anything wholeheartedly.
When he woke in the morning, he allowed himself to wince for just a second, glimpsing at the empty pillow next to his, where he used to see Erna’s red curls and her beautiful, warm smile first thing every morning. As the red had faded into white Erna had begun to fade away herself, somehow getting smaller and in the end with her, all the laughter, the friendly chatter, the music and the delicious smell of apple cake had disappeared. After she was gone, the house felt empty and cold, and the lines on his face were no longer from smiling but from cruel scribbles of grief.
His light-blue mailman uniform was still pressed and the remaining strains of his white hair were neatly tucked under his dark blue cap, but he avoided looking into the mirror over the bathroom sink other than to shave, because he could hear Erna’s frail voice making him give three promises on the last morning they had woken up next to each other… and he could practically see her disappointment reflected in his own eyes.
The promise to call their son every week, the promise to harvest the crunchy and juicy apples from the tree they had planted together when their son George was born (so he could make apple cake with Molly, their granddaughter, who had inherited her grannie’s red curls and twinkling green eyes), and the promise to go to the pound and adopt a deserted old dog who would trot alongside his bike on his daily delivery routes.
He had tried the first year, he really did. But he wasn’t good at putting his feelings into words, so he had stopped calling George after a few stilted conversations with increasing periods of silence. He couldn’t find Erna’s recipe book so the cake had been a disaster, and Molly seemed to be afraid of the haggard-faced old man who had instead served dry-as-dust cookies from the rear end of the kitchen cupboard, having forgotten to buy milk and ice-cream, so he had stopped inviting her. He had made his way down to the pound several times, but just couldn‘t bring himself to walk into the sterile, rectangular building that crouched at the bottom of the hill just outside the village, for fear that even the poor creatures inside would sense his grief and plainly refuse to come home with him.
So when old mailman Gus stepped into the red-brick Post Office for the last time, the day before his dreaded retirement, he didn’t expect in the least that his life would be going to be turned upside down in a heartbeat. He didn’t mind that there wasn’t any bon-voyage bunting over the door, or a cake in the break room, or even a card on his small desk to bid farewell to one of their own after 49 years of doing his duty and unfailingly delivering each and every letter to his destination. He had become solitary, and his sendoff would be a silent one.
Still, he would miss slipping into his uniform and feeling his life still had a small purpose in this world.
Gus began to re-sort the few letters addressed by hand that couldn’t be read by the machine that by now did all the sorting. To make out the flowing handwriting, Gus had to put on his glasses, which he knew would have made Erna giggle with delight at her husband’s vanity and tell him, “Honey, maybe it’s a good thing you’re as blind as a bat without your glasses and you refuse to wear them. Your eyes have a built-in Gaussian blur to hide all my imperfections.” He briskly shoved aside this sentimental thought and concentrated on the task ahead, just now noticing an envelope at the bottom of the pile.
During almost twelve hundred days of delivering mail, Gus had never seen a letter more beautiful, and was instantly reminded of the most exquisite illustrations in an old children’s book Erna had loved to read to little George and later to Molly. The kids had spent hours discovering small details and oohing and ahhing over tiny maps depicting the magical village surrounded by woods steeped in legend. It made him sad to see all this elaborate drawing on the letter, knowing it would never arrive at its destination behind the densely wooded mountains. His replacement Kevin, though much younger and stronger than Gus, wouldn’t care for the extra work and would just mark it return-to-sender or, even worse, put it into a folder and forget it ever existed.
Once again Gus could hear Erna’s voice, but this time it wasn’t frail or sad or disappointed: it was strong and energetic, and it reminded him of all the adventures that he, George and their dog Albert had planned while studying the cherished illustrated map. More than once they had packed their backpacks and taken their bikes to start on an adventure, coming home sweaty and with messy hair, but with enormous smiles on their faces, to breathlessly tell Erna everything they had seen, while eating cake fresh from the oven.
No, he wouldn’t let this envelope that had, as if by magic, replaced his wife’s sad mutter with joyous incentive, just sit in a folder gathering dust. He would – and he couldn’t quite grasp his own boldness – deliver the letter himself, and start on an adventure once more. Quickly he glanced around, making sure no one saw him slipping the envelope into his pocket.
He hadn’t felt this alive in years, as the warm fall afternoon turned into night, and he made his way home from the pound on his squeaky old bike with a new faithful companion by his side.
For now he would call George and ask him to come over for apple pie next week (the handwritten recipe book had been found lying in a box with Albert’s old bowl and collar, clever Erna). But first thing tomorrow, Gus and the chocolate Labrador, Hamilton, would embark on an adventure. And he couldn’t wait...