One pair sheep's horns. Destination unknown: . . . and no return address. When Santa slips up the missing mail detectives step in, says David Leafe

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ALAN BRADLEY is opening other people's Christmas presents. 'To Dad, from Delyth, Cory and Aaron', says a gift tag on snowman-covered wrapping paper. Mr Bradley runs an expert hand over the package. 'I bet they've bought their Dad hankies. It's about the right size.' His knife slits the wrapping paper open. 'No, I was wrong, it's a game for one of those Sega Mega Drives.'

Mr Bradley is one of 14 'detectives' at the Parcel Recovery Centre (Parc) in Manchester. About 180 million parcels a year are handled by the Post Office's Parcelforce arm, of which about 250,000 end up at Parc, usually because they have come unwrapped or are badly addressed.

In the run-up to Christmas, Parcelforce's workload increases by five million parcels, the festive reds, greens and golds of wrapping paper brightening the drab, brown business post that makes up 95 per cent of the parcels handled at Parc. But these colourful presents will only make it to the Christmas tree if Mr Bradley and his colleagues can find clues that help to reunite them with their senders or addressees.

You occasionally hear a scream when the parcels are opened, according to Chris Palmer, manager of Parc. 'The unusual is the usual here. We've had squirrels' tails, a dead snake, four stuffed penguins, a dead mouse in a pair of shoes, even a packet of lion manure. Apparently that's used to keep moles off your garden.

'People also post a lot of meat and you can imagine what that smells like after it has been in the post for a few weeks.'

Ammunition and weapons are found as well. Parc once received a Kalashnikov rifle. Such items are immediately turned over to the police. Special cupboards are set aside for poisons and porn.

Parc receives many parcels marked 'return to sender' that have no information about the sender. One was from a woman who had returned the parcel because she objected to the last half of her double-barrelled surname being missing from an otherwise accurate address.

This year, a plastic angel with a battery-operated glowing halo will be spending her Christmas in a crate, one of many items 'found loose' in the post. Many are worth little and there is no chance of tracing their owners, so they are piled, higgledy-piggledy, in large crates and sacks. The plastic angel will be keeping company with a terracotta bread warmer, a musical candle and a pomander in the shape of a carousel horse.

Delyth, Cory and Aaron's present waits its turn in a large trolley next to Mr Bradley's desk in the hangar-like building that houses Parc. Mr Bradley, an amiable 27-year-old former postman, uses a variety of phone directories, manufacturers' catalogues and other reference books to try to trace senders.

He peers through his thick glasses at an envelope that has been addressed, optimistically, with just a company's name and the number 17. There is no street name, town or postcode. 'They must have been interrupted halfway through the address,' Mr Bradley says.

Inside is a file containing the defence evidence for a murder case. Mr Bradley seems unsurprised that such important information should have been so casually posted. 'I had some court evidence through a few months ago for a case that I saw on Crimewatch.'

Mr Bradley eventually traces the sender via a reference number in the frank mark on the envelope, and rings the company, a London- based firm of solicitors. 'They had noticed it was missing but they didn't seem too bothered.'

He sighs, with the air of Sherlock Holmes realising that no one cares whodunnit.

As his knife slices through a snowman's head on Delyth, Cory and Aaron's wrapping paper, he muses on why these children have had to post their father's present. 'You come across stuff from families who are obviously living apart. The father sends presents to the children, but the mother puts 'return to sender'. You ring them up and say it couldn't be returned to him for whatever reason, but they're not interested.'

An envelope taped to the present contains only a Christmas card, repeating the message 'To Dad, love from Delyth, Cory and Aaron'. This is about as useful as the letter once found inside an unaddressed parcel which was headed simply 'Usual Address'.

Like all the best detectives, Mr Bradley sometimes has flashes of inspiration in bed about his work but it is unlikely he will be able to deduce much more about Delyth, Cory and Aaron's present that will prevent it being consigned to the shelves. These are rows of grey and green metal shelving that loom behind Mr Bradley, representing failure for the Poirots of the post. They store items whose owners can't be traced.

Each item carries a small label with a description, which is entered on to computer. A diving suit jostles for space with a silver christening spoon, a cello, a case of dental equipment and the final reel of a film called Second Gun. A piece of African carved wood is labelled 'tribal pole', with 'hand- carved' helpfully added in parentheses to distinguish it from any other tribal poles that might be lurking. There are also numerous family photo albums.

Delyth, Cory and Aaron have three months to claim their father's present before it is sold at public auction in Salford or Warrington. Photos are kept for a year and then shredded.

Parc manages to return about four-fifths of the items it receives, many after inquiries from senders or addressees. About a thousand requests for searches are received a week and Parc's computer attempts to match the descriptions from local post offices with the items on the shelves. A print-out records that Mrs Marsh of Inverness is in search of an ornamental spoon, while Mr Henderson of Nottingham awaits the arrival of his charcoal grey trousers.

Parc also receives many telephone inquiries. 'Someone rang up recently and said, 'Have you got my didgeridoo?' and I'm glad to say we were able to satisfy them,' says Mr Palmer.

Items recently reunited with their owners include false teeth, an artificial arm, two aeroplane propellers, a student's thesis, and 10 canoe paddles. But some requests can't be satisfied. 'You get the heartbreak ones, like the parents who have lost photos of children who have since died,' says Mr Palmer.

Parcelforce issues tips on wrapping in the hope that fewer parcels will end up at Parc. Some advice, such as 'include sender's address on outer carton/wrapper and inside the parcel', hardly seems worth stating, until you hear of the widow whose husband's ashes were found in the post.

But Mr Bradley is not sure that all undeliverable parcels are accidental. He once opened a packet of sheep horns with the flesh attached and can still remember the smell: 'I sometimes think that if people want to get rid of something, they just stick it in the post,' he says.

For inquiries about lost parcels and advice on how to wrap parcels correctly call freephone 0800 224466.

(Photograph omitted)