M M Lewis's comic steampunk story about a post-Apocalyptic postman with a precious cargo.
The Royal Mail's post-Flood motto was "Come rain or come shine we'll get it there... eventually." He refilled his shot glass. As much as he enjoyed whisky he missed tea. The great tea shortage was one of the worst things about the new normal. Paddy remembered meeting James Finchley, one of Royal Mail's most feared customers, all moustache, bluster and tweed. He had passed over the small cardboard box and told Paddy: "This parcel is valuable and very urgent." It was always 'very urgent', never just urgent.
"Sir, we work hard to provide an adequate service in these difficult times. Your delivery is reasonably safe with us," Paddy said.
"I have every confidence in you," Finchley had said, putting an arm around him. After all, I know where the Royal Mail airfield is and I have a hunting rifle." Finchley had shown him a picture of the recipient, Miss Lulu Lovelock. She was beautiful with golden hair and well-applied makeup. She was surely out of Finchley's league, for all the rumours.
The journey towards the city had been uneventful apart from a near-bird strike by a seagull over Weston Super Mare and an irate farmer taking pot shots in the Cotswolds, presumably mistaking the balloon for an air pirate ship. Royal Mail's public relations had never recovered from when air pirates had hijacked a Royal Mail Zeppelin and looted Swindon and Reading.
As the balloon passed over the waters of Slough, Paddy looked down and wondered what the parcel was. The box was fully sealed, so was not livestock. The box was small and relatively light. Something shifted when he shook it, a box within a box. A gift to woo Miss Lovelock? Twisted hunter that Finchley was, Paddy wondered if it was a small trophy like a stuffed sparrow.
The city was dangerous flight territory, known to be rife with air pirates and pigeons. Paddy approached it cautiously although there was no way of being stealthy in a bright red hot air balloon. In keeping with Royal Mail Air Force Health & Safety guidelines however, he approached the city with the sun behind him.
Paddy's reasonable precaution was not enough however, from behind the skeletal rafters of a once mighty skyscraper emerged a billowing Jolly Roger; it was the Black Pigeon, the flagship of the Urban Pirate Confederates.
Something like a breakneck aeronautical chase in between the ruined skyscrapers ensued. Like that, but much slower and largely involving letting out hot air from the balloons and furious steering. In the end, Paddy caught a lucky break and slipped through a gap between towers too narrow for the pirates' balloon. From there, Paddy avoided further trouble, finding his way to Little Venice. The canals were crowded with houseboats, now the waters had receded.
It took Paddy several hours to find the boat he needed, graced with the name 'Ark' in common with at least fifty other boats in the moorings. He had to find it by asking around for Lulu Lovelock. Finchley had told him to mention shortbread. "She is renowned for her homemade shortbread," he had explained.
Finchley had been right. Paddy followed Miss Lovelock's reputation for shortbread, right back to her house boat.
"Miss Lovelock?" He asked, finally finding her, in the likeness of the picture he had been shown, only in person she looked older, paler, but her hair was even more lustrous and golden. What charmed him most was her smile when she saw the parcel.
"Would you like to come in for a cuppa, hen?" she asked.
Paddy laughed. "I wish I could." That had been the true national tragedy of the floods. All of the major tea warehouses, import centres and growers had been ruined.
"Well, come on in then," she said, taking the parcel. She looked around, let him in and locked the door behind him. Paddy was not sure if he should be afraid or excited.
Miss Lovelock filled the kettle with water.
"I'm so glad you could make it," she said. "It must have been a bit of trek."
"All in a day's work for the Royal Mail, ma'am."
"That's true," she said, agreeing all too readily with Paddy's modesty.
"But there were pirates," he added.
"I'm sure you were very brave," she said, flicking the kettle on, then neatly cutting the cello tape holding the package closed. She unwrapped it like a lover. Inside was a box of immaculate and dry teabags. Paddy gasped, it would be worth thousands in the black tea market.
"You weren't joking."
"I never joke about tea, hon."
"But I'm not worthy to drink one of those precious tea bags."
"Please, Mr Postman, be a gentleman. Don't make a lady drink alone."
The tea, even though it was only a supermarket own brand, tasted all the sweeter for its rarity. This would be a special moment in Pete's life, one he would think back to during the monotonous days of mail delivery ahead, particularly after the big drying of the United Kingdom and the return of post vans.