“Twenty-eight minutes past,” said Felix, looking at his watch. “Nothing.”
The Doctor consulted the black plastic Casio with a broken strap that she kept in her pocket.
“I make it 3.26,” she said. “Any moment now.”
They were standing behind some empty flower tubs at the centre of a roundabout. Every now and then a car would swoop past, but essentially they were alone. A spray of chilly drizzle floated all around them. It was almost frozen, and felt curiously oily. Each droplet turned as bright gold as a cinder as it flew under the beams of the street lamps.
They’d left the TARDIS stuck half-way out of an Off Licence several streets away.
“How do you know there’s a roundabout around here?” Felix had asked.
“If we walk far enough in any direction,” the Doctor had replied, “we’re bound to come across one. Roads need to diverge, you know.”
And, sure enough, a roundabout had eventually presented itself. It was deserted, so they had strolled across the broad ring of tarmac to the little grassy hill at its centre.
And there they stood, side by side, like strangers waiting for a bus. They did not speak for quite some time.
“Are you sure you’ve got this right, Doctor?” asked Felix at last, who was feeling wet and sick and cold, and increasingly sure that the Doctor was playing some kind of game, the aim of which was to fob him off.
“The instructions were quite clear,” she replied tersely.
“But I thought one had to wait at a crossroads at midnight,” said Felix.
“That’s if you’re waiting for the Devil. We’re not.”
“I don’t think we’re waiting for anyone,” said Felix sulkily. “I think you have been misleading me. Again.”
It was a little while after this that they checked the time. As they did so, a figure appeared on the other side of the roundabout, riding a bicycle. The bicycle and its rider emerged from a patch of darkness between street lamps, without having entered it first. The pedaling figure seemed simply to have formed itself from the darkness. It began rolling slowly around the roundabout in what looked like a cloud of mist. It had swerved into view and trundled up onto the centre of the roundabout almost before Felix and the Doctor had realised what was happening.
The Doctor consulted her Casio again.
“Twenty-seven minutes past three in the morning,” she announced, waggling her Casio in Felix’s face, and sounding more smug than Felix had ever imagined possible.
Felix did not respond. His attention was fixed on the thing that had just appeared in front of them.
One cloven hoof remained upon a still pedal. The other rested on the ground. It made the wet grass sizzle and steam and char.
“Shall we finish the argument later?” asked Felix in a hoarse whisper.
“Just because you’re losing…” muttered the Doctor.
The creature stepped off its bike and leaned it against a flower tub. It was short – though still taller than Felix – and stocky. Its legs bent backwards like the hind legs of a goat. Every visible inch of its skin – or rather his skin, because the creature was clearly male – was a dark, lava-like red. The red was coated with a thin layer of fine white hair, which had a silkiness to it that was oddly disturbing. The creature’s fingers ended in long, black, tapering claws. He had a long and goatish face, and glowing yellow eyes with vertical slits for pupils. His long nose ended in widely flared nostrils which overflowed with yet more white hair. A white goatee beard pointed forwards from his chin in a curled tuft. It looked like a beckoning finger.
He was wearing the uniform of a postman, very much like that worn by Herr Beckmann, the postman who had cycled around Felix’s home village in Germany in the years of his childhood… except that it also reminded Felix of the drivers who had brought post to his section of trench. The resemblance was undeniable, if more than slightly offset by the cloven hooves that emerged from the trousers where boots should have been, and the two conical horns which stuck out through the top of the peaked cap.
The creature had a large leather satchel slung over one shoulder. A long, red, forked tail swished back and forth behind him, occasionally wrapping itself around one of his legs like a snake climbing a tree. It looked worryingly prehensile.
Both Felix and the Doctor drew back. Not so much because of the appearance of the apparition as because of the waves of heat, and the smell of brimstone, which radiated from him.
“This is all very literal,” said the Doctor under her breath, sounding bored.
The creature cocked his head on one side. He looked down and seemed to notice his body for the first time.
“Yes,” he rumbled thoughtfully to himself in a voice that sounded like the cracking of faraway thunder, “it is literal, isn’t it?”
He turned back to the Doctor.
“You must be a very literal minded person,” he boomed. His mouth split open in a grin, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth. “Surprising, given everything I’ve gathered about you… Doctor.”
If the Doctor was dismayed or surprised at being recognised, she gave no sign of it. She simply flicked the brim of her top hat in acknowledgement.
“I suppose you’ve read about me,” she said, sounding even more bored than before.
“Indeed,” said the entity, “you turn up in correspondence a lot more often than most people… and in such varied correspondence too, sent by such varied people in such varied places, over such lengths of time. And so much of the correspondence about you seems to end up in my hands…”
“I imagine Felix is responsible for the shape of your current iteration,” said the Doctor lazily. “I should’ve expected it after I told him we were going to see the Mailer Daemon.”
The Mailer Daemon bared his teeth in amused satisfaction.
“You’re very good at changing the subject,” he boomed.
“Do you mean, Sir, that you would appear different if I had been expecting something different?” interrupted Felix, addressing the creature and pointedly ignoring the Doctor’s implied insult. He was determined not to let this encounter get sidetracked.
For a while, the Mailer Daemon seemed to consider his reply. He trotted from side to side, looking down at Felix, his tail swishing.
“I am a metaphor,” he said at last. “Reality is metaphorical, therefore metaphors are real. But metaphors are still made by people. No matter how real they are, or become.”
He fell silent and gazed at them haughtily, as if expecting applause.
“Well I’m certainly glad we cleared that up,” said Felix.
