Marcus Berkmann: Punishment in a post office queue

The woman in front of you is sending a dozen small parcels to Estonia...

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Christmas is, of course, a time of ritual and tradition, but not all these rituals and traditions are old and familiar. Indeed, new ones are appearing all the time.

In city centres, for instance, you now need a good sturdy pair of wellies to negotiate the pools of vomit that manifest themselves every afternoon, and grow in size and number until dawn the following morning.

For should you slip and fall into one such pool, not only will you spend the rest of the day smelling like a parent of three-week-old twins, but people will naturally assume that the vomit was yours, even if they were watching you as you fell into it. Insult, injury etc.

This year, though, an even more exciting new tradition has been added to the roster: the post office queue. Obviously there are no more post offices, as thousands of us discovered this month when we went to the usual one, only to find that it had been replaced by an estate agent, which itself is now going out of business. So you go off in search of another one. They are surprisingly easy to find. The vast queue snaking out into the street should give you a clue.

For this is our punishment for the avoidance of Christmas shopping. We thought we'd be clever and do it all on the internet. Then we sit at home, waiting patiently for our parcels to be delivered, but postie has that card through the door saying you weren't in before you can get out of the chair. And by the time you've opened the door to remonstrate, he's back in his van driving off with a song on his lips.

So the following morning you go to the Post Office to pick your parcels up, little suspecting that postie is trying right now to deliver something else to your door, which you'll have to pick up tomorrow.

If I were working in a Post Office I would be tempted to put a sign up saying, "A Post Office isn't just for Christmas, it's for all year round". You join the queue out in the street, where small fires are burning, set up by people who were waiting here earlier. (The regulars bring logs and kindling to keep them going.) First stage is to reach the door: a feeling of achievement nearly as good as winning the lottery and definitely better than sex.

In larger post offices, queues are clearly delineated and there's even room for paramedics to hover on the sidelines in case of emergency. My local post office, however, is about the size of a wheelbarrow with a roof on it, and this squeezes the queue into a sort of compressed spiral, like the jam in a swiss roll after you have sat on it. When someone new comes in and joins the queue at the wrong place, they get some helpful advice from one of the old lags, and maybe a kick in the shins.

I have noticed, though, that the more afternoons you spend in the queue, the more relaxed you become. The woman eight places in front of you is sending a dozen small packages by surface mail to Estonia, and can only speak Estonian. There is nothing to be done.

A certain cameraderie starts to develop. Someone has brought a thermos full of soup. Someone else unwraps a guitar they were intending to send by special delivery. Then someone notices all this unsold stationery that is clogging up the shelves and voilà! we can have a campfire indoors too.

And so another great British tradition is born, combining the Dunkirk spirit, our innate love of queues, and the wholly natural compulsion to burn down public buildings. "Until tomorrow!" you jest, as you finally leave with your parcels under your arm, having completely forgotten that you also needed to buy some stamps.

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