Joel Bull is a man by many names.
To some in north-east Melbourne, he’s a confidant; an unlikely source of comfort during their darkest days.
To others, he’s a friend; a familiar face in times marred by uncertainty.
But if you ask Joel? Well, he’s just a plain old postie.
The 40-year-old is one of thousands of postal delivery workers across the country, who play a unique – and often unrecognised – role within the communities they serve.
They are a fly on the wall of suburban life; a witness to the highs and lows.
Streets change, toddlers turn into teenagers, and inevitably, the friendly faces that were there one day are gone the next.
“You just get to know people… you’re there at some really important points in [people’s] lives,” Joel muses.
“I had a lady who was kind of like my work nanna, I used to go and check in on her.
“So when she passed away a couple of years [after her husband died], I was devastated. It was legitimately like my nanna had died.”
‘It can be confronting sometimes’
Amid a year of global volatility, those on the frontline of Australia Post have not been immune to the impacts.
Coronavirus restrictions have led to an unprecedented demand for parcels, and with Christmas fast approaching, a reprieve would seem some way off.
But as the nation’s postal workers navigate the streets, it’s hard not to notice the changes.
“You see it, you know, you’ll be driving down the street one day and you’ll see that a business has suddenly closed up,” says 22-year-old Jarod Rushworth, who followed in his father’s footsteps five years ago, joining Australia Post’s Virginia delivery centre in Brisbane.
“You start talking to the business owners and how [the pandemic has] affected them. It can be pretty confronting sometimes.”
For Joel, who is based in Templestowe in Melbourne’s north-east, the impact was profound.
When the state was in the grips of a second wave, plunging the city into lockdown, it felt “like we were in war times or the apocalypse”, he offers.
Streets where children would once “stand on top of the letterbox” in anticipation of daily deliveries were instead consumed by an unfamiliar silence.
And those most vulnerable found themselves cut off from the outside world.
“One of the elderly ladies that I’d go and check in on – she’s 87 and she’s stuck in a house all day on her own, and she’d barely been out in five weeks,” Joel says.
“I happened to be there one day chatting to her and she took a tumble going into her house, and I noticed she’d fallen over before in her driveway and there was no-one to get her up.
“But I was there and I could pick her up and take her to the kitchen and look after her, and made her promise she’d call her daughter to come and check on her.
“I said ‘Don’t lie to me, because I’ll be back tomorrow’.”
‘You’re there when someone loses a partner’
Posties, more than anyone, are attune to the their sense of responsibility – not only in ensuring birthday cards and Christmas presents are delivered on time, but in forging connections with the communities they have found themselves embedded in.
Dean Goodman, an operations manager at the Murwillumbah delivery centre in northern New South Wales, has been with Australia Post for three decades.
And while he has moved around the region throughout the course of his career, including stints in Byron Bay and Tweed Heads, it’s the friendships he’s formed along the way, he says, that keep him coming back.
“When I was younger and a postman [customers would] find out my wife was pregnant, so they’d be knitting socks and blankets and that sort of thing,” he laughs.
“Then they go onto have kids of their own and all of a sudden those kids are like 20 years old, it’s just crazy.”
When asked if lockdown measures and social isolation have made customers more inclined to reach out for a chat, Dean briefly pauses before quipping: “I’m actually not sure because I’m always talking anyway.”
But while the veteran postie has watched on as suburban romances blossom into new life, he has also been witness to the universe’s only guarantee: death.
“I’d see people when I was doing my runs, and then the next minute, they’re just gone,” he says. “You’d see a lot of people in the nursing homes that just disappear, they die of course. So I’d see the full cycle [of life].”
There’s a peripheral sense of responsibility that comes with seeing a stranger during their worst moments, adds Joel.
“You’re there when someone loses a partner and you have to give them the paperwork, or you happen to see them and they’re in tears,” he says.
“You tell them, ‘I’m sorry, I’m thinking of you’, and they’ll say to you later, ‘That was amazing, thank you for that’.
“And you think, ‘Wow, okay’. I think for them it’s just knowing that someone else does care.”
‘It’s our grand final day’
As the festive season swings into full gear, those on the ground are bracing for the Christmas rush.
With the deadline for parcels and express post fast looming (December 12 and December 19), the marked increase in deliveries is only expected to continue.
But far from shying away from the challenge, the nation’s posties are taking it in their stride. After all, it’s all part and parcel (pardon the pun) of the job.
“Just in the last three days, it’s gotten a lot more hectic,” says Jarod.
“Especially because of the the announcement for December 12 [the cut-off date for parcels], it’s really picked up a lot.”
Across the border in Murwillumbah, Dean’s delivery centre has taken over a neighbouring shed “just to alleviate room”.
But he’s pragmatic about the situation: “We all just pull together because we know we get smashed over the Christmas period,” he laughs.
“But this is what we practise for all year – it’s our grand final day.
“So we’ll be working late on the 24th to make sure we get everything out of the office, so every customer gets their express post or their Christmas card.”
Ask the trio to describe their favourite moment on the road, and you get the same reply: “Honestly, there’s just too many”.
But they point to the sense of freedom they’ve found – and the friendly faces they’ve met along the way.
“One bloke I started with when I was out in Currumbin … he ended up becoming the godfather of our kids, and we’re still good mates,” muses Dean.
“Just riding around on the bike when you’re a young kid – I remember saying to a bloke once, ‘You know, I’d do this for free’.”
How well do you know your postie?