“I can look how I please,” said the entity, almost kindly, as if relenting, “but I have so much work to do, I tend not to concentrate on my appearance. I often find that I have unwittingly adapted myself to the expectations of those I meet. Not that I meet many people face to face. I generally prefer to manage my business out of sight, behind the scenes. And, of course, when I am not within sight of someone, I don’t really look like anything at all. It is your perception of me which creates my physical presence.”
“It sounds as though you are admitting to being an hallucination,” said Felix.
“Such beautiful English,” said the Mailer Daemon.
“Thank you,” said Felix.
“I am made of words,” said the Mailer Daemon, shrugging, “which is why I appreciate such things. And, to answer your point: all things that are made of words are, in a sense, hallucinations.”
He watched them for a moment.
“Most things are made of words,” he added as an afterthought.
“We’re being lectured on epistemology… or is it phenomenology… by a metaphor,” said the Doctor.
“The word ‘metaphor’ means ‘to carry meaning’,” said the Mailer Daemon. “I carry meaning… literally,” and he twitched a shoulder to indicate the satchel which dangled from it. Felix noticed for the first time that it seemed to be bursting at the seams with papers and parcels and bundles.
“What are they?” asked Felix, pointing.
“Meanings that have been displaced,” said the creature sadly, “Failures of communication. Subtexts nobody picked up on. Messages that were never sent, or which went astray. Copied and cut paragraphs which were accidentally never pasted. Crossed-out sentences. Things that circulated for years, never arriving anywhere. Things addressed to people who were not known at that address. Things returned to sender. Lost letters. Lost emails. Emails which were sent and then deleted unread. Things that failed to happen because words never travelled from one place to another.”
“Lots of spam in there, I imagine,” said the Doctor.
Felix didn’t know what to make of this remark, but waited to see if he could pick up a sense of what was meant by listening to more of the conversation.
“No,” said the Mailer Daemon flatly, and with an unmistakable touch of pride.
“Why not?” asked the Doctor, “doesn’t spam have meaning?”
“Not all meanings are worth saving and curating,” said the Mailer Daemon.
“Who are you to decide?” asked the Doctor, with a sprinkling of frost in her voice.
“I am the Mailer Daemon,” said the Mailer Daemon simply. “If I didn’t decide, who would? I exist because these things need deciding. The sheer weight and volume of the decisions which needed to be made was what brought me into existence.
“Besides,” he said, looking intently at the Doctor and raising a white eyebrow at her, “haven’t you ever made similar decisions?”
The Doctor blinked.
“Perhaps,” she said, after a moment, “But I only read things that are addressed to me.”
Felix wondered if that was even close to being true, or whether – like many of the Doctor’s ethical pronouncements – it was meant as a general statement of principle, to be upheld when possible and discarded if necessary.
“And,” continued the Mailer Daemon, “when things – for whatever reason – don’t reach anyone who has the right to decide, that’s when I take on the responsibility of caring for them. Nothing should ever be entirely lost.”
“On that subject,” said the Doctor, affecting a sudden breeziness, “my friend here was wondering…”
“I can speak for myself,” interrupted Felix, who was nevertheless pleased that the Doctor had remembered he was there, and that he had an agenda of his own.
The Doctor held up an apologetic hand and turned away slightly, though Felix could sense her continued close attentiveness.
Felix turned to the Mailer Daemon.
“Sir, do you have anything in there…” he glanced meaningfully at the creature’s satchel “…addressed to me?”
“Oh yes,” said the Mailer Daemon immediately, “I do. As the Doctor already knows.”
The Doctor said nothing.
The Mailer Daemon opened the satchel and plunged one of his arms down into it. His arm disappeared into the satchel far further than he should have been able to, which made the Doctor’s lips twitch in amusement. After a few moments of rummaging, he drew out a single letter clutched in his red, clawed fist.
The letter was old and faded and crumpled, and the creature’s hand was making it wilt with heat, but Felix recognised the colour of the envelope, and the handwriting scrawled across it.
“This was sent to you from Germany, from the village where you grew up, from a few streets away from your family home. It was the last letter sent to you from that particular address. It was sent only a few weeks before you…” and here the Mailer Daemon flicked his yellow eyes up at the Doctor “…went missing in action.”
“Why did I never receive it?” asked Felix, who was feeling tremulous with the thumping of his heart.
“The lorry carrying this batch of letters… went astray in some heavy fog,” said the Mailer Daemon. “It wandered too close to a British machine gun emplacement. The bullets ignited the petrol in the tank. It happened the very same day that a British ship carrying letters from Dover to Calais was sunk by a German submarine. That was a busy day for me.”
Felix held out his hand.
“May I?” he asked.
“Of course,” said the Mailer Daemon. “It is yours, after all.”
He started to hand over the letter and then paused.
“But be careful, young man,” he said, glancing up at the Doctor again, and then back down at Felix with a thoughtful furrow in his red brow, “some things are lost for a reason.”
“Are you saying I shouldn’t read it?” he asked.
“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” replied the creature, “that’s not my job or my business.”
He glanced at the Doctor yet again.
“It’s nobody’s business but yours,” he said.
“I’m his friend,” said the Doctor, suddenly striding forwards, flushed and passionate.
Felix looked around at her and, seeing the care in her eyes, he felt all his annoyance with her melt away. But he also felt fear rising inside him. It was confirmed. There was something in the letter that she didn’t want him to know. Not for sinister reasons, but for reasons of compassion… which was, if anything, worse.
“Roads must diverge, you know,” said Felix, looking into the Doctor’s eyes.
The Doctor subsided unhappily, thrusting her hands deep into the pockets of her jacket.
Felix turned back to the Mailer Daemon and held out his hand again.
“I always knew deals with the devil had catches,” he said.
“I’m not the Devil,” the Mailer Daemon growled sadly. “The Devil is always in the details.”
And with that, he handed over the envelope.