Continuing my series of mini-reviews on the short stories to be found in the charity War Doctor anthology, Seasons of War, edited by Declan May and published by Chinbeard Books.
Hudrix may be a Time Lord, but he’s no hero. He’s a sigher, and even he knows it—he’s carried his trademark sigh through all eight perfectly average incarnations. Stemming from a memory of infanthood, that sigh is a part of him as much as…well, more than anything else, really, given that regeneration changes everything else. It’s particularly appropriate here, however, in his three hundredth (or so) year and second regeneration spent working in the War Office Department of Officially Sanctioned Condolence. Put another way, he writes letters of condolence to the families of victims of the Time War, using an ancient Biro pen from Earth (he’s a bit of a romantic even in these dreary surroundings, and eschews a computer for this thankless task). It’s a job for which a sigh is most definitely appropriate.
He’s just coming to resent the job, after all these years; and it’s beginning to weigh on him. He finishes another condolence letter—to the mother of one Wardenman Azbaselandularvenor regarding the death of her son in battle—and hands it off to the Postman—a grizzled old man with a curious limp. The man’s manner is as grizzled as he is; and he insults Hudrix for sitting at a desk and blandly repeating platitudes. He can talk; Hudrix is aware of some of what the man has been through in the war effort before taking up this role. The Postman casts a last verbal barb at him before slumping off into his TARDIS—the “post box”, as the desk jockeys here call it—and setting off on a delivery run. Hudrix returns to his work, and a death list that has grown by two million while he talks.
The Postman delivers his letters, watching as invariably wives and mothers fall to their knees, weeping at the bad news. Later, his work over for the moment, he sits in his TARDIS with a cigarette and his hip flask, and thinks. No rest for the weary, however; the Cloister Bell, that harbinger of destruction, begins to sound. The trouble isn’t inside the TARDIS this time; but a quick scan points him to the source, and a short flight takes him to the edge of a massive battle. He’s furious; the Time Lords promised him time to recover from his torture and repeated deaths, but it seems they’ve reneged on that promise. He’s to lead this battle, and strategically lose it. But there’s nothing for it but to carry on.
It becomes clear at once that this battle, Hirash Kam, is familiar to him. The Sergeant beneath him…is one Wardenman Azbasel, a name familiar to him in his job as the Postman. The battle rages, and the soldier dies, and the gambit is lost—so different from the calm and peaceful tones of honor in Hudrix’s letter to Azbasel’s mother, which the Postman has already delivered. Later, elsewhere, he screams with the fury and futility of it. This cannot go on.
Back in the Department of Officially Sanctioned Condolence, Hudrix has reached his next regeneration—and at long last his sigh is gone. It’s been replaced with a chuckle, which is equally annoying to his colleagues, but a change for him. And it’s merited; his new regeneration is far better with technology, allowing him to use a computer and thus make better time with his list. (It’s still bad taste to chuckle while writing death letters, of course, and his coworker Sprak kicks him for it, but what can you do?) Finally he settles back down to work, and sees the next name on the list: Azbaselandularvenor. Wait, no—he’s already written that one. Three times, in fact. Stupid technology, slipping back in time…he smacks the counter, getting it to move to the next name. Maybe newer isn’t always better…and he slips an ancient Biro from his pocket.
No matter how many ways that war can inflict terror, there are always more to be discovered. It’s a tragedy on every level, no matter how necessary it may be. I’m not arguing against it as a concept; rather, I’m simply saying, there’s enough horror for everyone. Take, for example, the matter of condolence letters. In the real world, armies send these letters, usually with some sort of personal delivery, to the families of fallen soldiers. It’s a horrible time for the families; it’s no less easy for those who must carry out this solemn task. An old college friend of mine once served in the Middle East in a capacity in which he was the last person to see or handle the bodies of fallen soldiers before they were flown home—a similarly garish and difficult task—and the effect it had on him was profound. It’s much the same here.
This story sets a vivid contrast between two equally terrible aspects of this part of war. On one hand, there are those who must deliver the letters (a role in this case played by the recuperating War Doctor, a role which was foreshadowed as far back as The Girl With The Purple Hair (III), with its sacks of mail scattered around the TARDIS). They face the horror head-on, as they must deal with the reactions of the survivors. On the other hand, there are those who write the letters. I don’t know with certainty how this works in the real world—I have heard that a soldier’s commanding officer will write the letter, but I am unaware of how accurate that is, or if secretaries or other office workers draft the letters before passing them to the officers for signature (which seems likely to me). In this story, the difference is emphasized by the sheer magnitude of the war; Hudrix’s queue jumps by two million in one scene, and the condolence department is said to have grown immensely since its creation. The point is that those writing condolences can be widely separated from the men and women about whom they’re writing; and if their words are devoid of that connection, then aren’t they really just platitudes? Hudrix, though he definitely does care about his work, is there to illustrate that point. The Doctor sees the contrast, and recognizes it as yet another injustice in a long line of them—necessary perhaps, but no less wrong for that—and takes another step toward the man who will put an end to it all. When read from Hudrix’s point of view, the story is light, almost comical—but it quickly becomes clear that that is a veneer, pasted over a depth of horror and emotion. The Doctor intends to break through that veneer and deal with what’s beneath. In that context, his belligerence toward Hudrix makes perfect sense—ever thinking of the individual, he’s trying to kick the man out of his complacency.
This story gives us the end of the short arc that began with Always Face the Curtain with a Bow, in which the Doctor was tortured and traumatized and then went into a convalescence of sorts. Like it or not—and he definitely does not—he has been recalled to active duty now. We’re in the final stretch, with only ten stories to go (and one of those is merely an interlude in a larger story); and things will seem to move quickly from here on.
The Postman was written by John Davies. Next time: The Thief of All Ways by Elliot Thorpe. See you there!