In March 2003 My wife and I went to live on a small island in the Indian Ocean. We stayed there for a year of tropical delights and frustrations. As a break from fiction – and to help maintain my sanity in the midst of a strange culture – I wrote a series of emails to folks at home…
—– Original Message —–
To: Undisclosed Recipients
Sent: Saturday, June 07, 2003 4:16 PM
Subject: Box 341
To all mail recipients,
In the future, you’ll be able to send parcels as email attachments. Until we
work out how to perform that little miracle, however, you’re going to have
to rely on snail mail to get the job done.
I mention this because, as you are all by now aware, we sometimes run short
Fortunately, we were able to counteract the problem with a secret weapon we
like to call M.U.M.S. or Ma’s Urgent Mail Services. The way it works is
simple; we send pictures of ourselves to our mothers who immediately notice
that we’ve both lost a fair bit of weight. A Fortnum and Mason’s food
package or something similar is then hastily arranged, stuffed with
fattening nourishment and dietary advice. All the while, tears stream down
our poor mothers’ agonised faces as they lament the recent photos of our
tanned, emaciated bodies that most people would kill to possess.
About three weeks later, we retrieve a slip from PO Box 341 which informs us
that a package is waiting for us at ‘parcel collection’. All levity aside,
this really is one of the high points of any given week or month. At this
point, the M.U.M.S. covert operation is almost complete. I proceed directly
to the parcel collection point and stand in the customary queue with saliva
gathering in the mouth.
The first time I did this, I could barely stand still, as thoughts of edible
home comforts rioted for position in my mind. Nearing the front of the
queue, I caught a glimpse of some of the parcels that had made the journey.
I found I was looking at a heap of topological impossibilities. Every
straight line that once defined their edges was no more than a memory. The
only reason I knew they were parcels was that they were a reassuring light
brown colour and because I checked the sign above the counter to make sure I
was in the right place.
Otherwise, I might as well have been looking at a pile of fossilised
Stegosaurus droppings to which someone had stuck labels as an artistic
statement. (“…Yes, darling, it’s so scatologically post prehistory…”)
Obviously, the nerves set in at that point. Had anything we’d been sent
arrived intact? Would the Kikkoman soy sauce have leaked into the gluten
free muesli? Would rats have breached the Oregano? Might the
freeze-dried shitake mushrooms now be powdered? I began to shake with hunger
“Cashier number three, please.”
…Sorry, wrong country…
I handed in my slip, blowing my cheeks out to appear fatter and trying to
hide the fact that my hand was trembling. Around here, if someone knows you
need something, they take great pleasure in making you wait for it. So I
stood there, cheeks bulging, hands clasped so tight the bones were showing,
with a nonchalant look on my face. The parcel official disappeared into the
back room to fetch my property. When I realised it wasn’t one of the ones in
the pile of dinosaur poo, I breathed a very small sigh of relief. (Nothing
big enough to deflate my face, of course.)
The official returned carrying something but, whatever it was, I knew there
must have been a mistake. It couldn’t possibly be mine. No, my Mum had sent
me a box full of essential civilised foodstuffs. What I was looking at,
clutched in the official’s hands, was an enormous, dried jellyfish that was
covered in mud.
“Mr. D’Lacey?” Snapped the official, reading something that was written on the
“Yes?” Too late, the air had escaped my mouth and the extent of my
starvation became obvious. There would be no fooling them now.
The official appraised me for a moment and then used a Stanley knife to
slice open the filthy invertebrate. Inside was a Tupperware box containing
Kikkoman soy sauce, gluten free muesli, oregano and some freeze-dried
shitake mushrooms. The official showed the contents to another official (One
with more stripes on the sleeve) and she nodded back to him. The lower
minion taped the gutted jellyfish back up and handed it to me.
“Dix rupees, monsieur.”
“For a dried jellyfish?”
“Documentation fee. Dix rupees, monsieur.”
Any more protests and they were going to keep my precious jellyfish. I
handed over the grimiest ten rupee note I could find and tried not to let
them see they’d rattled me. On the way back to the flat, I hid in a bush and
ate some of the oregano, washed down with some soy sauce.
Since M.U.M.S came to our rescue we have managed to put on a few more pounds
but not too many in case the care packages stop arriving.
One day, I received slip in Box 341 advising me to collect a ‘damaged’
package. Considering the condition they usually arrived in, I wondered what
‘damaged’ could possibly mean. As usual, the box appeared to have been
employed as armour on a challenger tank under heavy fire.
Whoever had sent it had made the mistake of writing ‘Fragile’ on the outside
of the box where the postal workers could easily spot it. That’s the kind of
thing that really fires them up.
Somewhere in the bowels of Victoria Post Office, there are mahouts with
specially trained elephants. Each elephant has been fattened up for the job
of sitting on every parcel that arrives from outside the Seychelles. They
are so well trained that they can feel the pressure they’re exerting on each
box through the cheeks of their huge leathery arses and they have been
educated to stand up just after the shape goes out of the parcel but just
before it bursts open.
Every now and again they get it wrong. We all make mistakes…
Mahout: “OK, Ethel, time for a cup of specially brewed Seychelles vanilla
Ethel the elephant: “Thank god, my legs are killing me. I’ve crushed seventy
eight boxes and it’s only ten past nine.”
Mahout: “Wait, Ethel, don’t sit there!”
Ethel: “Is it bad?”
Mahout: “I’m afraid there’s a big split in it, dear. You’ve gone and damaged
Ethel: “My career’s finished. I’ll never work in the parcel crushing
Mahout: “Don’t worry, I’ll put in a good word with the postmaster. But
please try and remember your training next time – ‘All parcels are to be
crushed and mutilated beyond recognition, there are NOT to be damaged.”
Ethel: “I know, I know. I’m sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”
Mahout: “Of course, Ethel.” He pats her enormous thigh and whispers, “You
know there’s no one else in my life, sweetie. You can sit on me any time.”
…So I took the slip to the collection point and stood in the queue.
When my turn came I saw that my box was split wide open with the contents
falling out. They still slashed the rest of it open to make sure they
weren’t missing anything important. Fortunately, the contents were neither
perishable nor breakable. They put a couple of pieces of tape round it and
handed it to me. I waited for the offer of some damage compensation.
“Dix rupees, monsieur.”
I knew better than to argue.